A slow-building sensation at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, Giorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth has continued to build ecstatic word of mouth. Although Lanthimos was a relative unknown, with only one previous feature (2005’s Kinetta) to his credit, the film’s premise was enough to draw in the first audiences. For reasons the film never explains, a Greek couple have decided to lock their three children away from the world, creating a specialized language to quell their curiosity, and an elaborate mythology to prevent them from leaving. What makes the film especially compelling is how the rest proceeds with ineluctable logic, essentially roping the audience into complicity with the parents’ deviant project. Lanthimos’ focus, though, is on the children, who rather than growing up innocent, are in some ways practically animalistic. Their slope-shouldered posture and unpredictable actions are ungoverned by social mores or interaction, which leaves an awful lot of room for things to go wrong. Lanthimos met The A.V. Club at the Manhattan offices of his distributor, Kino International, to talk about man-eating cats, Flashdance, and how Dogtooth’s monstrous insularity was inspired by his friends having children.
The A.V. Club: You said at the première in Toronto that you were partly inspired to make this film because of your friends becoming parents, which is a little frightening.
Giorgos Lanthimos: It wasn’t really about how they raised them. It was about noticing all these people around me just having a family or getting married or having children—just that. I was really making fun of them, making jokes like, “Are you sure?” and “You see everyone splitting up,” and “Everyone’s divorcing,” and “People raise their children on their own. Mothers. Single mothers or single fathers—whatever. Are you sure about this?” They were really sensitive about it. They got immediately very serious and defensive, and I was just joking. And I said, “If they’re reacting like this to just a little joke, imagine if there was a real danger of something for their family? What if, for real, there would be no need of families in the future?” So it really became, to me, like a science-fiction idea. What if, in the future, there were no families, we didn’t need any families? Or it’s changed, the needs have changed, and we don’t necessarily need family as we know it. What then? And what would these people do? How would they react? So then the idea came of, “Okay. How about these parents, and they’re really trying to raise their children away from everything else, away from outside influence, to just be able to control them completely, to think that this is the best way they can hold their families together and raise their children.” So that’s how it came from.
AVC: It’s somewhat open-ended in the film as to why these parents are raising their kids in such a manner.
GL: Yeah, exactly because of that. I thought that it was not necessary, that it would make a completely different film if we knew their reasons. Then it would be a film that was a lot about that, and less about the results the situation has on the children, on their minds and their bodies. What I was more interested in was exactly that: how much you can influence a person’s mind, how much you can direct a person when you can control him from a very young age. You can literally change the perspective he has about the world. It’s very scary and huge, if you think about that. So I was interested in that, and not about why they did it.
AVC: In the film, you take it down to the basic level of language and definitions by redefining words having to do with the outside world. Is the idea that if you take those words away, those ideas don’t even exist?
GL: Yeah, for them. The whole thing starts from just practical thinking. It wasn’t that intellectualized in the beginning for us. It just comes from figuring out how we can control these people’s lives, and what would their parents do about language, which is the main means of communication. There’s something that has to be done about this. There should be a way the parents can communicate among themselves without the children really knowing what they’re talking about. Or that maybe some mistakes have happened, and they’ve said some words that their children shouldn’t know about. So they have to be redefined. Actually, they weren’t watching movies, because they weren’t allowed. The only movies that come in are the—they have their own home videos that they were watching. But whatever the reason, language was an important thing for us to mess with, because it’s very fundamental. You start to wonder about these things, and why do words mean this or that. In the whole context of the film, for me, it is about this, and why is this right or wrong, and all this information we get. Are they actually true or not? We really don’t know. It’s the same thing about larger groups of people, like countries, planet Earth, things we know. It applies to everything. So language is a very important thing as well.
AVC: One of the things that’s especially effective about the film is the way the parents’ actions follow logically from their goals. If you accept their thoroughly insane premise, it seems like a fairly workable system.
GL: [Laughs.] Ah, not really, you think? It has a lot of flaws to me. [Laughs.] That’s why it goes down like that. There are a lot of flaws.
AVC: The role of movies themselves is interesting in the film, as you feature films such as Rocky and Flashdance and continue to play with meanings. What’s behind that?
GL: [Laughs.] I don’t really know, if you can’t even articulate the question. [Laughs.] To me, all these things just came in naturally. These films are part of the way we grew up. So it was a natural way of putting these movies into the whole thing, and it was not a theoretical thing about how making movies changed things, or anything like that. It was just an idea that we got that this girl could get into contact with things she didn’t know and she’d never seen before, and it just happened to be these films. But I don’t know. There’s something about reenactment of things that gets them into a different level of what the actual action is, and you figure out different things about the people that are doing them, instead of what the actual context of the scenes that are enacted is. I don’t know if that makes sense.
AVC: When she’s dancing, it’s not about—
GL: It’s not about dancing or Flashdance, it’s about her flipping out and doing it in front of her parents and going a step further. It’s also funny. It’s also familiar, in a way, which makes it even more awkward in some ways. Maybe that’s an element of it. That these things you might have seen in a different way, there’s something you might have recognized in them, but this thing gets distorted, a different sense of what these people are actually up to.
AVC: Partly because of the context, it actually takes a while to realize that this crazy, disturbing dance she’s doing is from Flashdance. It doesn’t compute.
GL: No, no, but it is. It’s not exactly from Flashdance. It’s Flashdance freaked out. And I have to say, I was surprised that people got that reference to Flashdance, because it’s really difficult, it’s actually really flipped out at the moment when she’s doing it. It’s basically just moves that she does from that, and everything else is her just flipping out. I mean, Rocky and Jaws were really—there were lines right out of the films, and they were really easy to identify. But when people started getting Flashdance, I was surprised. Flashdance must have made a huge impression on many generations of people.
AVC: Did you direct the children to carry themselves in any certain way? Even their posture carries a real sense of unease.
GL: No, there were definitely not conversations about how to do things in general. I try to avoid that, whatever I do. When I do plays, whenever I do films, when I work with actors, I try to avoid discussing things with them and analyzing how things should be, as much as I can get away with that. At some points, some people take it differently and they need some answers, but I find that it locks them a lot if you start analyzing why and how they should do things. So I try to follow a very different process. I just do things very practically and physically, and we do a lot of rehearsals. I just do things with them. I ask them to try things and combine things with speaking and bodily exercises, and I try to have them in a state that they start behaving in a certain way, whatever that way should be for each project.
For this, it was really about playing stupid games the whole time, and to really not think about all of the situation, not to think about the script or anything, and really have them act like children the whole time. So they spent many days acting stupidly like children, without thinking anything. At some point, they stopped being concerned about why they’re doing things, and what they were doing. So they just started behaving like that, and these things just got into them, and they knew, whenever they had to be in the situation of this film, they would be in that state. So that really helped them to just be there and react, and do the things they had to do in their way—all these games they were playing. They knew nothing else for a couple of months. So that’s how I tried to do this, just making them forget what they would do as actors, and how we would approach things, and just empty their minds in everything: the way they speak, the way they move, the way they do things. It just came out of that. We never said, “You should be speaking like that, or moving like that.” It was never referenced.
AVC: The way you describe the process, it puts you a little bit in the position of the parents.
GL: I wasn’t really lying to them or anything. I just invited them to play games. I guess it’s funny to look at it that way, but I don’t know how related it is.
AVC: American culture has a pronounced investment in the idea of children being innocent, and the parents in Dogtooth do as well. They’re trying to hold on to that, to not have their children be tainted by the world. But the children actually become very dangerous, because they have no sense of society or the real world. They’re animals, in a way.
GL: They’re much closer to primal instincts and behavior than other people. It’s true. That’s how come all the violence from the film comes from the children. Although they’re grown up in the film, they’re in a state where they’re much like younger kids. That’s the interesting thing about them, is that you can see grown-up people being almost into a childlike state. So children are very violent. They can be scary many times. Many people feel really uncomfortable in front of children. My girlfriend is scared of children. [Laughs.] In this case, that’s the interesting part, that you have them in the form of grown-up children, and it’s even scarier. It’s even more violent, because if a grown-up can behave like a child and can just punch someone in the face or slash someone with a knife, it gets even scarier. You don’t know exactly why kids are violent. They’re closer to their primal instincts, and they’re much more affected by the behavior of their parents. They could be violent toward them, but that doesn’t mean physically violent. They could be, in a psychological way, pressuring them about things, and they react to that. So if you imagine that in an escalated level, with the grown-ups being suppressed like children, it gets even more crazy. That’s the case in the film, I guess.
AVC: In addition to protecting their children from what they see as the evils of the world, the parents have also protected the children from the consequences of their actions.
GL: Exactly, the actual outcome of what they do. They don’t fully understand the whole consequence of it. I guess they do understand that when they hit someone, he’s going to hurt. But it doesn’t go through all that process of guilt that can make someone stop. Guilt and being educated that it’s not right.
AVC: It’s interesting that we’re really only talking about the children. I can understand why the parents do what they do, but you can’t really get inside their heads.
GL: You can’t fully sympathize with them. That’s good, I think, for you, that you’re not sympathizing with them. You could say that they have the best intentions in mind, even though they might be crazy or stupid or whatever. I think at some point, you might get that they’re aiming for the best. That’s another reason I placed this film in a nice environment. I had to make the family rich, so they would be able to afford a nice environment for the children: big gardens, swimming pool, and everything.
AVC: Big walls.
GL: So it shows that they’re not the kind of people who want to lock their children in a dungeon with chains. But of course, the outcome is not very different from that.
AVC: It’s like the guy in Austria who locked his daughter in the basement.
GL: Friedrich. [Laughs.] I’ve been asked about this a lot. I don’t know what he believes.
AVC: With these parents, you could believe they think they’re doing the best thing for their children.
GL: No, they’re not the absolute monsters that maybe they could have been. I don’t know how you can get in such a state with what he did. That’s why I didn’t really look into the matter a lot. We heard about that while we were rehearsing. I looked it up a bit, and I saw that it was really dark, and it goes into very different paths of deciding to do something like that. It’s so dark that he doesn’t even have the consciousness of what we were trying to show. He just got into this sick situation and dark situation, and he wouldn’t really have the chance to think about all these things we’re discussing.
AVC: If there were a movie about that, that movie would have to be about the father and why he does what he does, which is probably impossible to explain. In Dogtooth, even if the parents don’t say what it is, you sense that there’s a principle, an idea, behind what they’re doing.
GL: They’re very didactic much of the time. They have very specific grooves. They seem like they have thought of it. They’ve made a plan for the children. Of course, it’s very stupid. [Laughs.] Insanely stupid. Because it’s endless. One thing leads to the other, and you have to go to great lengths if you want this to work out.
AVC: It just keeps getting more complicated. They see a plane fly overhead, and then they have to pretend that this toy plane has crashed in their yard. And then there’s the whole question of the brother. Do you intend for there to be some ambiguity as to whether he ever existed?
GL: I guess there is. To us, when we wrote the script, it was a brother who really existed and has escaped or something, and we don’t know what’s really happened to him. The kids think he’s just outside the fence, because there’s nowhere else to go. That’s why they’re throwing him food. The older sister is throwing pieces of cake for him. There’s these lines when the father says he is dead, and the cat ate him, they’re saying, “I thought he would survive with the food I was providing him,” and all these things. To us, it was a real brother, but in the context of this film, it could work also as a legend that the parents have constructed for the children to be more in fear of. But that doesn’t really make sense, if you really think about it. Why would they come up with someone who has left the house and is still alive?
AVC: As you were saying, maybe a lot of it doesn’t make sense if you think about it.
GL: Yeah. [Laughs.] That was our idea, that he really existed, but some people don’t get that, and that’s okay. But if you think of the way I just explained it, it doesn’t make sense.
AVC: Did the movie end up being about what you thought it was about when you started making it? People have read it as a political allegory, and all sorts of different—
GL: No, because no film is ever as you have imagined it. The goal for me—and I think it is most of the time, when I make a film, or whatever I make—is to make something that is very open. Even if there are other issues raised by the film, I never try to incorporate them myself while making it, or while writing the script. I think by making something simple and very true to a specific idea that you have, if you make the choices that leave it open to people so they can actually watch it free and of their own experience, background, and education—if you’ve constructed the film in the way that you allow them to be able to think about things, and not force on them your own opinion, then it could be about anything that these people are interested in and concerned about. Not anything, but there are certain links. So whenever people sit and are discussing—of course, it is a political film, but I didn’t start making as an allegory to political issues.
AVC: Or a specific country.
GL: Yeah. But if you’re making a film where you’re aware it raises issues, of course it is a political film. I didn’t make it for the dictatorship in Greece, like some people say, or another totalitarian state, but I do understand that this could make people think about these issues. After we wrote the script, I did realize that this film—and that’s why I was interested in making it—is about how much you can really control people’s minds, and with the information you’re giving people, how much they can have a distorted view of the world. So of course, on the next level, that can really be about media, or the information that leaders give their countries or whatever. Of course it’s about all these things; it depends on the people who watch it what they make of it. That’s the most important thing for me, to be able to watch a film and then think about all these other things.
AVC: It isn’t just about repression of information, it suggests if there’s a vacuum, if you withhold, where their minds will go instead. It’s not just about being kept in the dark, but that people will make up something to put in that space.
GL: I guess it’s necessary for people to fill in these gaps with whatever they have, or what they have access in. They build things from what they know, so I guess it’s a function of people’s minds.
AVC: Which are pretty scary places.
GL: Yeah. There’s no such thing as a blank.