Screw Your Backstory: Yorgos Lanthimos Wants His Actors and Audience Present

In director Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Kinds of Kindness” there are, as fans of the director would expect, scenarios that push beyond rational explanations. For example in “The Death of R.M.F,” the first story in the “Kindness” triptych, the viewer doesn’t know how or why a seemingly benevolent boss (Willem Dafoe) has so much power over Robert (Jesse Plemons), who willingly submits to his employer’s bizarre requests of making love to his wife (Hong Chau) at precise times a day, secretly poisoning her drink so she never gets pregnant (she is led to believe she is infertile), and agreeing to drive his car into another vehicle at the risk of severe injury. There is a touch of the surreal, and even a pinch of the supernatural in two of the stories that follow, but more than anything Lanthimos is able to drop the viewer into the middle of these darkly comedic scenarios in such a way that they are taken at face value.

While on the Toolkit podcast, Lanthimos was asked how he and co-screenwriter Efthimis Filippou are able to accomplish this without the normal first act setup and exposition of the feature films the collaborators have previously written together (“The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” “Dogtooth”), and so the viewer is not searching for backstory to explain the over-the-top control/submission dynamics in each other film’s three short stories.

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“It does require more attention [in terms of screenwriting], but most of all it requires you to just let go,” said Lanthimos. “If you let go and just accept things as they come, I think it becomes easier to get into it, then you start engaging with your own kind of ideas about what it is, and where it goes, and I find that much more fulfilling.”

That the viewer brings their own instinctual reactions to fill in blanks is something the director also asks of his cast. As actor Jesse Plemons, a Lanthimos first-timer, joining stock players Emma Stone and Dafoe, discovered on “Kindness,” the director isn’t one to answer actors questions about character motivations and back story.

“It’s difficult because I don’t have much to give [actors] if that’s their primary need,” said Lanthimos. “Motivation and background, and all that kind of thing, I mean, I haven’t even thought of it while writing the script. The information that I think I can to give to them is already in the script.”

This goes against Hollywood concepts of good screenwriting, in which the gurus instruct writers to put in the leg work to flesh out the rules of your storyworld (no matter how fantastical) and the events leading up to your story, so that even without supplying exposition the world and characters feel fleshed out to the audience. But Lanthimos and Filippou are hardly lazy, they worked for five years on the script, the project evolved tremendously through its multiple iterations, until the exacting director felt it was ready to film. They skip this aspect because their interests and aim lies elsewhere.

Yorgos Lanthimos and Jesse Plemons on the set of KINDS OF KINDNESS. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2024 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved
Yorgos Lanthimos and Jesse Plemons on the set of ‘Kinds of Kindness’Atsushi Nishijima

At all levels of the filmmaking process, including screenwriting, Lanthimos goes to great lengths to seal his storyworld off from a specific real world place, history, period — anything that gives the viewer context to connect to the human behavior his camera is observing. Take for example the film’s setting of New Orleans. The cinematography is naturalistic, the locations real, and yet in the hands of Lanthimos and his team of long-time collaborators one of the most distinct cities in the world is stripped (framed out) of its distinct culture and vibe, becoming a stand-in for a generic American city/town with the warm weather, lake, and other various details Lanthimos needed for this story.

“We’re going to not try and make it it necessarily take place in that particular [city],” said Lanthimos. “I don’t mind it if people recognize it, it’s just that it was never our intention to make it clear where it is.”

By sealing his storyworld, negating the viewer to draw connections to the external world, we are left to observe both the horror and dark comedy of human behavior in the film and bring our instinctive reactions to what we are watching. This is also what Lanthimos needs from his talented cast, and over the years he’s developed a theater camp-like rehearsal process to get the physical, instinctive, and bold performances that are so distinct and key to his films.

The rehearsals are exercises, often “silly theater games,” that aren’t about actually rehearsing the scenes. For example, Lanthimos will have the actors play musical chairs while learning their lines. Or he’ll give an actor a specific action, for example, “Get up and get a cup of water every time you speak.” In talking about the exercises, Lanthimos described his intention behind them.

“The actor is more concentrated on the action itself, at the same time, tries to learn and remember their lines, so they do not sit in them in a very rational way, having thought through, ‘Oh, how would I say that?  What does it mean? Should I have another layer.’ Which is basically how we speak in life, we don’t really think about it that much” said Lanthimos. “When the text enters them in that way, they’re freer to try things on the day and be present and react to the other actor, instead of thinking too much about their character.”

The levity and laughter that comes from the exercises are also important to Lanthimos. For one thing, his personal reaction to the horrific is to first find the humor, and he needs the cast to see this as well, but more importantly he wants the camaraderie that comes from the exercises.

“This allows them to be generous with each other, trust each other more, know that they can do anything and the other person is not going to be judgmental because you’ve been through all that and you’ve done every silly thing in front of the other person,” said Lanthimos. “I think it’s very important that they feel this way, that unlocks a lot of their creativity and makes them bolder in their choices.”

Emma Stone in KINDS OF KINDNESS. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2024 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved
Emma Stone at the end of ‘Kinds of Kindness’Atsushi Nishijima

It’s the environment that allows something like Stone to break into her unscripted dance at the end of the film, and that is featured in the “Kindness” trailer. Lanthimos said his direction is more to encourage when he sees bold choices he likes. Adding, “But that’s very instinctive. I’m not saying, ‘Oh, this is not right because 10 years ago this character, I thought that they did that.’ It’s more about– just tonally and how it correlates with the rest of the story, or the characters, or just general perception and taste about things.”

“Kinds of Kindness” opened extremely well in five New York and Los Angeles theaters on June 21, and will expand to more cities today, before hitting approximately 1,000 screens in July.

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