Interview: Yorgos Lanthimos on The Lobster (2016)

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster
Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster

Yorgos Lanthimos is arguably the most important and well-known modern Greek director. His Oscar-nominated Dogtooth is a hideous and hilarious dark parable about families, and its follow-up, Alps, further refined his highly stylized but heartfelt insights into how humans deal with life events – in this case, the grief of loss. His latest, the deeply surrealist but still thoughtful The Lobster, casts Colin Farrell as a man with 45 days to find true love – or be turned into an animal.

It sounds like a fairytale, but Lanthimos digs deep into what it is to be single and in a relationship, and the pressures that we place on ourselves, and that society places upon us.

It’s also Lanthimos’ first English-language film: with the nascent modern Greek film industry caught up in the economic slaughter that has hit the country, he found international funding and shot the movie in Ireland.

(Parts of this interview previously appeared at

RW: Who was the first person you cast?

Yorgos Lanthimos: That must have been Colin. It was very early on that I had discussions with Rachel Weisz, because we had met before I had even finished the screenplay. She had seen my work, and she reached out, and we met, and we both conveyed how much we liked each other’s work, and were thinking of working together. She was one of the first people that actually read the screenplay, but it took some time for it to work out for her to be in the cast. So first was Colin, and then it was Rachel.

RW: If he’s going to be the core of it, and his casting affects who you’re going to cast, what was it you felt Colin was going to bring?

YL: I just find that he has very many different qualities, both as an actor and as a person. I try to look as much as I can at other material by actors. I see their work, but I also try to see interviews they have done, and photographs throughout their life. I just felt that he had so many different qualities that he would create a very complex character. He’s very smart, but very funny. He has a great sense of humor, he’s very charming, he’s awkward at times. He has so many different qualities that I felt would add to the character we had written.

RW: He’s a very under-rated actor. His performance in the adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, not enough people saw that. But then the other component is, when the characters talk about the animals into which they would like to be changed, it gives you a perspective into who they are and who they want to be. When did the lobster become the lobster? Was there a point where he would be the quail?

YL: It’s funny, because that was there from even writing the treatment, which had bits of this story in there. Because it was in the short format at that point, we made the decision for a lobster. In the end of that treatment, the main character was actually turned into a lobster and was eaten by his ex-wife at dinner. Well, we weren’t sure that it was him, but she ate -a- lobster at dinner. It was there from the beginning, but then the whole screenplay evolved, and it became many other things, so that wasn’t relevant any more. But the lobster just stayed, because it seemed to be the right choice for him.

RW: There’s the occasional animal that just walks through the background. When they’re just inconspicuous, like a rabbit, you think, well, it’s just an animal. But when the camel walks past, that’s different. So what was the practicality of having animals on set, and even finding a camel in Ireland?

YL: It’s crazy, because we did it the other way round. It was a relatively small film, and we didn’t have at our disposal anything that we wanted, so we just tried to discover what kind of animals existed in Ireland at the time. We just made a choice of an animal that would feel odd being in a forest in our situation and story. And apparently camels were in Ireland at the time.

RW: The Irish film industry is in a real resurgence, with a huge number of European films having at least some involvement from the Irish film board. How did shooting in Ireland compare to shooting in Greece?

YL: They were very different. In Greece, it’s not that there aren’t experienced people or professionals. For many years, there was a very healthy TV and commercials industry. There a lot of experienced and capable people there. It’s just, when you are making a film in Greece, you can’t afford all that, and you don’t have the means. So it was much smaller in scale, which of course posed many difficulties, because you couldn’t get many things that you’d like to have. At the same time, it allowed you to be extremely flexible, and you were only there with people because of their passion of making a film. They weren’t getting paid, they were offering their services and whatever else they could. So just entering a more professional environment, just in itself it makes things different. I found it a little bit a difficult working with so many rules in place, and not being as flexible as I could be with my three or four friends when we were making films in Greece. But at the same time we did have more means in order to make the film. Creatively speaking, and working with the actors, and how we were making the film, it wasn’t much different to making a film in Greece.

RW: You did have Michael Smiley, who I think it’s mandatory to have him in any film made in Ireland.

YL: He’s an amazing character as well.

RW: You do have some actors, like Smiley, John. C Reilly, and Olivia Coleman, who come from a more comedic background. How did you balance have leads who come from a more dramatic background with these other characters who have a more absurdist resume?

YL: Most of them have done other things anyway. For instance, Olivia Coleman, I first got to know her through Tyrannosaur, which is an extremely dark, dramatic film. I didn’t know her from her TV work, and the comedies that she’s done before, and then I discovered that. In essence, it’s just about choosing very talented people, and being confident that there’s a lot of tone and quite a particular voice in the text itself, and they’re just going to understand the material and be in tune with it. That’s really what happened. We never had to have lengthy discussions about how it had to be. All the actors just tuned in immediately to the tone of the film, which was great.

RW: One of the underlying themes is the idea of the misguided pressures people put on themselves when they’re single or in a relationship. Like the moment when one couple is told, well, if things aren’t working out, we’ll give you a kid, because that always helps. I have to ask, were you single or in a relationship when you started writing, because the script is very critical of being single and being married.

YL: I was in a relationship. I don’t think you’re only making films that are directly connected to your immediate situation at the moment. Obviously, I’ve been single, I’ve been in relationships, I’ve been in many things, as also has my co-writing partner. Most of it is just about observing things next to us, so it was just like any other film.

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