Yorgos Lanthimos on his dark new film The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of The Lobster and Dogtooth, discusses his dark new film The Killing of a Sacred Deer and his singular approach to movie-making

Feature by Joseph Walsh | 27 Oct 2017
  • Colin Farrell and Barry Keoghan in 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer'

“I like to inflict uncertainty on set,” begins Yorgos Lanthimos, and he seems to have a similar attitude toward his audience. The Greek director's last film, The Lobster, saw Colin Farrell play a single man sent to a hotel to find love or suffer the alternative of being turned into an animal of his choosing. His latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is even stranger, blending nightmarish scenarios with his off-kilter brand of humour that manages to both shock and amuse. Despite the often-dark nature of his films – if you haven’t seen Dogtooth, do! But gird your loins – Lanthimos gives off an immediate warmth and affability, as well as a wonderfully playful sense of humour.

Once again Lanthimos is working with Farrell, who in this film play successful heart surgeon Steve Murphy, who’s happily married to his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), with whom he has two children, daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and younger son Bob (Sunny Suljic). Their seemingly idyllic lives are turned upside down, however, when Steve befriends a teenage boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan), who wants to exact revenge against the Murphy family by using his strange gift.

The uncertainty that Lanthimos likes to create on set is to help his cast craft compelling performances, he tells us. “I don’t think that you can ever achieve anything realistic in cinema,” he says of his idiosyncratic style, which is characterised by intentionally stiff performances and dialogue. “[This is] because it is all structured, and there is stuff that seems more realistic than others, but it is all artificial.”

Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in The Killing of a Sacred Deer

This attitude towards film is also at the heart of the performances he tries to get out of his cast; he isn’t looking for realism, he is looking for authenticity. He also doesn’t like to dive deep on character backgrounds. For him, it is all there in the script that he co-writes with his writing partner Efthymis Filippou. “I make it very clear to actors that I only know what is on the page,” he explains. “I want to be pure in my observation of the performance so that I can judge it and instinctively feel if it makes sense.” Before adding, “I don’t want to know the motivation because that is information that might fill in gaps that I don’t want to know. I want some kind of distance when filming.”

He doesn’t want too much detail from the characters, who should be motivated by the story. “Uncertainty gives a quality to a performance compared to an actor who is very certain of background, and who the character is.” For him, this is because it is truer to life not to know why sometimes a person behaves the way they do. “Take now, for instance, I don’t know why I am moving my hands like this,” he says as he gestures frantically with his hand. “There is probably a reason, and if I did it in a way where I knew why I was doing it, I can be sure it would be more contrived.” The overall impact for him is that it crafts an authentic emotional response: the adage that less is more, and this case less realistic is more authentic, at least on an emotional level.

Having worked with Farrell previously, we ask whether or not it allows for a shorthand between the two. He explains that whether he has used an actor in his film before or not, his approach remains the same. But he adds that it’s essential that all members of the cast must be willing to collaborate. “You have to start with people knowing that they are interested in the project and not doing it just to do a job or a part.” It’s equally as important for the director that they are aware of his work and its tone: “I don’t even meet actors who haven’t seen one of my films. They might have read the script, but then not have a clue what I am about.” He adds some advice: “Why not watch one of my films? It would save us both a lot of trouble. If an actor doesn’t relate to it, then we shouldn’t work together.” That’s a warning, then, to any budding actor out there keen to be part of a Lanthimos feature.

“I don’t think that you can ever achieve anything realistic in cinema" – Yorgos Lanthimos

If you have seen one of Lanthimos’s films, you will know that the delivery of the actor’s dialogue is overtly deliberate in its enunciation – a style that is not to everyone’s taste. This intentional staccato rhythm is due to the importance that Lanthimos lays on the script. “We go to great lengths to get every word right. I hear when an actor changes a certain word because there is a certain music to what we have created and written and it makes a difference,” he explains. “I don’t remember the script by heart, but there might be a moment when someone says ‘chairs’, and I think to myself, ‘did we really write chairs? That doesn’t feel right.’ Then I check it, and we have written ‘stools.’ So, I say to them to say ‘stools’ because it is part of the music.”

This level of detail isn't just applied to the dialogue. Attention is paid to every aspect of the film, be it the camera angles, music, editing and sound, yet Lanthimos is not a megalomaniac control-freak. In fact, he's far from it. We found our conversation turning back to the all-important uncertainty principle. “I am very particular about my choices, but I also accumulate a lot of things by chance,” says Lanthimos. “I like to shoot with natural light on location, I don’t want to spend time making sets, so I want to accumulate things from chance, like the weather. I want to be open to what happens and use that in my own particular way to construct the film.” Again, this is all about the balance of artifice and authenticity in a medium built to trick the eye and the heart.

We come back to the all-important aspect of comedy in his work. “If we were asked to do a straightforward horror, or an over-the-top comedy, we wouldn’t be able to. We don’t know how to write that, or do that,” he says. It is true that with The Killing of a Sacred Deer there is as much humour as horror, if not more. “I don’t want a film to take itself too seriously, so I encourage the comedy side of it.” He adds, “It is easy for people to go into the darkness of it, and I tried to remind people that isn’t what we are doing.”

We ask about his next film, The Favourite, which is set in the court of Queen Anne and stars a powerhouse trio of Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and Oliva Coleman. His peevish smile returns. “It is also funny, and very dark.”

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is released 3 Nov by Curzon Artificial Eye