Ben Eshmade: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican Podcast. I’m Ben Eshmade and this week we reenter the cinematic universe of Yorgos Lanthimos, and the film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a film where horror and humour creep up next to you.
Yorgos Lanthimos: I like to expose complex situations
Colin Farrell: Reading the script I kind of felt a bit nauseous after it, I didn’t laugh, maybe I didn’t laugh because I was already thinking how the Jesus am I gonna do or say any of this stuff
Barry Keoghan: He’s a clever little man-boy, I call him, you know, he acts like a boy and then he just suddenly turns into a demon.
BE: To explain where possible this supernatural story. Colin Farrell plays Stephen, a charismatic surgeon whose perfect life starts deteriorating rapidly when he meets demonic teenager Martin, played by Barry Keoghan. Martin forces Stephen to make an impossible choice. Nicole Kidman also stars as Stephen’s wife Anna, with Raffey Cassidy as daughter Kim.
Stephen: Look I told you, best not to come to the hospital without calling me first.
Martin: I know, you’re right, I’m sorry. I just want to thank you again. And to show you my new strap I got for my watch. I erm, exchanged the metal strap for a leather one. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to put you in this awkward position.
BE: Recorded over a few days at the 2017 London Film Festival, this was a team effort where I spoke to the director, and actor Barry Keoghan, and Daniela and Isabella from the programming team spoke to Colin Farrell the following day. We start with the director.
BE: After the critical and commercial success of The Lobster, did this allow you any freedom in regards to your next project, which, obviously, is The Killing of the Sacred Deer?
YL: Freedom was never a problem with the films I’ve made so far. All of the films that I made I had complete creative freedom. The difficulty most of the time is raising the financing for these kind of films. Yes, so this time around it was the first time that it was relatively quick to put a film together after The Lobster. We had people that we had worked with on The Lobster, as soon as they heard that we had another screenplay they were quick to get on board and enable us to put this together faster than any other time before, so that had changed.
BE: Where did you and Efthymis [Filippou] begin with the script, was there one thought or idea, or something you discussed that turned into the film?
YL: Yeah I mean we work very closely with Efthymis and we always discuss things that we’re interested in. It may be a fragment of a story, or a situation that we observe, or something that we’ve thought of, an event or something, and through our dialogue and saying ‘would this be interesting if we had these two people in that kind of situation?’ Then one adds to the other’s ideas, and then it progresses and becomes a story and then we start writing a screenplay. So it’s a process that you can’t exactly know where it started from and what sparked it, especially two years later, you’ve made a film, you’re talking about it and you just can’t exactly pinpoint where it started from. But it’s a collaboration between the two of us, from the spark of the idea all the way to the finished screenplay, we work very closely together.
Anna: Everyone’s been telling me what beautiful hands you have and now I can see for myself, nice and clean. But so what if they’re beautiful? They’re lifeless.
YL: We always try and be as precise as we can with a screenplay. I only think about other elements of the film after we’ve finished the screenplay and feel confident about it, I don’t start midway looking for financing or thinking about the actors or where we’re going to set it. Even what it’s going to look like, I leave that for the next phase. So we’re very focused on the writing and completing a screenplay.
BE: I felt that I was someone looking down on these characters, I’d perhaps even describe me as alien from outer space, just seeing these strange people that you put down on this board move around, does that sound true to what you were intending to do?
YL: Well it does, even more so because visually I tried to incorporate the idea of this entity observing the people from high up. We did use – technically speaking, which is boring, but – we did use a lot of high angles and wide angle lenses, and the camera moved behind and around people in a kind of menacing way, and also from very low angles and creeping in from underneath. I think the intention was to create this atmosphere of another presence of a certain kind of entity, almost, in a subtle way, being around the characters of this film. So it was definitely visually and atmospherically intentional.
BE: And on the same theme, we’re dealing with Colin Farrell playing the character of Stephen Murphy who is a doctor, and doctors, as we see in the hospital, are like God like creatures.
YL: Yes that’s true, and it was an important choice for us, his profession, to create that kind of ambiguity of blame, guilt, power, control, and all the rest that comes with it.
BE: The film, which I’m sure was on purpose, really pushes at definitions. We live in a society where we might want to describe it as a dramatic film, or a horror or a thriller, but it reminded me of Kubrick in that sense.
YL: Well that’s very flattering, I love Kubrick films. It’s an approach I think I have for most of my films, I don’t want to consider the audience as someone who has to be fed very specific ideas and information. Also, as an audience member I love to be intrigued and provoked into thinking and engage with films in an active way, and be able to assert my opinion and my thoughts in there, and come away with something that I’ll think about a little bit more when I’ve left the cinema. So I try to construct films also in a way that they leave that space for people according to their own experiences, culture, education, even mood, to come up with their own reaction to the film.
BE: We talked about Colin Farrell’s character, Stephen, one of the other most important characters is Martin, who comes in and changes everything. What a performance as well!
YL: Yeah, the catalyst. It was extremely important to find an actor who would be able to create a character with such complexity, because, this kind of story, it was easy to create this one dimensional evil kid, but what we were after was to create a much more complex character who would, at the same time, appear menacing and evil and dangerous, but also quite a young kid, sensitive, troubled, that you could actually understand the reasons for behaving in some kind of way. So it was very important to find the actor who would be able to convey all that, and we were very lucky to have Barry do this.
Martin: You said to me that you’ve got lots of hair under your arms, three times more than I do, and that you’ve got a very hairy back, a very hairy belly.
Stephen: I probably do have a little more hair than you do because I’m older than you, but soon you’ll have more hair too. It’s all down to hormones.
Martin: Can you show me please? Can you take off your shirt and show me please? Please?
BE: Oh there’s some great scenes, because it’s about adolescence as well, you know, the scene where Stephen and Martin are talking about the amount of hair he has on his body (laughing). We talked about different genres, you know, it’s a comedy, a dark comedy, in places.
YL: Yeah, it is, I mean it’s the only way that Efthymis and I know how to approach things, I don’t think that we could ever make something absolutely serious, because that it would become self-serious, and take itself too seriously, and I do have an aversion towards those kinds of works. We think that you can only observe situations and relationships and people in a profound way only if you can include the ridiculous aspect of human nature and behaviour in situations, and so for me it wouldn’t be complete if there was lack of humour in the film.
BE: It was wonderful to see Alicia Silverstone in the film. I wondered if there was any power in the sense of bringing a face that we haven’t seen on screen for a while back, whether that gives an interesting kind of twist in regards to recognition and understanding.
YL: I understand what you’re saying, I didn’t consciously think much about that, I just was excited about the idea, and from when I was a teenager I remembered her, I, like many other people, had a crush on her, seeing her in Clueless and those Aerosmith videos and all that, so I hadn’t seen her for years, and it was actually our casting director’s idea, and I was immediately excited when she mentioned her. I didn’t know what even she looked like any more and she sent us a tape, doing the scene and she was just incredible, amazing, and I just said ok we don’t need to look for anyone else, she’s just nailed it immediately. So I didn’t think much of it. And then I did realise when it was first mentioned, when we started filming the film, that she was part of it and that was a huge thing, that ‘Oh Alicia Silverstone, you’re in Lanthimos’ film, what does that mean, what’s it going to be like’, but I understand that kind of thing, but for me it was just an incredible actress with a unique presence being right for the role, and I enjoyed working with her very much, and I’m sad that it’s just a day of work and I wish I could have worked with her more and maybe we will do in the future.
BE: Nicole Kidman as the wife in the film, why was she right to play opposite Colin Farrell, why did she fill that role for you?
YL: Well, Nicole, I kind of think she’s always right, for anything. I think she, well, she’s a great actress, she can do anything, and she has such a unique presence that no matter what kind of character you merge her with then it becomes much richer in different ways, depending on what the character is and what the story is. So it’s just a little bit of a no brainer, you know, bring her into the equation and something definitely interesting and more complex comes out.
BE: Had you seen Birth? Because that was a film that I thought of when I saw her performance.
YL: Yeah, I loved Birth. I think Jonathan Glazer is one of the greatest filmmakers working today. But yeah, I mean she has a body of work that you can’t really argue about.
BE: Going back to the idea of the outsider, or of someone looking in on the film, I wanted to mention the dialogue, which has a sort of specific rhythm and delivery, maybe it’s even – it’s definitely in English – but it feels like it’s a different language.
YL: Well I think there’s a particular voice, which I find precious. And it’s important that you have a voice that starts with the screenplay, it’s very important for me, and that’s why I find this relationship with my writing partner very important, and we continue working together, because the combination of the two of us working together brings out something specific and hopefully original. And even when I have now tried working with other writers as well, I do look for that particular voice that will blend with my sensibilities and understanding of the world that I’m trying to create. So it’s always important for me to find writing partners that have a very unique, strong voice.
BE: There’s even perhaps an argument that it’s the same voice that’s transplanted between the different characters.
YL: Yeah, that’s absolutely true, but it’s absolutely true for every piece of text I think, because when it’s a writer writing it, he writes all the voices, although they take the shape and the sound of different people, obviously it comes from the same source. So yeah, that’s a fair thing to notice.
BE: Daniela and Isabella spoke to Colin Farrell.
CF: Yeah he thinks that this is his Anchorman, like this is a comedy! The Lobster was funnier to shoot, and The Lobster I felt had a kind of pervasive sense of hope through it, even though some of the scenes of The Lobster were disturbing in and of themselves, and it was kind of an awkward world again, but just because the character I played was kind of guileless and open and innocent, and this guy is more arrogant and prideful and brilliant, he had a brilliance to him as well. But you know when you go to work on a film like this that it’s not about high fiving after takes and having a great buzz on the set every day. Yorgos’ set is very controlled. He’s not controlling, the control is kind of self imposed by the crew and the cast.
Stephen: Your mother is very beautiful but the idea that she and I could ever be together is ludicrous. Let me remind you I’m a married man, and I love my wife very much. And my kids. And that we are very happy together. And for your information, you’re absolutely fine. There’s nothing wrong with you.
Isabella Moir: I want to ask about the script actually, the tone and the manner of Yorgos’ scripts are very distinctive. How did you find working on a script like this, was it quite restricting?
CF: No, it’s kind of paradoxically freeing within the restrictions. There’s this strange – I think maybe because there’s a lack of urban or contemporary naturalism, you’ve almost more room to believe you can’t fail in a way. Again, it really is what they do, him and Efthymis, it’s a whole different world of rules and behaviours, Alps, Dogtooth, The Lobster and this, so in a way, ridding yourself of any of that contemporary nuance, naturalistic acting, any winking at the audience, any cleverness, none of the characters are cool or concerned with that, that in itself, not having to do too much, because the script does so much that to try and put my opinion on what an emotional reaction of Stephen’s would be here, or an emotional reaction would be there, would be to poison the script in a way.
IM: We want to talk a bit more about the female characters in the film.
CF: Oh god, they’re all extraordinary. I mean Nicole is so brilliant, and so focused on the work and yet she’s a really wicked sense of humour and great fun to work with as well. We had some laughs on this, I say it’s bleak, don’t get me wrong we had a couple of laughs. I think they started getting more spare the more we got into the film. But Raffey was amazing. She just came in with some kind of sense of tone, and she to me is possibly almost the darkest character in the film, the way she’s so accepting of all this toxicity and sickness, and it doesn’t phase her at all. And the things she says to Mom ‘Are you tired? Have you started feeling tired yet?’ and ‘It’s ok Mom, don’t be scared.’ Oh my god. I thought she inhabited the role incredibly. And Alicia came in and killed it. She had one day, she came in and did an amazing scene, dropped in and did something completely unexpected and unique, and yet existing with the genetic tonality of the film, I thought she was amazing, it was great to work with her. And I grew up watching her films as well, and when I heard they’d cast her I again was like wow!
DF: One of the most intriguing things about the film to me was the fact that this family accept their fate. The setting is very American and yet they’re quite fatalistic and they just accept what’s happening to them. Why do you think that is?
CF: I don’t know. But I think it’s one of the most upsetting things about the film. I think what Yorgos does is he presents a set of extraordinary circumstances, some of which are highly absurd, he doesn’t necessarily explain why or how they got to be that way, and if they audience find themselves trying to figure that out or create some narrative around that. It’s like in The Lobster, it’s never explained, how do you really turn people into animals? What is this animal transference room? What’s the science behind it? In this it’s like how does the sickness that Martin threatens my family with, how does that sickness actually come to be made, to physically manifest? Is he in league with the Gods? Is it some kind of small mass hypnosis? Is it some poison? None of them cut mustard. It’s just a leap of faith.
Anna: Our two children are dying in the other room but yes I can make you mashed potatoes tomorrow.
Stephen: Please don’t talk to me that way.
Anna: If you don’t like it why don’t you go and live with Martin’s mother? I bet she’ll talk to you better.
Stephen: You wanted the kids to come home and they came home. What else do you want me to do?
Anna: Something to put an end to all of this, that’s what I want. Can you do that?
BE: Lastly, we hear from the demon child himself, Barry Keoghan. I’m just going to start with what an extraordinary character.
BE: What an absolutely amazing performance. What appealed to you about the role of Martin?
BK: It was Yorgos that attracted me to this movie. You know, a Yorgos Lanthimos movie, The Lobster, Dogtooth, as soon as I seen them I was like I have to be in one of his movies. When this popped up I read the script, I knew this character was going to be fun to play around with.
BE: What goes through your head when you read a script? Particularly for this film, because it’s such a complicated character that kind of transforms, really, from the beginning to the end.
BK: Yeah, one thing I really thought about is his arc. Every movie I do I have a back story, I have questions, I have everything for the director, but with Yorgos that approach is different, you know, you don’t do it that way. You just show up and you know your lines, you don’t attach any emotions, you don’t do any of that. You just basically throw all your lines away and that’s what he does. It’s actually very refreshing. It really is a very refreshing way, and it’s definitely a different way than I usually work, but I really, really liked it.
BE: The sets in this film are very particular as well, in the sense that there’s the hospital, which is clinically clean and scarily beautiful, and you’ve got the house as well. Do they help you as an actor, is what surrounds you important?
BK: Sets, always, as real the director can make it for you, the better. Chris Nolan did that for Dunkirk, with the planes and the boats, and then Yorgos did it with the hospital and the house. And I’ve been lucky that anything I’ve worked on has always been on locations, never in a studio.
BE: In the film itself Colin Farrell plays Stephen and he’s kind of like an adopted Dad, that’s the impression we get at the beginning.
BK: Yeah, he feels the need, I think, to meet up with this boy and bring him out on little days and get him ice cream and get him presents, because he’s just lost his father. But yeah I think Martin as well thinks of Stephen that way, you know, as a father figure, but I think there’s a bigger reason to it, he’s also seeing him as a father figure but he’s plotting revenge.
BE: (Laughs) Is that there from the beginning, do you think?
BK: Erm yeah, I think so. And that goes to show how clever this little lad is, he’s a clever little man-boy, I call him. He acts like a boy and then just suddenly turns into a demon. He’s a devil’s angel, I call him, you know. Devil’s angel.
BE: This film really mashes the genres, it doesn’t allow you to think of it in one way, like a horror or thriller or a drama, it’s playing with you.
BK: It is, it’s constantly playing with you, and I think that’s good you know, it’s the Yorgos genre. Yorgos has his own language, his own tone, his own style. Everyone wants to work with Yorgos now, and for me to work with him at 24, him and Chris Nolan, in the space of a few months was unreal.
BE: There’s a lot of work for you because you are carrying, you are in the film for most of it.
BK: Yeah, there is yeah. I come in and I do my bit, and when I’m not there you still feel – Yorgos does this thing where you still feel Martin is present, you know, he’s still there somewhere, he’s lurking. He’s done that very well with the camera as well, he won’t let us in all the time, Yorgos, there are far away shots of me and Stephen talking, you know. So he used that very cleverly as well.
BE: Did you ever accidentally giggle at any point? I’m thinking particularly of the scene where…
BK: The chest hair?
BE: The chest hair (laughs)
BK: Oh Jesus, I had to keep a straight face for that. We had to do that so many times. It’s just Colin though, Colin’s so funny as well and it’s how Colin does it, I had to keep a straight face. There was a load of takes, and I think Colin got used to it because of The Lobster, so Colin…
BE: yeah he was used to it?
BK: yeah whereas I was like ‘this is weird’. Anyways.
BE: And who else impressed you? Obviously working with Nicole Kidman must have been a pleasure.
BK: Yeah, I mean Nicole, look at the choices she’s making, and Colin, but you know look at the choices, at the calibre, making those choices, working with these filmmakers and that impresses me, that pushes me as a young actor and to be surrounded in the presence of actors and actresses like that it’s… I’m blessed, I always say, I am I’m blessed in this acting game. Touch wood it stays the same, like.
BE: The temptation is to do something that will give you a higher profile, but to stick true to yourself is obviously very hard.
BK: Yeah, the temptation, well I’ve got offers recently, it’d make the bank balance quite nice these offers, but I’m not here for that. I’m here to tell good stories, good filmmakers, the rest will come. I’m very, very confident in the rest of it following me.
BE: There is also, which is the thing I personally thought about more afterwards, is the kind of supernatural element, the possible…
BK: I love this
BE: The witchcraft element.
BK: Yeah I love this.
BE: I had a theory that when he gives the three tokens, the flowers and the two keyrings, that was some kind of curse?
BK: Maybe. See, that’s the first time somebody’s said that to me. I like the whole thing of someone thinking he’s a god – someone said that to me, he’s a god. But I love everyone’s take on it, you know, everyone has a different… and Yorgos hasn’t explained it, and he won’t, and I don’t think it needs to be explained, and I think that’s why his movies are… he likes everything up for interpretation.
BE: We’ve talked about you laughing, but was there any moments when you were shocked?
BK: Alicia Silverstone sucking Colin’s fingers was bit of a shock (laughing). That was a bit like ‘what is going on here now? Is this… are we rolling?’ But yeah, that was the only time.
Martin: Can you sing me something?
Kim: what, now?
Martin: Yes, anything you like.
Kim: No, not right now.
Bob: She’s embarrassed
Kim: No I’m not. I just don’t feel like it. When did you start smoking?
Martin: About 8 months ago. I was over at a friends place. It was a party actually, and this girl offered me a cigarette and I said why not, and lit up. That was a mistake. I regret it, but it’s too late now. I’m addicted.
BK: You know, Yorgos’ language and tone, it’s basically what you’re thinking right now you’re not going to say it, and what I’m thinking right now I’m not going to say it, we reserve a lot. Whereas his language and his tone says it, you know, without any thinking, and that’s what’s so… It’s like if, it’s cause we’re affected by social medias and we’ve grown up in a rhythm of how to talk, and we should say this at this point and that at that point, whereas I feel with Yorgos’ world, it’s like if the world started tomorrow, that’s how we’d talk, you know, because we wouldn’t be influenced with media and news and accents and whatever, and that’s how we’d talk, we’d just say what we think. Do you know what I mean? So that’s what I think of Yorgos’ language and rhythm and tone.
BE: It’s incredible, though, to be honest.
BK: It is. I don’t know who came up with that rhythm and tone though.
BE: It’s as important in this film as the cinematography, as the sound, as the lighting, is those words read at the right speed, as you said earlier.
BK: Yeah, it is. The dialogue has just, you know, won best screenplay at Cannes, it’s just gorgeous. And for an actor, you get that much dialogue and you get to play around with that, it’s just… you can’t ask for anything more.
BE: Though, saying that, you do internalize, your character internalizes quite a lot, I think
BE: As well as maybe a raging god there’s a raging teenager in there as well.
BK: Yeah, yeah, and also it does show a bit of how teenagers are today as well. They’re brave, you know, social media and stuff like that, they’re completely different to when I was a teenager. I’m 25 this week, and when I was 17 or even 15 I was running around getting dirty and climbing walls, and now they’re on their phones, they’re so ahead of us, they’re so ahead of their time. So yeah I think I represented that a little, the teenagers in this movie, I represented that, what it is today.
BE: I mean you could even take that further and say it’s a part of the time we live in, that sort of numbness that we have, because the overload of social media or the overload of news.
BK: Numbness is right, yeah. It is, you’re dead right there. The numbness, the lack of care, when someone’s fighting on the street a phone comes out. Instead of breaking it up, a phone comes out. It’s not caring about this lad could get really injured, you know, or someone gets knocked down, someone records them. It’s horrible. It really is horrible. I use social media for acting, you know, because I like to push things out there and whatever but other than that I don’t go looking at things because it just annoys me. Everything, all these stupid videos of things annoy me.
BE: Within the family of Stephen and Anna and the two children, again it’s that question of love, I suppose, and what love is in this film. Within that family unit, the children, it’s more about obedience than love.
BK: Yeah, it is more about obedience yeah. They have a structure, you know, ‘water the plants’ or ‘get your hair cut today’. I just love the way they talk to each other, it’s so funny. But yeah you’re dead right.
BE: I just wanted to finish with… you must feel like you’ve accomplished something, I mean it’s a role that we’re not going to forget, as an audience, for a long time
BK: I hope not, either, but I hope that some part of the audience forgives me a little and sees past me, you know. I’ve done my job if people hate me, basically.
BE: I was a little scared coming here today, I must admit.
BK: Yeah, yeah, I’ve done my job then I think.
BE: Thanks to Yorgos, Barry and Colin for speaking to us. This film drags you on this incredible, compelling journey. Perhaps the film Hitchcock would have made in the 21st century, it’s very unique, a little bit incredible and quite disturbing.
I’m Ben Eshmade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, The Barbican podcast. We’re here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, and if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.