Over the last few years, director Yorgos Lanthinmos has emerged as a force on the international filmmaking scene. His films are bleaker than bleak comedies about the human condition treated with a pop surrealist touch not too far removed from the likes of David Lynch. He made a mark in his native Greece first with movies like Dogtooth (a disturbingly funny assault on the family unit) before transitioning into English language productions he recent years. His last feature The Lobster brought in name actors like Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and John C. Reilly for a deeply dark and bizarre satire on love and human connection. It was an art film hilarious and insightful enough to speak to a fairly broad audience and led to the director to mount his next production in America.
On a certain level, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer is Lanthimos’ most accessible film (despite the not particularly accessible title). It’s a horror story of sorts, starring Colin Farrell as a successful surgeon married to Nicole Kidman with a pair of children housed in a lush mansion. Of course, Lanthimos being Lanthimos that success is façade destined to be torn down in painful ways. It starts with Farrell developing an odd relationship with a teen boy played by Irish actor Barry Keoghan (recently seen in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk), who he regularly meets for meals and chats. It’s slowly revealed that Farrell was accidentally responsible for the death of the boy’s father in surgery and he’s trying to take the place of a father figure out of guilt. However, when Keoghan pushes their relationship too far and Farrell tries to push him away, things get messy. Keoghan tells Farrell that his children will soon be struck with a deadly and incurable illness and both will die unless he murders one of them himself. Sure enough, the kids take ill. It’s unclear how Keoghan made it happen or if it all can be stopped, but the clock slowly ticks down towards a terrible choice.
Dark stuff to be sure and indeed the film can be a horrifying watch. Yet, the filmmaker also infuses the material with his peculiar brand of deadpan dark comedy and slowly reveals a variety of themes that opens the horror parable up to a variety of interpretations. The result is one of the most intriguing and beautifully mounted films of the year, just one rooted in material harsh enough to leave viewers shaken. Dork Shelf got a chance to chat with the brilliant filmmaker and his young star Barry Keoghan (who gives one of the most fascinating and disturbing performances of the year) when the pair were in town to premiere their film at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. We tried to get answers about a film that provides few and amusingly, it felt like the filmmakers kept things vague even to themselves. Fortunately, the chat was certainly bizarre and amusing enough to stand on its own. You can’t expect clarification from a director like Yorgos Lanthimos, but you can always expect to be intrigued and entertained.
Yorgos, I adore the humour in your movies and find it so deadpan and dry. I wonder if you even discuss the humour with your actors or if you instead encourage them to play everything completely straight and let the humour emerge unexpectedly?
Barry Keoghan: Well, even with the tone that we all a speak in, he never really tells you to say it that way. It’s about just saying the words. The comedy and everything else is in there.
Yorgos Lanthimos: I never give directions to the actors about how to do something or whether it should be funny or dramatic. First of all, they understand the situation themselves. A lot of it is there in the script. I believe in people just being there, being present and doing it. Then you get a tone. You can only shift things a little bit here and there, but they are there to just do it.
A lot of people notice parallels in your writing with the theater of the absurd and you worked in theater long before film. Is it the case that you found this tone on your own or were there influences?
YL: Well, theatre just happened to me, basically. I never intended to do theatre, but I was given to the opportunity at some point and I thought it was an interesting process for me to learn how to work with actors, mostly. So I did a few plays and it was an interesting experience. I learned a lot. The writing just comes from myself and Efthymis [Filippou, Lathimos’ regular co-writer] as well. It’s all our taste and way of understanding things. It’s just natural to us that we do this kind of thing. We never aim to go in a particular direction. We’ve never discussed that. We write in the way that seems suited to the story that we are trying to tell.
The cast is extraordinary. Can you talk a little bit about how you assembled everybody? I know you had an infamous Skype session to get Colin Farrell on board for The Lobster.
YL: Well, with Colin we didn’t have to do Skype this time because we knew each other well at this point. So that was easy. With Nicole Kidman, we had spoken about working with each other for a while. We knew that we liked each other and each other’s work. So it was again very easy. She read the script at some point and texted me to say, “I love this, let’s do it.” I said, “Ok.” So that was very easy as well [Laughs]. With Barry…for that part I saw hundreds of young actors from any Anglophone country that exists. Somehow Barry stood out. We met.
BK: We did the Skype thing there.
YL: Was it Skype the first time?
BK: No we met in London.
YL: I guess that was an after the fact thing. So with all the kids we just took auditions all over the world. I would be on Skype while scouting locations and the young actors would audition together wherever they were. We saw a lot of kids for those roles from all over the world, so that’s how we ended up with an Irish boy, an English girl, and an American boy. It became quite international. I just felt like those were the people best for the parts. I never can quite explain why, there are always other talented people that you find. I work instinctively a lot. I just feel like this is the right person. I can’t always explain why, but sometimes you just have to trust yourself and work from within.
Barry, when you read the script what did you think of the character? Did you think of him as a villain or a victim and where did you play him from?
BK: I thought of Martin as a kid reaching out for a father figure after his father died. Then as I read on, I saw there was a bit of revenge involved. There was no real discussion of that was there?
YL: No, just do the part! (Laughs)
BK: Yeah, just learn your lines and get them right. I didn’t have much of a plan.
YL: And Barry doesn’t like learning his lines until the last minute. He doesn’t want to have them in his head for too long. (Laughs)
BK: Yeah, it was about not having a judgement on the character. Yorgos didn’t want to have a backstory or anything like that. You meet a lot of directors who want to meet and talk about all that. This was nice to be able to come in and not do any of that. It’s all in the script. It’s all there. Just do it.
So I guess neither of you ever discussed the illness or where it came form?
YL: No, that’s exactly the example of the stuff that we don’t talk about. I also only know what’s there in the script. We construct this thing very precisely and specifically and we know those parts of it well. If you ask me, anyone who watches the movie has the same validity in asking that question. What does it matter or why should I know? It’s not important in this film. We just try to stay away form it. Part of that for me is that if the actors need to know that information, I like them to work that out for themselves. Any answer is valid. I’d don’t like to know what they’ve decided so that I can be more impartial and open to understanding what’s in front of me. I don’t want to be influenced on something that we decided before hand. I don’t want to know what the actors or thinking. I want to look at a scene and decide if it’s working or if it’s not and then push it in certain directions. But I don’t want to have preconceived notions about other things around it. And if the actors have too many preconceived notions they start doing it a certain way and I notice that and we aren’t always on the same page. I try to stay away from over explaining.
The building that you found for the hospital is quite spectacular.
YL: Yes. It was my goal to find a hospital that was very impressive and state of the art and new, mostly to support the story. Mostly because I didn’t want anybody to think that it was a shitty hospital and that’s why they couldn’t figure out what was happening to the kids. I didn’t want any doubt about that. I wanted you to know that they know what they were doing. It was also important for me for Colin’s character to appear very successful. So we were looking for that sort of hospital and we found it in Cincinnati. We looked in many different cities influenced by tax rebates and that sort of thing. While we were doing that we discovered that Ohio is kind of the medical capital of US. They have thousands of brand new hospitals, ones that are even ten years old get shut down. The one that we found was so new that they weren’t even finished setting it up and we were able to take over an entire wing of our own. So we were very lucky to find that location.
What did you like best about working with each other?
BK: He got me a film camera.
YL: So you only enjoyed the end of working together? (Laughs)
BK: I mean working with Yorgo is different than any other movie. It’s a different genre. I don’t even know what kind it is. A mix of everything. So, I enjoyed that.
YL: I love Barry. He’s his own man and he brings a lot to it. Generally I like to cast people that have a strong presence and can bring something that I couldn’t even imagine to the part that wasn’t on the page. So that’s why I like Barry.
BK: I can’t handle the compliments! (Laughs)
YL: Don’t worry, that’s it! (Laughs)
Yorgos, your films allow for a fair number of interpretations to any viewer. What would you say is the biggest misconception that people have claimed about your work?
YL: The biggest misconception? First of all, I try to construct my films in a way that they are quite open so that people can view them in different ways depending on where the audiences comes from and what their views are. So there are many very different interpretations. The funniest and the most absurd thing that I’ve heard about this film and also The Lobster is that these films are about The Greek Crisis. I’m open to any interpretation, but that’s absurd. If you didn’t know that the filmmaker was Greek, how on earth would you go to that place of thinking that these films are about The Greek Crisis? I don’t want to limit anyone from reading the movies the way that they want to, but I find that misleading. I think some people confuse themselves because of the things they know around the film instead of actually watching the film and seeing what they get from that.