It’s a sunny Los Angeles afternoon and Yorgos Lanthimos is lounging at Chateau Marmont, laughing as we joke over the use of the C-word in his film The Favourite. Living in London, Lanthimos hears the term all the time. It’s another story in America where the word is more often frowned upon.
The Favourite is Lanthimos’ first ever period piece. It involves Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and the 1708 goings-on in her royal court. From physical ailments to war strategies to a tangled triangle that includes Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, The Favourite is delightfully wicked and filled with outré humor that only Lanthimos can deliver.
The film is filled with daring and bold lensing choices from wide-angle shots to close-ups to fish-eye perspectives, Lanthimos’ style gives The Favourite a unique and individual dash of baroque compostions. He talks about his influences as we sat down over coffee to discuss his film.
Deborah Davis started this project with her love for the royals since she was a little girl, and then the story came your way. What was it about the story that made you take it on?
The story itself. I read something that was true. There were these three women who had power and could affect the lives of millions. I loved reading what they went through especially that of Queen Anne and what she went through with her health and miscarriages and reading all that she had gone through. That whole triangle of relationships and characters that you’d have to explore in depth.
You couldn’t just say there was a weak and stupid queen or this woman was obsessed with power and wanted to run the country, and there was this other manipulator that came in. That’s a very easy way to simplify and reduce things. By reading this, I realized there was a lot going on and all of them are so complicated and complex. There was a lot to show around that.
Also the fact that it was a period piece and I’d never done that before. I really wanted to try it out. I think period gives you a distance to observe things. You can go about telling a story that feels more conventional in a way, but also gives you a distance so you can see things and themes more clearly. You have choices to make. It’s a period we know about through paintings and texts, but all this is because it’s so filtered. My approach is it allows you to do so much, reinvent things because we can’t be certain about everything. It’s almost like science fiction, you can make the world how you wish to. With period, people tend to stick to the facts and images that we know from what we have, so that was intriguing. I knew I had to make it my own and to make it feel like the film that I wanted to make.
As you said, there’s on so much we can know about the women from books and paintings. How did you find that balance in setting them in history, but at the same time crafting them to be your own and giving their story contemporary appeal?
That’s how I approached it because Deborah had done all the research. When it came my way, the producers and I realized Tony McNamara had the voice that we were looking for in order to do what we wanted. It was taking that knowledge and transforming it into something that felt something near to us and would create a world that felt more modern. All the decisions such as taking liberties with the story and characters to make them complicated rather than one-dimensional. We wanted the audience to understand different things about them and relate to them in a different way so that it wasn’t a one-note thing. We also chose to use more contemporary language, we didn’t want to imitate the way people spoke at the time.
In the visual creation of the whole thing, we thought we could texturize it in a contemporary way.
You made Hatfield House almost unrecognizable. I loved that you stripped it back to transform it the way you did.
We did a lot to make it our own. We also shot in other locations like Hampton Court.
You’ve used the long shots to following characters down hallways as you’ve sometimes done before. How did architecture serve you in this film?
The architecture was always important to me from the beginning. It highlights people’s journeys both physically and in the story as well. You have the servants who live downstairs and then they go upstairs to meet the masters. Then you have the secret relationship and the secret corridor and it’s locked and it’s dark and you go from one room to another. These huge spaces exist, but there are very few rooms we see in the film. There’s also the juxtaposition between the few people in there, the lone figures and the wide space. We used wide-angle lenses to enhance that and we distorted the space. That I felt reflected a lot of themes in the film.
Space and architecture, especially the interiors felt so important. When they were outside, in the shooting scenes, there was this place where the two of them could have their relationship progress. They’re points in the film where you see the changes in the relationship.
You divide the film by chapters and end with I Dreamt I Stabbed You In The Eye. Talk about that decision there. Was that on the page or in the edit?
It was all about the music. It wasn’t that way on the page, but when I was working on the edit, I felt I needed rhythmic punctuation. The film moved quickly and people were ascending with very few scenes. Relationships were being created and evolving. I felt that punctuation was needed to signify the passage of time. It was a musical thing and I felt it was humorous and playful thing to use lines from the film. It actually came up in the edit, but I felt I needed that early on.
I love your cinematic style and your bold choices. Nothing that was too shocking for anyone having grown up with European cinema, but were there any particular choices influenced by other films?
There weren’t direct influences. We referenced and talked about a lot of films, ones that had taken bold approaches. For the costumes, something we talked about early on with Sandy Powell was Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract. It’s a very striking film and they limited the palette. They used simpler fabrics. Cries and Whispers was another one I thought about. It’s about these three women in this house and they just wear black and white in this red room. It was similar to ours.
Filmically speaking, we watched Zulawski’s Possession and looked at the camera movement. The Cremator by Juraj Herz was black and white, he uses wide angle lenses juxtaposed with tight close-ups. I always look at Miklós Jancsó, it’s not about copying anything. It’s just about the power of cinema and people who have done bold things and people who can inspire you to do something different and to figure out something new.
What was your audition process for the film?
With Emma, it was about the accent. I wanted to make sure she could easily acquire that in order for us to work free from that constraint. It was proved so quickly that she was great at the accent. Also because I’m Greek, I couldn’t tell the slight differences that would make something work or not. I had to work with dialect coaches to make sure that they felt strongly about what she could do. Also to protect her.
Nicholas had a small audition mostly because he was younger than we had imagined and I wanted to see how that worked.
It was a little complicated casting the film. I knew I wanted to work with the women, but it was about timing. It’s the biggest film I’ve done so far so putting it together had some restrictions with who I could cast. I had worked with Olivia before and had no one else in mind for the role but her. I don’t know if I could have made this without her. Emma, I met. We cast her two years before the film was made. Sometimes, I’d have one actress free and then the other wasn’t so we had to wait. I needed it to fall into place and eventually, it did.
I really wouldn’t have made any film if I wasn’t happy with the cast. With this film, it felt that every time something didn’t fall into place, so we just waited. I didn’t want to find another solution. I had a strong feeling about who would work with what I wrote.
What about some of the music choices in the film?
I love music in general. It’s one of the parts of the process I enjoy while editing. I like trying music in the film and what I’m going to use. In this case, I tried to find music that was loyal to the period. I tried finding things that hadn’t been used so much. There was that and I wanted to use some contemporary stuff and find a way to fit it in. We were doing things creatively and that’s what I wanted to do with the music too. I researched experimental music. We tried and that’s what it’s about, trial and error.
I was speaking to your DP, Robbie Ryan. We were talking about the angles of your shots. Someone had told him that maybe the low angle shots were from the POV of the rabbits.
[laughs] I’m actually going to use that next time. It works. We invented the rabbits and wanted a symbol of what this woman had gone through without it being literal and dark.
We don’t know though if she really had rabbits because history is so curated.