Director Yorgos Lanthimos on his Irish-produced period film The Favourite

Emma Stone in The Favourite, which opens next Tuesday.

The Favourite is already being talked up for Oscars. Its director tells Esther McCarthy all about the Irish-produced period film.

HIS dark, singular and wickedly funny films have already established him as one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. Now Yorgos Lanthimos has again joined forces with an Irish production company — a collaboration that could bring them all the way to the Oscars.

Critical praise and awards have been abundant for The Favourite, a comedy of royal manners unlike any we’ve ever seen, set during the reign of Queen Anne in the early 18th century. The film is widely expected to nab Oscar nominations for all three of its female stars — Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone — and could also be in the running for best picture, director and cinematography.

All three of the Greek director’s English-language films have been produced by Irish outfit Element Pictures. We Irish like to lay claim to his work, I tell Lanthimos when we meet to discuss the film. “Well, I guess they are!” he laughs.

He has a point. The Lobster, an absurdist black comedy set in a dystopia when people had to find a life partner or be turned into an animal of their choosing, was filmed at Parknasilla in Co Kerry and Blanchardstown Shopping Centre in Dublin, and starred our own Colin Farrell.

Farrell returned, along with rising Irish star Barry Keoghan, for The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a pitch-black tale of a young man who wields extraordinary power over a top surgeon and his family.

His successful collaboration with Element came about after Lanthimos caused a sensation with his film Dogtooth, about a family of siblings kept ignorant of the outside world by their parents. It got a best foreign language Oscar nomination and a lot of attention. He met with the Irish producers around this time.

Emma Stone and director Yorgos Lanthimos on the set of The Favourite.

“It actually started with The Favourite,” he says. “The first time I met them they had this script. They approached me after I’d made Dogtooth. Dogtooth was Oscar-nominated and won Cannes and all that, so I guess at that point I was becoming a little known, or heard of.

“I was interested in it but I wanted to work on it. Because it took a long time to find the right writer, to find the right tone, during that time I ended up finishing The Lobster. We made The Lobster and we worked well together. And because The Favourite was taking a lot of time we decided to make The Killing of a Sacred Deer before and then this ended up being our latest collaboration.

“We do have other things that we’ve developed together. I think we’ve developed this relationship where we appreciate each other and understand each other, have a shorthand. We try and improve with every film that we make, learn from our mistakes. I think it’s useful when you have a relationship that progresses, that you can build on and learn from what you did before. For the time being, we’re happy working together and developing projects. It’s a fruitful collaboration.”

Lanthimos had never made a period film before The Favourite, and he was interested in making a film set in a different time, but one that relates to our time, believing there are ongoing similarities in human behaviour.

Set during the reign of Queen Anne (a terrific Colman) it centres on the extreme lengths Abigail (Stone) and Sarah (Weisz) will go to in order to be the queen’s top courtier. It has very modern sensibilities.

“I think most of it was instinctive and then you realise later why you are interested in certain things, why you do certain things,” he says.

“For many various reasons I was intrigued by this story, these women. The fact that it was three women who had these positions of power, how it related to a much bigger world. How their relationships and behaviour affected so many other people.

“Then you start to realise that although this is a period film and it’s interesting to be able to make something that has that kind of distance, at the same time it makes you realise even more how things remain unchanged, how similar they remain. If the clothes we wear and technology around us has changed, people are the same.”

He and his cast and crew worked to a modest budget by period-film standards. “In our case all of the costumes had to be made from scratch because it is a period that hasn’t really been portrayed that often on film. But also, we were trying to make something quite specific which wasn’t necessarily loyal to the period. We were trying to infuse the film with various contemporary textures.

“I kind of enjoy the distance that you can have by making a period film. The distance from reality and realism which allows you, I think, to observe human behaviour in a more maybe clear way than if you were seeing something which was too close to where you are.”

The film could well see Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan get an Oscar nomination for his stunning work. “He’s an amazing camera operator,” agrees Lanthimos. “I thought he was someone who would help me move forward, because I think I’ve been trying in the last few years to try different things and push what I’m doing further and experiment a little bit. He’s ready for any challenge and I really appreciate that.”

The cast milks The Favourite’s script, filled with barbed insults and caustic put-downs, for all its worth and the movie has an unhinged feel. “The tone and the dialogue of the film was very much constructed from before,” explains Lanthimos. “The freedom comes from working with the actors later on. We rehearse a lot. I try to instil a certain spirit of freedom in how we approach a period film, that they shouldn’t be thinking about how people are portrayed in period films, because a lot of times, there’s a very particular way that we think people moved and spoke at the time. I was trying to go against all those pre-conceived notions. We think that everything was very still, stilted.

“We worked a lot physically in order to gain a freedom and devise a way of them interacting physically. How they walked, how they smacked each other, how they danced. It was done with a lot of work and choreography, taking a different approach to physicality in a period film.”

Stone was onboard the project from a very early stage and as Lanthimos assembled his other leading ladies he turned to Weisz and Colman, with whom he’d both worked on The Lobster. Colman, in particular, could lead an Oscar charge for her virtuoso work here.

“I could understand that it would be a very difficult role to cast, there are so many different aspects of her, many different mood swings. A mercuriality in all of that. As soon as I thought of Olivia then I couldn’t think of anyone else. We had to sometimes push the film and change the dates in order to get everyone. Olivia was someone very early on I thought of and couldn’t change my mind on.”

- The Favourite opens in cinemason Tuesday, January 1.

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