The Weird, Fearless Partnership Behind Poor Things

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Written By Pinang Driod

The protagonist of the new film Poor Things is no ordinary heroine. As played by Emma Stone, Bella Baxter is a corpse reanimated by a man who replaced her brain with that of her unborn child; she’s therefore a blend of juvenile innocence and adult promiscuity, shamelessly charting her own course through life because she’s never been conditioned to meet societal constraints. She has no clue what womanhood is supposed to entail or how she’s expected to behave, yet she looks full-grown—a Frankenstein’s monster dressed in frilly outfits, without a single scar in sight.

Like her, Poor Things is brazenly, gleefully original in its presentation and ideas. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel, the movie takes place in a steampunk, otherworldly Victorian wonderland, and Bella’s story unfolds like a twisted fairy tale. Seeking freedom and adventure, she embarks on a journey around the world, which leads to encounters with characters who are simultaneously enthralled and threatened by her singular perspective—and who all try to control her in their own way. With them, she pursues experiences, many of them sexual, that shape her understanding of what it means to be fully alive. The film can, as a result, be hard to classify: It is at once a strangely charming bildungsroman, an erotic melodrama, a body-horror-tinged mystery, and a wondrous feminist meditation on the power of self-discovery.

But the film can be defined as a triumph of creative collaboration. Lanthimos and Stone have completed four projects together—including 2018’s The Favourite, last year’s short film Bleat, and the forthcoming Kind of Kindness—and Poor Things offers the best evidence of their particular artistic alchemy thus far. With it, Lanthimos, who’s known for making absurd black comedies such as The Lobster, has built a maximalist film that’s relentlessly funny, terrifically horny, thoroughly provocative, and “different in every respect” compared with his previous work, he told me. Stone, meanwhile, delivers the most fearless performance of her career, nimbly capturing every step of Bella’s social and sexual awakening.

I spoke with Lanthimos and Stone last month over Zoom. We talked about their partnership, the unique challenges of making Poor Things, and how their individual sensibilities contributed to the film’s intimacy. As they reflected on their work, the two often gently teased each other with a playfulness of which Bella would approve.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Shirley Li: This is the third collaboration of yours being released. Forgive me for putting this so bluntly, but why do you keep working together?

Emma Stone: No, I understand. As an actor, it’s no small thing to trust the person who is bringing the whole thing together, and Yorgos really takes responsibility for his films. If something goes wrong, the only person he blames at the end of the day is himself, and I share that personality trait. I know how much he cares and how miserable the whole process makes him up close.

Li: Miserable?

Yorgos Lanthimos: Well, it’s so stressful, the whole process. I’m not psyched. I’m, you know, frightened.

Stone: We would watch YouTube videos that make us laugh to try to calm down.

Li: What videos?

Stone: [Laughs] You tell, Yorgos.

Lanthimos: Inappropriate things, mostly. [Both laugh] Things we should not, um …

Stone: Funny things!

Li: I know you’re no strangers to making sexually frank scenes—The Favourite was also risqué—but tell me more about collaborating this time, because those sequences are an enormous part of Poor Things. You can trace Bella’s development through her sexual experiences; the film shifts from black and white to full color when Bella’s having sex with Duncan Wedderburn (played by Mark Ruffalo), the caddish lawyer who introduces her to the larger world. Emma, you’re a producer on this film, unlike in your previous work with Yorgos. How did that affect the making of Poor Things’ most explicit scenes?

Stone: I was privy to how everything was unfolding. I don’t know how helpful I was. In terms of how it practically existed on the day, we had a very trusted team that was in the room for all of that: Robbie Ryan, our director of photography; Hayley Williams, our first assistant director, who’s wonderful; and Olga Abramson, our focus puller. We had an incredible intimacy coordinator named Elle McAlpine. It was just extremely professional but also fun and alive. We had conversations about literally everything, so there were no surprises.

Lanthimos: I don’t think we discussed a lot about the theory of things or the characters and analysis. We discussed more practical things.

Li: The film’s sex scenes have received a range of responses. Some see them as proof that sex scenes are coming back to the movies; others have criticized them for being too graphic. Are you surprised at all by the variety of reactions?

Stone: [Apologetically] He doesn’t look at those.

Lanthimos: I get a general sense of things.

Stone: We knew that Bella was without shame and was deeply curious and was exploring the world in a way that we maybe haven’t seen before. The camera shying away from her puts a kind of societal onus onto her that she doesn’t deserve. She’s free. Why should we be ashamed?

Lanthimos: What maybe surprised me is, it seems like the film’s been perceived more so on the positive side of what we’re discussing. I’d expected maybe more reservations. That’s something that I do think about: If I had made the film when I wanted to make it, 12 years ago, would it be the same? Or is it that the world that we live in has slightly shifted, and now people can actually accept and be interested in this story of this woman as a free being with sexuality? Maybe it wouldn’t have been seen or talked about that much if it was done 10 years ago.

Li: Emma, do you agree? Yorgos did first talk about Poor Things with you when you were still working on The Favourite, and in the roughly six years since, there have been real-life upheavals in women’s freedoms, which is obviously relevant to the story Poor Things tells.

Stone: I hesitate to say this, because it sounds bad, but when I’m drawn to something, it really is just because it’s something that I feel drawn to. But it’s hard, because you make a film and then you go and do press for it, and, like we found with The Favourite, it’s like, It’s so timely! Hillary lost the election last year; what do you think? There is this sort of thing that gets put onto these stories as they’re released. I think that a story that is original always feels timely, because it’s something that feels deeply true or upsetting or whatever it may be.

To say that, years ago, this wasn’t as true as it is right now—that people are being horrific about Roe v. Wade and things like that—I think that’s an unfair idea, to say that a story becomes more relevant or less relevant. So I don’t know why Yorgos said that [Laughs], and I think you should strike it from the record.

Lanthimos: [Laughs]

Stone: I said it!

Li: To be fair to Yorgos, it does feel like this year’s been rife with films about women on journeys of self-discovery; this film plays like a surreal version of Barbie. With that in mind, did either of you envision a certain audience for Poor Things as you were making it, and consider the potential reactions to its sexual frankness from there? And given your different cultural backgrounds, did your approaches differ?

Stone: Hm. [To Lanthimos] Do you ever envision your audience?

Lanthimos: I don’t.

Stone: I’ve never heard him envision the audience. [Laughs] But yes, I mean, obviously I grew up in Arizona and he grew up in Athens, and there is a sort of, uh, different structure to what we learn about, about nudity and sexuality. A conversation that he’s brought up a lot, and I feel the same way, is the American relationship to violence on film is a kind of free-for-all. It’s a PG-13 movie if a bunch of people get shot but you don’t see blood. It’s R if you see the blood.

The culture of America and its relationship to violence is really fascinating, that it would be so prudish around sexuality, something that’s a part of a natural human experience and the way that people literally are created and born—that’s shameful, for some reason, but the way they die is not. As I’ve gotten older, it really is baffling to me, that acceptance of one but not the other. And I do think there’s a reversal of that in a lot of European cinema. Maybe I’m wrong. Yorgos?

Lanthimos: Maybe. I don’t know.

Stone: I don’t know either! I’m just sort of waxing poetic. I’m teaching a class. [Laughs]

Li: Speaking of which, I’m curious about what this collaboration taught you compared with your previous partnerships.

Lanthimos: I have to say, it’s not necessarily during Poor Things, but with the last few projects, I’ve learned to trust. I think when I was starting out, on my earlier films, I was way more suspicious of people.

I just wanted to have total control over everything and think that I know best. And so, by finding people that I can trust and admire, and working with them over and over again, I just learned to let go of certain things. And when you find those people, you just need to provide them with freedom and an appropriate environment, and they can flourish. In return, you get much more than you had imagined.

Stone: This is like therapy, Shirley.

Lanthimos: Yeah.

Li: I’m trying.

Stone: It’s good! I would describe our collaboration the same way. You’re so out of control as an actor. You don’t control the edit or how the film is going to end up, and that can be scary as time goes on, and you see some of the films that you’ve been a part of and you’re like, Oh my God, I guess that’s how that turned out. So to have this faith in him, that it will be something that I believe in, that’s incredible.

We have very different backgrounds and very different approaches to things, personality-wise. He’s very internal, and I am more external. But for whatever reason, there’s something between us that clicks. I never imagined getting to make the types of things that we’ve been able to make together. I’ve even learned to develop film with him!

Lanthimos: In print!

Stone: In print! He takes pictures on set all day on film cameras, and we started developing them in Budapest. That was the wind-down after days of shooting.

Li: Now, obviously, the two of you didn’t make Poor Things in a vacuum. You brought a lot of familiar faces on board—the aforementioned cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the screenwriter Tony McNamara—but you also recruited some new collaborators in the cast and crew. What do you look for when you introduce someone into the Lanthimos-Stone fold?

Lanthimos: I guess the first thing is talent. [Laughs] But my process is so intuitive, and so that’s why it’s very hard to talk about. Mostly, if you can sit down and spend time together without it being overly difficult and without having to, um …

Stone: Explain too much?

Lanthimos: Yeah. If you don’t have to make a huge effort to be with the other person, I think that’s quite important.

Stone: Ditto. You’re able to be freer and do more interesting work when you’re with people you really feel are all there for the same reason. You don’t have to waste time getting comfortable.


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