Absurdity is Yorgos Lanthimos’ business and, truth be told, he’s one hell of a salesman. His 2010 feature, Dogtooth, revealed the Greek director as one of the most audacious social satirists in modern cinema, dismantling the modern familial unit in both hilarious and horrifying ways. After delivering the criminally underseen Alps in 2011, Lanthimos has returned with his English language debut, The Lobster. Like Dogtooth, The Lobster is a wickedly biting comedy that fully owns its surreal premise while expanding the scope to epic proportions. Revolving around a coldly totalitarian world full of bizarre rules and even stranger characters (portrayed by a stacked cast that includes Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux and John C. Reilly), it’s illegal to be single, and those who defy this law are forced to find a mate – or be turned into an animal of their choosing upon failure to couple.
We had a chance to speak with Yorgos regarding his latest feature, and what followed was a rather candid and insightful chat regarding the filmmaker’s process and the film’s tricky balance between quixotic warmth and cynical chilliness.
BMD: A lot of people have referred to The Lobster as a “romantic” movie, but that seems too narrow a characterization. It’s also about discovering the nature of happiness within social constructs. Did you envision this as a “romantic” picture or also a societal comment?
Yorgos: Both, and a lot of other things, as well. [Laughs] There is romance in there, for sure. But what we tried to do was include as many aspects of human behavior as possible. We wanted to explore the absurd and the ridiculous, but also the romantic and the violent sides of people. Because when you do all of these things and try to create a tone that is never one thing, you get very different people watching and receiving it according to their own experiences, education and even the very mood they’re in at that moment. Then you get very different reactions – and maybe “reactions” is the wrong word – but different perceptions of what you’ve created.
BMD: It contains multitudes.
Yorgos: Exactly, and that’s the most interesting part of it. You allow people to own their views.
BMD: Can you talk a little about the origin of the The Lobster’s central concept? It’s pretty far out.
Yorgos: What we were trying to do was create a certain kind of condition or scenario where we could reveal the absurdity of accepting the trappings of everyday life. Because we’re brought into the world or educated in a certain way, we’re trained to accept the world in a certain way. In order to explore this, we thought it’d be best to create a ridiculous “what if” scenario.
We really wanted to explore the idea of single people, couples, romantic relationships and love. But what if single people weren’t even allowed to walk around freely? Where would they go? What would their professions be? The hotel was envisioned as both a service to these people by those who run it, but also a sort of prison they can’t escape willfully. The punishment for those who don’t conform to the rules could also be viewed by one side as having a “positive” element. Instead of killing these singles or imprisoning them, we thought it’d be interesting if the leadership of this world thought it’d be fitting for them to be turned into animals.
BMD: Now you just used a term that was going to be the basis of my next question: “punishment”. I was interested in knowing if you saw these singles’ transformations as being a “punishment”, or could it be perceived as a second chance at existence as this new life form?
Yorgos: Well, I think that’s what the leadership would love for us to think. I don’t know if it’s true. But that’s an example of how an aspect of the film can be open to how an individual interprets it. Is this transformation positive? Or is becoming an animal taking a step down in the world? To us, it was certainly a “punishment”, just as the hotel was a kind of “prison”. But they’re certainly kinder sort of punishments, as well as being ridiculous and funny.
BMD: The movie is very funny. I hate using this word – but I’m at a loss for an alternate descriptor – The Lobster is very “deadpan”.
Yorgos: I hate that word, too! What does that even mean?
BMD: Maybe “dry” would be better?
Yorgos: I suppose.
BMD: How do you perceive the comedy in your movie? What was your approach to it?
Yorgos: It’s hard to describe yourself and what you do. But it’s the sense of humor that me and my co-writing partner [Efthymis Filippou – who also helped pen Dogtooth and Alps] share. It’s about finding the situations and the moments in life that we might take for granted and discovering the absurd and the ridiculous contained within them when observed from afar. Being extremely honest is quite funny. But there’s no recipe or concept that I can bring up that fully defines what we find humorous. It’s instinctive.
BMD: Now there’s a very distinct tone to The Lobster – a mixture of wry cynicism and sincere warmth regarding couples and the notion of coupling. Was it difficult to strike a balance between the two?
Yorgos: Well, that’s the whole key, and it’s always difficult to achieve a balance because you’re not entirely sure what it takes to get there. And then even when you do think you’ve got it – like we talked about before – it’s hard to know how your ideas are going to be perceived. It’s never going to work the same way on everyone. Some people think it’s “hilarious”. Others say it’s much too “dark”. Really, it’s neither and both. And I truly believe that it changes with each screening – there’s a certain kind of atmosphere and energy, almost like a live performance. People influence each other; so one screening will be filled with laughs while another is dead silent. And as the years go on, the film might affect you differently, based on what has happened between viewings. You can never claim that you’ve achieved a perfect balance, because it’s up to the people who watch it to decide.
BMD: What certainly helps with the tone is that it’s perfected through the performances. How did you choose each actor for their specific role?
Yorgos: I was very lucky because I got to choose actors from all over the world. Being my first English language movie, that created some interest in the script from people I normally wouldn’t get to work with. And since we’re not really working in reality – it’s a world that’s skews very close to ours – I could also collect these individuals from all over the globe and put them in the same place, allowing them to retain their original accents. So I just started thinking about people I wanted to work with. Rachel [Weisz] reached out after watching Dogtooth. We met and talked about working together even before I had finished writing The Lobster. Colin [Farrell] got the script and we met on Skype and it was very apparent we wanted to work together. It was good that I had a previous body of work that the actors seemed to be familiar with. It helped bring them together and was the most positive aspect of making this film. All the actors were supportive and had a grasp of what we were trying to achieve. They understood the voice of the movie.
BMD: And it’s a hell of a voice, frankly.
Yorgos: Thank you. I’m hoping others will share that sentiment.