I had been warned that he?s a bit strange, and the truth is that our interview was arranged without us ever speaking, while all I was given was the telephone number of an assistant in case of an emergency. I was also told that under no circumstances would filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos pose for a photograph.
I thought that this reticence could be the result of his sudden catapulting to fame by the nomination of his film ?Dogtooth? for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last month. Everyone wants of piece of Lanthimos, and increasingly has done over the past two years that ?Dogtooth? has been earning more and more critical and public acclaim across the world. The 38-year-old director admits that he has pulled back into his shell.
He was right on time for our appointment at the National Theater on Aghiou Constantinou Street in central Athens, greeting the morning shift of staff cleaning and guarding the theater, and answering all of my questions very clearly.
What was your objective with ?Dogtooth? to address relationships, to tear apart the concept of the sacred family or to make a political point?
I was thinking about family, why some people think it is so important, and what would happen if we said that we didn?t need it anymore, since it isn?t such a successful model after all. That is what I had in mind when I started, not making a political film. I do like the fact, however, that everyone interprets it differently, that it stirs different thoughts, depending on each viewer?s experiences, education and way of life. People who saw it in the United States thought about home schooling, in France they talked about dictatorial regimes, and in Greece it was seen as a political allegory. I like the fact that the approaches are so diverse.
Many have said that it doesn?t have elements of ?Greekness.? Did you do that on purpose or is it normal for someone of your generation?
Actually, I think that ?Dogtooth? is a very Greek film. It is a Greek household, set in a sunny environment and has many of the cliches of Greek society. We?ve reached the point of believing that Greek cinema is all about the sea, islands and tavernas; we see the country through the eyes of tourists.
What was your family like?
I grew up mostly with my mother, until she died when I was 17 years old. I?m the child of divorced parents and have no siblings. Basically, I grew up alone.
Your father has said in previous interviews that you took your life into your own hands.
I had to. I didn?t have a choice. I lost my mother and so I had to take on a number of responsibilities.
Had you wanted to make movies since you were a kid?
I didn?t dare admit it. I had been convinced by my parents that it was important I become a lawyer, doctor or diplomat. I went to the Stavrakos Film School when I was 19.
Did you go to the theater and the cinema?
I mostly watched movies. It?s not like I started watching Tarkovsky when I was 15 or anything like that. I watched Bruce Lee movies and Hollywood pictures.
How did you get into advertising?
At film school. I got the chance to do an unpaid ad for Levi?s with a photographer. It wasn?t anything official, just a video gift for the company. They then offered me a job. It helped me earn money at the age of 19 and also to gain an enormous amount of experience on the technical level. I had a lot of opportunity to experiment and to evolve. It made my first film very easy and allowed me the luxury of being able to focus on the essentials.
Was it hard not to simply forget about cinema?
It?s really easy to lose sight of your goal, but for me it sharpened my need to do my own thing, to do something different, something more personal, which means that it had a positive effect. But I had been doing my own thing anyway. I worked with Dimitris Papaioannou?s dance theater and with Constantinos Rigos, we made dance videos, I would film their shows and I worked at the Amore Theater. In parallel to advertising I always did a lot of other work so I could maintain a balance.
?Dogtooth? is a critique on the modern way of life. On the other hand, advertising is all about selling that lifestyle. Did you ever feel torn?
It happens and I?m still compelled to do both. But I keep the two separate inside me. The fact that I could do an art-house film like ?Dogtooth,? which also resonated with many different cultures, is in part due to the fact that I was exposed to a lot of different things from all the different jobs I?d done ever since I was young.
Do you think that the Oscar nomination will open a lot of new doors to you?
Yes, I do, even belatedly, because the film has already been on the circuit for two years, winning a prize at Cannes and another 15 international distinctions. As far as my new film is concerned, ?Alps,? I started it knowing that I would be going it alone, that a few friends and acquaintances would have to put up some money, and that half the cast and crew would not get paid. ?Alps,? which is now at the editing phase, was harder to make because everyone thought that after Cannes we would have money. Now they hear about the Oscar nomination and think that there?s someone behind me signing checks.
If you were given a camera and asked to film three of four scenes that described Greece today, what would you show?
I?d look at what?s happening in the neighborhood of Omonia: the immigrants, our attitude, the veiled racism. I would show the extremes. Aghiou Constantinou Street and the The Mall. I would film that landscape of Kifissias Avenue, which is [a wreck] with all its displays of grotesque wealth.
I met Yorgos Lanthimos at the National Theater because he was working on rehearsals for a play, Anton Chekhov?s ?Platonov,? which premiered at the National?s New Stage on February 9. It is surprising to see Lanthimos directing Chekhov, considering that his previous theater work has all been contemporary. The director of the National Theater, Yiannis Houvardas, had asked him to do something different, but, he says, he wanted to do a classic play for a change. ?I liked the adaptation of ?Platonov? by David Hare. It was close to the original, with modern dialogues.?
Lanthimos chose to set the play in a space that looks like a gymnasium. The heroes are allowed to move only within the boundaries of this space, the confinement compelling them to interact in a way that reveals the truth of their relationships, their emotions, and the violence and tension between them.
For the purposes of his production, Lanthimos has condensed the characters down to nine. They are played by Aris Servetalis, Maria Protopappa, Angeliki Papoulia, Manos Vakousis, Thanasis Dimou, Vassilis Karaboulas, Elena Topalidou, Andreas Constantinou and Arianne Labed, who recently won the Best Actress award in Venice for her performance in ?Attenberg.?
?Platonov? is about a young provincial school director who has squandered his family?s fortune and feels trapped in his marriage and his life, lashing out at everything around him and everyone who loves him. As his life becomes increasingly unbearable, three women command his attention and he is unable to resist any of them.
Who is Platonov today, according to Lanthimos? ?He is the cowardly rebel. Cynical and aggressive, he talks big and does nothing, he plays the Don Juan and is unable to succeed in any relationship. He is a nihilist. He is any person in a society who is in a position to do things and doesn?t, who can change and doesn?t.?
National Theater, 22-24 Aghiou Constantinou, Omonia, tel 210.528.8170/71