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“It Is Like a Palette Cleanser, In a Way…”: Yorgos Lanthimos on Following Poor Things with the Sardonic Portmanteau Film, Kinds of Kindness

Kinds of Kindness

The organizing principles of portmanteau films are often quite simplistic. A group of directors tackling a particular genre, for example, or films united by geography. An example of the latter is the straightforwardly-titled New York Stories, of which only Martin Scorsese’s “Life Lessons” is remembered much these days. Jim Jarmusch has made a few united around theme and setting — Coffee and Cigarettes, where famous actors sit down over a brew and a smoke; Night on Earth, where famous actors take cab rides in production-friendly cities around the world; and Mystery Train, where the stories are linked by a setting (a hotel) within a city (Memphis). The common denominator in such films is usually some form of co-production, or the format’s ability to attract top cast who can play lead roles without committing to feature-length shoots. Seen through this lens, then, the newest from Yorgos Lanthimos, Kinds of Kindness, is doing something different. Indeed, as Lanthimos explains below, the film didn’t start off with a three-part anthology film structure — originally it was to be more like Short Cuts, individual tales interwoven. I think it would have been far less interesting if it had been realized as such. With the same actors — among them Jesse Plemons, Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe and Margaret Qualley — cycling through the different stories, the film offers its own kind of alienation effect while also advancing an overall argument, which is that structures of American life, which include work, marriage, and alternative communities, create roles that we too willingly play to our detriment — roles that in Lanthimos’s outrageously punishing, violently entertaining world can lead to a kind of madness.

In the film’s first episode, Plemons plays a worker whose regimented dedication to his boss, played by Willem Dafoe, is an example of emotionally masochistic, highly amplified Sartrean bad faith. In the second, Plemmons is a husband convinced that the wife, played by Stone, who has returned from being stranded on a desert island, is some sort of sinister doppelgänger, a belief that turns Plemons’s character into schizoid version of himself. And in the third, Plemons and Stone are a socially-estranged couple on the hunt for the messiah of a New Age-y wellness cult, an unwitting woman luring in plain sight among the normies. A mysterious peripheral character named “RMF” (Yorgos Stefanakos), cited in the titles for each segment, provides the vaguest of through lines or, more likely, mischievous misdirection.

I spoke to Lanthimos for a few minutes over Zoom the day before Kinds of Kindness opened in theaters from Fox Searchlight. Below, I ask him about the tripartite structure, beginning the film with a Eurythmics song, and how — and why — he can commence production on a film before even finishing his previous one.

Filmmaker: I’ll start with a confession, which is that when I saw the film I misread the “RMF” in the first title card. My brain turned it into “RWF,” so I thought of Fassbinder and of the dialectic between cruelty and love that is in some many of his films. Which, when it comes to your film, is partially true, although later I realized I had made a mistake.

Lanthimos: Which is also about you!

Filmmaker: Yes, it probably does say more about me than your film. But you do start the movie with the Eurythmics song, “Sweet Dreams,” whose lyrics [“Some of them want to use you, some of them want to get used by you, some of them want to abuse you”] have been interpreted as a kind of thesis statement. When did you land on that song, and what did you want audiences to take away from it since it’s used so early in the film?

Lanthimos: Actually, it was late in the process — definitely during the editing and not necessarily early on. To be honest, I don’t even know how it came about. I just felt that I needed something for the beginning. There was [a song] that I wanted to be playing in the car when [RMF] crashes, so you make the connection that it’s the same person [as in the earlier scene]. So I started listening to music. I kind of took into consideration that he’s older, he’s from another generation, and I tried to find something which is iconic, such as “Sweet Dreams.” The lyrics made sense and the atmosphere made sense. It’s not very rational or logical. It’s just by listening to various songs of the era I ended up feeling that this was the right one. It was a very instinctive process.

Filmmaker: So the choice wasn’t necessarily driven by the song’s lyrical content but more of a whole mix of things?

Lantimos: [The lyrical content] played into it as well, of course — it feels that there is a connection to the film.

Filmmaker: Kinds of Kindness is a portmanteau, or anthology, film, of sorts, which is always a tricky structure. You go see a film comprised of sections and talk about it afterwards with your friends, and one person likes one section more, and another prefers another section. Could you talk about confronting that form, the order of the sequences, and how you wanted audiences to engage with the form?

Lanthimos: In the beginning, we started writing one story — the first story. It was a long process, myself and Efthimis [Filippou] writing this script, just because of circumstances. I was making other things, he was making other things, but we always start writing something when we finish one film. So, we started writing the first story, and then I guess we had some time off writing this particular script. When we revisited it, we both had the idea of doing something different with the form. So, we decided that one way we would go was to make that kind of anthology, and we did experiment a lot with the writing. First of all, we had to choose what the other stories were, and we exchanged ideas of what might those be. We made a list, again, very instinctively, because they were not developed stories, they were just initial ideas. We selected a couple that we felt belong to the world of the first one that we were writing. And then we started developing those along with the first story. And we started writing them in the more traditional form — you would see the three different stories in parallel — not one after the other. We did that work for a while, but then I kept having this idea of the same actors playing different characters. That would have been impossible if they were also interlinked in a parallel editing. So, we decided that we would try them as standalone stories as well. And after having done the work of writing the script and seeing the stories in parallel, when we separated them they felt even stronger because there was a lot of thought that went into how they relate to [each other]. And then the idea of the same actors would work. So, we decided to keep that kind of [portmanteau-film] structure. The order of the story was as it was from the beginning. When we were writing them interwoven, they were in the same order, in a way. A couple of scenes from the first story, then a couple of scenes from the second story, and then a couple of scenes from the third story. So that that structured remains throughout, even though the stories are [now] standalone.

Filmmaker: What about choosing to end each section with the cast end credits? I think that it puts a punctuation mark after each episode while also making you track the relationships of each actor to the characters they are playing in the different episodes. It gets you to think in a kind of puzzle-solving kind of way. Was it always the intention to break up the stories by end credits?

Lanthimos: No, that came during the editing process as well. And it’s exactly because of what you just described. It was a very good punctuation, making the structure of the film much cleaner. And, again, it enhanced the reason why I chose to use the same actors over the three different stories because somehow you carry the actor and the character you just saw them [play] into the next story because the next story is so imminent. I wanted to make that even clearer for the audience that these actors played these characters and now they’re going to play these other characters. And then you can make whatever kind of connection you want to make and bring whatever it is that you want to bring from the previous story to the next story. And I think that kind of enriched one story after the next.

Filmmaker: Because there are wardrobe, hair and makeup issues, and those locations are pretty separate, I’m assuming that you shot each film as a standalone. Or was there any kind of block shooting that you had to do just because of production?

Lanthimos: No, it was standalone just because of, as you said, cutting actors’ hair and dyes and all those sorts of things. It was, of course, beneficial for the actors themselves and for myself to be able to follow the story as much as it was possible in sequence. But the actors didn’t have that much time to go from one character to the next one in the next story. So [shooting in sequence] definitely helped them keep track to what it is that they were doing.

Filmmaker: Were there any breaks between the sections, or was it more of like a conventional shoot?

Lanthimos: We just continued. They basically had a day or a weekend to get to the next character.

Filmmaker: The last film you shot in America was in the Midwest — The Killing of a Sacred Deer. You’ve returned to the States, this time to New Orleans, for Kinds of Kindness. Why was it important that this film take place in America as opposed to making this film in Europe?

Lanthimos: It certainly felt to me like an American film when we wrote it. A lot of the times when these stories feel like they’re stories that could take place anywhere, we don’t necessarily point out where they take place while we’re writing the script. I kind of go into that process afterwards. [But Kinds of Kindness] just felt like an American film. The stories felt that they lent themselves more to that kind of society and landscape. So that was the first decision. And then, you know, it didn’t have to be any specific city. There are a number of practical issues — you find places with incentives and crew, and another very important factor for us was that we needed a very big lake for one of the stories. So that made the search more specific. And we knew that we needed good weather. So, that meant somewhere more south. The options start becoming less and less. New Orleans has a very special atmosphere, and we chose to take advantage of as much of that as we wanted for the film without making it the big issue, or too obvious.

Filmmaker: I understand that you shot this film while in post on Poor Things. As a creative person, how and why do you juggle projects in this way?

Lanthimos: I think it gives me clarity and hope that I can do something better.

Filmmaker: Was there something specific about Poor Things you hoped to do better?

Lanthimos: No, not really. It was just that it was this one was going to be such a different film. I was eager to go back into shooting on location, natural light and making a much more simpler film. But, of course, again, as you probably know, no film is simple. You just have to deal with very different complexities and problems when you’re making a [location-shot film] as compared to making a film in a studio. It is like a palette cleanser, in a way, especially when the films are so different. We were finishing VFX on Poor Things when we started pre-production and production on this one. Going from one to the other when they’re so different, it just feels like it helps you see things more clearly. In general, if I’m filming I can definitely not think of anything else. Other times, like during post-production, I always love to be developing something because of what I said before: you have a hope of making something new and correcting your mistakes or whatever went wrong. You’re hoping next time you’ll do better. You have something to look forward to while you’re finishing.

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