Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ movies aren’t the sort that typically attract a stampede of Hollywood A-listers.
His films, which he writes with Efthymis Filippou, are deadpan, midnight-black comedies that carry out grim allegorical absurdities to extreme ends. Characters speak stiltedly in cliches while an intensifying menace envelopes them. Things get weird and then they get brutal.
And yet Lanthimos is not only a regular on the festival circuit (his latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer premiered at the Cannes Film Festival) but he has earned an Oscar nomination (for the script to The Lobster) and drawn eager stars like Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. The Lobster, a warped comedy of single life, was even a surprise box office success, earning $9.1 million in 2016 — pretty good for a low-budget movie in which loners are hunted in the woods or turned into the animal of their choosing.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which stars Kidman and Farrell and features the breakthrough performance of Irish actor Barry Keoghan, opened last weekend with similarly packed art-house theatres. Farrell and Kidman play the parents of a suburban family terrorised by a young man (Keoghan) who’s a vague figure of comeuppance come to force Farrell’s heart surgeon to kill one of his two children as retribution for an earlier sin.
Earlier this fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, Lanthimos, Kidman, Farrell (who also starred in The Lobster) and Keoghan gathered to discuss their surreal and divisive film, and the peculiarities of acting in a Lanthimos film.
I’m guessing from your films, Yorgos, you don’t much care for small talk.
Lathimos: I prefer the small talk to the big talk. I’m not a big talker, am I?
Kidman: He’s quiet. He’s an introvert, but not in his filmmaking.
Nicole, how did you first connect with Yorgos?
Kidman: I pursued him relentlessly and he finally gave in.
Yorgos: You like saying that. I turned her down for 50 films.
Kidman: We had met. We had food together and chatted. That was a nice meeting. Then we had sort of a texting relationship. I was doing a play in London. He told me about the script. I said, “That sounds interesting, Yorgos.”
How did you describe the film to your cast, Yorgos?
Lanthimos: Never get yourself into a situation where you have to describe the film.
Farrell: “It’s 104 pages of joy!” I loved it. It was remarkably different from The Lobster, in tone, but also existing in a grossly idiosyncratic world. It was a mystery to me, as The Lobster was. It’s very seldom for me that you get to read writing that is so remarkably unique. The only other time that I had a similar feeling was with Martin McDonaugh [In Bruges].
Keoghan: It was a weird film, a weird script, but I loved it. It’s a different kind of acting, you know? You don’t act in it. It was just a challenge. I think he hates actors, as well.
Is it acting? It’s certainly a different kind of performance.
Kidman: He doesn’t like “acting,” am I right? He always says, “Stop acting.”
Lanthimos: What do you mean? There’s a lot of acting everywhere, all over the place. (Laughs)
Kidman: He says, “You’re doing too much. Stop it.”
Farrell: The best direction in 20 years of doing this job I’ve ever heard is him screaming from a monitor to an actor: “Stop trying to be so naturalistic!”
Lanthimos: Because that’s the worst! You see the effort of someone trying to be like real life. You go, “I’m embarrassed. Don’t do that.”
Kidman: I think I embarrassed him a lot.
Farrell: It takes habituated behavioural responses and pushes them to the side. It kind of presents subtext as reality and so you don’t have to play subtext at all. It feels to me to be a really honest world.
Yorgos, the title refers to Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. How related to Greek tragedy do you consider the film?
Farrell: He had a genetic disposition to arrive there and he couldn’t avoid it.
Lanthimos: These are matters that we’ve been concerned with since ancient years but they’ve actually become more taboo. I get a sense that this film upsets people because of the themes and the story. It did puzzle me in the beginning how much people are scandalised by being shown certain situations. It’s even more impressive when you realise that similar stories used to be a more common thing.
Why do you think that is?
Lanthimos: I think we’ve become very conservative. We elevate as important certain things and then others we consider them taboo and we don’t touch them. There’s a facade in general that we try to use to seal ourselves from certain things. I don’t have answers but just to poke a certain nerve.
Did the experience of making the film mimic the story’s trajectory from comedy to bleakness?
Farrell: If you scream into the wind for 12 hours without anyone around, you’re going to be a little bit insane for at least another 12. We almost shot in continuity so it got darker and it got bleaker and it got weightier the closer we got to a decision that’s made in the film. I was depressed by the end. It got under my skin for sure.
Keoghan: I’ve not acted since, basically. [Laughs.]
Kidman: And we were in confined spaces. We were shooting in a [Cincinnati] hospital which is a very strange environment, anyway, to be shooting in. I was walking with bare feet and they were like, “Put your shoes on! You’ll pick up some weird bacteria.”
Barry, you’re especially creepy in this. Did you know you had that in you?
Keoghan: I kind of did. [Laughter] Especially that spaghetti scene. I was like: “Turn up the creep-mode.”
Don’t miss it
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is now showing in the UAE.