There are clear socioeconomic disadvantages to being single, particularly in a city like New York, where a one-bedroom apartment is rarely affordable on one person’s salary and there’s always some seemingly happy couple vying for the last available two-top at any given restaurant. But it’s a walk in the park compared to the Buñuelian dystopia of Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster, in which being alone is actually against the law and all parties of one are shipped off to a secluded hotel only to have an arm tied behind their back upon arrival. “This is to show how much easier life is when there are two of things,” the hotel manager (the always-excellent Olivia Colman) explains. Perhaps the most frightening feature of the hotel is that masturbation is strictly forbidden… oh, and if you fail to find your mate within forty-five days, you’ll be turned into the animal of your choosing—the film’s sad-sack hero, played by an amusingly deadpan Colin Farrell, opts for the eponymous crustacean.
“It seems strange, but it’s just logic,” a jovial Lanthimos told Brooklyn Magazine in a recent interview. “Logic” might feel like the wrong word to describe a universe as wonderfully warped as this one, but like the director’s previous movies, Dogtooth (2009) and The Alps (2011), The Lobster, his first feature in English, hinges on Lanthimos’s ability to firmly establish—and then wholeheartedly commit to—his own strict set of narrative rules. Although pseudo-scientific speculations about what really goes on behind the vaulted door of the “transformation room” make perfect sense to the characters, it’s not as if all natural law falls by the wayside in this modern fable. A hippopotamus, for example, cannot mate with a camel, because “that would be absurd.”
Individual identity is not encouraged at the hotel: everyone is given the same set of monochrome clothing and made to partake in the same exceedingly dull set of social activities, while superficial “defining characteristics”—a limp, a lisp—eclipse any real personality traits. One guest actually goes so far as to continually smash his own face just so he’ll have something in common with the girl who legitimately suffers from chronic nosebleeds. It’s one of many apt metaphors for the fraught, forced, and often painful lengths people put themselves through in the name of not being alone, and indeed, Lanthimos’s primary interest here is not only to satirize the truly baffling rituals of dating and mating, but also to explore the idea that existence is really just a type of performance.
Frustrated by the hotel’s stifling rules and afraid of living out the rest of his days as a bottom-feeder, Farrell’s character eventually plots his escape, finding refuge with a rebel colony of forest-dwelling Loners (headed by an unsmiling Léa Seydoux). But this opposite extreme also leaves much to be desired: while the Loners welcome individual expression—and thankfully masturbation—the outward display of desire is frowned upon and touching of any kind is punishable by razor blades. True to their name, the Loners live, die—and dance—alone. (There’s a hilarious sequence in which the raincoat-clad creatures enjoy their own private raves by way of headphones.)
It’s here in the damp, mossy woods that our hero stumbles upon love in the form of a dirt-smeared Rachel Weisz (who also voices the film’s third-person narrator) and in its final act, the film adeptly slides into a surprisingly tender (if endlessly bizarre) romance. Collaborating with his regular co-writer, Efthimis Filippou, and favored DP, Thimios Bakatakis, Lanthimos once again strikes an utterly singular tonal balance that lands somewhere between deadpan humor, hard-hitting violence, and disarming emotional poignancy.
Collin Farrell’s character chooses a lobster as his animal because its characteristics negate a lot of human fears, namely death (they live to be 100) and fertility issues (they remain fertile all their lives). The choice also seems fitting given it was featured in a lot of Dali’s surrealist art. Was there any connection there?
No, actually, not at all. I think it’s actually much simpler than what people make of it afterwards [laughs]. It started from this story that we initially wrote as a treatment. In that story the main character was turned into a lobster and then you saw his ex-wife eating a lobster with her new lover [laughs]. So, that was the significance of the lobster, before we actually wrote the screenplay. But in the end it fit what we wanted to do and it fit the character and had all these aspects that you’re describing. There’s not any other connection in our minds, but we’re happy when other people make those connections.
A lot of your films exist in alternate universes and need to adhere to very strict rules in order for the stories to function. When you’re writing, do you hammer out the details of the world before you create your characters or do the parameters of the world develop around the characters?
I think it’s a combination. First of all, we do try and structure the world; we definitely don’t start with story, we start with theme and then we need to construct something around that in order to explore it further. But we want to push it to extremes and explore what’s underneath our everyday life and behavior. So we try and construct that and then the story kind of forms itself when we have those conditions. Then we need to fill in certain blanks while we’re developing the story—what would they do when such and such happens? We leave certain things open that we don’t feel are necessary to define, so people can fill some things in themselves. It’s a process.
So the smaller details of the hotel, for example in the first act when Colin Farrell’s character’s hand is tied behind his back, was that there from the beginning or was that added as a flourish when you were re-working the script?
Well, we were thinking about the way they have to sit in the breakfast room—how they have to sit by themselves looking forward and are made to look towards the couples’ area. It became about finding things that would motivate the characters or showcase the positives of being in a couple over being single. You know, having one hand instead of two, and how difficult life becomes. It’s like this kind of silly symbolism—the propaganda that the hotel uses to motivate and showcase the superiority of being in a couple. It seems strange, but it’s just logic. We have this world—so logically what are the things these people would do in order to try and enhance the need for finding someone?
I like your use of the word logic there. A lot of people have been calling this your most “accessible” work yet. To me that translates to the film making more jokes about the world in which it’s set. Compared to your other films, the absurdity here is more exposed. How you go about creating the right tone for your material?
I can’t talk about it any better than you do—it’s how we find our way into dealing with these things that we find the tone of the writing. We always want to find the ridiculous aspects of even the most serious subjects: death, love, whatever! There’s always something that can be ridiculous and funny and that’s what we aim to reveal and that’s why we’re not interested in just doing a straightforward love story.
I quite like contradiction as well, putting opposites together. This time around I tried to do it with different levels, voiceover and music, and also within the actual scenes and actors in them. It’s very exploratory. We just try and push things and see what works and what doesn’t and surprise ourselves and entertain ourselves. At the same time leave it open enough so people can start thinking about all these things without being told “This is how things are and this is what’s right and this is what’s wrong.” When you play around with all that, this is what comes out— at least when we do it.
I’m curious about your taste in comedy more generally. What films do you find funny, and can humor can be separated from tragedy in your opinion? Your films almost always combine both, though I don’t know that I can call your movies “dark comedies”… it’s really more and oscillation between the two at any given moment.
Yeah, alternating between one and the other, I think so too. And that creates a different tone altogether. I watch a lot of stuff, I like straightforward comedies from Woody Allen, Louis C.K. But I also love Buñuel and Kubrick’s humor as well. My taste is very broad. But then you have a certain way of doing things yourself, so its not like we’re trying to emulate anything… and hopefully we succeed in doing that. It’s also the combination of myself and Efthimis [Filippou]. He has a particular voice and then I’m quite specific in my choices with the actors and how everything is shot and edited, like what I was talking about before, using music and sound. It’s a mix of what I do and what he does and what comes out in the end… I don’t know exactly how it starts or how it finishes [laughs].
This is your biggest film budget-wise and your first time working with an international cast. Judging by the opening credits, the financing was coming from a lot of different places—how did the project come together in a practical sense?
Well, nobody was putting in a lot of money so we had to take a little bit from a lot of places [laughs].
What was the pitch? How do you describe a film like this when you’re trying to entice backers?
I pitched it as a romantic comedy [laughs] I guess… and an unconventional love story of sorts. Yes, it’s my biggest film but it’s not big compared to industry standards, it’s a very small film still. It’s a multi-party European co-production. It’s funny, we had more means than we were used to making our Greek films, and if you compare the budgets strictly financially they’re very different. But in the Greek films we had a lot of very competent, experienced people working for no money, and we had all these favors—people giving us their houses to film in for free, their clothes, their couches, their props, whatever. There’s an added value in that that’s not reflected in those budget. So the difference wasn’t as huge as the numbers suggest… we did have more means, definitely, and it was a step up and a step forward. I’m glad we did it this way and worked with those actors. And I’m glad we actually had the opportunity to choose certain things—instead of using our friends’ hotel we were able to travel around and find a hotel we thought was right and were actually able to pay for it [laughs].
Both Rachel Weisz and Colin Farrell are playing against type here in many ways. How did you end up casting these two as your leads?
I always liked Colin a lot and always had him in mind. And Rachel I had met before we’d even finished the script. She sought me out because she had seen Dogtooth at the time and wanted to meet and introduce herself and express her interest in working with me. Of course, I knew her work and I liked her work. I was very lucky because Dogtooth was nominated for an Oscar, so a lot of actors were aware of it—Colin had seen it as well. That made it easy to approach them—they understood the work and the material and they liked it.
Because of the subject matter and it being a contemporary international film, I could just get actors from anywhere [in the world], so I just thought who do I want to work with? John C. Reilly? That would be great! Why don’t we bring him in? Léa Seydoux? You could pick anyone and not worry about nationality or accent and it would work because of the world it’s set in. So I was very lucky that they were aware of my work and they liked the script. I was a little bit anxious about working with all those actors that were used to working on bigger films, but it was such a positive experience.
The use of the voiceover lends a kind of literary weight and sets this film apart from your other work—very fitting for something that could very well be a Kafka novel. It’s also a big source of the comedy, often because it’s redundant. Did you know you wanted to use that as device from the beginning?
Yes, from quite early on when we were writing the script. The use of music was also a first for me—I could never figure out a way of using music without finding it reductive within a scene. This was the first time I realized I could use all these different layers of different tone—contradicting and juxtaposing. Romantic music with a voiceover that’s maybe funny or dry, for example. From early on I knew I would use music in conjunction with the voiceover to create something quite different from what I’ve done before.
We didn’t know that the voice was going to be as funny until we were making it, and then we were like, oh, we’re making a comedy! [Laughs] There are things you think you can control, but can’t or things you figure out early on, but it’s always just exploring and experimenting. Its not until you reach the editing phase that you realize what you’ve been doing.
You were working with one of your regular DPs on this film, can you talk about the visual construction of this world? One sequence that really stands out for me is the chase scene between Farrell’s character and the “heartless woman” [Angeliki Papoulia]. There are no tricks—the camera is static—but it’s also oddly disorienting.
For me, that was the action scene that was filmed in an anti-action way. In general, what we tried to do was have a voyeuristic approach to how we filmed this—so we used a lot of long lenses and placed the camera either quite far or on a higher level than the actors. That was a choice we made early on. I watched a lot of this reality show that they have in England called The Hotel, which is just people that check into a hotel and there’s cameras everywhere that record what they do [Laughs]. I found that quite interesting and I tried to very discretely have a touch of that—not to the extent of creating the sense that it’s being filmed by surveillance cameras or anything, but to have the angles influenced a little by that. The corridor scene was an example of that, the idea that you can see people passing by. I also thought the chase could be an architectural thing instead of a very physical thing—not hand-held and erratic. It’s about architecture and people going through spaces or missing from spaces when you’re looking for someone.
We were lucky to be in a location that had a very strong look—the hotel we chose has a combination of modern and old architecture, which is something that I liked quite a bit. The forest was stunning, so it was kind of easy to just make it look nice [laughs]. When you work in these beautiful places you just need to not get carried away by the beauty of it all and forget the rules of how and why you’re filming it in a certain way.
Obviously, this film is dealing with the social stigma of being single and all the ridiculous dating rituals that go along with that. What comes across most strongly for me, though, is the idea of behavior as performance, imitation, or re-creation. The Footloose scene in Dogtooth, springs to mind as one example.
Yeah well there’s definitely something about reenactment and role playing, that’s the main theme of Alps as well. I think it’s something very present in our lives. There’s a lot of performing in our lives, whatever situation we’re in we have to assume a certain role according to what we feel is appropriate or what is expected from us or what we want to achieve. There’s a lot of that in everyday life and that finds its way into all my work.