Interview: Screenwriter Efthimis Filippou

Over winter break, I got to meet up with Efthimis in a very quiet bakery in downtown Athens which is one of his go-to spots. Extremely talkative and easy-going, the now Oscar-nominated screenwriter of "Dogtooth" and "The Lobster" talked to me about his screenwriting methods, his utter terror of this thing called realism, and his upcoming project with director Yorgos Lanthimos, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.”

Can you briefly describe the process you follow when you begin a script? Do you have a specific method through which you develop it?

There is a sort of process, which can happen with deviations but its main structure always remains the same. In reality, the largest chunk of work I have done is with Yorgos [Lanthimos]. With him, we meet up and talk about what the next film could possibly be. Each of us starts brainstorming. For example, we say let’s make a film about a bakery where the desserts are made out of human parts [laughs]. We say a bunch of things like that and suddenly we somehow form a shortlist in our heads and we end up with something that we are both personally interested in and know we can develop into something bigger. It happens sort of instinctively. When we end up on an idea, the next step is to develop it together. For example say there’s this couple, who are both dead, but it’s like they’re alive. And then, are they 20? 40? 60? Are they poor, rich? Is their house big or small? Do they have kids? Why? What does that mean? Are there relatives, friends? Do they work? Do they not? What jobs do they have? Does the woman economically depend on the man? What does that make their relationship? So we create a map of who the characters are and what relationship they have to each other. All this happens in a conversation. Then I sit by myself and write a synopsis, about a page long, in order to see how an idea can be formed into a very short story. Then, I slowly start writing scenes. I sit and make a draft of about 20 pages, which is basically the synopsis in a few scenes. I try to develop our idea, write dialogue, and make a structure. This may be the whole story or just a part of it thus far. I then send it to Yorgos who reads it and gives me feedback. Then I write again, send it over again, he gives me more feedback and criticism and so on. This happens a few times until we have written enough scenes, more than 80. When we decide that it’s more or less ready, we send it to 2 or 3 people we trust and we know will give honest feedback.

Is this before you share it with producers?

Yes. I always send something either nearly or completely finished. It’s good to have a certain confidence when you send something to the producer. Even though you could develop it more afterwards. We get the feedback from the 2-3 people and kind of lock it down – though a script never really gets locked down, as I’ve noticed – and then the painful process of trying to finance the project begins. Before I send a script to the producer, I always start re-fixing the script again, because I have to add many descriptions for scenes, in order to make the script easier to read. I’m not the type of person to do detailed descriptions, I don’t see the use and it never ends up happening during filming, but I have to do it anyway. So after I add all these details, we send it to the producer. After we begin shooting, literally years later, we go onto a second round, once knowing who the actors are, the locations, the circumstances. Many things have to change because I’ve written something I have in my mind, but everything on set is different from what I imagine. So I have to adjust all of those logistics on the script. For example, information that is included in some scenes has to be moved to other scenes. Since I am not an 100% professional and cannot make a script that is 100% flawless, there are often problems in the shooting because something may have been written in the specific way, but you may see it in the specific moment and it’s completely ugly. So you have to change it, or say it differently. This does not mean there’s complete freedom to make changes, because of course you need a structure and some stability; you can play with it, but there’s a limit. Otherwise it’s too chaotic. In relation to the producers, in the beginning we had none. So the script got to the producer pretty much finished. Now, things have changed a bit because for the last two films, we were financed for the development of the script itself.

You mean for “The Lobster” and the upcoming film?

Yes. They were made abroad and not in Greece, where things are much more stringent, to put it lightly. With “The Lobster” and the “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” we gave a very short synopsis and asked for money for development. A producer who likes what he reads sends it to a few financers in order to stabilize the development. This, for me, is a huge change in how I work, because being supported in writing the script is important as it is my job, instead of having to wait after I’ve finished it to see if the script will become a film and if I’ll get paid. This way, you get attention much earlier. You show what you have in mind in a much more primitive stage.

What happens if the producer doesn’t like the synopsis?

Because our producer now knows both my and Yorgos’ work, he has not yet rejected our ideas. He takes them and starts looking for funding. We take this money and are given a time span to finish it. But the main difference is that in this way, essentially, you aren’t closed in a small room until the script is over. You are out there from the beginning and you communicate with readers much earlier. You get feedback much earlier. I’ve followed the same process with the other two directors I’ve worked with – I write something and get feedback from them. I once tried to do it another way. I know a team of people can make something flawlessly. I’ve seen films and things written by a team of people and I’ve admired them. I have no idea how you do that. I tried once, where I was going to work on a nearly-finished script and I had to add things and formulate it. And it was a failure. You could tell what part was written by whom. Even I could tell, I’d read it and it was completely all over the place. Which could potentially be interesting, but it really wasn’t. When two people work together who have completely different views of reality, it’s difficult. So it takes a lot of work to get on the same page. Since it’s so tumultuous I think there’s no point in getting into the mindset of writing something altogether with someone else.

This brings me back to what you were saying about the producers, I know that many large-scale producers put a lot of pressure on creatives to make something more sell-able, while smaller production companies let you have much more freedom. This seems to me like one of the most important things, to find someone who trusts you and lets you retain the originality of the story you have created.

Very true. The more money, the more compromises one has to make. When someone gives you so much money to make a film, he has an equal amount of opinions. It also depends on the film. Our films aren’t made for the mainstream audience anyway, so the money is never that much. The budget will never be at the level of “Independence Day” or “Armageddon.” So far I’ve never experienced the scary producer who says no all the time – the complete opposite. I don’t know if it’s luck or because I didn’t actually make “Independence Day” but yeah, I haven’t experienced it. But I know that many scripts have been thrown in the trash because they couldn’t sell and a lot of crazy stories about who gets the final cut. I haven’t reached the level of doing such big jobs with such dangers. Our producer is a person who really likes us and feels like he supports us, there’s never enough money, and we always fight together. It’s much more simple. The only difference is that in “The Lobster” everyone speaks English. That was the only difference, aside from the more popular actors, which made the budget higher. Aside from that, nothing changed. There wasn’t enough money again, not good enough costumes, not enough time. Though the production was bigger, it also wasn’t at the same time.

In regards to your scripts, the complete uprightness of the characters and the exaggerated circumstances seem to work in order to underline the absurdities of contemporary society. Sometimes it’s as if the characters are expressing our subconscious thoughts to an exaggerated degree. Is that the purpose or are there some other characteristics you want to point out through your characters or the scripts as a whole?

I’ve thought about this too many times actually. In “Dogtooth” for example, I try to describe my opinion on what family means, as vague as this may sound. I want to say the family is a structure where the Dad is at the top, and then the mom, both of whom mould the children, often to a degree that destroys them. From the exaggerated love they feel, and responsibility, they always try to give everything and surpass the limit. This has the opposite outcome of what they want. They try to mould them into people like them who will be unbeatable, or always healthy; they love them in exaggeration. Then I also include some clichés I have in my mind, like the dad having a weakness for the daughters. They always want the son to be sexually satisfied while the girls are always “too young.” The way the parents describe the outside world, according always to themselves, what they transmit to the kids. Kids may leave the house, but in reality they never do. They could live 10 kilometers away and still be there. And how generally children carry this burden of the family forever. Can you ever escape from it? That was my idea. Realistic cinema is something I really like, but for me it’s way too hard. I think you have to be extremely talented to make realistic cinema. And still I don’t know if it exists in the first place. I don’t even think documentaries are very realistic. So since I don’t think I have the capability to depict something in a realistic way, and it is the scariest and hardest thing to me, I pick the easy route, which is to try to describe my story with exaggeration. So I make something very unealistic, in order to show something very realistic. I’ll speak in an absurd way about something logical. This helps not let me lose my grip. I always remind myself that what I’m saying exists. So I never lose sense of what I’m doing. I did the same for “The Alps.” Supposing that something is very real in human life, you start building it into a story.

And something that is also immediately understandable by the audience.

Yes, the logic is always the same. It’s true that family, to me, is something very closed off that might end up self-destructive. It’s true that being single or in a couple is equally hard and imbalanced. It can come with an equal burden. And how that manifests socially. Why does someone have to be in a couple to be accepted? Why is someone who is not accepted always defining himself by that and often takes it to an extreme in a ridiculous way? I begin with something I think needs to be said and then I try to make it a story with many exaggerations, escaping as much as I can from the realistic depiction, which scares me a lot. Another thing in all these stories which I’ve often thought about is violence. People ask me “Why is there violence? It seems unnecessary and pretentious.” I’m not being defensive but because I’ve thought about it often, I don’t see it as a provocation, though it might be, subconsciously. But in trying to describe something that exists, I think the world and life are very hard and violent. And that humans are really capable of anything. Things have happened across time that prove this. I also think that no matter how violent you get in a film, you’ll never reach the real amount of violence there is out there. Real life is always much more tough and brutal. So I think violence is used in effort to remind others that this is real life. Real life has violence, absurdity, people who don’t behave properly or logically. Under multiple layers anyone can behave absurdly and become violent. I always try to make the violence in the film a bit ridiculous. Humane, in a way. I’ll never have a guy flawlessly torturing someone. More like a girl breaking her dogtooth. It’s always ridiculous, which I think makes it more humane. Because humans are never the super cop, or the super detective… they have flaws. I almost want to show that humans are relatively incapable and not as amazing as they seem. In “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” I tried to mix it up a bit.

I wanted to ask if you want to share anything about the new film or if you’ve changed anything.

I think that this time we tried to work in another way. This may be a huge failure and maybe we’re still talking in the same way. But I think the dialogues have become less “deadpan,” the characters became a bit more normal – they react, there are cracks in their faces. We haven’t used exaggerated symbolism or descriptions, it’s a little more timid. I think it’s kind of differently made. But maybe I think I did it differently this time, and in the end it will be the same as always.

I’m sure it won’t be.

I hope so. In the sense that I want to know I can be more versatile. But this is very theoretical, you never know if it can happen or not. It’s a big discussion on whether people can do different things. I remember when we were starting off “The Alps” after we finished “Dogtooth,” Yorgos would say we’ll do something completely different now. That’s why it’s so much less beautiful in the image, dirtier, darker. But in reality we still did the same thing – I don’t know if someone can escape what they have in their mind. No matter how much you might change the directing or the cinematography.

You might have the same style but the films are still very different from one another.

I admire directors whose works look like they always come from a different person. Each film they make may have the same obsessions or references but they make films where you can’t guess who made them, like Kubrick. He made “Full Metal Jacket,” “Barry Lyndon,” “Space Odyssey,” “Clockwork Orange,” “The Shining”… and he makes everything perfectly. As if he wants to tick off all the genres and do them all flawlessly. How do all of these things exist in the same head? So yeah, I hope the new film has changed it up a little.

What’s the overall concept for your new film?

It has to do with vengeance. It’s based on the story of vengeance from the myth of Iphigenia. The story about how there was no wind for the Greek ships to sail to the Trojan War and Agamemnon had to sacrifice her even though she’s his daughter in order for the wind to return. This happened because he had killed Artemis’ sacred deer.

So that’s where the title comes from.

Yes. And Artemis is angry, so she tells him to kill his daughter, in order for the wind to come back. It’s about someone who has lost something and wants to get revenge from the person who took it from them by asking for the same thing in return. It describes the relationship between a young man and a doctor, where at one point the young man wants to get revenge from the doctor. I don’t want to give away too much. What I want to do is I want the audience not to know exactly if the bad guy is bad, or if the good guy is good. For them to like both characters. I want that to be clear in the film and people to empathize with both characters.

Do you have any new ideas you’ve been developing you want to share?

I am too accustomed to having conversations with directors in order to find a common vision with them, instead of working by myself. We’re supposed to start planning the new film with Yorgos, we have a short synopsis. He is making a period film – “The Favorite” – and after that we’re starting to finance our new project. I also want to write a book with various texts from plays that have not been published.

Final question… What films did you watch in the past year that you really liked?

Uh oh. You’ve caught me completely off guard. I have to say I did not go to the movies much in 2016. I’ve seen very few new things. What did you like?

I really liked “Toni Erdmann.” I also liked Mia Hansen-Love’s “Things to Come.”

I’ll definitely look out for them. Do you like Dumont? “Humanité” is brilliant. Another slightly older film I really liked was “Stranger by the Lake.”

The new film written by Efthimis (co-written with Yorgos Lanthimos), “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” is set for release in 2017.