• Apartamento Magazine
  • issue 10, Autumn/Winter 2012-13

Yorgos Lanthimos

Movies & TV series

London: I didn’t have the chance to meet Yorgos Lanthimos in person. We did this conversation over the phone, with him sitting in his neat and bright pad in London and me hiding in my brother’s cavernous bedroom trying not to get distracted by my mother’s bustle in the kitchen. At the time of the interview it was late August. Yorgos had just returned to his new home and I was still on holiday in Greece, visiting my family. Before calling, I thought for a second that this detail was a funny coincidence, considering that the two films that brought him international recognition both involve family relationships in one way or another. Dogtooth, awarded at the Cannes film festival and nominated at the Oscars, is the icy, surrealistic tale of an absurd wealthy family that lives restricted within the boundaries of their own villa. The more recent Alps, which won an Osella for best screenplay in Venice, narrates the story of a company that provides a substitution service for the relatives of the recently deceased, under the guidance of a bossy officer who answers to the nickname Montblanc. Portrayed by The Guardian as the ‘laughing mortician of contemporary Greek culture’ and as ‘Europe’s most pertinent hope in arthouse cinema’ by Cinema Scope, Yorgos, a purebred Athenian, left behind the messy capital just a year ago to try filmmaking in England. He rented a tiny flat in a verdant street of Islington and moved in with his girlfriend, actress Ariane Labed. At the same moment that I write this story, he no doubt is snuggling in his den, working on one of his future projects: the ‘fantascientific’ screenplay that he’s cooking up with his fellow writer Efthymis Filippou, the rewriting of a British period film script that he was offered in London, or the short movie that he will be filming soon.

How’s London today?
It’s okay, but it was better yesterday. Sunnier. Even though I’m not missing the sun yet.

You‘re not?
Not at all!

That’s strange, considering that you moved from Greece a year ago, right?
It was less than a year… We moved here last October, but since we travel a lot we haven’t yet had the chance to spend long periods in London.

What about the Athenian life? Do you miss that?
In what sense?

I mean the city centre, with all its noise and the liveliness.
Hmm, here in London it’s much easier to move around. Every neighbourhood has its own attractions. I kind of enjoy that for the moment.

Did you see the full moon yesterday?
No, I didn’t! (laughs)

You didn’t even notice that there was a full moon! I saw it from the sofa, while watching the last episodes of True Blood.
Is it over?

The fifth season just finished, but there’s going to be a sixth one next year.
We have been watching The Killing instead. We kind of got hooked.

I don’t think that one airs on HBO. Or does it?
It’s on AMC, I think. But I’m not sure. The first two seasons were great, but now it seems like they’re kind of stuck with the third one. It’s hard to give those dark stories an attractive continuity.

Haha. In fact, in True Blood they’ve involved all sorts of supernatural creatures to keep it going.
Well, I only saw the first season of True Blood, but I didn’t really stick with it.

Still, it’s cool to find out that you’re into this American TV series phenomenon.
I think they’re far more evolved than their films. These days you find plenty of inspiration in American TV series, and also a bigger variety of styles. I don’t know why, but it’s not the same with American cinema!

My absolute favourite so far is Six Feet Under. It was already finished when I discovered it, but I managed to watch the whole five seasons in two weekends.
I really like Boardwalk Empire.

And what about Girls?
Girls was funny at the beginning, but I think that towards the end it started to become a bit cliché. The aesthetics are good, very contemporary, but the stories are not so interesting…

To me it feels like a Sex and the City of our times, of course in a younger setting. What do you think?
I liked Sex and the City much more; I watched loads of episodes at the time and I thought that it was really fresh and captivating. Girls instead is more… familiar.

So Efthymis Filippou, the co-writer of Dogtooth and Alps, was right when he admitted in an interview for Greek television that you’re ‘Pop’.
Is this what he said? (laughs)

Would you ever take on such an assignment, something for the wider public?
Certain TV series are very cool. They can be dark but at the same time have a great sense of humour. And of course I’d be interested into doing something like that. There are not so many examples that would fit my profile, but—talking about the wider public—there are a few big gigs that I admire. For example, I don’t know what the exact success of Boardwalk Empire is, but if such an expensive production goes on for so long then for sure it’s popular. It has a very interesting format. And it’s great to see the big public embracing something so complex, so dark and humorous and idiosyncratic. As I was saying earlier, you don’t encounter this frequently in American cinema.

And what about blockbusters? I don’t know if I could see you making a blockbuster
First of all, blockbusters are a totally different story. They have their own specific process: the way you get involved, where it all starts from, why and how they choose the director. What I mean is that in that process you can lose any control you could have over the movie. And I say so because, somehow, I’ve had the chance to be in touch with this world. So in general, it could be dangerous for a director who makes movies like the ones that I do. In those cases, you and your collaborators have to know exactly what you’re doing. It’s not like: ‘I do the job take the money and go home’. You have to be in sync with the producers; they have to share your vision. Otherwise it can be tricky; things can escape from your control, which doesn’t happen when you’re working on smaller, personal projects where by necessity you are the producer as well. In Europe we have more of this propensity to respect the director’s vision. It’s harder in the States. I’m not saying that I’m not interested; it’s only that the circumstances that could permit me to do things my way on a blockbuster are almost impossible!

Earlier while talking about Boardwalk Empire, you emphasised its dark side. You love darkness, don’t you?
I do, but at the same time I’m attracted to humour and comedy. My absolute favourites are Curb your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld and Arrested Development. They are just as important to me. This is exactly why I love the way they’re making Boardwalk Empire; it’s because of its lightness. They don’t take things seriously enough to come away as being pretentious… Ugh, I’m using English terms all the time. Sorry for this. It’s just that…

Don’t worry; it’s actually quite helpful for me. I will have less to translate
(laughs) It’s crazy; I don’t want to sound like the guy who moved to London a few months ago and already forgot Greek. It’s just that the last time I spoke about my work in Greek was long ago, so the terms that concern filmmaking come easier in English!

There’s this thing that I wanted to ask you earlier and then I forgot. What does your everyday life look like in London? For example, what did you do this morning?
Well you know, it is still morning… (laughs) I woke up, and then Ariana and I watched an episode of Curb your Enthusiasm in order to start the day in a good mood. Then I read something that a friend who I’m trying to write a new script with sent to me and then it was time for our interview. Which means that I woke up quite early, considering that it’s now 11.30am.

Do you have a studio?
No, I work from home and I move a lot for meetings. Generally in my job, if you have a comfy house you don’t really need an office. A big part of the work can be done from there: all the research, the reading, the writing and thinking… I prefer to get this done at home. Then a thing I love about London is that there are so many places where you can sit down with your computer and work. Nice, calm places. This is almost impossible in Athens, where you have this ‘thousands of bars’ culture, but they’re all so noisy. They’re not working spaces.

Were you doing the same in Greece?
I still have an office in Athens, but even there I always spent a lot of time working from home. Sometimes I can stay in for three, four days and literally go nowhere. Especially when I’m working from a house that I like. And I always try to have nice houses, because to me working is an altogether. It never stops… You start researching and then end up wasting your time Googling bullshit. You can lose track so easily, you sit down and maybe watch a movie or a series that you just discovered and have to force yourself to go back to what it was you where supposed be doing. I lose so many hours like this. Actually, that’s exactly how I end up working from day to night!

What kinds of things usually throw you off?
Different things… It’s like a chain, one thing drives to the other and then you forget where you began. For example, let’s say that you’re looking into car pictures because you need a car for a scene, so you need some references. Suddenly while you’re looking for the car you think: ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a car here in London in order to move around more easily?’ So you go and look at the classifieds to see the prices of second-hand cars in England. Then you think: ‘Well, I’m going to need insurance as well’. And you go back to check insurance prices. At this point you’re totally off-track, taking down car dealer addresses and stuff like that. It’s so easy to get lost!

You know, I was surprised to find out that when you go to Athens you stay in hotels. It sounds like a shut-down to everything there.
No, it’s not like that… First of all, I’ve always liked hotels. Even when I was living in Greece, sometimes I’d go spend a couple of nights in a hotel. Just for a change of scenery. It’s the thing of having room service, or being able to go downstairs to the lobby for a coffee and be in a totally different environment… I like the feeling, but in this case it’s different: it just didn’t make sense maintaining two houses. I spend too little time in Greece to actually have a flat there.

Did you have a nice flat?
It was fantastic! On the eighth floor of a ‘70s building… It was very small, kind of a pied-à-terre, but it had character. There were windows all over and a fireplace in the middle and a beautiful teak kitchen. We had great views of the city and a big terrace… and then in that house I had all my stuff. I just brought the basics to London. The rest is piled in boxes at my office in Athens, waiting for us to get a bigger place.

Going back to your hotels, how do you choose them? Is it because you like the colours of the walls or stuff like that?
(lots of laughter) I try to combine the two things, but cheap hotels are usually quite ugly. I know it’s tragic, because they could be great if they weren’t renovated with bad taste and cheap furniture. In Athens it’s almost impossible to find a cool old hotel at a good price. The Royal Olympic for example, in front of the Temple of Olympian Zeus… it turned out to be a horrible place after they refurbished it. This is one of the things about the city that makes me really sad. The same happened with a great old restaurant, the Athinaikòn, in Psihikò, where we used to hang out a lot. When they renovated it, they took down the teak wall-coverings and replaced the old wooden chairs with plastic ones. It became just like any other place. Thank God the habitués are still the same chic pensioners of the area; they give a tone to the space.

Why do you think this is happening?
It’s a matter of aesthetics and culture; it also has to do with the way this country expanded architecturally after the war: by leaving every single old building in its own realm, abandoned. I think about it every time that I go back to Athens after having been to another country. All this neglecting of the past and the history of the city influences my mood a lot. It disturbs me.

I would say that this inclination of yours towards symmetry and cleanliness is perceivable in your movies as well
Well, the way I make movies differs a lot from the way I like my space or surroundings to be. Actually I try to avoid my personal taste in my movies, because I know they would look over-glamorised in a sense. I try to break that and go against my real-life taste. Especially when I’m making a movie in Greece, because I want to show all those things that we where talking about earlier: the real world. But I can imagine that somehow even the way you look at an ugly house, the way you film it, can have its very own aesthetic. It’s an external aesthetic that imposes on the way you see things, even when they’re ugly or of bad taste.

The realistic vision that you just mentioned probably also helps you to avoid clichés.
Exactly. Try to imagine a city where all the buildings are beautiful and everyone is well dressed. It’s a bit weird, no? Or better still, it depends on what the movie wants to tell us, doesn’t it? This entire nice and perfect world would subtract every tension, every deeper sensation from the scene.

Given that you have released two movies that have each had great creative success, do you ever feel anxious about what will happen next?
One can be anxious even if he has done nothing good in his life! You always wonder if what you are working on is going to be successful. This time between Dogtooth and Alps we escaped that feeling, because as soon as Dogtooth was at the editing stage, we had already started thinking of the next movie. You see Dogtooth’s upturn lasted two years. This means that when we won the prize at Cannes we where already writing Alps, and by the time it went to the Oscars, Alps was finished. So we avoided the whole what-shall-we-do-after-the-Oscars trip.
We expected though, that with the success of Dogtooth, it would have been easier to make the next movie, money-wise. Which proved totally wrong, because our budget for Alps was much, much worse! So we took this decision that we’d do the movie anyways, even under worse circumstances, even if we were never going to finish it. We had Dogtooth travelling the world, winning prizes at the festivals, and at the same time we were shooting Alps with five friends and no lights at all! It’s hilarious, but I preferred doing that rather than waiting for Dogtooth to start cashing in, in order to have more money for the next production. Going back to your question, this decision made us not think about whether Alps was going to be successful or not. And even now that I came to London to do the next movie in English under better circumstances, there are other obstacles. So I suppose that when making a personal film one has to make a choice, which is to concentrate on the creative part and just ignore all the rest, anxiety included.

I have noticed that you repeat this quite often in your interviews. I mean how hard it is to get the funding for an independent film.
Well, money is one of the first things to consider when you’re making a movie! Budgets shape the way films are made. Now for example I’m in discussions for a couple of new films here. One is a scenario I was given and that we’re currently rewriting, a British period film, and the second is ours. In England the funding process is very time-consuming and I was feeling that if I didn’t do something soon, I’d go crazy. So I spoke with the producers I’m working with, and we decided to make a short movie while waiting for the rest to get on track. The funny thing is that since short films don’t really pay off and the relevant funds are mainly for beginners, here I am in London making a short film under the same precarious circumstances that I was in making movies in Greece! We still have to borrow stuff and ask favours from our friends, but at least we’re getting to know the people that we’ll be working with in the future better.

What’s your relationship with other filmmakers? Do you follow what’s going on?
Yes I do, even if I’m not exactly a savvy cinephile, one that knows everything. But I go to the movies quite often, sometimes even just for the sake of it. I like Screen on the Green here in Islington; lately I got really disappointed by Bourne because the previous sequel was one of my favourite action movies ever. One that I haven’t seen yet is the new Batman, but I’m going to go one of these days. I’ll watch it in the IMAX of course!

Batman? This one is pop indeed! The reviews weren’t that good
Fuck, I know! A friend of mine bought tickets to watch it three times in a row, but he left after the first screening. He was so disappointed. Anyways… I’m gonna watch it!



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