Yorgos Lanthimos discusses his approach to shooting The Lobster, designing the sound, and blocking the action. Actress Ariane Labed explains how she prepared for the part and how training as a dancer influenced her performance. We named Rachel Weisz’s performance in the film one of the best of 2016.
A year after taking home the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Yorgos Lanthimos’ bizarre and romantic English-language debut, The Lobster, is finally hitting American cinemas. Featuring a cast of A-list actors, including Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, Olivia Colman, and Lea Seydoux, the film is delightfully offbeat, and one of the best of the year.
Colin Farrell stars as a David, whose wife recently dumped him, forcing him to take up house in a state-operated luxury hotel designed to help him find a mate in thirty days. If he fails, he’ll be turned into an animal of his choice. Days at the hotel are spent doing regimented leisure activities, with the hope of discovering a unique connection with someone else, like a shared propensity for nosebleeds or a permanent limp. The film is a biting satire about the cultural pressure to conform — couple push others into coupledom, while singles abhor romance — but finds a sweet, character-driven story beneath the artifice.
When the film screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this month, I sat down with Lanthimos and actress Ariane Labed, who plays a maid at the hotel that becomes David’s unexpected ally. We talked about Lanthimos’ approach to shooting the film, designing the sound, and blocking the action, as well as how Labed’s training as a dancer influenced her performance.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you frame the shots to create enough distance so that we could laugh at what’s going on?
Yorgos Lanthimos (YL): One of the main things I thought was necessary was to have a certain kind of distance. We never came too close to the actors, which both helps with their performances and the whole feel of the scene but also creates a certain kind of visual language.
I watched the reality series “The Hotel,” the first season. I was interested to see how observational you can get and what kind of feeling that gave. It influenced our choice of camera setups, not to make it look like a reality show but to have a certain kind of voyeuristic feel for the film.'I was interested to see how observational you can get and what kind of feeling that gave. It influenced our choice of camera setups, to have a certain kind of voyeuristic feel for the film.' -Yorgos LanthimosClick To Tweet
7R: I noticed a lot of the time you’re shooting the actors at 45 degree angles from the side in The Lobster.
YL: I never wanted the camera in front of their faces so going to the side helps for that. For me, it creates a certain feeling that you’re observing someone and it’s not a very set-up, stylized — well, it might become stylized in a different way — but it’s not something which is straightforward and set-up as a proper film.
7R: Ariane, I know that you have trained as a dancer. How has that training influenced how you put together a character in a very physical way?
Ariane Labed (AL): That’s always how I work, because that’s what I know. I never work in a very psychological way. For the maid, because she’s a kind of shadow presence all the time, and she’s not very talkative, it was more like ‘how can you be present but seem like you’re not there’ — like a chair, in a hotel. In the forest, it was much more like I tried to take up more space, like ‘I do exist,’ like the dance. Something over-the-top. It’s something physical that for sure has an impact of the psychological aspect of the character. I just don’t want it to be the starting point, but in the end, I think it creates a very pathetic character, which I love.
7R: When you’re thinking about how to fade into the background, how do you think about doing that in The Lobster?
Ariane Labed: Just trying not to breathe too hard, trying not to take up too much space. It’s really practical. In relation with space, and the way Yorgos said he was shooting, you never had the camera close to your eyes and having to pretend like it’s not there. It gives you more emotional freedom. We had actually a lot of space to walk with the space and each other as actors. It’s actually a very generous way to work for the actors, this kind of logic.'I never work in a very psychological way... It's something physical that for sure has an impact of the psychological aspect of the character.' -Ariane LabedClick To Tweet
For training, that was more concrete. We were living in this hotel where we shot, which was crazy. It was very useful to be all the time there. I went with the real maid, and I was learning how to fix a bed, and going crazy staying in the corridors of the hotel when I was not shooting.
It was very mechanical, because that’s her job and what she does every day. It’s half the costume and half the text. It’s a proper, clear uniform. You wear that and you’re obliged to be stiff, which is very concrete. All these things helped a lot. Whatever is concrete helps.
7R: How did you think about shooting the hunt and some of the dating sequences that are like a hunt within the hotel in The Lobster? I’m thinking of that scene in the swimming pool where the camera is tracking Ben Whishaw’s character going after the woman with nosebleeds and pretending to have a nosebleed.
YL: The hunt was shot in slow motion for two reasons. One was practical: we didn’t have enough space to have people running around so fast and for so long. And we thought that if we shot in slow motion, we’d be able to have actions be elongated and enhanced. We thought it would give the funny aspect of that whole sequence, and make it even more ridiculous. But then we would counter that with music and the actual feeling of it, which is quite violent and pathetic — having all these poor people from the hotel chasing the loners and trying to capture them.'In relation with space, and the way Yorgos was shooting, you never had the camera close to your eyes and having to pretend like it's not there. It gave us more emotional freedom.' -Ariane LabedClick To Tweet
The swimming pool scene was about being able to focus on one of the two characters and kind of imply what’s going on with their story. We tried to have Ben Whishaw’s character getting the first nosebleed be quite discreet. He’s very far in the background. All these leisurely activities, the swimming pool and ballroom and having a drink at the bar, all have this very specific purpose. The whole system is trying to push people into being together and finding someone.
7R: How did you think about using sound? There’s the windshield wipers at the beginning that are the heartbeat to the scene, then there’s the head bang, and you have other scenes where you’re cutting out all the sound and replacing it with score.
YL: I think it was a trial and error kind of thing. We worked a lot with Johnnie Burn, the sound designer for the film. This was the first time that I actually used music as soundtrack extensively. The way the music comes in and out is quite abrupt. It plays quite loud. It’s very present when it comes in.
We tried to be quite simple in how we constructed the world, without too many effects. One of the important decisions was that the real, natural sound would be cut off when you hear the voiceover and the music that went with it. You put certain rules into place, and according to the scene, you might cheat a bit or make a variation that makes it a bit more interesting for that scene.
7R: You have a lot of really beautiful landscape shots that are really quite romantic.
YL: I wanted to have the contradiction of something quite dark, the oppression and the very structured world, with the beauty of the landscape, the music, the romance, the comedy. I was just trying to balance all these different elements within the film and make it something more complex than a dark film or a funny film or a romantic film. We were just trying to include everything to make it feel more real in life than going to one direction.'I wanted the contradiction of something quite dark, with the beauty of the landscape, the romance, the comedy. I wanted to balance all these elements to have something more complex than a dark, funny, or romantic film.' -Yorgos LanthimosClick To Tweet
Whenever we had the opportunity to open up with wide shots, I think we took it. It’s not, at the same time, becoming picturesque for no reason. There was enough contradiction between the beautiful landscape and the people within and the darkness surrounding them.