The Lobster, the latest feature from acclaimed Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth), draws you in with its off-kilter premise: David (Colin Farrell) lives in a city where being single is illegal, and all singles are escorted to a private facility that specializes in helping—or really, forcing—them to pair up. The catch: Residents must find a match within 45 days, and if they don’t, they are turned into the animal of their choosing and released into the forest for the rest of their natural lives.
Lanthimos’ film is as odd as it sounds, and just as delightful and thought-provoking. The world the movie imagines is painstakingly detailed and observational, and the performances from Farrell, John C. Reilly, Rachel Weisz, and Léa Seydoux (Spectre) are perfectly calibrated and believable within it. Last fall at the New York Film Festival, I spoke with Lanthimos (who co-wrote the script along with Efthymis Filippou) about society’s obsession with coupledom, the experience of shooting his first English-language feature, and how Hitchcock influenced The Lobster.
Colin Farrell’s character gives several reasons why he wants to become a lobster. They are fertile all the time, they can live for a hundred years, they’re blue-blooded. What was your reasoning for wanting him to become a lobster and what attracted you to that?
Exactly what he says, you know. We were trying to find something which was slightly not so common and that would add to his character as someone that has interest in acquiring those qualities. In the beginning, when we started writing the script and we had a treatment, what happened at the end of the film was that his wife ate a lobster with her new boyfriend. So there was an insinuation that they might have eaten him, but that wasn’t in the script from an early stage.
How much research did you guys do before you settled on the lobster? What were some of the runners-up of the animals you chose?
I mean, we arrived to the lobster quite early on, so I don’t really remember if there was anything else that we considered.
What exactly drew you to creating this offbeat world, that sort of resembles ours in that coupledom is praised and exalted, while being single is considered the worst thing possible?
Well, what we tried to do is just explore themes and situations in a heightened mode in order to reveal more about reality and our everyday lives. It’s the way that we know how to do it … we’re not interested in just representing reality and building stories around it.
There’s so much detail in the way you create this world. Between the rules that are in the hotel—for instance, on the first day having to have your hands handcuffed and not being allowed to masturbate. Are there any specific real-life laws or conventional rules of etiquette regarding the way we treat single people that you are trying to critique here?
No. You start from building this world with their rules, and then you just follow logic in order to come up with the rest of the details. So once you have this simple fact that you’re treating couples in a certain way and single people in another way—and there’s a bit of a concept that this is almost like a prison drama or something, at least in the first half of the film—then you pick up on those things and you borrow things from other kinds of situations … We tried to get into the heads of people that would be in charge and what they would come up with.
The Lobster gets at both sides of the issue: We see the potential upside of having someone to share your life with, but also see in the latter half of the movie an extreme version of the perils of being in a relationship. What I interpreted from that, is that it’s ideal to find the middle ground. Do you think that we as a society have a hard time finding that?
I definitely don’t know what the ideal would be. What would be more beneficial would be for us to question the way we’ve constructed our societies and the way we’re used to behaving; the expectations that we have of people and how we treat them. So I think it’s about: We’re brought into this world, we’re educated a certain way, we get used to certain things. Yet we should be able to question that … Maybe people should be freer to think about what’s right for them … That’s what the film does, hopefully—it raises all of those questions …
Rebellion is not always the right thing. Following the rules is not always the right thing. You have to think for yourself and identify the things that do not work for you.
This is your first English-language feature. What made you decide now is the time and why this story?
I made three films in Greece, and they’re made under very specific, very limited conditions. In Greece there was never a [bustling] film industry, there’s no structure and support for them, there’s no financing. It’s just the thing that friends do because they love film and make films while doing other jobs and all those kind of things. So we managed to make three films that way, and I felt that in order to progress, since we were very lucky and we were acknowledged internationally or whatever … I thought that I should start making English-language films in order to have a different kind of support …
This is on a much larger scale than Dogtooth, and I’m assuming it’s a larger budget …
It is slightly larger, yes. But it’s not that huge of a difference. It’s a European co-production, which means it’s very complicated and you waste a lot of money trying to make that work. It’s not like we had a lot of more means than we had when we were making the films in Greece. You do have it, and we ended up getting paid for the first time. It’s a step forward, and I think it’s good for us to be able to make certain choices because literally, the films in Greece we just had to find friends’ houses to shoot in, we were borrowing their clothes, their props, or whatever. You can’t really make choices about what you want to have in your film, so this time we could make certain choices, and that was good.
The film sort of has, I think, a Hitchcockian feel to it …
Well that’s wonderful that you say that, I sort of thought of that in the beginning.
Yes, especially the music—there are moments that echo Bernard Herrmann’s scores [for Hitchcock] and Psycho. And the humor as well feels kind of like that film [The Trouble With Harry], one of his more humorous, if still macabre, movies.
I haven’t really used music in my previous films. And I love music, but I just couldn’t find a way of using it in a beneficial way for them, because I felt that whenever I used music it just narrowed down scenes and made them very specifically about one thing, and I didn’t want it to say exactly what the scene says. So I was thinking with The Lobster, that now with the voice-over and with the actual tone of the scene you could use all these different layers with very different feels to them. Essentially, if you put one on top of the other, they create this new thing.
Maybe it’s very contradictory and then you have the voiceover—that might be funny. And then you use romantic music, but there’s something entirely different happening in the scene. The scenes of [Farrell’s and Weisz’s characters] trying to get away reminded me a little of North by Northwest. It’s a little bit like Hitchcock—this very dramatic, big orchestra kind of music, where something not as dramatic is kind of happening. While researching the music for the film, I listened to some Shostakovich, and I think they really listened to that when they were doing Psycho.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.