I’m not telling you you have to go see The Lobster because you’ll love it. I can't say that for sure. What I can tell you: you have to go see The Lobster.
It’s the English language debut for Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, who first found much-deserved cult fame with his troubling 2009 film Dogtooth. It’s got Colin Farrell, about thirty pounds over his usual fighting weight, living in a gorgeously rendered dystopia in which single people must report to a kind of combination hotel/prison in which they have 45 days to find love or be turned into an animal of their choice. It’s got Rachel Weisz and John C. Reilly and Léa Seydoux, all of them doing big, beautiful, bonkers things. And it’s got pretty much everyone speaking in the flat affect suggestive of a dire neurological condition. And it’s really funny.
Last week, inside the kind of hip New York City hotel in which dudes in the knockoff Vetememes raincoats post up, I sat down with Farrell and Lanthimos for a little chat. Lanthimos was reserved, calm, and imposing in his seat, displaying not an ounce of the peculiar mental state that may be suggested by the fucked up shit that he makes. Farrell was curled up in a cushy seat next to Lanthimos, the sleeves of his sweater pulled up to his thumbs, the rings on his fingers lightly glistening. He spoke with the intensity and verve of a man you just met inside a dark bar who is perhaps completely full of shit but also totally, totally charming about it. I really enjoyed talking to them both.
A lot of the descriptions of this movie seem to use the same phrases: “absurdist comedy” or “allegory for modern times” or something like that...
COLIN FARRELL: Goddamit. [Laughs] There’s my answers done.
Do you find those cute little phrases useful in talking about this?
FARRELL: I don’t think there is any specific intention. It’s a big load of things! You can get so much from it. So it becomes a personal experience. Essentially [with film] you wanna see something that reflects you, or some suspicion you have, or something that provokes a deep and truthful response. Ideally. Not with all films. Some films are just escapism, and they’re good as well. But I think with Yorgos’s work there’s an inherent level of provocation at play.
YORGOS LANTHIMOS: The nature of the films we make, they are mostly questions. We observe.
This movie was shot largely using natural light, which meant there weren’t the usual long waits for scenes to be set up. Colin, you’ve said you enjoyed avoiding the usual waiting around. Yorgos, was that a conscious decision you made in part to keep the actors happy?
FARRELL: [Laughs] I must say—and I’ve never said this before: [speaking slowly, dripping with sarcasm] Yorgos’s main concern...as a filmmaker...is to keep the actors...
FARRELL AND LANTHIMOS: Happy!
LANTHIMOS: Yeah, well, that too. But mainly, it’s how I’ve learned how to work. And it started from necessity. Because making my films in Greece before, we had absolutely no money, no time, no lights, no nothing. So we made films just with a camera and natural light. And I got to like that.
I want to stay focused on the scene and be able to change it around if we have to. I never know how many shots I’m gonna do for one scene. I just start and as we go along I decide. It gives me a certain flexibility, and it gives the assistant director a certain headache.
FARRELL: Did we shoot for shorter than we intended?
LANTHIMOS: Shorter, no. It was just enough. Seven weeks. Five day weeks.
FARRELL: Seven five day weeks! I mean that’s very little for a film that had this amount of players!
LANTHIMOS: Very little. I agree.
FARRELL: It is very little.
LANTHIMOS: [Laughs] Very little!
FARRELL: OK, when you come from where I come from…I’ve had call sheets that say day 96 of 78. You know, we’re going into some time negative. [With The Lobster] I never found it arduous, never found myself pushed or cajoled or anything like that.
Yorgos, you did say that you don’t like to be too specific when giving actors directions. Did you ever go really vague? Like, “on this shot I need you to reach into your childhood…”
FARRELL: Always. Always. I could not get him to…he was like a dirty old man with my childhood. I could not get him to take his fingers out of my prepubescent pants. Ermmm. No. No. His direction was very, very simple and very concise. The actors had a grip on the tonality of the film from having seen his earlier work. There was no blanket directive given. None of us actors went, “OK, deliver it as flat as possible and we’re home.” That just happened. You know what I mean?
I was wondering about that. Like, where there takes when you guys all really went for it? Is there a version of The Lobster that you could edit together where everyone is yelling all the time?
FARRELL: Singing, not yelling. Lobster: The Musical.
You guys shot in Ireland, just a few hours drive from Colin’s home town. Yorgos, did you ever want to do anything to disrupt any sense of comfort that Colin may have derived from being close to home?
LANTHIMOS: No, not at all. We wanted for them to be as comfortable as possible.We stayed at the hotel where we were filming...
FARRELL: That was weird…
LANTHIMOS: …and the forest was also very near and around us. It helped to be in a certain kind of atmosphere: a bit claustrophobic.
FARRELL: Yeah, there was never any completely full stepping away from the experience of telling the film. And for me as far as that character David went, it was a costume that I couldn’t take off because I’d take my clothes off and my body was...quite different.
Who's decision was it for you to gain weight?
FARRELL: We spoke about that and I did want to distance myself some way physically. I kind of tried one on him. I thought, if I put on weight then I have to fucking take it off, so I said to him, “what if he’s like reallllly thin?” And [Yorgos], so on the money, he said, "no, if he’s really skinny then that speaks to some psychological issue that we wanna stay away from” and yadda yadda yadda. Which was so right. So I said—"OK, I’ll get a bit soft." And then I got a bit soft.
You had a camel in the Irish woods.
LANTHIMOS: Uhhh, yeah. The camel was particularly fond of Ariane [Labed], actually.
[Labed plays a scheming hotel maid in the movie and she is also Lanthimos's wife. As we talk, she's sitting on a couch nearby in the hotel's bar. Overhearing this, Labed calls out: "She was in love with me!"]
LANTHIMOS: Yeah the camel was in love with her. Every other take Ariane would start and then she would come close to Ariane and put her face next to Ariane as we were filming. She did it three times. We don’t know why.
Maybe I’m imagining things but did that camel have three humps?
LANTHIMOS: Did it?!
I thought maybe you used a touch of CGI or something…
LANTHIMOS: No! It was just a regular camel.
Oh man. What the hell was I seeing.
FARRELL: It was actually two humps and a really big dreadlock.
There is one pretty grisly scene in your movie in which an animal is killed. That’s a bold choice. Peopled tend to react much more strongly when an animal is killed on screen then when a human is killed.
LANTHIMOS: I find that crazy. I’m always amazed by the reaction of the theater when an animal gets hurt. I remember very particularly...[To Colin] ...have you seen this film Heli by Amat Escalante the Mexican film director?
FARRELL: No, no.
LANTHIMOS: Its an extremely violent film. You have people hanging from bridges, you have people’s dicks...
FARRELL: Ohhh I did see this film.
LANTHIMOS: The dicks are on fire…
LANTHIMOS: …and then this cop takes up a little dog and twists its head and kills it and the whole cinema goes like [deep gasp] and they didn’t make a sound for the rest of the film. I was like, isn’t this culture amazing? We’re ready to accept any kind of violence inflicted on humans but when it’s an animal being hurt...and it’s a gut reaction. I don’t know why it happens.
FARRELL: I do.
FARRELL: Yeah. Because we believe in the karmic purity of animals and we believe that animals have never in great swaths of numbers inflicted the pain and the horror upon each other as human beings have. So somewhere built into the cellular experience of our lineage is the belief that we all as human beings deserve to suffer.
LANTHIMOS: There you go.
There’s some great musical moments in this. Colin, at one point you kind of quote "Where The Wild Roses Grow" by Nick Cave…
FARRELL: I sang, goddamit! Sang!
You sang it! Sorry, sorry. Yorgos, did you worry that might disrupt the surreality?
LANTHIMOS: No. We flirt with the real world quite a bit in this.
FARRELL: And Nick lives far enough away from the center. If it was a Lady Gaga tune we might have provoked something off. [Looking at Yorgos, who is impassive] Maybe not? [Still looking at Yorgos, who is still impassive] OK, on to the next film, cut to: Katy Perry. [Singing, not quoting]: Cause baby you’re a firewoooooork!
There’s also this mid-forest night time rave where everyone’s listening to music on their own individual Discman. It’s like those silent raves they have at festivals, have you seen those?
FARRELL: So fucking weird.
LANTHIMOS: Yeah, I know about that. But it wasn’t born out of that. It was just us following the rules that we set out for this world.
FARRELL: That was one strange fucking scene to see happening out in the forest. Because you couldn’t hear the music, there was no music playing, and everyone literally had the headphones. It was just these silent people amidst these trees at night doing these fucking moves.
Yorgos, you’ve been at times lumped into this kind of Greek "New Wave" and you’ve bristled at that. But is there anything about where you’re from that specifically informs your movies?
LANTHIMOS: Well, I cannot be the one to observe these things. I mean, I am Greek, I was born there, I grew up there, so obviously there’s something inherent. But actually, the Greeks call me "The Scandinavian." [Laughs]
Colin, does he remind you of anyone else you’ve ever worked with?
LANTHIMOS: Any Greek people?
FARRELL: No, no, no.
Colin, you’re about to turn 40. First of all, happy birthday! Second: is that changing your thought process about anything in any way?
FARRELL: Oh yeah. Thanks man. But fuck. Not at all. Should it?
Yorgos? Any advice? You’re just a bit north of 40, right?
LANTHIMOS: 43, in September.
FARRELL: Nah. Advice from him? He wouldn’t even give me any direction!