Film Comment Selects Q&A: Yorgos Lanthimos
Film Comment Selects comes to a close on Thursday night with the new film from the director of 2009’s twisted, er, “family” film Dogtooth. Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos continues his exploration of strange, synthetic private worlds with Alps, about four people who attempt to help the recently bereaved by impersonating their deceased loved ones. Film Comment interviewed Lanthimos about the new film, inhabiting other people’s lives, directing theater, and the state of funding in Greece.
Where did the idea for Alps come from?
Alps came from conversations I had with Efthymis Filippou, the co-writer of both Dogtooth and Alps, while trying to find an idea about our next film. He mentioned an idea about people asking other people to write letters to them, pretending to be someone who has died. Then I came up with this rough story about a nurse, who actually offers to stand in for deceased people, to help family and friends cope with their grief. It seemed complex, funny, and sad. So we liked it and started working on a script.
Your films sometimes feel like they could arise out of acting games. Do they? Dogtooth (about a family whose adult children have grown up in total isolation) could have come out of the request to “pretend that you are an adult with only a child’s experience.”
No, but we do play a lot of games while rehearsing. At least, in Kinetta  and Dogtooth, because in Alps we didn’t rehearse that much. The games are more a way of working with the actors, or nonprofessional actors. They don’t always have to do much with the story, or the idea of the film. Scenes might be invented through games, but not the whole concept.
The characters in Alps can resemble well-intentioned robots. That’s funny, but isn’t it also a little scary?
I think the whole situation is scary and funny at the same time. No matter how you see these people, they are definitely troubled. Some of them are trying to find something new, and others to find something they lost. Maybe all of them are trying to find both. The fact that you can laugh with them makes you realize things in a more profound way. When you stop laughing, you might even feel guilty. It is funny that the stand-ins are even more troubled than the people they’re actually trying to help, the ones that experienced a death in their circle. That’s why we decided to focus more on them, instead of the grieving families, friends, and lovers. There’s something more tragic and scarier trying to break into a relationship, or situation, or condition, than trying to break out.
The idea of reenactment is a part of Kinetta and Alps. Are you interested in performance art or literature along those lines? For some reason I thought of the humor in stories by George Saunders (CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia).
Alps is much more than reenactment. The characters try to inhabit other people’s lives and personalities. They forge relationships with others and affect their lives and their own. I recently read a couple of stories from Pastoralia, by George Saunders, and it is true, I find them very interesting, funny, and devastating at the same time.
There seems to be a theater contingent in your filmmaking community. Could you talk a bit about your experience with theater, and theater in Athens?
I was lucky to have directed one play in the theater, before making my first feature. It was a play by one of the most important contemporary Greek writers, Dimitris Dimitriadis. It gave me the chance to figure out how I could work with actors and experiment. I never studied theater and never intended to do any, until I was offered to direct my first play. I hate theater every time I stage a play. But a couple of years pass by, and then I want to get involved again. It’s different with cinema. No matter how terrible the experience is while making a film, before I even finish it, I want to start the next one.
There are an extraordinary number of plays being staged in Greece every season. And a huge number of all kind of venues, from classical theaters to bar basements. Hosting classical and contemporary plays, but also experimental theater, dance, etc. It must be a record compared to the size of the population. They’re not all successful of course. The last play I directed was Chekhov’s Platonov at the National Theatre in Greece. Many of the actors that were in it have also been in my films, like Aris Servetalis, Aggeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed.
How dire is the funding situation in Greece?
The funding situation in Greece just got worse, because of the crisis and the fear of default. We had to shoot Alps under worse financial conditions than Dogtooth, which was already a very low-budget film. But we decided to go ahead and do it, and in the process not try to hide the situation, our lack of means, but somehow try and make it work to our advantage.