Tag Archives: Greek cinema

Alps: Interview with Yorgos Lanthimos


Format: Cinema

Release date: 9 November 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Writers: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou

Original title: Alpis

Cast: Stavros Psyllakis, Aris Servetalis, Johnny Vekris

Greece 2011

93 mins

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

Dogtooth: Interview with Yorgos Lanthimos


Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 April 2010

Venue: Gate, Odeon Covent Garden, Renoir, Ritzy (London) + key cities

Distributor: Verve Pictures

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Writer: Efthymis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos

Original title: Kynodontas

Cast: Christos Stergioglou, Michelle Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Hristos Passalis, Anna Kalaitzidou

Greece 2009

94 mins

Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth is an inventive and riveting film that blurs the line between the real and the utterly grotesque. The story (the less you know, the better) takes place almost entirely within the confines of a spacious family house, inhabited by a married couple and their three grown-up children, who have never left the house and are confined to the bizarre world created by their parents’ cruel games and peculiar educational methods. Opting for fixed, meticulously framed shots and a dazzling, yet unhurried visual style, Lanthimos gradually reveals the details of this twisted, self-enclosed world while crafting an increasingly unsettling atmosphere. Full of weird surprises, wonderful dark humour and irreverent spirit, Dogtooth is a bold and brilliantly perverse gem. Pamela Jahn talks to Yorgos Lanthimos about parenting, Greek views on sexuality and the necessity of a good sense of humour.

Pamela Jahn: In Dogtooth you’re telling a story about a dysfunctional family that abandons the norms, rules and logic that have been taken for granted in society. What attracted you to this kind of subject matter?

Yorgos Lanthimos: It didn’t really start as a story about family dysfunction as such. In the beginning, I was wondering about family life and parenting in general and if the way we think about it would ever really change. But I had a conversation with some friends one day, and I was making fun about the fact that two of them were getting married and having children, because today many people get divorced and kids are being raised by single parents, so I said there was no point in getting married. But although I was obviously just joking, all of a sudden they got extremely defensive about what I had said. This made me realise how someone I knew and who I would never have expected to react that way freaks out when you mess about with his family. And that’s how I got the initial idea about this man who would go to extremes to protect his family, and who would try to keep his family together forever by keeping his children away from any influence from the outside world, being firmly convinced that this is the best way to raise them.

But it’s obviously a bit more than just keeping them away from the outside world, because the parents also play pretty cruel games with their children and teach them nonsense.

The thing is that because the father really does have the best intentions for his children, or at least that is what he believes, he tries to provide them with the best environment to grow up in, like this big house with a big garden and a swimming pool and all that. But at the same time, he has to create all these myths and fears so that the children don’t dare going out of the house. But since he has been able to do that from the moment they were born it also shows just how much you can influence people’s minds and create a view of the world for them that is exactly the way you want it.

It’s also interesting that you decided not to give any background information about why the parents decided to raise their children this way in the first place.

Yes, that was very important to me from the beginning, because I think it would have been a completely different film otherwise – you would be too engaged in judging if it was right for them to behave that way depending on the reasons they had for doing so. What interested me most was the result of their actions and to see how far you can go when messing with people’s minds and making them believe the things that you want them to believe. It’s a very dangerous thing to do and I hope my film provokes reactions from people because in the film it is obviously too late. Sooner or later this had to explode.

It all seems to work out until Christina comes into play, a woman who is brought into the house by the father on occasion to have sex with his son. She is basically the trigger that starts the fatal chain of increasingly violent events.

That’s right, she is the trigger. But what fascinates me most about her character is that she enters this obscure world and for her there is a temptation to take advantage of the situation and of the children. For example, she demands things from the older sister so they start dealing in this way, ‘I give you that, so why don’t you give me this’. You can feel the power Christina has, which she plays out on the children. It’s the temptation to take advantage of the weaker ones, and that’s what I like about her character. I think I would be tempted to act in the same way if I came into contact with someone so naïve, and to fool them and get whatever I want from them. Why not do it?

Although the son is daddy’s darling and gets special treatment, the two girls seem much more mature and stronger. How did you develop the different characters of the siblings?

I do believe that girls or women in general are stronger characters than boys. They are the smartest ones (laughs). So it was just natural for me that the older boy would be the father’s favourite, but at the same time he tries the hardest and seems somewhat more immature. But it also has to do with the fact that boys are seen as much more deserving of having sex and entitled to more things than the girls. When it comes to the girls, the parents never think that they need to be educated about sex and they deal with them in a much more conservative way. So it creates this bizarre situation, where they just discard any kind of thought about this with regard to the girls. For the boy, however, they are very proud of him having sex. At least this is the mentality we have in Greece. I have to admit, it’s quite dated, but I guess it still exists in other countries too.

How much research did you do before or while writing the script?

We didn’t do any research at all, because I thought it was such a surreal story we were working on. It was only afterwards, when we were already rehearsing, that this Austrian story came out about the father who kept his daughter in the basement, where she grew up like an animal, and he had children with her. But still, this felt very different from what we were trying to do since it had a very different tone to it, way too dark and dreadful.

Your film has a ferocious wit and a great sense of humour, which at times makes it feel more like an inverted comedy, in which absurdity gets out of control when some sort of normality finds its way in. Why was humour so important to you in this story?

That’s true (laughs)… It’s interesting what you’re saying. I actually never thought about it in this way, but it was the only way for me to approach the subject, because to really go deep into things the film had to be violent and, at the same time, have a great sense of humour, with the contradiction of being in an open space with light and beautiful garden and beautiful children. I think it brings out the most intense and powerful emotions when you experience contradictions like this. By employing a certain sense of humour you essentially get more serious about things and show conflict more effectively than if you were overly dramatic or only violent because that’s a one-way approach that just forces audiences to watch something appalling. With humour you can really make people think in many different directions, and it feels like a more existential experience to me. I always try to infuse humour into my work. I also work in theatre a lot, and you often end up working on a play without much humour. But it is very important for me to always find a way to introduce the ridiculous side of things into whatever I do, no matter how dramatic or tragic the given situation is.

It seems quite clear that you are not advocating violence because we see that the kids’ actions lead to some very nasty events. On the other hand, violence and dancing seem to be the only ways for the siblings to express their frustration at their lack of freedom.

I am very close to physicality in general, and I think I can only really work things out that way. I only work physically with the actors when rehearsing. I don’t sit down with them to analyse their parts in terms of what they should be thinking of and how they should approach their character. I just don’t like analysing things too much and I guess that’s why I deal with things physically. It just feels more real to me, and especially in film, where you have actors pretending to be a character in a situation. I don’t like setting up a frame of mind in their head. I just like them to act, literally speaking.

Did you have a clear idea from the beginning of how you were going to approach the visual style of the film?

I never try to visualise a film while writing the script or when I am casting. This happens only when I start rehearsing, I start getting an idea of what the film could look like. And in this particular film I thought it should be shot in a way that was quite realistic on the one hand – for example, there is not much lighting and the location is real – but with really strict framing and a cool, surreal look to go with the narrative. I guess that this is also related to my general philosophy about filmmaking. To me, it looks fake if you try to be too involved in the way you film things and if you ask your actors to get really emotionally involved. As much as I don’t like forcing feelings onto my actors, I also don’t like forcing them onto the audience. I prefer to keep the film open to allow people to get engaged in their own way. So I try to not guide people to conclusions too much, but rather expose things and have the audience react to what is happening on screen. For me, it is also a way of avoiding being too didactic in my films.

Dogtooth feels like a slap in the face of suburban life. In that sense, is it a personal story too?

No, it’s exactly the opposite. I grew up with only my mother, she got divorced when I was very young, and she died when I was 17 years old. From then on, I was by myself, so I had to go out into the world quite early and earn a living and study and do all these things. So, in a way I am observing the characters and the story in the film from a very different point of view. But even so, I really don’t know what I would do if I was a parent. If you asked me today how I would raise my children I would say that I’d try to have them experience freedom and be much more in contact with the world, and I think I would live somewhere in the centre of the city where they can come into contact with as many different elements of life as possible. But I am saying this now and in a year or so we might be speaking again and I might live in a nice suburban house with a garden and a swimming pool… who knows? I really don’t know what life has in store for me, but it’s amazing how your mind can fool you sometimes. (laughs)