Yorgos Lanthimos first came to international attention with Dogtooth (Kynodontas), a comedy of obsidian darkness portraying the Chernobyl of nuclear families. Reality is twisted by the parents into a series of bizarre rituals and lurking menaces to keep the children – now adults – under their control. Reality is likewise pliable in his new film Alps (Alpis), co-written by his collaborator, Efthymis Filippou: a small group of misfits – the Alps of the title – offer their services to bereaved families. For a fee, they will replace the deceased and act out scenes with them as a way of alleviating their grief. As ever there is a sense of play but the stakes are perhaps even higher than they were in his previous film as the bending of reality leaks out of the tight claustrophobic family compound and into wider society.
John Bleasdale met Yorgos Lanthimos at the Venice Film Festival in August 2011 to talk about Alps and the elusiveness of reality, dysfunctional families and the Greek crisis.
John Bleasdale: In both Dogtooth and Alps reality is up for grabs, manipulated by your characters.
Yorgos Lanthimos: I don’t think there is reality anywhere. Films are fiction and I’d even consider documentary fiction. When you start filming something it becomes something different.
How did the project start?
We had the idea of people writing letters as if they were dead people writing to people they have left behind to keep contact. I liked the idea but it didn’t seem very cinematic so we came up with the story of someone offering the service of pretending to be someone else. This nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia, who also played the eldest daughter in Dogtooth) works in the hospital so it’s easy for her to find people who have just lost someone. We started writing scenes and dialogue. We also rehearse and improvise on set. When we’ve finished the scenes for the day, we shoot another scene that just comes to mind on the spot or we write something very fast and shoot it, and if it works, it might end up in the film. Also we might cut out some scenes that we’ve written and shot in the editing so it’s always evolving in rehearsals and in shooting.
The Alps take their name from the idea that the mountains are irreplaceable, so they are replacing the irreplaceable. Did you consider using the Himalayas as a title?
(Laughs) ‘Well, the whole thing isn’t very plausible, is it? The name makes sense but you can see holes in it. Just in the same way you can see the holes in what they are trying to achieve and so it was funny and made enough sense, but you ask one question and it’ll fall apart. You asked about improvisation. The scene of the naming of the group we shot for hours with the group asking the leader questions about why and how, and you could see that this could not hold for a long time and it was funny.
You began your career as a theatre director before making your first film. What did you gain from theatre?
What I gained from theatre is how to work with actors. I don’t have the same philosophy for making a film and working in the theatre. They’re two very different things, but theatre gave me time to work with actors.
Your camera is often claustrophobically close to the main character.
It’s really important to be focused on the most important thing in a scene. When you give time to the viewer and you stay with and follow one person it is more profound than when you show whatever is going on around them. It works for me. So, for instance, in this film I felt the need to tell the story through the nurse. So that’s why most of the time we focus on her and we see everyone else around her. If I focused on the other people, then it would become that story and we would have to deal with all of them equally, and it wouldn’t feel right.
How difficult was it to make the movie with the crisis in Greece?
It was extremely difficult even before the crisis. I’ve made all my films with an extremely low budget. My first film didn’t have any support. There is no private funding because there is a huge problem with the laws and there are no incentives for private investment. Films in Greece are funded by the Greek Film Centre, which is government money, and for many years it was extremely corrupt. Very specific directors got the money, no younger filmmakers. That means you do it on your own: you gather money from friends, you put in your own money, have lots of people working for free, ask for favours – that’s how it was for younger filmmakers and that’s how it still is. The crisis hasn’t changed much. I managed to make my second film, Kinetta (2005) with the support of the Greek Film Centre but that’s 250,000 euros, and you have to do it the same way and hope you can pay them back two years later. And then, because of the crisis things became even worse. So there weren’t even the contributions from the Greek Film Centre for Alps. We had to do it on our own with friends and many co-producers who put in 10,000-20,000 euros. People worked for free, we found what we could for free. Now, the Greek Film Centre is supporting the film, but after it is made and without the risk. It was already in Venice and Toronto.
You have symbols of authority and rebellion in both Dogtooth and Alps.
I try to do what is right by the specific story and hope people can link the things that they are watching with their own experiences and make their own conclusions. But I believe that if I tried to do that before putting the story together and thought this should be about this person’s rebellion as it connects to the sociological situation right now, the film would be a mess. It allows people to think this but not by imposing it as an allegory or something.
Your central characters tend to be women and the dominating characters tend to be men.
I do like women characters. I think they’re more complex and intelligent in general. I think there is a clichéd behaviour which tends to be male. I find it more natural to have a woman as a heroine against the stupidity of males, but next time I might do something different. I’m not obsessed.
Do you plan to make movies outside of Greece?
I have the possibility to go somewhere else and I’ll do that. It’s something I’d like to do anyway, not just because of the situation in Greece, but because I like different cultures, and places around the world have a lot to add to the films. I could make the films I make in different countries. It would change the films but that is not a bad thing. I try to incorporate into the film the whole of the energy, the feel of the place where it is happening. I try to accept it. I don’t try and make it more beautiful or shy away from it. I decided not to go against the difficulties we had. We couldn’t choose locations for houses and so we filmed in locations that a friend could give us for free. So whatever it is, I’m going to make it work and make it part of the film. With that in mind, I think it is very interesting to make films with different landscapes and languages. And, of course, with the situation in Greece and since I’ve already made three films in the hardest way possible I’d like to do something with a bit more support.
What about family situations? Families are destroyed in both Dogtooth and Alps.
But these people are very different. If you’re asking why they are troubled in this way, then the greater percentage of families are dysfunctional. It doesn’t have to be so extreme. We put them under these extreme conditions to test them. There would be no point for me to show a happy family being happy. I didn’t want to make an entertaining film – not just an entertaining film. I think the film is quite entertaining, but it’s not just that. And that’s why I choose to look at troubled families and troubled people. Not just families, but every aspect of the film is troubled: that’s what I’m interested in exploring.
Can I ask about the tone? Sometimes it seemed like you were testing how black the comedy could get before the comedy collapsed.
It’s natural for us to do it this way. Both I and my writing partner (Efthymis Filippou) have this sense of humour. And I don’t think we could ever approach it in just a dramatic and tragic way. You experience both feelings deeper if you have the contradiction in the film. Just being tragic is fake, and just being funny is entertaining but it doesn’t go anywhere. So if you succeed in making people laugh but feel awkward that’s deep. They laugh but when they revisit the film they might feel bad about themselves. People feel more engaged when there’s this more complex tone and way of watching the film. That’s also why the film is made this way: it demands that you are more engaged and you make up for what you don’t see.
Interview by John Bleasdale