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Yorgos Lanthimos on Dogtooth, Alps, and the new Greek cinema

When Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth took the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2009, it turned the eyes of the world (well, the film-watching world) to Greece. An icky black comedy about parents who keep their three children cooped up on a walled-in estate, forcing a mock vocabulary (and, eventually, other perversions) onto them, Dogtooth’s confident style and enticing, taboo-busting subject matter earned it plenty of well-deserved accolades in North America as well. It even netted a Best Foreign Film nomination at the Academy Awards (though the confrontational material never stood much of a chance in the face of more respectable entries like Incendies or the night’s winner In A Better World).

Dogtooth’s success, in Greece and abroad, drummed up interest in new films and filmmakers. Lanthimos’ soon reappeared, co-producing and co-starring in Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Greek import Attenberg, and now returns with Alps, his own follow-up to Dogtooth. Like his previous films, Alps sees Lanthimos poking playfully at notions of performance and propriety in his story of a nurse (Dogtooth’s Aggeliki Papoulia) who moonlights for an organization that fills out gaps in the lives of the bereaved, playing the roles of their recently deceased loved ones. The A.V. Club talked to Lanthimos about the film, which recently opened at TIFF Bell Lightbox, and about how making films has changed as a result of the Greek debt crisis.

The A.V. Club: After the success of Dogtooth, especially in North America, was it easier to find funding for Alps?


Yorgos Lanthimos: No, it wasn’t. I did it with less money than I did Dogtooth with, actually. [Laughs.]

AVC: What was the response to Dogtooth in Greece, after it received an Academy Award nomination and turned a lot of people’s attention to new films and filmmakers coming out of Greece?

YL: Dogtooth had a career that lasted for a couple of years. It was released in Greece before the Oscar nomination, but it had already won a prize at Cannes, and at some other European festivals. So it was a big deal for Greece. We hadn’t really won an award in Cannes for many years. It had a lot of publicity and people were interested in it, so we did well. It kept on being shown and doing well, and people were interested in seeing it. It brought in a lot of people who wouldn’t normally watch this kind of film, just because it was a Greek film that was so successful. The actual reaction was very mixed. Some people didn’t really know what to do with it, or didn’t really like it.

AVC: In North America at least, there was some loose talk of a “Greek New Wave” or a “New Greek Cinema,” largely based around Dogtooth, Attenberg, and now Alps. Is there any sort of shared sensibility between young Greek filmmakers, or is this just another label?


YL: It’s true that there are younger people making films, and there are different kinds of films. This has created some attention in what’s coming out of Greece, and people like to find a way to name this new ethnic cinema. It’s not like there’s a movement, or a common philosophy in making these films. They’re just things that happened, and now people are paying attention to it.

AVC: With the current economic situation in Greece, I can’t imagine there’s much interest in funding films.


YL: Well there still is, among the same people. It was bad for many years, anyway. The crisis didn’t affect things that much. Even before there was no structure for making films—no proper industry, and the structure didn’t help us at all. So filmmakers had to help each other, and make very, very low-budget films. Now with the crisis, things got a bit worse, but filmmakers are still going to be making films. It didn’t change that much.

AVC: Given that there’s not much of a film industry in Greece, even becoming a filmmaker seems an interesting decision. You began in marketing, right?


YL: I was making commercials. That was the marketing part of it: directing commercial for TV. That’s how I learned the craft. It wasn’t the most common thing to become a filmmaker in Greece. I started by saying I was interested in marketing and have a proper job in advertising and commercials. Basically, I studied film to learn how to do marketing, and commercials. As I studied film I learned I’d be interested in making films instead of commercials.

AVC: When Alps was moving around the festival circuit, the media kit included a set of 15 rules that governed the organization depicted in the film. Where these things you developed to help guide your actors?


YL: Actually it was after we finished the film. We made them up for the premiere of the film in Venice. We needed to come up with a press kit and thought it’d be funny to put down some rules that this group would have, and probably break them all.

AVC: The premise of Alps, and the premise of Dogtooth, are both so alluring; they bring the audience in to see how these situations will play out. Is it important for you to plant the seed of the film in the audience’s head before they see it, say with things like these 15 rules?


YL: I like to tease the audience, and give them a couple of hints. I believe the film should reveal itself gradually, and slowly. People should engage with it and do a bit of work. I think that goes for every phase and the whole process of releasing a film, presenting it, even editing it.

AVC: Often the relationships between characters are always unclear, and ambiguous. Because of the premise, you don’t know when characters are acting or substituting, or when they’re not. Did you try to smudge those boundaries when directing, only giving the actors certain information?


YL: We didn’t really hide anything from them. They had read the script, so they knew basically what was going on. But also we didn’t analyze it so much. For each movement, we don’t describe what’s happening and how they should feel and the whole moment in time in their lives. I don’t go into that stuff. I’m much more practical and physical in my working. The script is there and something comes out from analyzing this information.

AVC: A lot of comparisons emerged around Dogtooth, and they’ll likely continue with Alps, between your work and certain surrealist movements in cinema. In particular, things like the domestic satires of Luis Buñuel. There seems to be something noticeably surrealist, in both Alps and Dogtooth, in how two places with very rigid, particular, even absurd rules come into conflict, often violent conflict, with the outside world. Do you feel a particular kinship to these modes of filmmaking?


YL: It’s definitely flattering. I like Buñuels films very much. But we never had in mind that we were going to go down these paths. We’re basically trying to discover what’s true to us. [Co-writer] Efthymis [Filippou] has a very strong identity in what he writes. And I have a certain way of doing things. Through this collaboration we have similarities with other things, and people can understand it by comparing it to other things. But it’s never in our mind. But to me it is flattering, because I like those films.

AVC: Both Dogtooth and Alps are at some level preoccupied with American culture, especially in Alps with people naming their favourite actors and acting out Prince dance numbers. Is this just stuff that you grew up with in Greece?


YL: American culture is kind of a universal culture, I guess. It’s things we grew up with, common references you can use. It’s very interesting.

AVC: Especially in Dogtooth, American pop culture seems like a corrupting influence. It’s VHS tapes of Jaws and Rocky that cause the whole hermetic domestic situation to fall apart. Is there any sort of commentary on American culture colonizing Greek culture, or the difficulties of establishing a unique, identifiable Greek film culture at play here?


YL: I don’t think it has anything to do with that. For us, it was just a means of finding a device for breaking these very enclosed environments. It wasn’t really symbolic or anything.

AVC: Even on paper, the premise of Alps is very creepy. How did you and Efthymis land on the idea?


YL: Just from talking. After Dogtooth premièred at Cannes we sat around thinking of ideas of what we’re going to do next, or ideas in general. Not even a story idea or a film idea, but about death and what happens when you die. Do people remember you? Does their life change? How do they cope with it? Then you we tried to realize what the themes are and come up with a story, and make up a set of rules or a society, like you say, that has its own rules.

AVC: Alps seems, thematically, an inversion, or a mirror-image of Dogtooth. The one film is about a character wanting to escape a house and the people in it, and Alps is about a character, played by the same actress, wanting to escape into a house, and lose herself playing a role for a family. Did you set to make something that expanded, or revised, some of the ideas in Dogtooth?


YL: Actually I never really realized that until afterward, when we were showing Alps. The first thing I realized is exactly that. But we didn’t start by saying, “Let’s do the opposite of Dogtooth.” But we wanted to do deal with something different. It’s funny that it’s the same actress who takes these opposite routes. It’s an interesting thing to observe after you’ve made the film.

AVC: You mentioned that you don’t really like to intellectualize the performances, and like to keep things more physical. There’s a lot of physical acting in Alps, from dancing to elaborate rhythmic gymnastic scenes that bookend the film.


YL: Ariane [Labed], who did the gymnastics, she had to train properly for two or three months. She’d done some ballet, but hadn’t really done anything for the past 10 years. She had to work a trainer and do the routines. That was hard work. With other scenes, we just draw from the people, and try out things, based on elements of their personality. Or the situation. Or reference some other routine that we saw, and liked. Like Footloose in Dogtooth.

AVC: Are you planning to still make these smaller, low-budget films in Greece, going forward?


YL: It depends what films you want to make. After doing three films in Greece under these conditions, I’d like to do it in a bit more decent way. I’m planning some films in the U.K., and it will have pros and cons. It takes a lot more time to set up a film in the U.K., because you can’t rely on much. In Greece, friends show up and bring what they can and you make the film. Well, that’s a bit simpler than how it really is. But when you make a film with proper industries, it takes more time to synch all these things. We’ll see.

AVC: Is there any worry that when you move into this larger system, you’ll lose something of that close-knit community aspect that informed your previous films?


YL: Not really. It depends on the project, but it’s a similar way of working. You can still work together on the same projects, there are just more people involved. It depends. It’s always good to start from scratch, and actually realize again that, yes, you need the same people.

AVC: Do you have any projects in mind?

YL: Yeah, I’m developing two or three projects, at least, right now. I’m developing a film with Efthymis, and working on a period film, and may do a book adaptation. But they’re all at the very early stage. They’re being written at the moment, so I don’t really know what we’ll come up with.


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