A Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominee in 2017 for his English-language directorial debut The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos—whose Dogtooth received a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nod six years earlier—now finds himself once again in the awards season conversation, this time for The Favourite (Fox Searchlight).
His first period film, The Favourite drew in Lanthimos not so much for the opportunity to travel back to the early 18th century but rather to tell a story with three strong female leads—Olivia Colman as Britain’s Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as her life-long intimate friend and political advisor Lady Sarah, and Emma Stone as Abigail, Sarah’s impoverished cousin turned social-climbing chambermaid.
The Favourite premiered in August at the Venice Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize and earned Colman Best Actress distinction. A dark yet comic story, The Favourite pits Lady Sarah against Abigail for the favor of Queen Anne, who has her own issues. This story of three strong women jockeying for power—in the throes of a dysfunctional love triangle—somehow feels contemporary, shedding light on human nature, foibles and desires.
Lanthimos recalled that after he made Dogtooth, he was sent The Favourite by its original producers. “We then developed it together for many years with the original writer, Deborah Davis, to rework the structure. We later brought on Tony McNamara, with whom we managed to instill a very different tonality to the script. By the end of the process, the film was completely rewritten but it was always the story of the three main female protagonists. That’s what drew me to the project: their relationships and behavior, and how due to the position of power they had at the time, they affected the fate of a whole country and the course of a war.”
Relative to creative challenges that The Favourite posed to him as a filmmaker, Lanthimos shared, “The Favourite was a period film, and that in itself is quite difficult to achieve when you want to design the look of it in a singular way but on a limited budget. We employed my favorite usual approach in filming by using natural light or practical lights (candles in this case) with only a few exceptions in night exteriors. We pared down costumes from many ornamental details and used contemporary materials to make them, and locations were emptied to give them a starker look. The whole approach helped to give the film a more contemporary texture.”
That texture was attained in partnership with a mix of artisans, including a long-time collaborator and several with whom Lanthimos worked with for the very first time.
On the former score, Lanthimos continued his fruitful relationship with Yorgos Mavropsaridis who has edited all of the director’s films. “We have developed a common taste for things without growing too tired to experiment with new ideas,” related Lanthimos. “He has quite a good understanding of the things that I like and the ones I don’t, so I’m able to go away from the editing room for a while to gain some distance from the film and the process while he puts things together. It’s also important, since you’ll be spending a lot of months with your editor in a small room, to get along.”
Among Lanthimos’ first-time collaborators on The Favourite were cinematographer Robbie Ryan and production designer Fiona Crombie. The director said of Ryan, “Robbie is a very versatile cinematographer and his taste in certain things is similar to mine. He doesn’t like polished images and has a great sense for camera movement. Having said that, what we were aiming to achieve on this film from the beginning was quite different from most of what we both had done until then, and that was exciting for both of us. He’s up for trying anything and he’s very unafraid.”
As for Crombie, Lanthimos said, “Fiona and I met initially when she first came to London. I knew her work from Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown and she showed me some of her work she had done for theatre in Australia, which was very beautiful and inventive. I loved what she did in Macbeth too, so it was only natural to want to work with her.”
Dance video/spotmaking roots
Born in Athens, Greece, Lanthimos began his career directing dance videos in collaboration with Greek choreographers, in addition to TV commercials, short films and theater plays. Lanthimos’ first feature film was Kinetta. He went on to make the Oscar-nominated feature Dogtooth and then Alps, winner of Best Screenplay at the 2011 Venice Film Festival. Lanthimos’ additional work includes 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which won Best Screenplay in Cannes, and a short film vignette for Radiohead’s “Identikit.”
Lanthimos made a major international splash—and inroads into the U.S.—with The Lobster, starring Golden Globe nominee Colin Farrell. The Lobster won the Jury Prize at the 68th Cannes Film Festival, and the aforementioned Academy Award nomination in the category of Best Original Screenplay, among assorted other honors.
Lanthimos is now also looking to break into the American ad market as he recently joined production house Superprime for U.S. commercial representation. He explained his decision to connect with Superprime and the appeal of short-form fare.
“I think it is evident from Superprime’s impressive roster that they know how to work with filmmakers (Paul Thomas Anderson, Damien Chazelle, Matthew Heineman, Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese) who are very accomplished in the world of feature films but are also interested in directing commercials and branded content. On my part, commercials is the arena I learned all of my skills in when I was starting out in Greece many years ago. Making lots of commercials helped me progress with my filmmaking and also financially supported my first Greek films. That’s where I met all of my early frequent collaborators.
“I also think that filming shorter format projects in between feature films keeps me relevant and alert. It allows me to try and experiment with new things, work with people whose work I admire, and create stronger relationships that can take us all further creatively.”