‘Killing Of A Sacred Deer’ also stars Nicole Kidman and Barry Keoghan as a terrifying teen who psychologically dominates a surgeon
Yorgos Lanthimos is staring at me intently. I’ve just shared my theory on his new film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and he wants me to repeat it from the beginning. The Greek auteur specialises in creating awkward situations, but I seem to be doing the work for him.
Firstly, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which marks Lanthimos’ follow-up to The Lobster, is a psychological revenge-thriller without any actual deer. Like The Lobster, it stars Colin Farrell, this time as Steven, a surgeon who meets up regularly with a terrifying teen called Martin (Barry Keoghan). Steven is afraid of upsetting Martin. The bearded surgeon reluctantly answers each of the kid’s innocuous questions, even showing him armpit hair upon request. Steven frets over the wellbeing of his wife, Anna, played by Nicole Kidman, and their two children. One day, the daughter inexplicably loses the ability to use her legs, and from there it gets bleaker and bleaker.
The plot, I suggest, reflects Lanthimos’ experience with junkets for The Lobster. The surgeon, who plays God, is the filmmaker who carves out human lives with a scalpel. Martin, the younger figure, represents the journalist he meets up with for brief, organised chats. They pretend it’s natural but there’s an unspoken transaction at play. Steven knows that a wrong word could have repercussions and this kid, oddly enough, wields some power in the relationship.
Lanthimos continues to ponder, then breaks the silence. “I think it says more about you than the film itself,” he chuckles. “That’s why I leave open doors and open questions. People get to engage with their own personalities.” I realise it’s a deflection tactic: he doesn’t want to explain the movie. “The best way to watch a film is to not know anything about the person who made it.”
Lanthimos and Farrell are in London when I speak to them separately at Soho Hotel during the London Film Festival. It’s a peculiar movie to be receiving the red carpet gala treatment, but then again, who predicted The Lobster would snag an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay? The Lobster, if you haven’t seen it, imagines a dystopia in which Farrell has 45 days to find a romantic partner, or else be transformed into an animal of his choosing. In interviews for The Lobster – and, indeed, Dogtooth and Alps – Lanthimos refused to reveal his artistic motives, and it’s a policy he’s maintaining for Sacred Deer.
It’s somewhat reassuring that Farrell, who’s particularly upbeat and thrilled to discuss the film, receives the same enigmatic treatment from Lanthimos. “We never speak about it,” the actor says. “We don’t have very long conversations, Yorgos and I, and nor do we need to. He doesn’t want to get into a conversation about the emotional or psychological logistics of the character.” Does it help the performance, then, being confused? “Not so much confused. It’s more that you find yourself somewhere between clarity and confusion. It’s a weird thing to define.”
“You find yourself somewhere between clarity and confusion. It’s a weird thing to define” – Colin Farrell
Farrell describes it more as a strange sense of ease he feels upon Lanthimos’ sets. “As actors, we don’t have to deal with the awkwardness. The characters onscreen aren’t feeling the same awkwardness that the audience are dealing with. We’re just responding to each other – ‘My daughter just started menstruating’ – It’s like, who the fuck says that at a cocktail party? But that’s where the conflict comes from. It’s the liberation of not having to paint your emotional life onto the characters.”
That Farrell doesn’t pester Lanthimos with questions is partly why, the director says, the pair’s relationship is so fruitful. “Uncertainty helps keep actors on edge,” Lanthimos says. “They have to justify what their characters do in their heads, and it’s truer to life if they don’t know what’s going on.” Along with The Lobster and Sacred Deer, the pair are hoping to do a TV series called Ollie about the Iran-Contra scandal. “He’ll definitely show up and know the lines,” Lanthimos jokes. “I believe it’s good to build on relationships. I like him as a person and as an actor. He understands my filmmaking language.” (When I ask Farrell about this last bit, he responds, “What?”)
At Cannes, Sacred Deer received both boos and adoration – including a Best Screenplay award for Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou. So like The Lobster, people love it just as much as they hate it. It begins with a close-up zoom of open-heart surgery and climaxes with a sequence more disturbing than Farrell blinding himself towards the end of The Lobster. Of course, it’s also darkly funny. The deadpan dialogue has been perfected (or made even more unbearable, depending on your taste) and I have to assume it’s thanks to Farrell. After all, Lanthimos’ characters didn’t enunciate with this flat, idiosyncratic rhythm in his earlier Greek-language films like Dogtooth and Alps.
“Write that down!” Farrell laughs. “Tell him I invented it! No, I don’t know. Honestly, it’s the way it came out of my mouth when I read it aloud for the first time. I thought David, my character from The Lobster, was so lacking in any kind of emotional context, was so without guile, was so un-manipulative; he had no social tricks or gimmicks to lean on; he’s just a really pure character. It came from there: I didn’t put anything on it at all.”
Amazingly, another A-list actor was originally supposed to star in The Lobster. “I think he fell out of it because of scheduling,” Farrell discloses, casually. “Yeah, he’s a great actor. But you know who it was, no?” He’s about to say who, then stops himself when he notices my eyes light up. “Now you’re making me think I shouldn’t.” I say he definitely should reveal the name, but it’s too late. For some reason, he thought it was public information. “He’s a lovely actor, and I always would have been interested to see what he would have done with it.” (“You should’ve been more manipulative,” he tells me after the interview).
Whereas Farrell almost blurts out too much by accident, Lanthimos tends to answer questions with questions. Is Sacred Deer a continuation of The Lobster? The director smiles and responds, “Hmmm. What makes you ask that?” Because Alps takes the family themes of Dogtooth into a wider world, which is what Sacred Deer seems to do with The Lobster. No? “Hmmm. Tell me more about this.” I do, at length, about how both films address a need to conform to a societal status quo, and he responds with one word: “Interesting.”
Lanthimos is similarly cryptic about the placement of Bill Murray’s “I’m not a god” scene from Groundhog Day in Martin’s living room (“it just felt funny”) and why Ellie Goulding’s music plays such a big role (“I just like it”). He can’t deny, though, the significance of Greek mythology.
“When we started writing it early on,” Lanthimos recalls, “we realised there are similarities to the premise of Euripides’ tragedy Iphigenia, and we thought it’d be interesting to reference it. It’s astounding that these themes and issues have been explored since ancient times, and here we are in modern times, and we don’t have any different answers. Our thought process hasn’t progressed more than it had before, to be able to deal with those kinds of dilemmas and moral issues.”
If Sacred Deer is a retelling of Iphigenia, then Keoghan’s Martin is Artemis, a Hellenic goddess of wild animals. How did Lanthimos find someone like Keoghan who can convey pure evil? “I hope he’s not just evil,” the director says. “I saw hundreds of young actors, because I was looking for someone who could be evil, sympathetic, awkward, charming and funny at the same time. He creates that kind of complexity.”
“I was looking for someone who could be evil, sympathetic, awkward, charming and funny at the same time. He creates that kind of complexity” – Yorgos Lanthimos
The claustrophobia is heightened by ominous sound cues and Kubrickian blasts of György Ligeti. It’s no coincidence that the sound designer, Johnnie Burn, also worked on Under the Skin. “The music is like a character in itself,” Lanthimos says. “If you use music boldly at the front of a scene, it creates another level. With Johnnie, we tried to make sounds that were rough and realistic, but we wanted the right sound that creates the right tone for each scene. It might be a realistic sound that wasn’t there, but when we use it in conjunction with the scene, it creates this other tone. There’s a lot of subtle manipulation of sound.”
Furthermore, the frame will often discombobulate viewers by cutting off the actors completely. “It can give your ego a little pop,” Farrell admits. “But that’s your own bullshit. It’s genuinely great the way Yorgos allows dialogue to sometimes happen off-camera, or you hear the characters speak but only see them from the waist down. It’s beautiful and awkward and fractured – very much like life is.”
After watching Sacred Deer, I’m still adjusting to seeing Farrell clean-shaven and bouncing around on a sofa in front of me. He grew a belly and a moustache for The Lobster, but in Sacred Deer he’s slim and with a beard. “There’s a mask-like element to the beard,” Farrell says. “It felt like wearing a surgical mask all the time. I would take the mask off, but the beard’s still there.”
For research, the actor visited cardiothoracic surgeons and learned that it’s considered unhygienic to maintain a beard – but many do it, anyway. “They make special ninja things, which I have in the film, for people with facial hair. There’s something arrogant about a surgeon who has a beard and will open someone’s heart and lean over them with fried egg in their chin.” Surgeons, he discovered, rarely operate in silence. “One of them had fucking Metallica on his iPad. Another had hip-hop on while he’s performing. You think it’d be classical music, but no, it’s Eminem!”
“One of them had fucking Metallica on his iPad. Another had hip-hop on while he’s performing. You think it’d be classical music, but no, it’s Eminem!” – Colin Farrell on surgeons
Farrell and Lanthimos seem so suited for each other’s creative sensibilities, but the director’s upcoming projects, aside from Ollie, will feature different leads. He’s still waiting to hear about On Becoming a God in Central Florida, a TV comedy that would potentially star Kirsten Dunst. He’s also just wrapped another movie, The Favourite, which focuses on a love triangle between Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman and Emma Stone. “It’s a period film during Queen Anne’s reign,” he clarifies. “It was intriguing and challenging for me to do a period film.”
Queen Anne? If it’s set in the 18th century, will it still be recognisable as a Yorgos Lanthimos film, complete with the trademark dialogue patterns? “I did a huge amount of work trying to find the right writer to work with on this one, and yeah, I think the voice is quite distinctive,” says the director. “It’s different from my other films, because the story is so different, but I’m the same person, and much of me is in it.”
If we’re honest, the Lanthimos films mark a new era for Farrell, akin to the much-discussed McConaissance. Farrell appears to be more director-driven with his career choices. He collaborated with Sofia Coppola earlier this year, and his next few projects are with Dan Gilroy, Steve McQueen and Tim Burton.
“I’ve just realised recently,” Farrell says, “the one drawstring I see through all of Yorgos’ work is that it’s a very selfish world. The characters are very into what works for them. Which is possibly more honest than films that present a lot of altruism and thoughtfulness for others. I don’t know if he thinks we’re completely selfish as human creatures, but it’s pervasive in this world.”
With this, I realise we’re both just Yorgos Lanthimos fans exchanging personal theories. So I, of course, share my interpretation of Sacred Deer, that it’s about dealing with journalists, but I expand it a bit more. The plot is about an outsider instructing a director to kill his darlings. The doctors unsure of how to heal the child are movie executives. Maybe setting The Lobster in a hotel is a comment on the chore of doing press for Alps. Does that sound outrageous?
“No, it’s not outrageous,” Farrell says. “I like it! It speaks to the idea that most of us in this life that we live and share on this beautiful spaceship that’s revolving at a rapid pace around the sun are struggling to always have as easy a time as possible, or get along as best we can. So we don’t express our thoughts and our feelings on things all the time. We couldn’t, because the planet would be in even worse shape than it is now.” The actor laughs at the direction our interview is turning. “Yorgos, as a man, he’s lovely and warm. But you’ve gotta say, his taste in material is pretty nihilistic.”