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.