Yorgos Lanthimos’ editor of almost two decades, Yorgos Mavropsaridis earned his first Oscar nomination for The Favourite, and is still working through the singular approach the director has devised for himself. In the case of Lanthimos’ first period piece—an 18th century black comedy set in Queen Anne’s court—the challenge was to “form the specific language” of the film, figuring out what made it unique, while “being true to the ‘rules'” now associated with Lanthimos’ films.
As with so many of his prior pics, The Favourite was refined through the pursuit of equilibrium. Balancing the screen presence and power plays of three remarkable characters—a servant, a duchess and the Queen—the editor also was concerned with elements both historic and modern, aiding his director in achieving a typically singular tone.
Like Lanthimos, Mavropsaridis likes a challenge; he isn’t interested in repeating himself, from film to film. Working toward a “new, innovative interpretation” while wading through 65 hours of 3 perf 35mm film, the editor came to a comforting realization in the middle of Lanthimos’ latest. “The rule ‘Go the whole way when you start something, till perfection,’ is possible,” he explains, “if you persevere, and are given the creative freedom to pursue it till the ‘end.'”
Unlike certain director-editor pairs, Lanthimos and Mavropsaridis are “reluctant” to engage in public screenings, as a test of their material. But in the editor’s mind, there could only be “one version” of The Favourite, as was the case with each Lanthimos film he had cut before; he just had to find it. Referencing “‘Τέλειος'” a word from his native Greece, Mavropsaridis is always in pursuit of the “perfect circle” of a film.
What were your first impressions when Yorgos Lanthimos brought you the script for The Favourite?
In The Favourite’s case, I watched a rough cut first and then read the script. So, I read it for technical reasons.
Apart from your longstanding relationship with Lanthimos, what made this film an exciting one to approach, as an editor? What potential did you see in the film, from the point of view of your craft?
The challenge to balance the acting of three excellent performances, to achieve an ‘imperceptibility’ and smoothness for the transition from light to dark emotional colors; for the edit to be used as a counterpoint to the ‘historic period’ situation and enhance existing themes that would converse with a modern audience, with a great potential for the scenes to be deconstructed from their classical unity of time and space, creating a multidimensional narration.
What was the focus of your early conversations with Lanthimos on this project?
The way we communicate with Lanthimos is not one of discussions. There is the decoupage, the frame, the content of the shot, the sound, the music, the performances, and here enters my interpretation of this decoupage, at the same time learning to see its innumerable possibilities which will be further explored. Always, the challenge with working with Lanthimos is to surpass the conventional, be always innovative and rediscover Lanthimos’ unique filmic language with each new film.
What was it like working with the raw materials provided, as the first one to see this film’s performances?
I was not the first to see this film’s performances. I first watched an edit, with specific choices having been made, and then went inside the scenes to re-evaluate takes and different possibilities. In the Lanthimos filmic universe, the performances are a part of a grander architecture and need to conform to it.
What went into refining the film’s tone, once the film got into the edit? How did you work through the specificity of The Favourite, including its sometimes absurd and often bleakly comedic moments?
As with all of Lanthimos’ films, the ‘specificity’ of The Favourite had to succumb to the ‘rules’ of his filmic world, which in any case favor the absurd and bleakly comedic, and the ambiguity of a person. It starts with his involvement in the script, bringing in a worthy collaborator, Tony McNamara; it is followed by his mise-en-scène and cinematography, always looking for creative collaborators—[Thimios] Bakatakis, [Christos] Voudouris, [Robbie] Ryan—and with its syntactical formation in the edit.
At what point did the film’s storybook nature come about, with its division into titled chapters? I understand this structuring was added after the film was shot, and was not initially scripted.
It was not scripted, and to the final cut, the placing of the chapters was re-evaluated with each edit. It served as a ‘guide’ to the story’s different phases, making it easier for the viewer to follow the time element; not necessarily the chronological one, but the different phases of the evolving relations between the three women happening in time. And since the particular phrases were chosen from the existing dialogue, their innovative written repetition allowed the spectator to make his connections, comparing them with their original use in the film and the new meaning they could find by the comparison of the written to the spoken.
This film’s final shot is quite memorable. Blurry images transition over and through one another, depicting the film’s central characters, as well as all of the Queen’s many rabbits. What was the intention there?
First, in Lanthimos’ universe, as in the ‘rules’ of mainly European ‘art cinema narration,’ the ‘story’ does not have a closure, as it must have according to the ‘rules’ of ‘classical narration’ (after Aristotle). Secondly, for this experience of ‘watching a film’ to function properly, he used codes to tell the story, [which] play a role that must be interpreted by the viewer. Aesthetically, the dissolves and superimpositions conform with the film’s general formal aesthetics, which tend not to hide the means of narration. On the contrary, they are used to evoke certain thoughts and emotions.
I can only give you one interpretation: My own. Still, I believe the range of interpretations are more, and depend on the individual viewer. [It] can be said that the dissolves ‘connect’ pictorially the fate of the two women at this particular moment, of their first realization of the ‘horror of their situation’, both equally victim and offender at the same time.
Abigail realizes that all her efforts to succeed are doomed to a repetitive and painful relation, and that she will take the place of her ‘victim’ in the same scene, just a bit earlier, when [she] complacently was crashing a helpless rabbit under her foot, momentarily feeling the satisfaction of her ‘achievement’. The Queen, a victim also, witnessing at this moment the true character of her offender, becomes herself an offender, at the same time realizing that she has substituted her first love with another ‘rabbit’, a pet to use and play, as with her miscarriages.
The superimposed rabbits indicate this ‘abortive’ relation, which will not have the chance to evolve further. The loops and acceleration and superimposition of more and more rabbits indicates the repetitive and painful future they will both have.
As I said, one interpretation of many possible.
Could you elaborate on the nature of your longtime collaboration with Lanthimos—how you tend to work together, and what you enjoy about working with him?
We follow a method of work that starts with me exploring the possibilities of his decoupage, giving a first interpretation of his footage, using from the start music from the available music bin Lanthimos provides me with for each film; sometimes, even from the start of the shooting. After this, we sit down and watch, and start making notes (performances, decoupage choices, etc.), to be addressed gradually. At the same time, new ideas enter into the edit. Then again, we watch on a large screen, and do the final notes for this edit, which for the most part follows the script’s order.
Then comes the structural and formal experimentation to rewrite the script using the images, sounds and music, all this in a schedule that is determined from the specific needs of the edit. We then start our screenings with friends and relatives, close friends whose opinion is valuable to us. All this time, the edit is refined, [and] sound ideas enter, with the valuable help of our sound designer Johnnie Burn and his team, in all these preparatory phases. At a certain moment, when we feel ready and sure of our choices, we present it to our producers.
What I enjoy working with him is that he is willing to experiment and try new ideas till the end. Also, his ability to create a safe creative environment, having always the final cut in his films, and the space and freedom he gives me to ‘perform,’ and at the same time orchestrate with him the elements of the cinematic symphony he has written.
You’ve said you were able to witness the formation of Yorgos’ cinematic language. His films are instantly recognizable, in terms of tone and visuals, but how would you describe that language, being so close to it? How do you see it?
The way I see it, this language was shaped as the cinematic persona of Lanthimos, formed from his influences from the great auteurs, who have transmitted [to] us the lesson, “Aesthetics [are] the ethics of the future,” and that “All is cinema.”
This, we have been taught in film schools, watching Robert Bresson, Godard, and all the European modern cinema of the ‘60s. But also Kubrick, and the evolution of this art cinema when it came into contact with the new American directors of the ‘70s, and continues to do so. But most importantly, we have witnessed this in Greece by the life and work of very important Greek auteurs, whose work may not be so well known, Nikos Papatakis, Stavros Tornes, Alexis Damianos, Stavros Tsiolis, Pantelis Voulgaris, [and] Giorgos Panousopoulos amongst them.
His interpretation of the examples by this older generation formed a need to acquire his own personal articulation, formed slowly over years of doing commercials—half of them with me as an editor, being also the first editor he worked with in commercials—even then experimenting to find his personal form of narration. This Lanthimos persona thrives in the family-like environment he has with his close collaborators, for whom he demands everything, but also cares, and gives everything [of] himself.
I would describe this language [as] non-descriptive, self-conscious, his approach being existential. A person is a being first, and then an actor, or other ‘stable character’ or ‘profession,’ ambiguous and not easily describable. Lanthimos is willing to find new means of communication, having been disappointed with the conventional means of approaching [narrative], with a great knowledge of the technical aspects of cinematography in all fields. [He’s] always innovative, not of the school of Stanislavski, but rather of Meyerhold (having developed the same technique in his theatrical plays) in his editing, an admirer of both sequence shots and not many cuts, but also of Eisenstein’s montage sequences, used in an innovative and fresh way. For the sound, he prefers the analogical approach.
How many scenes didn’t make the final cut?
If I remember correctly, at least five, with many more treated in the process of the edit as montage sequences, losing their former ‘scene’ function.
Was there a scene that was most challenging to cut? Is there one specific achievement you’re most proud of with your work on The Favourite?
[Most] challenging: The scene in the woods between Abigail and Masham, having as a note from the director to evoke in it the exhilaration of a certain scene in a Greek film called Evdokia by Alexis Damianos. I’m proud of all my work with Lanthimos, from Kinetta till The Favourite. Each has its special moments to remember during the creative process of the edit. After this, I go to another challenge, and have no time to feel proud.