Rumpus Interview with Yorgos Lanthimos, Director of Dogtooth

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“I don’t go to the cinema to hear these clichés about life—something you say to someone so that they can move on.”

Yorgos Lanthimos is a Greek director whose award-winning film, Dogtooth, is set to open in New York tonight. Born in Athens, Lanthimos has directed a series of videos for Greek dance-theater companies, TV commercials, music videos, short films, experimental plays and two feature length films. Dogtooth, his most recent film, has garnered a slew of prizes including two from the Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard Prize and the Prix de la Jeunesse) and five prizes from the Greek Film Academy (including ones for Best Film, Best Director and Best Script).

Dogtooth is haunting, funny, and beautiful. Set in a secluded home somewhere in Greece, the film’s plot revolves around a tightly-knit family kept permanently isolated by a protective and paranoid father. In this perverse miniature universe, language and norms have fractured, rearranged, and sometimes disappeared altogether. The children—who, although in their 20s or maybe even 30s can only be described as such—live in a world where airplanes tend to tumble out of the sky and into the bushes; where the stray kitten in the yard is a terrifying existential threat; where the word “pussy” is translated as “a big light.”

But under a playful, and occasionally funny, shell lurks a very dark existence. When the children discover smuggled VHS tapes of Jaws and Rocky and their artificial reality starts to unravel, the father goes to any lengths to preserve the world he’s hermetically sealed. What follows are stunning and vivid flashes of violence, incest, and abuse. Dogtooth’s success stems from its striking ability to navigate that uncomfortable ecotone between tragedy and comedy, leaving viewers marooned between laughter and horror.

I saw Dogtooth at the 2009 Reykjavik International Film Festival in a packed house on the outskirts of town. The Q&A that followed with Lanthimos was good, but left me wanting more. I found the director outside the emergency exit and asked for an interview.

Two day later I met Lanthimos at Café Paris, a busy bar in the heart of downtown Reykjavik. He’d arrived early and ordered a strange dish of what looked like shrimp riding a wave of mayonnaise over a bed of lettuce. Lanthimos saw me looking at his plate and offered me a bite. I politely declined.

The Rumpus: The translation of the film’s title—Dogtooth—gave me a totally different impression of what the film was about. I thought it might have been an action film. But it’s actually referring to the canine tooth. Why’d you go with Dogtooth?

Yorgos Lanthimos: Canine sounded too intellectual in English to me—too scientific. Since there’s a lot of word play in the film, with dogtooth being a word that almost doesn’t exist, I found it worked better. There are a few things called dogtooth—I think there’s a tuna, and a design. It fit the film; it means this, but not exactly.

Rumpus: What made you want to do a movie about this family?

Lanthimos: I think the idea came from watching friends that had recently gotten married or had children. I’ve never had children or been married and I was fooling around with them, asking, ‘Are you sure? Is this going to work? Is this a good idea? Can’t you see all these families falling apart?’

And they were getting very defensive and scared just by me making these jokes. If they got so irritated by the idea of this thing falling apart, what would someone do, in an extreme situation, to keep their family together?

Rumpus: And the family unit can be a useful placeholder for a lot of different systems. There was one member of the audience who was convinced the movie was a metaphor for welfare states and modern Europe…

Lanthimos: The whole idea started with the family and we realized later that it could be seen as whatever else. It could work as an allegory, which is a word I don’t really like; I never think that way. It started off with, ‘What’s the future of the family going to be?’ How can you narrow people’s minds by educating them—telling them, ‘this is the right thing, this is the wrong thing’? When we wrote the script and started working on the film it was obvious that, OK, this works in any system, society, relationship, country. It’s a microcosm.

Rumpus: The fundamental dystopian nature of the film’s premise—a total co-opting of language and norms—gives it a tinge of science fiction.  Did you consider making it into a full-blown sci-fi film?

Lanthimos: It was an idea in the beginning. Because you’re thinking about the future of families…should [the story] be placed in the future?

But I abandoned that idea because I was more interested in the actual happenings of the family. I thought that the science fiction aspect would be an addition that would attract too much attention to creating a different world. Whereas I think this could work in any era. It’s not science fiction—it’s more fundamental.

Rumpus: The film is very aesthetically pleasing, but there are instances of extreme violence—it’s surprising.

Lanthimos: I think it’s only shocking because it comes suddenly in the context of the film being funny and bright and beautiful in many ways. When it happens, it happens unexpectedly—that’s why people consider it ‘extremely violent.’

Rumpus: And the violence is graphic too…

Lanthimos: And it’s realistic. It’s plain and brutal. It’s out in the open—you see everything.

Rumpus: You knew you wanted that aspect from the very beginning?

Lanthimos: Yeah, I knew I wanted that—I knew I wanted to create this contradiction. Not to make a film that was dark and violent throughout. I wanted the contrast of parents trying to create a very beautiful environment where the kids were beautiful, where everything’s beautiful. And next to all of that, these things that they’re doing are horrible and tragic—they’re destroying and deforming their kids in many ways. This thin line of going from tragedy to humor to ridiculousness is something we really wanted to keep.

Rumpus: Why?

Lanthimos: It goes more in depth than shoving violence in someone’s face. If you can experience horrible things while you’re laughing, you go through feelings that you wouldn’t otherwise. It makes you freer to watch the movie with your own personality—it doesn’t force you the whole time.

The one thing I’m most proud of is people laughing within a situation but also being shocked. It stimulates your brain more than just violence or just laughter, because your mind is on edge all of the time.

Rumpus: Is there a desired effect?

Lanthimos: I don’t have a specific desired effect—that’s too limited. I’d like the audience to go through different things with their own experiences, education, whatever.

Some people find the film very funny; some don’t, because they get into the theme of the movie so deeply that they can’t really see how funny these things are. I really like that. I like the film to be open—for people to interact with it. I’m not satisfied with one type of feeling from the audience. I’m satisfied if people are experiencing it in different ways.

Rumpus: There’s this terrible moment in the film when a character’s standing in the bathroom, pulling her own tooth out. Her mouth and hands are covered in blood. Then she looks up into the mirror and smiles in the most genuine way. For the audience, that was a very funny moment—did you know it was funny when you were shooting it?

Lanthimos: No, I didn’t know it was going to be funny. For us, making the movie, it was all funny. It’s all rubber tape—it’s just a game. But there are many moments that I didn’t expect the audience to laugh at. I think this happened because of the awkwardness and the back and forth. You’ve been laughing and then something horrible happens and you think, ‘Should I be laughing at this?’ As a defensive mechanism you keep on laughing but I don’t think it’s actually funny at that point. I noticed at the screening in Cannes that some of the audience was laughing at things that were not funny at all. It was an awkward feeling. You could see the audience being very engaged by the story, by the specific scene, everything.

Rumpus: There are scenes of incest in the film. How did you tackle the dissonance between the actors—who obviously have a socialized reaction toward incest—and their characters, who have none at all? Was there a process of deconstruction—of getting the actors to shed their hang-ups?

Lanthimos: We didn’t rationalize what we were doing. It wasn’t psychological—it was physical. Bring your body into a situation but leave everything else out. Don’t think about it—‘What does it mean? Is it right or wrong? What would be the rational way to react?’—forget that and just feel the other person’s hand, or the wall, or the ball. That’s how they tried to forget everything they knew as actors, or as people. Just by trying to be empty every day and to react to everything that was happening just in that moment. Not having a story in their mind.

It always works better this way. When actors have too much in their heads it’s too obvious—they perform in an obvious way and it’s very annoying. You see them thinking, ‘Now I should be upset.’ So I prefer to create a situation where it seems like they are upset by the things they’re doing, the way they’re sitting. I could have told them, ‘Now you’ll be cleaning your teeth with your tongue every five seconds.’ And I find when they do that, even if no one knows that they’re doing that, you think that there’s something wrong with them—that they’re upset.

The camera reveals all the thinking and trying to act; it’s not like theater at all. So I prefer to find very physical ways of making them do things or giving the impression that they’re doing things instead of trying to rationalize.

Rumpus: So you do all the thinking for your actors?

Lanthimos: Yes, I try to.

Rumpus: So what are their their roles?

Lanthimos: Their role is to be really open and to have the gift.

Rumpus: The gift?

Lanthimos: To me, in cinema, it’s not always about who’s the best actor. It’s about who’s good to be in this thing—who’s good to be in this situation. You know by seeing them and working with them a little bit. And sometimes non-actors are the best thing. The young sister in the film is not an actress—she’s a singer.

Rumpus: Are you ever nervous working with non-actors?

Lanthimos: It’s the most comfortable, the easiest way, because they don’t have all of these things that they’ve built up over the years, ways of acting. They’re much cleaner. And they have the gift.

Rumpus: Are you considering putting together a movie of all non-actors?

Lanthimos: Yes, I am, but the problem is that in Greece you don’t find that many people that are naïve about cinema, or TV, or acting. It’s really hard to find people who are ‘innocent.’ Because of the whole situation with television, exposure, fame and celebrity, even non-actors, when they’re invited to be in a film, think they should act. They imitate what they see on TV and of course they’re bad actors and it doesn’t work at all—it’s even worse. You really need to find people who are innocent about these things.

Rumpus: How do you find non-actors?

Lanthimos: It’s people that I know, mostly—friends. They know what I’m talking about. They shouldn’t do anything—just let me guide them. When it works, it’s like a miracle.

Rumpus: There was a woman at the Q&A who said she loved the film but couldn’t stand the ambiguous ending. Any thoughts?

Lanthimos: It’s fine—it’s the part I felt most comfortable with in this film. I had many problems with this film and the script. But when I thought of this ending, I was really satisfied. Because it’s not that ambiguous; it’s all there. And it’s not that much to ask. Why should I tell you exactly what’s going on? Why should I end it in a very specific way and give you a very specific film?

Rumpus: Is it frustrating to hear comments like that?

Lanthimos: No, not really. I’m sure that they’re thinking different things and that they just want an answer. You see that they care, that they really care. Maybe they already know [the ending] and maybe that’s what’s frustrating to them. It’s not a happy ending but you don’t quite tell it to their face. It’s engaging, and isn’t that the best thing?

I don’t like when a film says everything. I saw a film yesterday and I was really upset. At the end of every scene someone would say what the gist of the scene had been. Like, “Things are getting difficult, but you should carry on.” CUT. Then why have that scene? Why make a film? Then he’d say, “You’re just thirty years old, you have time to change all of your mistakes.” CUT. I hate that. I don’t go to the cinema to hear these clichés about life—something you say to someone so that they can move on.

I enjoy the experience of watching a film and not being told things. That’s what cinema is—it should be about showing an image and having the people watching it put everything into it. You have an image of a chair—a still shot. Some see it as an ugly chair, or a beautiful chair. Maybe someone has left, or someone is coming. I think that’s how cinema should work.

Rumpus: Some people are discouraged by that.

Lanthimos: But it’s not a lot to ask for your mind to work, at least with some films. There are entertaining film that do it for you, and you’re having a good time and it’s fine. And I do watch these types of film. When they’re good, I really enjoy them.

Like, I enjoyed the Bourne Ultimatum. I think it’s a masterpiece! It’s a masterpiece of this type of cinema. It’s perfect: pure action, no bullshit dialogue. It’s action to the highest degree of beauty and perfection. I think he [Paul Greengrass], is a very good director.

But I want more from my audience. It’s what I have to offer—to experience things without laying out everything I have to say. It’s about posing questions and not giving answers. We can’t all have the same answers for everything.

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Dogtooth is opening at Brooklyn Heights Cinema and Cinema Village tonight, June 25th in New York City. David Byrne will be on hand for the 8 pm Cinema Village screening to introduce the film. Look for a wider release later this summer and fall.


Michael Zelenko is a freelance writer and editor. He was most recently a writer for the newspaper The Reykjavik Grapevine in Iceland. Born in Murmansk, Russia, he currently resides in San Francisco where he is working on a children's book. More from this author →