Finding Reality in the Fake: Director Yorgos Lanthimos on The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Barry Keoghan and Colin Farrell (Curzon Artificial / A24)

Everything in film is a performance, including the camera itself. Lanthimos discusses his career from making commercials to his latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

Dogtooth (2009) and The Lobster (2015) are two films that have created an aura around the name of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos. The disquieting familial relationships of the former and the inclination towards death of the latter are a thematic continuation in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, in which Lanthimos deliberately cultivates a skewed impression of both everyday and cinematic realism.

Taking fatherless teen Martin (Barry Keoghan) under his wing, Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two children, Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy), discover a menacing intent that lays behind Martin's interest in their family. As past transgressions are revealed, the domestic tranquility is permanently uprooted, as Lanthimos crafts an unsettling portrait of retribution within the scope of cause and effect.

In conversation with PopMatters, Lanthimos reflects on a career that defied realistic expectations and a journey that is constructed around the contradiction of a constant sense of identity versus progression. He also discusses the nature of realism in film and cinema as a fake art form, alongside creating a flexible space in The Killing of a Sacred Deer for its audience to engage.

Was there an inspirational or defining moment that led you towards film as a means of creative expression?

There wasn't a defining moment, and especially growing up in Greece, having a film career was not close to something a young kid could think of. It was not even realistic. There were so few Greek films being made when I was growing up that it wasn't an industry, and it still isn't. There are barely any proper film schools and so for me it was a gradual journey.

How did filmmaking transform from something that was realistic, into what has now become a reality?

I always loved films, and when I decided to go to film school it was with the excuse that I would go into making commercials, because that would be a proper profession, and people wouldn't think I was crazy. I thought I would learn a lot about filmmaking and I'd be able to make a living through commercials, and so that's how it started. Quite early on, before I had even finished film school, I began making commercials and that gave me a lot of technical filmmaking experience. Gradually, I began to consume films by the great filmmakers while being exposed to a different kind of world. I fell more in love with it and wanted to at some point make my own film, which again, was not a natural thing to think of in Greece.

My first film in 2005, Kinetta, was a really freeing experience and it taught us a lot about how we wanted to approach filmmaking -- how there were alternative ways of making films. So that led to us making another film, Dogtooth in 2009, and I reached this point where I had never imagined that I would be able to make a living from making films. The first time I was paid was with The Lobster, because with the Greek films we just had to pay ourselves -- work for free while making commercials in order to survive. But I never thought that was going to become a reality, and so I should be very happy I guess [laughs].

How do you view the place of The Killing of a Sacred Deer within your body of work? Do you see an evolution of ideas, or is the storytellers' journey in part a repetitive act?

Well to be honest, I haven't thought about it that much. What I try to do is to take one thing at a time, and while I'm trying to construct that new thing, I will try to find what is the next thing that interests me. I enter into this phase where I go: "Okay, this is interesting, but I'd like to do certain things differently this time because I don't want to repeat myself." Of course I formed certain ideas, certain tastes and certain philosophies around making films, and I want to protect and to continue with that. But at the same time I want to improve and to try certain other things.

Being in that state of mind, and although I don't necessarily look back at all of my work, I do try to find things that interest and excite me in a different way, so that I can create something slightly different, yet knowing that I am the same person. A lot of it is going to be very similar to what I've done before, but all those different details, those different paths you explore, makes it worth the while, and it makes you progress, to go further.

The film lacks a sense of realism that bleeds from the writing into the characters, cultivating a disquieting feeling. This is sparked at the opening with an expressionistic use of the music that is an assault on our senses.

I'm obviously not a fan of trying to create reality in film [laughs]. So I guess I use all the tools that I have to create a certain atmosphere. Every separate aspect of it is very important for me and so I try to focus a lot on one thing at a time. When we were writing the screenplay, I solely focused on the writing. I didn't think about what the film was going to look like, or who was going to be in it, or even where it was going to be set, because a lot of the films we have done so far could have been set anywhere. This is a decision that comes afterwards -- where it makes more sense to set the film. So I focus on that and the language and the tone, and the style of it is really important for me.

I think you can be much truer to real emotions and reality by creating something that on the surface seems artificial, but by then putting everything together in the end is much more impactful than trying to use realism in every individual element of the film. Most of the time feels much more fake for me, because I recognise the effort of trying to achieve realism. But that's just a different approach and I don't think any way is realistic because it's a film, it's a construction, and the actors are acting no matter how good or bad they are. It's all fake and I believe even documentaries are constructed and are therefore fake. There's so much construction and control going on when you are interviewing a person -- there is a performance and you lead him in a certain way.

What I'm trying to get at is there are different approaches that in a way are similar. Some of them seem more close to reality and realism, while others seem further away. When in any approach you do it well, you kind of achieve the same thing, which is some kind of reality through this fake thing that you are experiencing. The way I achieve a certain feel by filming the scenes and placing the people in the frame and the space is as equally important as the word for me.

Visually you create a heightened sense of unease through the voyeuristic presence of the camera, that seems to follow the characters, yet is seemingly detached from their world. Picking up on your point about creating a certain feel, how do you compare and contrast the sense of feeling in this film with your other work?

In this film it's quite different compared to my other films because the camera is much more present. There is, as you say, this sense of voyeurism, because the idea was to create this almost otherworldly presence that the camera emanated from. There was this thing hovering over the actors and observing them from above, or creeping in from below, always following them around. But that's very connected to the essence of the film and the question of whether there is something otherworldly and supernatural.

So a lot of those kinds of decisions stem from the context of the film itself, and the same with sound. What you can achieve with sound, which seems realistic, but the way you use it can push scenes in different directions. So yeah, I take great care in every individual part of the process, and I try to use all those tools and elements that I have in order to enhance the ideas of each film I make. That's why I hope each film, although being from the same filmmaker maintains a certain kind of identity, yet according to each different story and situation, a lot of the elements will change because I take it into consideration.

At its heart, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a film focusing on questions. Not only of the existence of the otherworldly, and where we draw a line between the physical and the spiritual, but a certain question that is daunting for any parent. By the conclusion, as a spectator, one feels that one is forced to ask what one thinks or feels. But then your cinema has always forced the audience to step back and consider the experience on a deeper and intimate level.

Well that's the best reaction I think. What I can confirm to you is that I didn't want to allow that space of doubt. Whether we are talking about a curse, something spiritual, something that doesn't exist, or whether it is all in their minds and is something very physical that manifests itself from their state of mind and their thoughts, we constructed this film to allow people to get into the film through any door they wanted. I think that's the great thing about making a film this way in that people, according to who they are and how they think, can have their own interpretation.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

Keep reading... Show less

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.