Poor Things arrives five years after Yorgos Lanthimos' last film, 2018's Oscar-winning The Favourite, but it has been in the works far longer than that. The filmmaker first read Scottish author Alasdair Gray's 1992 novel, Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer, more than a decade ago and has spent years, off and on, trying to adapt it for the big screen.
It was never an easy pitch, though; Poor Things tells the decidedly odd tale of Bella Baxter (Oscar winner Emma Stone), who is brought back from the dead in the most unorthodox fashion by an eccentric scientist (Willem Dafoe). Reanimated, Bella sets off on a journey of intellectual and sexual self-discovery.
Lanthimos found himself immediately drawn to Gray's unusual heroine. "I was completely taken by Bella, the same way that all the other characters in the novel are," he says. An Oscar nominee for writing 2015's The Lobster and for directing and producing The Favourite, Lanthimos felt that Poor Things had the potential to be a coming-of-age film unlike any that audiences had seen before.
"Alasdair provides Bella with the freedom to go out into the world on her own terms and discover new things and build her own personality," explains the filmmaker. "That felt like a very interesting story to tell — a strange, coming-of-age story about this woman in a Victorian-era world."
It may have taken Lanthimos more than 10 years to complete his adaptation — for which he enlisted regular collaborators like Stone and screenwriter Tony McNamara — but looking back now, he tells A.frame that the same spirit of independence that courses through Poor Things also extended to him as its director. Or as he puts it, "I felt very free."
A.frame: I know that you got to meet with Alasdair before he died in 2019, and that he took you on a walking tour of Glasgow. Was there anything he told you or showed you during your meetings with him that changed your initial conception of Poor Things?
It was mostly his presence that was inspiring. He was extremely energetic and enthusiastic and such a special kind of eccentric figure. He was very, very charming, but without trying to be. He was this older man — I think he was in his 80s at that point — but he had the energy of a child. Running around Glasgow, I had to keep up with him! I also love him not only as a writer, but also as an artist. I love his drawings, paintings, and illustrations. The way we tried to pay homage to him was to channel him through Willem Dafoe's character, [Godwin] Baxter, because Baxter is kind of an alter ego for Alasdair in the novel. I watched some videos of him with Willem, and I told him, 'This man was so special. If there's any way that you can try to replicate his presence, that'd be great.' That's why Willem has a Scottish accent in the film. Of course, the novel itself also provided a huge base and strong starting point for the adaptation.
Poor Things feels far and away your most visually experimental and expressive movie to date. In your early conversations with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, what did you share about your vision for the movie's visual style?
Robbie and I have known each other for a few years now. We made The Favourite together, and that experience was a good learning curve in understanding how we work best together. So, instead of talking too much about Poor Things' look, it was more about building on what we started doing on The Favourite. We knew, for instance, that we liked certain things from making that film and that we wanted to go even further and explore other things. We did a lot of testing to find out which lenses we liked that were slightly different from the ones we used before. We used these old Petzval lenses that bring a certain look to the film, and we used a lot of wide-angle lenses again. During those tests, we also remembered that we'd seen this lens when we were preparing to do The Favourite that created this black circular background in the frame. We didn't use that lens for The Favourite, because we thought it would be too much. But when we were testing lenses for Poor Things, we thought, 'Remember that lens? Why don't we use it here?' We actually weren't able to find the same lens again, but Robbie had the idea to use a 16 mm lens to create a similar circular effect. We ended up using that.
Our work together for Poor Things was made up of a lot of those kinds of discoveries and just playing around with things, because we'd already developed a language between us. For reference, I showed him some Fassbinder films and talked about how the camera moved in them, because in addition to all the wide-angle lenses and physical camera movements in Poor Things, there are also quite a few zooms throughout the film that might not necessarily be noticeable, but they're there. We looked to Fassbinder's work with that in mind. The other thing that was important for us was that we knew this was going to be the first film we'd shot on a soundstage. Every set was built in a studio, and we knew that would require a lot of artificial lighting, which I'd never worked with before. Robbie only had a little experience with that too, because we didn't use any artificial light on The Favourite. On that film, we used natural light and practical lights, like candles. So, this time around, we wanted to make sure we weren't going to be trapping ourselves or forcing ourselves to adopt a different way of shooting.
What did you ultimately end up doing to make sure you didn't trap yourself?
We decided that we were going to light everything beforehand. When we were inside a set, we decided that we'd either light everything from outside of it or only use practical lights again, in order to create the same kind of setup that we'd had on location on The Favourite. Every set was lit from the outside, which meant there was no other gear in the set itself other than the camera and sound. We wanted to retain a very intimate atmosphere, so it was just the camera, the focus puller, the assistant director, the actors, and sometimes the sound people on set. It was important for us to retain our established way of working, and not just for us, but to make sure we got the best performances out of the actors as well.
Emma and Mark Ruffalo, especially, have to be very vulnerable and egoless in this film. As a director, what do you do to make them feel comfortable enough to go for it like they do in Poor Things?
I think the material itself helps, first of all, because they read it, they get it, and they understand what needs to be done. Having a relationship with the actors is important, too. With Emma, we've made so many things together now that we're very close and we trust each other. That established a very strong foundation for other people to come in and feel similarly close and comfortable with us.
We also have this period of rehearsal on my films before we start filming, which is all about making everyone comfortable with each other and comfortable with the material. It's about them getting to know each other and starting to feel like they can try anything and do anything and that nobody's going to judge them. Nobody's going to be making fun of them. Sometimes, it's about all of us making fun of the same thing, and we have a lot of laughs and fun during those rehearsals, because they're meant to create a bond between the actors and allow them to experience the material in a non-intellectual fashion. When you combine the text itself with games and general fooling around, everything becomes much lighter, and we all take it less seriously. We take ourselves less seriously, and that creates an atmosphere where we can feel close to each other and trust each other enough to do whatever the material requires us to do.
There have been a lot of conversations of late about the necessity of sex scenes in movies. Poor Things seems to exist in opposition to those conversations. How do you think about the sex scenes within your films?
The whole time I've been making films, that's never been an issue for me. It's always just been about what I've felt is right for each film and for each character. We've always gone with that, and the people I've worked with have understood that. It's never been an issue for us. In this film, we're focusing on a woman who doesn't judge. She doesn't judge herself or others when it comes to nudity or sex or her own body. She deals with everything with the same attitude, whether it be friendship, education, politics, traveling, poverty, or medicine. She approaches it all with the same attitude of curiosity. We needed to do the same thing, so that's what we did. It would have been disingenuous for us to all of a sudden be prudish about that particular aspect of not only her story, but also her personality and character.
Did you have to fight during the editing process to keep anything in the film?
No, not really. The studio read the script and they'd seen my other films, so it was all pretty straightforward in terms of what this was going to be. We always have discussions at some point about the edit and how it's going, but it was never contentious. I think they respect me as a filmmaker, and they were aware of the material and what we were filming. I wouldn't be making films nowadays if I didn't feel that I have the creative freedom that I've always had, whether that's been when I was making movies with my friends or making these large-scale productions. I need to know that I have creative freedom. Here, no one said to me, 'You can't say this or that,' or told me to do something differently. If a film of mine ends up being bad, that won't be the reason why. If anything goes wrong with any of them, I'm the one to blame.
By Alex Welch