Yorgos Lanthimos • Director of Poor Things
“I want to push things further with each film”
- VENICE 2023: Even if his feature is being praised for the uniqueness of its style and his filmmaking approach, the Greek director is wary of saying there’s nothing quite like it
The first big Venice Golden Lion contender to generate a lot of buzz on the Lido is a wacky, liberated period film with the rather innocuous title Poor Things [+see also:
Q&A: Yorgos Lanthimos
film profile]. The newest offering by Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos is his second adapted feature, co-written with Tony McNamara, after the black comedy The Favourite [+see also:
film profile]. Also for the second time, Lanthimos pairs with actress Emma Stone to deliver a dazzling adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s 1992 gothic novel of the same name.
Even if the feature is being praised for the uniqueness of its style and Lanthimos’s filmmaking approach, the helmer is wary of saying that there’s nothing quite like it. “Maybe in our time, there aren’t many films like it,” he added during the press conference for the picture on the Lido, “but there have been [adapted] films throughout time that are exceptional.” Nevertheless, many critics wouldn’t hesitate to use that same adjective to describe the fantastical world of Poor Things, shown from the point of view of a woman (named Bella Baxter) who starts her life anew, without judgement, shame or social restraints.
Collaboration and adaptation
“We decided it would be her story, her film,” Lanthimos said. In Gray’s novel, there are a lot of literary and distancing devices that tell a layered story, presented as objective. Poor Things, the film, changed the structure of its primary text and its ending, but kept the essence of the novel, the humour, the tone and the locales. They were, of course, built on sets. “As soon as I read the novel, I realised we needed to build a world for Bella to inhabit.” Rather than using the world as we know it as a blueprint, he wanted something “slightly skewed, according to Bella’s perspective”. The use of bright colours, fantastical elements and fish-eye lenses “all led us to build everything in a studio and add all the non-realistic elements, all of which, in turn, lent themselves to being filmed in an unconventional way”.
Emma Stone as Bella Baxter
“Emma Stone was involved very early on,” Lanthimos said. While they were working together on his previous feature, The Favourite, the script for Poor Things was already in development. He adds that the actress “was excited by the prospect of playing this character and wanted to be involved as much as possible”. She also came on board as a producer and was part of the exchange of ideas regarding the design of the film world. “I think that actually helped with her performance a lot because she kept this idea in her mind for a long time, and when the time came, she had lived with this character for a while, albeit not necessarily in a conscious way.”
Expressing his regret that Emma Stone cannot speak about the film at present because of the ongoing SAG strikes, Lanthimos said that intimacy was an intrinsic part of the novel. “It was important for me not to make a film that was prudish, because that would be betraying the main character, so we had to be confident. Since the character had no shame, Emma had to have no shame about her body and about nudity in those scenes, and she understood that right away.”
Even if they were working in studios and on big sets with a large crew and lights, they still managed to maintain the right kind of atmosphere for the sex scenes through the use of practical lighting and windows. Because of this, they could have very few people in the room, with the actors creating a “comfortable, intimate environment. […] I want to credit Elle McAlpine, our intimacy coordinator. At the beginning, this profession might have felt a little threatening to some filmmakers, but if you work with a good person, it’s great, and you realise you actually need them. She made everything so much easier for everyone, both during and after the rehearsal process.”
Development of the film’s style
Even in the attempts to concoct a believable representation of human desires and all their idiosyncrasies, one can spot Lanthimos’s dedication to finding the right tools that fit his vision and ideas. “I’m interested in filmmaking and aesthetics that serve the way I want to tell stories, and in pushing that further with each film. Pushing it further doesn’t necessarily mean going to more extreme places,” he added, “although in this case, it does seem like it.” The flamboyant visual style of Poor Things makes it an exciting follow-up to The Favourite, where the royal-court aesthetics were counterbalanced by streaks of darkness, grief and betrayal.
As for what’s next for the Greek filmmaker, it’s the anthology film AND, which wrapped shooting late last year (see the news). Lanthimos has also shot a new movie in Greece, he shared, countering the rumours that he might not be returning to work in his home country any time soon. For this untitled project, which is also lensed by Robbie Ryan and stars Emma Stone, he says that it is “much simpler and very different in comparison to Poor Things because that story needed that particular style.”
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