Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos has thrilled and confounded audiences with his fantastical, dystopian tales, including The Lobster and Dogtooth. But the two-time Oscar nominee’s latest work, The Favourite (November 23), finds him on somewhat unexpected terrain: the 18th-century court of Queen Anne. The film, based on her brief and troubled reign, won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival, as well as Best Actress for Olivia Colman, who stars as the long-suffering English queen opposite Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. True to form, Lanthimos turns the dusty conventions of the period drama on their head, delivering a wickedly funny, ribald tale, complete with all seven sins—plus duck racing.
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When audiences hear “period film,” they think rustling skirts and clutched handkerchiefs, but this is a spectacular feast of conniving and vulgarity. How did you conjure the bawdy tone?
I wanted to see if I could make a period film that felt different and fresh and original. We decided early on that we didn’t want to try to mimic how people spoke. With costumes, we tried to maintain the silhouettes, but we worked with a lot of contemporary materials—vintage denim, plastic, leather. Sometimes the music is loyal to the period; sometimes it’s contemporary. So there were all these added layers.
This is also a captivating study of power: how it isolates, how it infantilizes, how it amplifies one’s fears. Can you talk about capturing those dynamics?
Personal relationships, mood, chance, or anything like that can actually affect people’s decisions, and when they’re in a position of power, their capriciousness can affect the fate of a nation. And that’s quite scary to think about, and quite relevant.
The manipulation of a leader with a toddler’s temperament resonates rather strongly in America right now.
You do realize reading about this that the main elements, how people operate and think—they haven’t changed that much.
We find ourselves both repulsed and deeply touched by Queen Anne. How did you relate to this character?
A lot of what is written about her is all about how sick she was and how tormented she was by all of her miscarriages and the children who died. That she wasn’t a very strong monarch, how she was probably manipulated by others. In the end, we wanted to make her as she probably was: a complex character.
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You worked with a trio of brilliant women here: Weisz, Stone, and Colman. Did they keep you on your toes?
It was incredible. A dream come true. I tried to just give them space and enable them to infuse those characters with their personalities and their presence, and add much more than what I could ever have imagined.
It must have been a hell of a fun set. True?
For me, it never is. But I think the actors had a lot of fun. A key ingredient was that we had weeks of rehearsals beforehand, so they got to fool around and be comfortable making fools of themselves in front of each other. They felt quite comfortable by the time we ended up on set.
The gender relations in this historical tale feel very modern. Indeed, the men, with all their peacocking, seem entirely outmatched by the women in this world.
If you look at the period, especially in paintings, you can see that men used to be much more made up, with their wigs, their stockings, their breeches, their high heels, and all that. And women appear to have been much more natural: simple hair; not much makeup; nice, minimal dresses. Though we did push it to be more extreme.
You have used animals before in profound and fascinating ways. Were Queen Anne’s bunnies in the historical record? Or your own special touch?
This was one of the elements that we took the liberty of adding in. We felt that we needed some kind of visualization of this woman’s loss, but that it shouldn’t be too dark—that it should have more of a light feel. So that’s how the bunnies came about.
This is the first film you’ve directed for which you didn’t cowrite the script, but your influence on it feels very strong and clear.
That’s because I spent even longer developing this script than I have with any of my other scripts, and I took a lot of time to find the right person to work with, with the right voice, and it took us almost nine years to get there. Not that we were working nonstop for nine years; of course there were gaps in between. But it was a project that took many years to mature.