Merry Mayhem: A Gallery of Posters for the Films of Yorgos Lanthimos
If there is one thing we can all agree about Yorgos Lanthimos (and it’s a sure thing that he wouldn’t want us to agree on everything) it’s that he is nothing if not particular. His brand of filmmaking goes to great lengths to subvert the quotidian, to satirise social engagement, and to unpick the minutiae of this ridiculous thing we call life.
It’s fitting, then, that Lanthimos would extend that punctiliousness to the marketing that follows his films and that there would be one person, and one person only, who Lanthimos will trust to create the poster artwork for his films. From Lanthimos’ name-making third feature, Dogtooth, through to the highly anticipated The Favourite, Vasilis Marmatakis has been that man, responsible for those all-important posters. Marmatakis understands Lanthimos. Like a psychiatrist showing a Rorschach ink test to his favourite patient, in his poster designs Marmatakis shows Lanthimos what he wants to see, what is going on inside that mind.
Marmatakis took us on a tour through his curious gallery of posters, sharing some of the concepts that didn’t make it to print, and revealing the inspiration behind these now iconic artworks.
“This is the poster we did for Dogtooth, but at that time we didn’t even know it would go to Cannes, so that’s why we went full-on arty,” Marmatakis says. “Basically, it’s just a diagram of distortion.” Perhaps more so than the posters that would follow with subsequent films, Marmatakis’ original design for Dogtooth is a visual riddle in need of interpretation, fitting for a film that takes such delight in wrong-footing its audience.
Dogtooth follows the twisted upbringing of three children at the hands of their domineering father. “The lines represent the three kids, and I think our aim was not to have anything descriptive, we just wanted to have a symbol.
“People always think this is a tooth,” says Marmatakis, pointing at the peaks and troughs on the page, “it’s not a tooth. We didn’t think of it at all, and then people were like ‘oh, it’s a tooth’ and we were like, no, it’s a distortion.” Fans of Lanthimos’ Dogtooth will have no doubt seen this poster before, but while it is the official poster approved by the director, UK distributors used something quite different and far less cryptic.
Marmatakis points to two more posters, each a blown up image of Angeliki Papoulia (or ‘Older Daughter’ as she is known in the film) taken from slightly different angles. “This is a set of two that was supposed to be front and back, so the distributor would choose whether to use the one of her looking nice, or this one, which is her completely covered in blood,” says Marmatakis. “Then Yorgos said ‘you can’t have the end of the film on the poster’ so that went off really quickly. But then in the US they did, they used that image.”
Lanthimos’ follow up, Alps, was equally subversive (a pattern begins to emerge), requiring a poster of peculiarity to match. The film is about a group of fairly wacky actors who branch out into counselling, employing their am-dram talents to help people in mourning by impersonating the deceased. “So the ‘Alps’ does what it does: pretending to be the dead ones, but really badly, and so we thought what if they made their own poster with a photocopier in a shop nearby?” says Marmatakis as we stand in front of a lo-fi photocopied collage of black and white photographs. “So, this is really rough; it’s a copy of a copy of a copy.” It’s an engaging poster, if a lot to take in at once and perhaps a little too much for those brief minutes spent idle on a tube platform. “It was Yorgos’ least favourite,” says Marmatakis. And so, it seems, that was that.
“This one,” Marmatakis begins as we move on to the next poster, “is the Alps. Uh… well, it’s Everest. It’s Everest pretending to be the Alps.” The poster we’re looking at features Mount Everest, white-topped against a clear blue sky with the title of the film written in bright red lettering. “Well unless you know what Everest looks like…” he trails off. Once you get it, the poster makes complete sense, it’s as though there’s been a mix up in the tourist board marketing department. Admittedly, it’s easy to miss the joke.
“I photocopy. I have favourite copy machines that give me the right result, and I like to work with paper because the medium is the paper. So, all this is printed on different paper,” says Marmatakis, motioning towards the full gallery. “This is actually the colour of the stock,” he continues, referring to the poster most will recognise as the official artwork for Alps. “It’s called manila and it’s used in Greek bureaucracy. You get this in blue, yellow, green, pink and this colour.
“That’s the poster that came out. It’s basically, well, all of the characters stacked on top of each other as if they’re doing an act, like a Chinese acrobatic thing, but also really badly. And it all creates a mountain.”
The Lobster (2015)
“That was my favourite, but it didn’t come out, and I really fought hard for it to come out,” Marmatakis confesses, looking at one of the unused posters for The Lobster. At first glance it’s just an image of Colin Farrell, stood full frame, looking fairly unhappy but, as with all of Marmatakis’ work, there is more to it than meets the eye. “Basically, it’s Colin Farrell with an invisible lover,” he says, and immediately the dismembered hand that Farrell is clutching reveals itself. “It’s really subtle. The idea was: okay you want the actor, have the actor, but then there’s this thing going on.”
The search for the right poster for The Lobster took numerous approaches, trying to find that balance between romance and some off-kilter alternate reality. “I tried to imagine the film, but I didn’t have a clue what it would look like,” says Marmatakis. “From the script it was kind of science fiction, but then it was in the woods… so I tried to convey all these elements.”
One concept sees a composite image of Colin Farrell embracing himself as that second self embraces Rachel Weisz. So, it’s Colin Farrell hugging Colin Farrell hugging Rachel Weisz. It captures one of the film’s central themes: characters are in love with the idea of themselves being in love. Another test eschews photography altogether for a purely typographic visual, listing members of the cast and crew down the page either in pairs or as singles. Each and every one of the concepts tested for The Lobster is striking and entirely appropriate for the film, but there are few who would argue with the final choice, a poster that has become instantly iconic.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
Lanthimos’ films consciously evade definition, so landing on the right poster is no easy feat. “I never get a brief, but I get a script,” says Marmatakis. “I read the script, and you make the film in your head. You have faces and you have locations. It’s not what you end up with, but that’s the starting point.”
When it came time for their fourth collaboration, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Marmatakis was fed a cocktail of misdirections. “I’ll discuss the themes with Yorgos. Like with The Killing of a Sacred Deer I asked, is it metaphysical? And he’s like ‘yeah. I asked, is it horror? And he’s like ‘yeah.’ I asked, is it comedy? And he’s like ‘yeah..’,” says Marmatakis. But it wouldn’t be a Lanthimos film without some mental gymnastics now, would it?
The Favourite (2018)
“I do think, okay it’s got Olivia Coleman in it, I’ve got the actors, I have to show that. But it doesn’t stop me from putting Rachel Weisz’s crotch in Olivia Colman’s mouth,” Marmatakis says through a mischievous laugh. “It’s her [Olivia, as Queen Anne] and she’s like a dead body, and those two [Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone] are manipulating her and decorating her.” That’s the official, approved poster for The Favourite, in all its obscene glory.
A triple threat of acting talent drives the acid tongued period drama of courtly scheming that is The Favourite. Olivia Colman is Queen Anne, a capricious and sickly ruler led by the nose by Rachel Weisz's courtier Lady Sarah. Emma Stone plays Abigail, a disenfranchised noblewoman who quickly sets about regaining her position by wheedling her way into the Queen's favours. Cue an equal parts hilarious and horrific love triangle-cum-battle royale, played out against the backdrop of the English Restoration.
So how does a poster designer go about constructing such a scene? “I had photographs. Once I start working they send me all of the photographs, thousands of them,” says Marmatakis. “I don’t get set photography, nothing staged, Yorgos doesn’t really like staged photography.” All the photography used is from the film. “The original image is Rachel Weisz holding a leather rope,” now a string of pearls, “and this one of Emma Stone, she was holding a knife and putting cream on Olivia’s leg. They thought it was too gnarly for Emma to have a knife, but then I found the brush,” says Marmatakis. Look closely at the poster and you’ll see that Stone is holding a brush, and not a knife as was the case in the source photograph. “This is worse than a knife, brushing an eye ball.”
Marmatakis got away with a lot of mischief with his poster for The Favourite. Alongside the scandalous imagery is that fully justified title treatment. “I’m not a font freak,” Marmatakis insists. “Sometimes I even forget what fonts I’ve used.” There’s something punk about Lantimos’ film, and it’s reflected full force in Marmatakis’ design. “Typography wise the rule is you never do that. It’s really bad. I mean, unacceptable. But I thought it was interesting and it’s a really nice font.” For the curious, “it’s called Village and it’s from 1900s, but it’s like it’s from 1400s.”
Looking at the gallery of artworks, collaborations between one of contemporary cinema’s most distinct voices and the only person he will trust to interpret them as an artwork, there’s no denying that this partnership of filmmaker and graphic designer is one perfectly attuned with a shared sensibility and an inclination toward merry mayhem.