This article about Yorgos Lanthimos first appeared in the TheWrap Magazine’s Oscar Nominations Preview issue.
Making an 18th-century costume drama feel as fresh and weird as “The Favourite” is unusual, but let’s be honest: It’d be an even bigger surprise if a movie from Yorgos Lanthimos didn’t feel fresh and weird.
The Greek director has been turning heads since he landed a surprise Oscar nomination for his defiantly surreal “Dogtooth” in 2009, and the string of movies he’s made since then — “Alps,” “The Lobster” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” — have used dark humor and satiric exaggeration to poke wicked fun at the foibles of human nature. So why wouldn’t a period piece set in the court of England’s Queen Anne be more of the same, only swathed in fancy clothes and opulent surroundings?
“I was interested in doing something within the period-film genre, but I wanted to try different things,” said Lanthimos, who began his career in his native Greece but moved to London in 2011. “I wanted the language to be quite contemporary. You see people carry themselves in a certain way in a period film, and I wanted to break that convention and be more physical and funnier. We did the same thing in many areas: costumes, how we filmed it, how we used music and dance… I wanted the clash of my universe with something that feels very familiar and maybe even tired sometimes.”
Clearly, “The Favourite” is not tired. It stars Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, weak and impulsive and easily manipulated; Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, the scheming Duchess of Marlborough; and Emma Stone as Abigail Hill, Sarah’s equally scheming cousin, who sets in motion a series of power plays in a court where the women had the clout and the men were often just fancily attired bystanders.
“My desire from the beginning was to create these three women as complex and complicated characters,” he said. “They weren’t one-dimensional — you didn’t have the villain and the good person and the outsider, or whatever. All three of them would have a journey, and you would feel differently as their behavior changed and things happened to them. You might not be completely in agreement with what they do, but maybe you would understand, even if they do the most horrible things.”
As usual for a Lanthimos film, “The Favourite” is a nasty satire replete with human behavior pushed to sometimes ludicrous extremes. And while it’s based on real alliances and dalliances in the stormy court of Queen Anne, the director is blunt when asked how important it was that the film be true to history.
“Not at all,” he said. “We kept what we thought was interesting and necessary for us to tell a story. Having said that, we did start making it because the real story was interesting, and we did keep the essence of what happened with these people. We just had to invent a lot of things around them, and to infuse it with all those contemporary elements. But whenever we felt that how things really happened didn’t work for the story, we would invent something different.”
Lanthimos began working on the film on and off immediately after “Dogtooth,” which is why he resists the idea that he’s trying to become a more accessible filmmaker. (“I don’t have a plan to create a career path or anything like that — my next film might end up being the most obscure one I’ve ever done.”)
It took almost eight years to get the script right and to round up his cast, which he then subjected to a variety of odd rituals during three weeks of rehearsals. “We just played a lot of games and did a lot of exercises,” he said. “They would have to tie themselves in a knot and jump around the room. Whatever I could think of that would complicate things for them while they’re reciting their lines or the lines of another of their colleagues. I think that freed them from the conventions of an actor approaching a role in a period film. They got the sense that this was going to be something different.”
And if viewers find some contemporary resonance in the film’s depiction of a capricious leader making bad decisions on the spur of the moment for emotional reasons, Lanthimos won’t argue. “I think this is a universal thing, and unfortunately kind of everlasting,” he said. ‘It was just synchronicity with what’s happening now in the United States or in England, but it’s always going to be present wherever there are people with power that have gone crazy. So it feels relevant.”
To read more of the Oscars Nomination Preview issue, click here.