Cannes: 'The Lobster' Director Says Thought of Working on Big-Budget Films "Gives Me Nightmares"

Yorgos Lanthimos

Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos discusses his warmly received competition entry and why he’ll never make a James Bond film.

In a dystopian near-future, singletons are confined to a hotel and given 45 days to find a partner. Should they fail, they'll be transformed into animals of their choosing and released into the woods. So begins the premise of The Lobster, which would seem somewhat obscure were it not for director and co-writer Yorgos Lanthimos, whose last film in Cannes, Dogtooth, saw a group of sexed-up siblings forced to remain within a compound by their abnormally protective father and made to believe that their mother was about to give birth to a dog, among other peculiar lies.

Dogtooth went on to claim the Un Certain Regard prize, a haul of other festival gongs and even an Academy Award nomination, and Lanthimos was hailed as the head of an emerging new wave of surrealist Greek filmmakers. The Lobster, his first English-language feature, could go even further given its warm reception in Cannes following its premiere May 15 (THR’s Leslie Felperin called it a “hilarious and haunting surreal parable”).

Boasting an all-star cast that includes Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Olivia Colman and Cannes Palme d’Or winner Lea Seydoux, Lobster is already among the bookies’ favorites to claim the Palme d’Or. THR spoke to Lanthimos — a London resident for the past four years — about playing it cool when he got the Oscar text and why the thought of doing a big-budget popcorn movie gives him nightmares.

The Lobster doesn’t sound like your average romantic comedy. How did you first pitch the idea to people?

I usually started by saying that it’s a world where single people are no longer tolerated, so whenever they become single, they become incarcerated in this hotel. So that was where you start. And then you go: If they fail to find a mate, they’re transformed into animals. And then people started asking all the questions about the animals, which has become more of an issue, because it’s a fairly simple thing in the film. They just become an animal and are let out into the woods. There’s no impressive transformation. They don’t speak.

Was there something in particular that gave you the idea?

Not really. Every time I finish a film with my co-writer, Efthymis Filippou, we just start discussing what we want to do next, and it just develops from there. He has an idea about single people that are taken to a hotel ... and I go, “Oh, what about if there’s this other world and we create this?” It’s just a conversation between two people who want to make another film. We find whatever it is we want to explore.

Why did you decide that this film would be your first in English?

I’d already done three films in Greek, and I’d reached a point where I needed to progress in a certain way which wasn’t really possible in Greece. And I had in mind that I’d wanted to do English-language films at some point and work and film in diff„erent countries. It just felt like a natural progression.

You’ve got quite a long list of co-producers. Did working in English give you access to more producers and bigger budgets?

It’s not really that big. Just the fact that there are so many co-producers should hint that the budget is quite low. But it does help — well, up to a certain point. It’s very di„fferent from how we made our films in Greece — they were extremely low-budget, but we were making them with friends who were very talented but worked for no pay. So the films have much more value than the actual budget that we shot them for.

Was this the reason you moved to the U.K.?

In a way, yes, although actually in the end I didn’t really make a British film. It’s much more European/international. But yes, as a base, if I’m making a film in English, it just made a lot more sense to do it here than in Greece. I moved here four years ago — it was a very conscious decision. The goal was to start making films in English anywhere.

Dogtooth has been credited with launching what is often termed the new wave of surrealist films out of Greece, borne out of the recession. Where do you think this came from?

First of all, I don’t really agree that there is such a wave. There are realistic films in Greece as well, and comedies and dramas. But it’s a very popular label. In our case, it just comes naturally. I don’t think I can do it any other way than finding the absurdity in situations and the funny part of something really dark and dramatic.

So you can’t envisage yourself going down a big-budget popcorn route? Maybe a James Bond?

I don’t know if I would ever be capable of making a film like that. Just the logistics of it gives me nightmares. I can barely handle the films that we’re making.

How did you feel when you were nominated for an Oscar? Was it a shock?

Yeah, it was. It wasn’t really expected. I did try to play it cool, though. I was doing this Chekhov play at the Greek National Theater and we were in rehearsals. I just received this text saying that I’d been nominated and I was like, “Yeah, yeah, let’s continue the rehearsals, it’s no biggie.” But then everybody started to hear about it and nobody was concentrating. So in the end we had to acknowledge it and celebrate. I guess it was really unexpected, like everything with Dogtooth. At some point, I even started to see it in a negative way, like, “Why are all these people giving awards to this film, what’s happening? Is there some kind of conspiracy going on?”