Yorgos Lanthimos: ‘Are rules beneficial? Or is it beneficial to also break them?’

‘I thought he would be much more intense than he actually is in person’: Emma Stone and Yorgos Lanthimos on the set of ‘Kinds of Kindness’  (Atsushi Nishijima)
‘I thought he would be much more intense than he actually is in person’: Emma Stone and Yorgos Lanthimos on the set of ‘Kinds of Kindness’ (Atsushi Nishijima)

For a man whose films are often characterised by sadism and cruelty, Yorgos Lanthimos cuts a rather benign figure in the flesh. The Greek director, dressed in sandals and striped trousers when he enters our appointed Cannes hotel room, looks more like a relationship counsellor than the man behind such caustic films as Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Even Emma Stone – the American star of his most recent three movies, The Favourite, Poor Things and his latest Kinds of Kindness – admits surprise.

“I think I thought he would be much more intense than he actually is in person,” she said during a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival a day before I meet Lanthimos. The 50-year-old filmmaker takes it in good humour when this character assessment is raised during our encounter. “That wasn’t very nice! I’m an intense guy!” he chuckles, throwing his arms up in the air, all too aware that he saves his savagery for the screen.

Take Dogtooth, his 2009 breakout. The third film of his career (following his 2001 debut My Best Friend and 2005’s experimental Kinetta), this tale of a family living inside a compound, conditioned like animals, was dubbed an “exercise in perversity” by The New York Times. Then there is his dystopian drama The Lobster, where people in the near-future are forced to find a romantic partner in 45 days or be transformed into a beast of their choosing. Lanthimos likes nothing more than watching his characters squirm under the microscope of life.

Kinds of Kindness, in cinemas on 28 June, is a triptych of films totalling 164 minutes, and sees Lanthimos truly putting his characters through the proverbial ringer. Physical or psychological violence seeps through almost every frame. In “The Death of RMF”, the first of the trio, Jesse Plemons plays Robert, a man in thrall to Willem Dafoe’s mysterious businessman, who controls every aspect of his life – from his diet to his sexual habits. It’s an unnerving, disturbing look at free will.

Lanthimos admits to being inspired by Caligula, the “mad” Roman emperor famously played by Malcolm McDowell on screen. Pondering life and death, and the level of control he exercised over his subjects, the director began to consider putting this idea into a contemporary setting “and drove it to extremes [to] see what makes up this kind of relationship,” he says. “What does it mean about free will and control and believing in someone and trusting someone? It just felt like a complex starting point.”

Gradually, one story became three. In “RMF is Flying”, Plemons is a cop named Daniel whose marine biologist wife Liz (Stone) goes missing on an expedition; when she returns, he’s convinced this woman is not his spouse and puts her to the test, forcing her into increasingly horrifying acts of self-mutilation. In “RMF Eats a Sandwich”, arguably the most opaque of the three, Stone’s Emily abandons her husband and child as she’s drawn towards a sex cult run by Dafoe’s magnetic leader and his equally mesmerising partner, played by Hong Chau. Again, free will is conceded.

If a film studio actually believes in you and they want to support you, they’ll do that

The film comes scripted by Lanthimos and his longtime friend Efthimis Filippou, who worked on the director’s early projects. They began Kinds of Kindness right after completing their last collaboration, 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the story of a surgeon’s bizarre relationship with a young man (played by Saltburn’s Barry Keoghan). While it seems that Lanthimos has simply bundled up the same cast and crew from Poor Things (everyone from cinematographer Robbie Ryan to Stone and Dafoe), that was not the case at all. Kinds… “took many years to complete”, he explains. “And that was quite beneficial… we had time to get some distance while we were doing other things in between.”

For Lanthimos, those “things in between” were period tale The Favourite and his electrifying Victorian feminist fable Poor Things. Both claimed the Best Actress Oscar for their respective leads – Olivia Colman’s foul-tempered Queen Anne and Stone’s Bella, a sexually liberated creature re-animated, Frankenstein-style, after a suicide. In their own way, both films sent into the mainstream Lanthimos’ weird perspective on the world. These and Kinds of Kindness were all backed by Searchlight Pictures, a subsidiary of Disney.

Weird science: Lanthimos and Emma Stone on the set of ‘Poor Things' (Searchlight)
Weird science: Lanthimos and Emma Stone on the set of ‘Poor Things' (Searchlight)

“They have a faith in filmmakers,” he says of the indie imprint that’s become his home. “It’s kind of the same relationship with other people in the crew or other actors. If they actually believe in you and they want to support you, they’ll do that.” In his early years, working out of Athens where he grew up, Lanthimos was “lucky” on films like Dogtooth and its 2011 follow-up Alps. “We made them on our own, so nobody was there to say: ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

Yet somehow, as the budgets have grown, he’s retained final cut of his work. “I was always lucky to have this creative freedom. And they [Searchlight] just saw the potential in this film as well, and they just came on board. I mean, it was an easy thing. It’s very straightforward. And they know the kind of filmmaker I am, and they know that this is what you get, and it’s like a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Would you like to be involved or not? And they wanted to be involved.”

Still, it’s impossible to believe that Kinds of Kindness will enjoy the same success as Poor Things or The Favourite, despite Plemons (quite rightly) being awarded Best Actor for his performance(s) at Cannes. After winning the Golden Lion when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year, Poor Things went on to make $117m (£92m) at the global box office, even eclipsing the $95m (£75m) taken in by The Favourite. Between the two films, Lanthimos gained four Oscar nominations, adding to the one he gained for co-scripting The Lobster.

Royal romp: Lanthimos directs James Smith and Rachel Weisz on the set of ‘The Favourite’ (Shutterstock)
Royal romp: Lanthimos directs James Smith and Rachel Weisz on the set of ‘The Favourite’ (Shutterstock)

Kinds of Kindness feels far more divisive, though, minus the enjoyably bawdy dialogue by Australian playwright Tony McNamara, who scripted The Favourite and Poor Things. It’s a film for those who enjoyed the midnight-black nature of Lanthimos’ early works, albeit with a starrier cast. But is he merely spinning his wheels? As Slant’s film critic put it: “The abstraction is presented with even more cloying cuteness, the sadism is more juvenile and purposeless, and the humour is stomach-turningly glib.”

Promoting a film that resists easy interpretation, Lanthimos is equally reluctant to put definitive labels on it. Like the idea that freedom is a prison. “Well, I guess it raises those kinds of questions,” he says, cautiously. “It is showcasing, I think, the complexity of relationships and it asks questions of whether we even know what we want when we’re free, or if that’s the best for us. Or if having some kind of structure and rules in our lives is actually beneficial. Or is it beneficial to also break from them?”

He pauses, monitoring his words. “I don’t think I’ve made in my life any kind of absolute… [or] come to an actual conclusion that freedom is jail. I just think it’s very complex to know exactly how to handle it and how to navigate those kinds of situations and relationships. And I think, yes, when you are totally free, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. And different people can handle it different ways.”

Flowers for Lanthimos: Jesse Plemons in ‘Kinds of Kindness’ (Searchlight)
Flowers for Lanthimos: Jesse Plemons in ‘Kinds of Kindness’ (Searchlight)

Are his films about the hopelessness that humanity often faces? Certainly Kinds of Kindness feels like the most nihilistic film of his career. “Not having any hope? I don’t know… I just made a film that had a happy ending,” he says. Given what happens to Christopher Abbott’s character in the finale of Poor Things – no spoilers here – it’s debatable whether you consider its ending “happy”, but then that rather typifies Lanthimos’ barbed humour.

“I don’t think hope necessarily comes from the plot of a film,” he continues. “I think hope for me, even if the film is quite dark… humour helps. I think that [Kinds of Kindness] is quite funny. I mean, I find it quite funny in many ways. So I think that’s something – looking at terrible things, but also seeing the humour in it and how ridiculous they are. We’re human beings, and I think, after we experience and process terrible things, we [can] see the humorous aspect [to] them. So I think that’s part of my offering of hope.”

In Lanthimos’ eyes, creating works that reflect the world and show even the worst of humanity is a positive thing. “Then people look at them and can start thinking about these things and ask questions about freedom or whatever… that’s hopeful.” Admittedly, given the very cookie-cutter nature of so many films coming out of the studio system these days, he’s a director that needs to be applauded for pushing buttons and boundaries.

Moreover, getting audiences into struggling cinemas for a communal experience – as he did on The Favourite and Poor Things – has to be welcomed. “I think the process – watching films – is hopeful. The catharsis doesn’t have to be ingrained in the plot of a film. It comes also from the collective act of watching it, thinking about it, discussing it, thinking about it again, seeing it at another time when we feel different. So I think that’s hopeful.”

‘Kinds of Kindness’ is in cinemas from 28 June