The Greek director reveals how he approached Alps, the follow-up to his breakthrough feature, Dogtooth.
How do you follow a film like Dogtooth? Yorgos Lanthimos' surreal 2009 breakthrough was a startling revelation. His new film, Alps, is even more challenging and ambitious. The director let LWLies in on the secrets of creating distinctive, memorable films on a shoestring.
LWLies: As it's been an Olympic year in the UK, we wanted to start by asking you about your experience being part of the team that put together the opening ceremony in 2004.
Lanthimos: I had a very advantageous position because for a year and a half I was in the creative team, and then I had a play planned, so in the last year I left the project. So I didn't live through the worst times, with the whole thing actually being put together and the pressure of time approaching. Nevertheless, it was a very interesting experience, seeing how you think on such a scale and come up with these ideas to show your culture to the world, seeing how other ceremonies have been and how you can be distinct. It was a room of people who were meeting every day and Dimitris Papaioannou, who was the main director of this creative group, had selected one person from each art – there was a choreographer, there was a film director, there was a musician – and each person was quite accomplished in his own right. It was an interesting group of different artists discussing these things, so it was quite interesting as an experience.
Then it was quite funny for me to see it finished after I had left for a year to do my own thing. I went back when the ceremony was happening and saw some of the rehearsals with the people I'd worked with before, so it was kind of interesting to see how the idea had transformed into this huge thing which no one person could actually imagine in detail. It's so big and it's not something you can easily put together and test, you know, for this thing to be tested it takes I don't know how many thousands of people and hours. Also, you start by thinking, 'This is the Olympics and there is no limitation to what you can imagine because there is loads of money for this whole thing,' but then you reach the time and start saying, "You know what? These things cost a lot!" [laughs] Then you have to cut down on what you imagine or merge a couple of sections, so just to work on that scale was an interesting experience.
It's interesting that you mentioned having to deal with a scaled-down budget because Alps was made with less money than Dogtooth.
Yes, I did make Alps with less money but it wasn't by choice! [laughs] It was the amount of money that we could put together at the time and it turned out to be less, so we decided to just go ahead with it.
How did those financial limitations affect the way you approached the film?
It forces you to do many things and to accept many things. If there's a film you want to make and certain things you have in mind that you want to do, you have to ask if you want to make the film under these conditions. You might have to forget about the ideas you had and make it the way you can at this point, or wait and maybe do the film if you find money after a couple of years, or not at all. That was a very important decision and we decided that we were going to go ahead and make the film, even though it was a great risk because we didn't actually have the money to finish it. It might mean that the film can't look the way you want it to look because you have no lights; you can't choose the locations by aesthetics, you have to find the locations from friends and they have to be free; you can't paint walls or change the furniture, because you don't have the money. If you find that these limitations are actually destroying your film, you shouldn't go ahead and make the film. You have to accept it and somehow use it creatively, just accept the things you can do. You have to ask, do you really want to do this? Will the film be important for you? If not, then stop and don't make it.
Alps covers some similar territory to Dogtooth, with its observation of ritualistic behaviour within an enclosed community, and controlling patriarchal figures. Did you see it as an extension of those ideas, as a kind of companion piece to Dogtooth?
Not really, I think we started from a completely different starting point. After making the film, I felt personally that Alps was the opposite story of Dogtooth. In Dogtooth the main character is trying to break away, and in Alps she is trying to break into a relationship or into a house. Adding the structure of a group who have similar dynamics to the family in Dogtooth is just to reflect how much of society is structured and how relationships are structured, and we couldn't leave that out. We started with the idea of asking how people deal with death and how they go on with their lives, and the extreme things they do just to cope, and in the end we felt it was more interesting if it's not one person who does this. You have the dynamics of the group working within this other structure and story, and it makes it more rich in a way. You can see the same thing from different angles, because the other people involved in this group have different things in their mind, different agendas, they do it for different reasons, so that is enriching for the story. It wasn't about having another group and exploring the same thing further.
You always work with a co-writer and you have written your last two films with Efthymis Filippou. Why is it so important to have a second writer working with you, and how do you work together on a screenplay?
First of all, I am not good at writing and I am quite lazy. I always think it's very useful to have a different mind next to you if you want to create something more complex and with more dimensions. In Dogtooth I already had the idea and I went to Efthymis – it was his first script actually, he had never written a script before – and from my ideas he started writing a few scenes to see if we could write together, and when we liked the scenes we went further. Through that process we started creating a structure, so there was never an actual story, we just created it scene-by-scene, and then on top of that we placed a structure. In the middle of editing Dogtooth we started discussing Alps and went back and forth, and he had this idea about death and people asking other people to write letters or make phone calls pretending to be a loved one who has died. When he told me that I was very interested, and I sat down to write this synopsis about a nurse who works in a hospital and actually offers herself as a substitute for these people. I showed it to him and he said, "It's interesting, but what if it's a group?" It gave us all these dynamics, with people from different backgrounds, and the fact that you don't know why they do it makes it more intriguing. Then we try to find the characters, write some scenes, slowly shape it into a story, and we work like that. This creative process, going back and forth with a person, is quite rewarding for me and they would be very different films if I didn't have a partner. Efthymis has a very unique voice in the way he writes, and then I can add something to that, ground it or elevate it, with my own voice. He would make different films on his own and so would I, but by combining these styles something richer happens.
How are your films received in Greece?
Greek films have never been very successful in Greece, unless it's a commercial film with a big TV star. It's kind of weird because we do have a theatre scene that's quite rich and has many performances – there must be something like 100 performances each season – and we have the Athens festival that brings the great theatre companies and directors from around the world. So there is that culture and almost every arthouse film that you find in Cannes, Venice or Berlin will be released on a couple of screens in Greece. But there is always this kind of conflict between the audience and its own cinema. Kinetta was barely released in Greece, in fact it only ran for a few weeks in a cinema that is actually a bar and has its own made-up cinema. Dogtooth of course did very well, but Dogtooth was kind of a historic moment in Greek cinema, and after it won in Cannes people who wouldn't actually go and see such a film went to see Dogtooth, and many of them were quite irritated by it. And then there was the Oscars which was something that hadn't happened to a Greek film for thirty-something years, so it became a huge phenomenon in this country. Alps did okay but it was released at a time of huge turbulence with the Prime Minister resigning, and it turned out that wasn't such a good time to release a film! These films do quite well but they are not popular, and they only do well after international success. I don't know why there is this gap between an obviously cultured audience and these films, but I guess there's this thing about your own films not being as exciting as something from abroad.
You've done a lot of work in theatre. Has that had an influence on your filmmaking or do you see it as a completely different discipline?
It can be completely different, of course, you're using a different language and I think you're more free to explore different ways of working with the actors, as you have much more time to spend with them. I did my first play before making Kinetta so it helped me become more confident in working with the actors to achieve the things I wanted to achieve, so it was a good experience. The result itself in theatre is gratifying sometimes because you can do bigger or more extreme things with actors that don't necessarily work when you are making a film, that's what I find interesting and my sense of physicality came from working in theatre. I do enjoy it...well, I don't enjoy it so much when it ends and I have to watch the performance [laughs]. It always rips your heart out because it is live and people are there and it is so devastating to watch, I really can't do it. Whenever I finish a play I always say I am never going to do theatre again, but a few years later I get intrigued again, after I have forgotten how painful it was! [laughs]
You're working over here on your next films and these aren't projects you have originated. Is that right?
Some of them I have. One is a period film about Queen Anne that I didn't originate but we are rewriting at the moment. That was a project that was offered to me and I found the notion of making a period film very interesting. Then there is this other project that I'm writing with Efthymis again, which is completely our own project. It's more of a dystopian film with science-fiction fantasy elements, but we're doing it in our own way and if you've seen Dogtooth and Alps you can understand. Then there is a book I might adapt.
Can you say what the book is?
I can't say just yet because we have just started making negotiations with the people and they get nervous when I say something wrong. It's very early stages and I haven't even started writing that one. But they're all very different projects and I find that quite interesting; I can make a bigger film then go back to making a science-fiction film of our kind, then make something different again. Actually, the first thing I'm going to do it to make a short film here that I wrote with Efthymis. It's based on a couple of scenes from a book he has written called Scenes which is just individual scenes that have no relation to each other, and some of them are scenes from scripts we started writing at some point. Anyway, we wrote a script based on these scenes and then wrote some other stuff, and I felt it would help me get acquainted with how things work here, working with new people and a new crew. It's also because development takes so long here and I was going crazy not filming something.
That's the trade-off you make when you work with a bigger budget. Everything slows down.
Exactly. The good thing in Greece is that you can do whatever you want whenever you want because you have no money. Here there are so many people involved, so many institutions, so much money, and everything takes so long. I didn't expect it to take so much time, I have to admit, but I'm just waiting, and hoping.