Yorgos Lanthimos on directing The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Greek tragedy, and why he’s not one for explanations
Comedies don’t come any blacker than the latest film from the director of Dogtooth and The Lobster; no one, not even the actors working with him, knows what to make of it, and that’s the way Lanthimos likes it
Dogs, lobsters and now deer … Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos appears to have an animal fetish – although it’s hardly the strangest aspect of his work.
“If you’re working with Yorgos Lanthimos you’re taking a risk,” says Colin Farrell. “His material is so specific and so weighty. It’s provocative and it’s disturbing.”
In 2015’s The Lobster , the director’s first English-language movie, Farrell played a single man living in a weird, dystopian society who has 45 days to find a mate or be turned into an animal of his choosing.
In Lanthimos’ latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Farrell is cast as Steven, a surgeon and married father-of-two based in an unnamed contemporary American city who accidentally causes the death of a young boy’s father on the operating table.
What follows is as bizarre as it is unexplained. Steven’s children, Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy), begin to suffer paralysis. He and his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) are at a loss, but worse is to come unless Steven commits the ultimate eye-for-an-eye exchange.
Lanthimos, 44, says he wanted to explore the subject of sacrifice in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. “[The story] starts more with justice and choice and human nature and behaviour. Obviously from mythology and religious stories, [sacrifice has] always been there forever. It’s part of humanity.”
When the film was unveiled last year in Cannes, the director and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou won a share of the best screenplay prize with Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. Immediately, the film drew differing opinions as to its meaning.
“That’s the beauty of Yorgos’ films,” says Barry Keoghan, who plays Martin, the boy who loses his father under the knife. “Everyone has their own interpretation and their own view. He lets the audience make up their own mind.”
Even the actors were a little uncertain as to exactly what they were dealing with during the rehearsal period before shooting took place in Cincinnati.
“Yorgos would always say, ‘Nicole, you’ve got to understand the tone, it’s a comedy,’” says Kidman. The actress’ first experience of Lanthimos’ work was watching Dogtooth, another twisted family tale about a couple who keep their children locked away from normal society in their walled-compound-like home. “That brings you to your knees,” the actress says.
Of course, whether you find The Killing of a Sacred Deer comical rather depends on your sense of humour. Like The Lobster before it, it’s the blackest of black comedies.
For those with a warped sense of humour, it works as a takedown of pristine suburban living – notably when Anna notes “we all have nice hair”, as she gazes lovingly at her family around the dinner table. Is it a film about urban privilege? Martin and his mother (Alicia Silverstone) are distinctly blue collar compared to Steven and his family.
Maybe it’s a David Lynch-like study of what happens behind white picket fences. Anna and Steven play weird sex games in the bedroom: he tells her to adopt a position on the bed under the command “general aesthetic” and she lies prone, in her underwear, like she’s been knocked out cold. Thankfully, Farrell’s Steven is sitting in his boxer shorts and T-shirt; we’re not forced to endure what comes next.
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The Killing of a Sacred Deer does not operate in the real world; rather it’s a modern-day fable. Appropriately for a Greek director, the film plunders from classical literature.
“We discovered there are parallels with the Euripides tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis,” says Lanthimos, “so we thought it would be interesting to have a dialogue with something that is so ingrained in our culture and to make the connection with something that is so eternal and present there from the beginning of civilisation and humanity.”
In the Greek myth, King Agamemnon accidentally kills a sacred deer belonging to the goddess Artemis, who requires a blood sacrifice in return: his daughter Iphigenia.
Lanthimos refuses to get drawn into symbolism.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily symbolic. There is guilt and there is a choice and there is a question of revenge and justice. I think it’s pretty direct. We try to stay away from symbols too much. Whatever we do, we try to be more direct about it,” he says.
Since his third film, 2009’s Dogtooth , claimed the Prix Un Certain Regard in Cannes, the Athens-born filmmaker has caught everyone’s attention.
He studied directing at the Hellenic Cinema and Television School Stavrakos in Athens, before he began directing TV commercials, music videos, short films and even videos for Greek dance and theatre companies. None of this really explains how he’s cultivated such a unique voice in world cinema.
“[I try] not to be analytical about how we approach things,” he says. “I don’t like explaining what it is that we’re doing because I don’t really know. I discover it.”
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With characters speaking their lines almost in a monotone, sucking out the emotion and emphasis from the words, it’s anti-realism.
“I’d say he’s creating a new genre,” says Keoghan. “It’s a style we can’t pinpoint. I think he’s stripping down everything.”
What is clear is that the worlds he creates operate in a certain way. Farrell explains: “There are a set of rules within this universe that make complete and utter sense. As absurd as they are, there is a twisted kind of logic to it.”
Despite the weirdness of stepping into a Lanthimos world, the director ensures his actors all have fun.
“I try to work very physically with them,” he says, “and do exercises and games and silly things around what’s happening, which doesn’t necessarily seem related to what the actual situation is.
“So I try for us to approach it through an unconscious level and just do things and not take ourselves too seriously and not have in mind exactly what it is that it means.”
Now based in London, Lanthimos has already wrapped his next film, The Favourite, which is set to premiere in the autumn, which suggests it’s being positioned for an awards season run. Set in the court of England’s Queen Anne, and starring Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, it’s the director’s first film that he hasn’t had a hand in writing since his 2001 debut, My Best Friend.
“He’s always himself, Yorgos, but this is such a different story,” says Weisz of the film.
Would he ever consider going back to Greece to make a film? “I used to be quite negative about going back to Greece and making something, but there is a certain kind of freedom that I’ve experienced while I was making films in Greece that is hard to replicate elsewhere,” says Lanthimos.
“When you enter a more structured environment, obviously there are more rules and expectations about how things are done and how they’re supposed to be done.”
Rules? Surely that’s something he thrives on.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens on May 17
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