Interview with Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos

Here’s an interview I did for the website Sound Screen.

Yorgos Lanthimos’s film Dogtooth is a startlingly distinctive and darkly comic film about demented authoritarian parents who keep their grown-up children  locked up in the house, and continually lie to them to shield them from the outside world.  Amongst other awards it won the Un Certain Regard prize at 2009’s Cannes and is courting a lot of praise and attention from critics. Here the director discusses his film in-depth and also talks about the state of the Greek film industry and the irritation of being compared to contemporaries like Michael Haneke.

Where there any real-life events that influenced you to tell this story of Dogtooth?

No not really it just started from an idea you know about the future of families. And what if in the future there were no more  families and things like that. I then had the idea of these parents that really [could have] happened at any time, that they would really wanna keep their family together forever.  And have them think that their doing the best for their children  and raise them far away from the rest of the world but of course that wouldn’t really work. So it just came from that and the real stories we heard later while we were rehearsing, you know we heard about the Austrian [the Josef Fritzl case] story, it was very different from what we were trying to do, it was very dark you know with having dungeons and having children with the daughter. I wanted to do something much more brighter and beautiful in contradiction to what effect this situation would have on the children, and to show that these parents have the best intentions in mind although it doesn’t really work that way.

What I noticed about the film was that it is quite a dark film but there’s also a lot of humour in it, for instance when they tell their kids that their grandfather is Frank Sinatra, when we see the parents making love and they’re wearing headphones listening to music. There’s all these comical moments and I was just wondering if the humour was an important aspect of the film for you?

Yeah it was very important to me but I guess it always is in the things that I do. But I feel that especially in such a story and such a situation you can get into much more deeper and true things approaching it also with a humorous side of things. Because if you get too dramatic and too melodramatic about things or just violent, you just force people to think certain things instead of allowing them to think themselves and to be engaged in different ways. But if you can walk a line between all these things; tragedy and violence but humour as-well and have them laugh at situations, then it’s easier for people to realise what’s going on and to be involved and to be more open about thinking [about] all these situations.

Do you think you’re film can be seen as reflecting an increasing paranoia in society? Because in the media it’s constantly showing the world as a dangerous place full of murderers, paedophiles and kidnappers and there’s this increasing concern that we have to keep our children indoors, we don’t let them play outside anymore. 

The film is really open and I really like when  people have certain experiences on their own, they can really see the film according to that. That’s what I always try to do, I mean I like that in different countries of the world and different people relate to the film  in a different way. And of course it could be seen like that. I mean to me my initial thought was mostly about the information that we get about the world and how true is that, and how we can narrow people’s minds with education and information by media or by schooling or whatever. So that’s the initial thought but then it can relate to so many different things.

The two child-adult daughters (Mary Tsoni and Anna Kalaitzidou) in Dogtooth

I read in an interview that you said it was also something to do with the way traditional Greek families were, could you explain a bit more about that?

Well, what it is is that it’s mostly inspired by clichés of a Greek family.

Like the dominating father?

Yeah, but [also] the woman who is behind it and is really pulling more strings but also this mentality about the son being entitled to have sex, we’re proud to educate him about sex, but the girls should never do anything like that. Or even the fact that kids stay with their parents until they’re really old in Greece and I guess in other countries as-well. But families stay really close and together and there’s always support even if the kid is 30 years old or something, there’s a family that could be supporting him still. These clichés are quite basic.

And I guess it’s also about the false idea of female innocence, the idea that women should kept free from corruption?

[laughs] Yes.

How did you discover the actors- Mary Tsoni, Anna Kalaitzidou and Christos Passalis- who play the older children?

I worked with them before  in theatre and they have their own theatre group. Their company devises theatre and they write their own plays and direct them , the older brother and older sister, so I knew them. And the younger sister [Mary Tsoni] is really not an actress she’s a singer in a group [punk performance band Mary and The Boy].

Any why did you decide not to name the family and only name the character of Christina?

I just thought it was appropriate for this whole story, I mean they wouldn’t really need names or a way of communicating in a big world with so many people and it just felt right that they wouldn’t really have any names.

The way they talk, their diction, is quite unusual how did you come up with the way you wanted them to sound?

I didn’t really come up with it, we did a lot of rehearsals but mostly physically. And what I tried to do most of the time was make them forget about any way of approaching the role as an actor and analysing parts and all this. And they were playing games the whole time really and I tried to make them, you know, act like children the whole time and forget whatever they had in mind about the movie, the part, the script, whatever. I just exhausted them with playing games for many days and I would just have them in there in the scene just reacting physically to things not thinking about anything. There weren’t really directions of speaking this way or doing this or that other than dealing  with it physically and just making them used to dealing with the scenes in a different way than they’re used to.

I also thought it was interesting that you put film quotes in there for instance in the scene where the older sister is forced to make love to the brother and she then afterwards quotes a line from Rocky, how did you come up with that?

The whole idea of that was the world was opening up to her through these videotapes that she’s getting from Christina. Obviously that would be something that would make a huge impression on her seeing a film for the first time when you’re like 25 or older. So it’s something that’s stuck in her head and all these words she hasn’t heard before  and these people she hasn’t seen before and I guess it’s something that she uses to cope with things.

I thought the use of vocabulary was also very interesting, the fact that the parents make up meanings for words, was there an idea there of language being another form of control for the parents?

Yes, and it’s some sort of practical thinking I mean if you make up this story in this situation you think of the things that you would have to control for this thing to work. Language is obviously one of the most important things, all these words that the kids shouldn’t be aware of.

It reminded me of 1984 the fact that they came up with a completely new vocabulary to eliminate certain subjects.

Exactly, but it just comes from practical thinking, it’s like the thing with the aeroplanes they see, since they’re allowed to go into the garden then they can see the sky. How we can explain an aeroplane? So we find a different stupid excuse and we make it into something-else.

How much room did you leave for improvisation in the film?

We did a lot of improvisations during rehearsal that  created a base for them to be able to work around things while shooting. The first scene for instance is completely improvised, what they’re saying and everything. But they had done  this thing before during rehearsals, I mean I had them coming up with games and speaking like that the whole time, so it was completely improvised on one hand but on the other it was something they were really used to doing; sitting down and coming up with games and being bored.

I get a sense in the film in the children’s sudden violence, their exploration of sexuality etc that no matter what you do to contain people, their desires and frustrations will come out and that rebellion in the film seemed almost inevitable.

Yes exactly I mean it’s something that really can’t work and you hope at some point that the people who are suppressed are gonna react.

The father seems quite a cold enigmatic character and  you never really make his motivations that clear, what were your intentions there?

I wanted to mainly not deal with the why and find excuses for what he does, because that would be a very different film if you tried to see it that way. It would be a film mostly about him and why he does that, where[as] I really wanted it to be a film about the consequences  of what such a condition and circumstance has on these people, and what does that mean and where can that lead to and how distorted can this world be if it’s like that and all these things. I didn’t really wanna deal with why I mean it’s obvious that he thinks it’s the best thing to do and we really don’t care why.

The character of Christina is interesting too because she seems both the victim, being made to have sex with the son,  and the perpetrator, exploiting the sisters, how did you conceive of her?

To me she’s very interesting because she has this power over them she chooses to take advantage of them and I think anyone would be tempted if  he got into such a situation- I don’t  know anyone but I’m sure I would be tempted- to really fool around with these people. The fact that you feel so powerful against them, that they don’t really know anything and you can fool them into doing things and you can take things from there so easily. That’s very interesting to me and the choice that you make that ‘ok I’m actually gonna take advantage of these people.’

In the film the children are constantly being asked to compete with each-other, what your intention with this aspect of the film?

It’s the notion of the parents trying to make them better and first of all to keep them not completely bored.  The fact that they feel really proud of themselves for following the rules and to really get them into this situation of really competing  to be the best son or the best daughter, it really feels good to them to do the things that the parents ask of them, that they will be rewarded for following the rules.

What was your thinking behind the ambiguous ending?

[SPOILER WARNING] I really like it because it’s really open for people to engage in their own way, because it tells things about you if you think the most optimistic things about it like whether she opened the truck and got away. Or think that in other case she’s really dead in there because she’s been in there for so long and she’s forgotten in there. Or he will open up the trunk and he’ll find her and she’ll go back to the house again. So it really depends  on what you are thinking. I mean some people are asking me ‘does this car have a thing that you can open the trunk from the inside?’ You  see that they are really trying to think of something optimistic, that’s nice to be engaged in a film like that. But still it’s not an open ending like ‘ok, we don’t really know what’s gonna happen or what.’ Even if she gets out into this world she has limited possibilities, so it’s really not that open. But it leaves you a bit of room to do your own thinking.

What do you think are the biggest challenges for Greek filmmakers working today and how has the current financial crisis effected things?

It has always been very difficult to make films in Greece because they are only Government funded, and there’s only the Greek Film Centre that runs the films. And up to now to three or four years ago it was almost impossible for young people to make films, all the money went to the older directors. But it has changed in the last three or four  years because there have been a couple of young Greek filmmakers that have been acknowledged internationally with their films going into international festivals.  My previous film Kinetta went around the world but it wasn’t funded by the Greek Film Centre it was the only Greek film that went around the world.

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