Growing up in Greece, Yorgos Lanthimos never imagined he’d one day be making films for a living, much less an English period movie like The Favourite.
“There was no structure, no industry and no education around filmmaking in Greece,” he explains. “There was no proper, decent, serious film school. I had to go to a small private school to engage with filmmaking. So it was slowly that I started going towards that direction by saying, ‘I will study film in order to become a commercials director,’ which was something that existed and which felt like a job that could earn you a living from.
“So I entered film school through that route and, of course, I fell in love with everything that I was learning. I did start by making commercials for many years. It was a great schooling for me because that was the only way in Greece to engage with technical filmmaking and to meet people around you who were also interested in making films.”
Having since enjoyed success with the disturbing black comedy Dogtooth (2009) and English-language films The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), Athens-born director Yorgos Lanthimos has delivered perhaps his most mainstream movie to date with The Favourite.
Nominated for 10 Academy Awards this year including Best Picture, and winner of Best Actress for Olivia Colman, the film follows the tumultuous relationship between British monarch Queen Anne (Colman) and her two court favourites, played by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. A showcase for its three talented leads, Lanthimos observes that the depiction of powerful women on film is nothing new.
“With this particular story it is more that you have three women that had such power at that point in time. That makes it stand out and I think it resonates more right now because of what is happening [in wider society],” he says. “We are recognising that it is not just about women on film. It is their position everywhere. We see it from that perspective as well. Of course, when I first read the script nine years ago it wasn’t in my mind that we were going to make something unique or great because there are no films ever made with three women leads. But it was rare… and I just felt that it was a great opportunity to write three great, complex female characters and work with three great actresses. It just felt like something I hadn’t done and I hadn’t seen that often. It just intrigued me.”
The director’s sense of the absurd – a key element of his previous films – remains very much to the fore in The Favourite, which features duck racing, a hilariously modern dance sequence and a menagerie of rabbits that share the Queen’s chamber, representing each of the children she has lost.
“Interestingly, the rabbits were easier than I thought,” he says of directing the animals. “They hung out around us and they pooped a little bit but it wasn’t too big a deal. I found that most of the time they ended up in the right side of the frame, or at least somewhere in the right spot. So that was easier.
“The ducks were a little bit more complicated because they had to do a very specific thing and we had to find ways of following them without obstructing their way. It just took a little bit more time, logistically. We had to figure it out. But it wasn’t such a huge deal.”
Although subverting the clichés of period drama, Lanthimos says that the matter of the Queen’s same-sex affairs isn’t teated as scandalous, but simply part of the story.
“I specifically didn’t want to make it an issue. Nobody in the film comments on it. It doesn’t appear as a weird thing or anything like that. On the other hand, we are not trying to shock people or scandalise them or show something that is really provoking. I just try to deal with it in the context of this story. There is a love story in it as well. I don’t care if it is between two women, two men, three women or a man and two women. I didn’t care. I just took it.
“What I was interested in was the characters, their behaviour and how their relationships affect a whole country. That was the important thing and I deliberately didn’t want the sexuality to become a thing, that it was a homosexual relationship or a heterosexual relationship. I just took it for granted, as it was. Back in those days it wasn’t such a big thing, either. It wasn’t talked about so much as now. It just happened. I don’t think they paid so much attention to it.”