Yorgos Lanthimos, deerhunter
'There are various ways of delivering some kind of truth, so I try to find the style or the way that I find more effective,' says the director of The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Director Yorgos Lanthimos first came to international attention in 2009 with Dogtooth, a surreal drama co-written in Greek with Efthymis Filippou. In 2015, the pair ventured into English with the sex satire The Lobster. For his second English-language film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos places a mythic story in a modern setting as he follows the strange relationship between a prosperous American cardiologist, played by Colin Farrell, and a manipulative teenage boy, played by Barry Keoghan. The Globe and Mail spoke with Lanthimos at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer draws on a story of revenge and sacrifice that refers back to Greek myth, Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to appease the goddess Artemis, or recalls the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. How did that element come into the script?
The relevant Greek tragedy is Iphigenia in Aulis [by Euripides]. It was something we discovered early on, that the story had similarities with a script we had already started writing. It started with a situation of a young boy accusing a doctor for the death of his father and seeking justice or revenge. We were interested in that situation: the eye for an eye is very familiar. We thought it was important to acknowledge that this kind of story, this kind of theme, was explored even in ancient years; it is something that remains unchanged almost, the way we feel about these things. We never tried to adapt the tragedy but we thought it was interesting to acknowledge it: we created a playful dialogue.
You and Efthymis Filippou are both Greek speakers, now writing your scripts in English. Do you start in Greek or in English?
We write in Greek and then we translate into English. We are fortunate we have found a couple of people who are bilingual, who are half Greek, half English; they help us translate. One of them also did the subtitles in our first films, so he gets our tone, which is important. After we do the first translation, then we mostly work on it in English.
And that tone is unusual. The dialogue occasionally reminds me of Harold Pinter, this flat, pedestrian language seeming to hide violence behind it. Do you feel there is a particular advantage – does it add to your style? – this way of not working in your original language?
It does. It is very important for me. When we first started with Dogtooth, the first film we wrote together, for me it was important to find someone with whom I shared a similar sensibility, [so] I would find a singular voice and be able to transform the stories we wanted to tell in a particular manner that was interesting to me. In film, I like transformation. That goes for the language, for the image, for the performance. I am not interested in representing reality. Actually, I am interested in representing reality but that doesn't mean a naturalistic approach, which I think is kind of impossible. Even in documentary; documentaries are so staged and the people in them, it is a kind of performance. There are various ways of delivering some kind of truth, so I try to find the style or the way that I find more effective.
A lot depends then on the style of the performances. How do you direct your actors?
I think it's connected with the style of the writing because I don't really ever ask them to do anything, I don't ask them to speak or act in a certain way. It comes down to them understanding the tone of the writing and delivering it in a way that sounds the most natural to them to be saying those words. All I do is encourage them to just say the words, to be there, to do it, and they themselves understand if it's the right way or the wrong way. I try not to go into conversations about how they should play the part, or do the scene, or how they should speak. It comes naturally and I just try to refine things, or change the physicality of a scene. I work very physically with them.
If I were just to describe the plot of the film, it might sound like a horror film. How would you compare it to the horror genre?
I think it flirts with the genre; I don't think it's a horror film, per se. We are using elements from the genre but we are doing it in a distinctive way. It sprung from structuring this story and discovering the elements we needed. Weirdly enough, the process was very logical. When we started creating this relationship between this young man and this doctor, the conflict they have, how could that be resolved, how a teenager could apply pressure to someone who is a grown, successful man. You all of a sudden have a solution, the inexplicable, the supernatural, a power you cannot understand and control. That was not the original idea, but it's a logical answer to, how do you make this young boy control this man's life?
The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens Nov. 3
This interview has been edited and condensed.