Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos came to national attention for his 2009 film Dogtooth, a dark family drama whose odd tendencies are hardly explained until the film's end. It earned him a foreign-language Oscar nomination. Normally, Hollywood comes calling to such directors, but Lanthimos has more interest in creative freedom than big budgets. Looking for leeway to shoot in English, he avoided L.A. and moved to London to film The Lobster.
Fans of Dogtooth will be happy to know that Lanthimos' first English-language movie does not comprise any of his sense of humor or his critical eye of society through ambiguous storytelling. In a warped version of humanity's future, adults are expected to couple with a mate within 45 days of becoming newly single or else be transformed into the animal of their choice. The title comes from the animal chosen by the lead character, played by Colin Farrell.
The feature had its Florida premiere this past March during Miami Dade College's 33rd Miami International Film Festival, where it won the Knight Competition for best director. New Times spoke with Lanthimos via phone while he visited the L.A. offices of the film's U.S. distributor, A24.
New Times: How did you decide on Colin Farrell for the lead role?
Yorgos Lanthimos: Very early on... I just looked at people I wanted to work with, and I was very lucky that Colin was aware of my previous work. He had seen Dogtooth and then The Alps. We met via Skype. We liked each other. He liked the screenplay, and it was an easy process.
What was it like directing him?
He was great... All of the actors knew my previous work, and they were there because they liked the material. They were very much in tune with the world and the tone of the film, and I didn't really have to do much other than choose well and wisely. I was very fortunate that all of these great actors wanted to be part of the film. It was one of the most easygoing experiences I had making films, working with all of those actors.
It's hard not to notice that the film never gets into how the transformation from human to animal happens. Can you talk about the importance of obscuring details in storytelling?
I think you show enough to trigger people's imaginations and make it complex enough and interesting enough. Some things are better left to the imagination, and sometimes it's more effective, sometimes funnier, sometimes more dubious and complex. It's always about choosing what you show in order to make it richer than actually trying to describe everything and show everything, which might make it duller in a way... When you try to show everything, there isn't much excitement for me as a viewer.
What are some of the more interesting interpretations of the film that you've heard?
It varies. I'm always amazed by the things that some people see in the film that is not even there... One person during a Q&A said, "There's this scene where they bring him the lobster, and he looks at it." And I go, like, "Where is this scene in the film?"
People have gone so far as seeing something that's not really there. That's just an example of how varied people's perception of a film can be. I'm not saying most people do that. I'm just saying it can go up to that, and I find that quite interesting... because the film affects them in a way that they see more than is there — and that goes a long way.
If you want my view, I think society has long turned dating and marriage into a ritual, and this film captures a world of ritual above love.
It's so structured the way we do things and live our lives. There are so many rules that we follow that I find it at least interesting to stop and question those things and try to expose the absurdity of those things that we consider normal and we're born into. We're educated in a certain way to believe that that's the correct way about many different things, so I always find it interesting to question those things and create a world of 'What if it wasn't exactly like that?'
The way you depict nature — it's so green and lush, so different from dystopian futures.
Yeah, because I don't think our film is dystopian in the classic sense. I think it's more of a world that we created that is very near to what we're experiencing right now. It's just that we tweaked the rules a bit in order to achieve the distance that we needed to explore what we wanted. But other than that, I think we intentionally made it feel very true and very near to what we experience [in our current reality].
So to make it sort of grounded in our current times, in a way.
Yeah, exactly... There's always an intention by the people who have imposed the rules that this seems to be something pleasant and something right for people to do. So it shouldn't be dark or unpleasant, and the same with the loners [outlaws in the film who live in a forest as single people]. There's something about the beauty of nature and their intention of living their own lives alone, which of course contradicts what actually goes on there because the irony of it is that the loners in this world live under very similarly oppressive rules, in a way.
Does anyone ask what animal you would like to be transformed into?
Yes, many times [laughs], so I have my answer.
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So what might that animal be?
Although I am tempted to change every time, I always end up saying that I would like to be some kind of bird, so I can fly around.
Opens Friday, June 3. Check local listings.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.