Yorgos Lanthimos first gained international recognition as a Greek filmmaker with a taste for a particular sort of black comedy, making movies (including Kinetta, Alps, and 2009’s Oscar-nominated Dogtooth) that had one foot in science fiction and another in body horror, and yet still managed to provoke laughs with nightmare scenarios. He broke out in 2015 with The Lobster, starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, a surreal epic set in a world where single people are sent to a hotel to try and find love, and are condemned to be turned into an animal of their choice should they fail. At once sweetly heartbreaking and mesmerizingly disturbing, the film was a cult hit that got a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Lanthimos’s newest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, re-teams him with Farrell in a very different role: While Farrell played the loveless sad-sack protagonist of The Lobster, here he’s a successful heart surgeon named Steven who has a beautiful wife (played by an eminently poised Nicole Kidman), two children, and an expensive home. Steven takes the teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan) under his wing after the death of Martin’s father on his operating table, and things turn sinister as the teen begins to exact an elemental sort of revenge, forcing Steven to make a frightening choice about the future of his family.
The film has all the hallmarks of a Lanthimos movie, including his curious skill with dialogue (his characters usually speak long, expository sentences with a flat, affected monotone) and his taste for macabre plotting. But it also feels like a fascinating new step for the director, one more heavily steeped in gothic drama than bizarre comedy, announcing itself with a startling opening shot of real-life open-heart surgery. I spoke to Lanthimos about his idea of the film ahead of its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival (it is scheduled for U.S. release on October 27). This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
David Sims: I have to tell you, I saw the film a few days ago, and I had very strange dreams that night.
Yorgos Lanthimos: Good, so we went straight to the subconscious, then.
Sims: Did you first come to The Killing of a Sacred Deer thinking about this terrible choice Colin Farrell’s character has to make?
Lanthimos: I think the initial thoughts were around the oddity of a very young person (Martin) trying to get revenge over something an older person has done. And that kind of dynamic, that a teenager can actually terrorize someone grown-up and mature. And, also, the themes of justice and the ambiguity of the situation we choose to put [Farrell’s] character in. He’s a doctor, and whether or not there was any fault, that kind of ambiguity, leading into impossible questions and dilemmas. It’s hard to say one particular thing that sparked the idea, because I work very closely with Efthymis [Filippou]; we write the scripts together, and it’s mostly a dialogue. We start discussing a situation, one says one thing, one says another thing, and it just progresses around ideas we’re interested in.
Sims: Martin—when he presents the rules of this scenario Steven is trapped in—feels like a sort of Rumpelstiltskin, or any sort of demonic figure in fairy tales.
Lanthimos: We didn’t set out to create such a specific association or atmosphere—it was mostly about trying to make this young boy, this teenager, feel both as a young, innocent boy and as someone who’s very mature, with tremendous power over other people. We’re trying to create a balance, which you don’t find everyday in life. We didn’t want him to appear as evil or naïve; we wanted an ambiguity, with elements that you understand. Up to a point, you go with him, and you identify with him and his pain.
Sims: There are all these shots of long hallways, of the camera gliding behind characters. The camera is in motion a lot here, unlike your other films.
Lanthimos: You are right, there’s much more movement than in any of my previous films. I never think about it much, the visual aspect of it, until we start making the movie. I don’t really think about it when we write. When we finish, and I start putting the film together, and we pick the locations, I do think about that a lot. On this one, I just felt the need for the camera to be almost like another entity, in some ways. Like there’s another, otherworldly presence—very discreetly. I thought of these high angles, or very low angles, with the camera following people around, creeping from below or above. That was the initial feel that I thought was fitting to the whole story. And then you face actual hospitals, they have long corridors, so obviously you work with that. What you thought of as an initial approach takes shape because of your surroundings.
Sims: You do an excellent job capturing what can be a little frightening about a hospital: that it can be a little too clean, that it can be eerily quiet.
Lanthimos: The most important thing for me about the hospital was that it looked state-of-the-art and new, that it wasn’t a Gothic-type old hospital. Both as a juxtaposition to the genre the film flirts with, but also in terms of the story, that was the most important part for me. I wanted nobody to think that this was a terrible hospital, and that’s why nobody’s figuring out what’s wrong. It needed to feel like all the scientific resources were there, that Colin’s a successful surgeon who knows what he’s doing.
Sims: You capture that in his home, as well—that everything looks so pristine and modern and very classy and expensive, that despite all of that, there’s nothing he can do as his children begin to get sick. Which is very scary!
Lanthimos: Yeah, you feel helpless.
Sims: But this movie more exists in ‘the real world,’ versus something like The Lobster. Were you thinking of larger world-building, or was that less of a concern?
Lanthimos: No, you’re right, The Lobster is very particular, and we did need to create a very specific world with specific rules so the whole premise would work. But the way we thought about this story, it seemed it would take place in the normal world; well, the world that we know. [Laughs.] I don’t know that it’s normal, but the world that we live in. Within this world that we’re familiar with, something odd and otherworldly happens. So it was important that it felt like the real world, so that the situation did seem extreme and strange and impossible to deal with.
Sims: Did you always figure on casting Colin again?
Lanthimos: No, we wrote this [movie] after The Lobster, but as with the visual stuff, I don’t think about actors or anything else while we’re writing the script. I try to keep the process quite separate, so that I’m open to anything. But I had a great experience working with Colin on The Lobster, and it seemed like an excellent fit. It’s quite a different role from The Lobster, quite more challenging and complex. It’s also great to create these kinds of relationships and then try to evolve with the other people and try to do different things. Next time, things are easier and you can go further.
Sims: It is a very different role in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In The Lobster, he’s very befuddled, it’s a more outwardly comedic character, while here his character is on top of the world. What kind of an impression did you want him to give at the start of the movie?
Lanthimos: We don’t talk much; I try not to say too many things with the actors. Not to analyze too many things about the film, because I think it’s better for the process. The way I work, and the material we work with, I think if you analyze too much and have too many specific ideas, it just becomes a little bit too superficial, and then performances might become too self-conscious and project relatively narrow things. Whereas I cherish ambiguity, and surprise, and actors that are present in the moment, and not trying to get through particular ideas in the scene, or in the moment. That approach limits the resonance of scenes in general. So I do try to stay away, as much as possible, from having too many detailed discussions about what it is, and what the character is. Definitely no background story—all I know is what’s on the page.
And of course, Colin knows that, from working together before. So he did have questions at the beginning, probably something like what you said. The only thing I remember, the only thing we discussed, is he said, “This is more of a grounded world, right? It’s more real?” And I said, “Yeah, yeah. But, you know.” And he said, “Yeah, I know.” He’s a very smart guy, he has a great sense of humor, he gets our work, and he gets the material. You don’t have to go into great length trying to explain it or figure it out. It’s just about fine-tuning, about helping the actors find the right volume, or tone, or speed. So I work more in physical ways like that. Usually, I say, “This is too loud, or too slow,” I never go too intellectual with their performances.
Sims: There is a particular rhythm to your dialogue and how it’s delivered. So I assume you take care that everything is said in that rhythm.
Lanthimos: Yeah. That’s partially true, but I think the writing and the material also has a very strong imprint, it’s kind of there. All the talented and smart actors, they get it; as soon as it comes out of their mouth, they know if it’s right or wrong. If the writing has a particular voice, they get it, and they can hit it. I’ve been very lucky, and I’ve worked with great actors, and actors that know and appreciate my previous work, and that helps a lot as well. They’re aware of the universe, though every film is different, obviously. But I think they understand the intention.
Sims: Was that true of Nicole Kidman? Was she acquainted with your work?
Lanthimos: It was a similar situation; she was aware of my work, and we had met a couple of times before. Obviously, I admire her very much, and she’d seen some of my films, and we met and were always talking about doing something together. We started sending out the script, she read it and texted me saying, “I love it, and I want to do it.” And I just replied, “Okay.” And that was it! And the experience was great. She’s extremely committed and hard-working and talented, obviously. It was just about fine-tuning all these things. And she had a great relationship with Colin, and they went on, after we wrapped, a few weeks later they were on another set together [in The Beguiled].
Sims: Have you seen it?
Lanthimos: No, I want to watch it!
Sims: I was also very happy to see Alicia Silverstone, in that one important scene as Martin’s mother. She’s an actress I’ve loved for a long time, and you don’t see her on screen as much these days. Were you thinking of her, when it came time to cast the movie?
Lanthimos: I have to say, I didn’t! My casting director thought of her. As you said, I was a huge fan; I’d seen Clueless when I was a teenager a thousand times, the Aerosmith music videos, and all that. But because she had fallen off my radar, I didn’t think of her, I’m ashamed to say. But our casting director, Francine [Maisler], I think she saw her in a play, near when we were casting, and as soon as she mentioned her, I said, “Yes! Let’s do that!” And she was amazing, it’s perfect. She came in and out, unfortunately only for a day, but it was really fun to do it with her.
Sims: That first shot of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, of open-heart surgery on an operating table, really announces the film in a particular way. What were you thinking when you decided to open the film that way?
Lanthimos: I wasn’t thinking, really. [Laughs.] It just felt right—a film about a heart surgeon opens with a heart. And as you get into it, you think about the most impactful way of doing that, and the simplest way, at the same time. At the beginning, we wrote this scene that was much more elaborate, with many shots of the doctors, and scalpels, and the machines in the operating theater. But we shot the actual operation first, the shot that is in the film, a few days before principal photography started, because it took a lot of preparation, and there’s a lot of protocol, and everything had to be sterilized. It was the first shot we did, it was the first shot of the film, and as soon as I saw it I just felt that I didn’t need to shoot anything else.