On a bright winter afternoon in Burbank, California, a woman named Phyllis was on her front lawn, trying to control five of her 15 dogs. As always, she was dressed in haute leisure wear—in this case, a voluminous floral-print caftan. Her red hair was carefully styled in a bouffant bob, and her lips painted a bright shade of orange. Suddenly, dogs of all sizes began pulling Phyllis across her manicured lawn, her many gold bangles clinking and her frock billowing, but she was never annoyed. “Oh, my babies,” she said lovingly, as she stooped to pick up a yapping pug. “I adore all my babies, even when they’re devils.” Phyllis gave the pug a kiss on his flat snout and placed him gently on the ground with his siblings. “And now, my little ones, let’s go for a walk.”
Phyllis was, in fact, Emma Stone, who approached her character for the shoot seen here with a terrific sense of commitment. The dog family had sprung to life from the imagination of Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of The Favourite, which is nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best director. (Stone, one of the stars in the film, is nominated for best supporting actress.) “First, we considered spotlighting a woman who loved stuffed animals,” Lanthimos said as he watched Stone trying to wrangle the pack. “I discussed it with Emma. Since she loves dogs a lot, we went from stuffed animals to real, deep animal love: 15 actual dogs.”
Lanthimos smiled. He is a tall man with a bemused yet inscrutable look in his eye. He was dressed in a kind of dark blue French worker’s jacket and navy pants. Since he was taking a turn as a W photographer, he was holding a camera and his pockets were stuffed with equipment. In conversation, Lanthimos, who is 45, is warm and approachable, but not naturally forthcoming. Most directors are loquacious, eager to hold forth on their worldview, but he is shy, even cryptic. His films, beginning with Dogtooth (2009) and continuing with The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), are haunting, unsettling, and disorientingly humorous. Dogtooth, which was made in Greece, Lanthimos’s native country, set the tone: It features three adult siblings who have been isolated their whole lives and kept in a state of perpetual childhood by their parents. The grown kids believe that they can’t leave their cultlike compound until their upper canine teeth (thus Dogtooth) fall out on their own. The scene in which the eldest daughter bashes her tooth with a heavy dumbbell is a chilling statement on the need for freedom—yet, somehow, Lanthimos manages to make it hilarious too.
Similarly, The Lobster, his first English-language movie, is a dystopian comedy about a world in which people must find a romantic partner within 45 days or be transformed into an animal of their choosing. During heavy emotional scenes, a random kangaroo or goat might be hopping or ambling by in the background. Sacred Deer, Lanthimos’s coldest film, is a meditation on the banality of evil: a psychological horror story in which nearly every generous impulse results in an act of devastating violence. The Favourite is also dark, but delightful: a clever, fast-talking duel between rival factions in the court of Queen Anne, who ruled England in the early 18th century.
“When I read the script for The Favourite,” Stone said as she relinquished her dog-walker duties, “I thought, This is like All About Eve.” She plays Abigail Hill, a well-born woman who has fallen on hard times and arrives at Queen Anne’s royal palace as a servant. Soon she is challenging her much grander and more entrenched cousin, Sarah Churchill (played by Rachel Weisz), for the love of the ailing and somewhat deranged Queen Anne (portrayed by Olivia Colman). The cousins plot and scheme and fight for power and supremacy, while maintaining the appearance of courtliness. It is thrilling, in the age of #TimesUp, to witness a world in which men are secondary players.
Stone walked into Phyllis’s living room and paused to absorb the decor. Nearly every piece of furniture was encased in clear vinyl slipcovers, including a few small tables. It was decorated, like the rest of the midcentury ranch-style house, at Lanthimos’s direction, with all manner of dog paintings, toys, statues, pillows, and photographs. “I wanted the room to be completely full of fake dogs,” Lanthimos said. “That way, a viewer will confuse the impostors with the real dogs.” He sounded delighted. “Animals are a part of our lives, which is why they’re prominent in my films. But I find the relationships we have with them quite strange. Such as, there are animals we are okay to eat and animals we wouldn’t dream of eating. So odd. The theories around animals are fascinating.” He paused. “And we all love dogs. But what about a woman who owns and loves 15 dogs? What does that say about her life?”
Lanthimos walked to the back of the house, where the dogs and their handlers were waiting patiently. A large Afghan hound was hanging out on the porch, a brown-and-white Australian shepherd was drinking water near a picnic table, and a Yorkie was being cuddled by her owner. “This dog makes me cry,” Stone said, staring deeply into the eyes of a giant tan bullmastiff.
Although Lanthimos and Stone had picked the different breeds together, he was much more interested in them as props for his images rather than as objects of affection. It was as if he felt that showering them with love would be somehow unseemly. In fact, he reacts with similar reticence when attention is focused on him. “After I finish editing a film,” Lanthimos explained, “I rarely watch it again. Years have to pass. When Dogtooth received acclaim, it was hard getting my head around the praise. I went back to work. After all, my films are meant to be somewhat disturbing.” He laughed softly. “I prefer to shake things up in an engaging way.”
Stone was now ready for a shot in which the dogs would be exercising with their mistress. A treadmill was set up in the den for the pug, and the Australian shepherd was coaxed into assuming, literally, a downward-dog position. “This one will be so funny,” exclaimed Lanthimos. “Funny” is his word for unique, interesting, provocative; to get to funny is always one of his directorial goals. During the three weeks of rehearsal before shooting The Favourite, he had his three actresses engage in a medley of game-like exercises, such as walking backward toward each other to see if they would crash. He also insisted they link arms and “build a human pretzel.” His goal, like with Stone and the dogs, was to erase any self-consciousness, sense of vanity, or “acting.” This need for naturalness even extended to the pups, which, it turned out, Lanthimos thought were a bit too professional. “The dogs are a bit tired now,” he said, eyeing the pug panting on the treadmill. “And that’s good. Even in the surreal, we need to find the real.”