Inside the Wacky World of Yorgos Lanthimos’ ‘Poor Things’ With His Irish Producers

TheWrap magazine: “Ignorance was bliss,” Andrew Lowe says of his and Ed Guiney’s leap into their largest production ever

Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone on the set of "Poor Things"
Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone on the set of "Poor Things" (Searchlight Pictures)

In its 23 years of existence, the Dublin-based production company Element Pictures has produced or co-produced dozens of bold movies. Those films include an early breakthrough film for Cillian Murphy (“The Wind That Shakes the Barley”), a dark and twisted flick in which Barry Keoghan infiltrates and destroys a well-to-do family (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” not “Saltburn”) and a pair of Oscar Best Picture nominees for which their leading ladies won Best Actress: Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” with Brie Larson, and Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite,” with Olivia Colman.

But none of those were as big and wild as Element’s third nominated film, Lanthimos’ “Poor Things,” a historical romp about a beautiful but childlike Frankenstein creature named Bella (Emma Stone) that takes place in a mock Victorian landscape and was made on a budget of a reported $35 million. It ultimately garnered 11 Oscar nominations, second only to “Oppenheimer.”

“It was by far the biggest thing we’d done,” producer Ed Guiney said after previously earning nominations for both “Room” and “The Favourite.” “Yorgos wanted to build the world — create Bella’s world, if you like, so that you’re seeing something that isn’t a reality. I guess it’s seen almost through her eyes, if that makes sense.”

It might not make complete sense — Bella was reanimated by putting an infant’s brain into a dead woman’s body, after all — but “Poor Things” is ravishing and ridiculous, an ode to freedom from the Greek director of such delicious slices of surreal social commentary as “The Lobster,” “The Favourite” and the surprise Oscar nominee that put him on the map, 2009’s “Dogtooth.”

That last film was what attracted Element Pictures cofounders Guiney and Andrew Lowe, who met with Lanthimos when he announced that he wanted to make his next film in English. “He came to London and made the rounds and met everybody, and an exec working for us met him initially and then introduced him to us,” Lowe said. “We started a conversation that led to him being attached to ‘The Favourite,’ which at the time was a project called ‘The Balance of Power.’ But that was six or seven years before we made the film.”

Andrew Lowe, Emma Stone, Yorgos Lanthimos and Ed Guiney at a London screening of "Poor Things"
Andrew Lowe, Emma Stone, Yorgos Lanthimos and Ed Guiney at a London screening of “Poor Things” (Getty Images)

They then began putting together “The Lobster.” And around that time, Lanthimos also mentioned that he wanted to adapt the 1992 novel “Poor Things.” “I think he’d met (author) Alasdair Gray around 2009, before ‘Dogtooth’ became a thing, really,” Guiney said. “He was looking for someone to help him with the project, and we knew enough about him at that point to be absolutely enthusiastic in wanting to help him in any way we could. And so we signed up, I guess, without knowing how we would pull it off.”

He laughed, adding, “At that point, we were quite early in our careers, so maybe if one had been rational about it, it wouldn’t have been a thing to pursue. But we were in love with working with him, so we dove in and built it over time as we did other movies.”

The two keys to getting “Poor Things” off the ground, Guiney noted, were the success of “The Favourite,” which made almost $100 million on a $15 million budget and received 10 Oscar nominations; and the fact that Stone signed on to star as Bella and also serve as a producer. “Those were the things that turned it from a pipe dream into a reality,” he said. “But that took a moment.”

“Ignorance was bliss,” Lowe said. “None of us had made a film of this scale before, so while we understood it was big, we didn’t really appreciate how big it would be. But we had the advantage of having had a great relationship with Searchlight on ‘The Favourite’ and we knew they had an option to do Yorgos’ next thing. Initially, we thought, let’s try to double the budget of ‘The Favourite.’ That was the number to aim for, and it crept up from there as we learned more about the challenges of actually making the film.” (The final budget of “Poor Things” was reportedly around $35 million, with a worldwide gross approaching $100 million.)

“We came to it with a lot of fear, but also a lot of excitement,” Guiney said. “And because we were all coming to it with a certain amount of naïveté, we were able to really stretch the budget. I think we approached it from an independent mentality rather than an experienced mentality.” During COVID, they assembled a design team to come up with ideas for the world while simultaneously figuring out a budget. Filming in Budapest – where they took over most of the city’s major soundstages – was a big help: “It probably would have been double the price if we did it in the U.K.”

Lanthimos, meanwhile, remains as idiosyncratic as ever. “He’s obviously evolved,” Lowe said, “and arguably he’s a more confident person, as anyone who ages 12 years and has a lot of professional success is likely to be.”

“But the thing that really struck us when we first met him was his singularity and his clarity of thought,” he concluded. “He is very clear about what he wants and he has exacting standards for himself and everyone he works with. It was part of what attracted us to him in the first place, and those traits all describe him today, too.”

“Poor Things” is now playing in theaters.

A version of this story first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Down to the Wire, TheWrap Magazine - February 20, 2024
Illustration by Rui Ricardo for TheWrap


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