Poor Things – A story about a woman’s freedom in society

‘Alasdair Gray’s novel is immediately something very visually striking and complex – the themes, the humor, and the complexity of its characters and language. I’ve never read anything like it before, I was very taken by it,’ says filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos.  ‘Gray was a painter and he’d done illustrations with the text, The path was open to tell a story like Poor Things.’

In early 2020, Lanthimos asked Stone to join him as a producer on the film, along with award-winning producers Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe and their company Element Pictures. While he and Stone had both been in extended conversations about her playing Bella since 2017, they also discussed thoughts on the script, cast, and crew, and it became clear that she would be a huge asset as a producer – she agreed to join them. Guiney and Lowe have produced all Lanthimos’ English language films. Their first collaboration together was on the absurdist black comedy The Lobster in 2015, and Stone and Lanthimos had also more recently collaborated on his black and white, silent short film Bleat, shot in 2020, on the island of Tinos in Greece.

Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone on the set of POOR THINGS. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

‘Yorgos mentioned Gray’s book, which he had long-nurtured a desire to turn into a film, and had been in touch with the now-deceased author about it. He was incredibly passionate and connected to the story even at that early stage. I think Alasdair felt that Yorgos understood his novel and that it was in good hands,’ says producer Ed Guiney.

Guiney hopes that Poor Things has come at a time that might offer some insight into the problems currently faced around the world, as he explains further:  ‘The times that we live in right now can feel particularly chaotic. Sometimes you want to look back in history and learn lessons from the past.’

‘The story is so relevant today, maybe more so than when we started writing it,’ McNamara agrees. ‘The idea of patriarchy and of young women liberating themselves from being objectified has become so important in society. I hope that comes through.’

‘I want audiences to understand that this is a political film, and recognize the feminist and socialist aspects,’ adds Gray. ‘The novel and the film endeavor to make the world a better place by not accepting the evils we have come to regard as normal.’

When asked why Yorgos and Stone make such a good artistic pairing, she can’t identify the reason. ‘I ask myself that question every day. We are the opposite in almost every way. He is very measured in his approach, whereas I just want to laugh and goof around. The combination has been shocking to both of us, but one of the greatest gifts of my life. I have more admiration than I can even put into words for him. He is truly a genius, and it has been an honour to get to work with him. I trust him implicitly and I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone else.’

Poor Things tells the tale of the fantastical evolution of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a young woman brought back to life by the brilliant and unorthodox scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Under Baxter’s protection, Bella is eager to learn. Hungry for the worldliness she is lacking, Bella runs off with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a slick and debauched lawyer, on a whirlwind adventure across the continents. Free from the prejudices of her times, Bella grows steadfast in her purpose to stand for equality and liberation.

Adapting the Novel into a Screenplay

‘My Father and Yorgos met in Glasgow and toured the city, visiting locations associated with the novel,’ recalls Gray’s son, Andrew Gray. ‘He had previously turned down other offers to produce the novel. Alasdair was impressed that Yorgos had taken the time to meet with him. It was my dad’s favourite way to converse — walking and showing the city he lived in all his life.’

He continues, ‘Alasdair had purchased the Dogtooth DVD, which he thoroughly enjoyed. I believe it was this film that he based his opinion of Yorgos’ talents.’

Lanthimos sent the novel to screenwriter Tony McNamara following their successful collaboration on Academy Award® winner The Favourite.

Tony McNamara (born 1967) is an Australian playwright, screenwriter, and television producer. He is also an occasional film director and producer. He is known for his work on the scripts for The Favourite (2018) and Poor Things (2023), two films directed by Yorgos Lanthimos; for the former, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay with Deborah Davis. On television, he created the comedy-drama series The Great (2018–2023).

Katherine Hunter, Emma Stone and the cast of POOR THINGS. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

McNamara had not come across the writing of Scottish author Gray until Poor Things but instantly saw what drew Lanthimos to the material.

‘It was intellectually clever, dark, surprising, and humorous – that’s the most important thing for Yorgos and me,’ McNamara explains, ‘The book is packed with ideas about gender, identity, and even Scottish nationalism. You’re in this incredibly rich philosophical and political world, all while being tremendously funny.’ 

While the book is told from numerous points of view, for the script, the filmmakers wanted to give Bella the central one.  ‘We made it more open to the world,’ explains Lanthimos. ‘The novel itself is also very Scottish and has many other themes and layers from the ones that we’re exploring. That made it a little bit more niche whereas I was more interested in Bella’s point of view.’

‘It’s Bella’s coming-of-age story, and it lives in a dystopian version of a Merchant Ivory film, with the idea of a grand tour,’ McNamara explains. ‘From being trapped at home, she goes to Lisbon on a ‘romantic’ voyage with her lover. On the ship, she is met with a constant desire to escape. Then Alexandria is in her younger years, where she sees the world as a messed-up place. Paris is her exploration of sexuality where she pushes herself as far as she can before she returns home.’  

Lanthimos and McNamara were also interested in making a version of the Frankenstein story, inverting the classic story by making the ‘monster’ a very perceptive, beautiful woman, and her love interests potential monsters.

‘The script pulls on different mythologies and story tropes, mixing them into an incredibly original, heady cocktail,’ Guiney elaborates. ‘Yorgos has built a profile as a one-of-a-kind master filmmaker and people want to get behind his vision.’

Emma Stone in POOR THINGS. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Emma Stone first heard about Poor Things following a discussion with Lanthimos while they were in production together on The Favourite. ‘What Yorgos was explaining to me was so unique and immediately inspiring as a woman: to imagine a world where your mind isn’t conditioned by growing up and being taught to be a certain way.’

Stone was sent an early draft of the script and once again fell in love with Lanthimos’ and McNamara’s work. ‘I’ve always admired the way that they beautifully intertwine humour and heartbreak, because that is what life is about,’ Stone explains. ‘Yorgos understands, loves, and is a brilliant storyteller of women, and of course I knew that from our work together. And so many of the HODs are women, our first AD is a woman.’

‘Emma has great instincts around storytelling,’ says Guiney. ‘As a producer, she has been incredibly important in how we developed the story and how we’re talking about putting it out into the world.’

Of playing Bella Baxter, she says, ‘I was so excited and scared for all the right reasons. Bella doesn’t have any shame or trauma, or even a back story. She’s not raised by a society that is putting these confines on women. That can be incredibly freeing, and there is really no research you can do for something like this. Bella draws things from the men she meets, from the women she meets, from the environment she’s in, from what she’s eating. She’s like a sponge.’

Adds Lanthimos, “I just found Bella fascinating. We put her in all these different situations, basically with other humans around her, older humans – men – men with power, and the relationships between them. Everything was altered through her presence and her reaction to it all.’

‘Emma is both a brilliant comic actress and a brilliant dramatic actress, and that is what this role needed,’ says McNamara. ‘She has to play an undeveloped human to a mature woman, with a lot of intense scenes. She was so brave and dived straight in. You could see the joy she had on set every day creating Bella, she brought so much to the character.’ 

An incredibly important part of Bella’s story is her sexuality.  Her character has never been told that there’s anything wrong with enjoying sex or the freedom to do whatever she wants when she wants. She is so fully alive that the human experience is intriguing to her.  Fear surrounding the exploration of female sexuality was one of the many reasons Stone wanted to play Bella. She explains, ‘There is a different mentality around sex in Europe versus America, which baffles Yorgos. Having known him for almost seven years now, it also baffles me as an American. We can watch so much violence and pain inflicted on people in a mass way in America, but nudity and sexuality are shocking to us. Whereas it’s the opposite in Yorgos’ mind.’

Adds Gray, ‘Bella’s representation of woman sexuality is more in line with today’s landscape rather than thirty years ago. She can explore sex without feelings of guilt, which makes her a modern heroine.’

Stone elaborates, ‘It felt like an unlocking and acceptance of what it is to be a woman and to be brave and free.  Socially you’re so wired to think, ‘do people like me?’ She’s not thinking about that.’

With the liberation of social constraints, also comes the return to a child-like wonder of the world. ‘It’s that fascinating draw to purity, to something that hasn’t been tarnished. A wish to possess something that maybe reminds us of who we used to be and try and regain that innocence in ourselves.’

Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone on the set of POOR THNGS. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

A searing satire on men

Alongside themes of sexuality and social constraints comes the exploration of the male characters’ need to control Bella. McNamara describes the film as a searing satire on men.

Poor Things explores men’s views of women and the lens that they are put under, and how men believe women are there to serve them,’ he explains. ‘We were very cognizant of the sexual politics and how that relates to the present day.’ Poor Things deals with the patriarchal tension through Bella’s eyes, and the tone in which Yorgos approaches it is something best told on film.

Gray explains, ‘Bella is not only the protagonist but also the foil for the male characters. She can remain true to her humanity and to use her experiences to discover a sense of purpose that makes her admirable. Her zest for life encapsulates the curiosity that humans possess and crave for new life experiences.’  

‘It is about the development and liberation of a woman who grows up in a very repressive male society,’ adds Willem Dafoe, who plays Dr. Baxter, Bella’s creator. ‘That’s a lot of the source of the comedy because her relationships with the male characters are very frank and quite exposing of the fear men have of women.’

Ramy Youssef and Willem Dafoe in POOR THINGS. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.© 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

Godwin Baxter, played by the accomplished Willem Dafoe, is a brilliant, traumatized scientist, and a lonely man who wants to push his science and his art as far as it can go without a care for society’s rules. McNamara explains, ‘Willem brings this great sense of dignity and impish fun to the character. He’s got such warmth, but also the hard corners that we need for Baxter so it’s believable that he could reanimate all these people and do all these experiments.’

‘The male characters are trying to control Bella in their various ways, and she doesn’t even entertain it. She is just too autonomous,’ adds Stone.

‘When Bella decides to leave London with Duncan Wedderburn and travel to Lisbon, she leaves with the mind and outlook of a young girl. Lisbon is her first time out in the world and she wants to consume and experience everything, reveling in all the possibilities it has to offer.

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in POOR THINGS. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved.

Playing Wedderburn is Mark Ruffalo in a role unlike any he has played before.  ‘I was in hysterics reading the script, it was wicked and full of bawdy irreverent humour,’ Ruffalo recalls. ‘George Bernard Shaw said you had to get the people laughing long enough to shove the medicine down their throats and I think Tony is within that sort of tradition. He’s a beautifully articulate and profound writer.’

Ruffalo had more than the usual actor’s trepidation for the role. ‘I’m such a big fan of Yorgos that I was nervous about being cast and letting him down,’ he explains. ‘I’ve also never done an English accent before and it’s a period I haven’t worked in either. In the end, my friend told me to always go where the discomfort is as that’s where you’ll grow.’

‘To me, Duncan embodies toxic masculinity. He’s controlling, insecure, and has a deeply alpha male mentality,’ Stone adds. ‘The fact that he’s played by Mark is more brilliant casting on Yorgos’ part. You wouldn’t expect to see someone as soulful and sensitive as Mark play this type of person and he does it so brilliantly. It was shocking to see him go into those realms.’

 ‘The danger with Duncan was that he would just come across as a cad,’ McNamara admits. ‘But there is something so warm and naïve about the way that Mark plays this. Duncan is his own worst enemy and doesn’t know it.’

‘Duncan is such a narcissist, he’s so self-centered, and misogynistic, but tries to come off like he’s something of a liberal. I wasn’t sure if I could play such a character – but I took to it like a fish to water in the end,’ Ruffalo quips.  

Rami Youssef, Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone on the set of POOR THINGS. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

A bittersweet catalyst in Baxter and Bella’s relationship is the introduction of his student, Max McCandles, into their home. Lanthimos approached Ramy Youssef for the role, telling him he was going to make the film he’s always wanted to make. Youssef said yes, even without reading the script.

Youssef admits, ‘When I was sent the script, I was blown away. It was so unique and inspiring and messed up which is everything I gravitate towards. If you do it right, the story holds all of life’s darkness and light and Yorgos pulled that off.’

Max is a poor dishevelled student who is clearly in awe of his professor, who has offered him an opportunity he can’t refuse. ‘He has a gentle and friendly energy, but we also see an edge of darkness that he wants to let go,’ McNamara explains. ‘He wants to possess Bella.’

Youssef continues, ‘There is a rawness about Bella which attracts Max, she really speaks to something that any person is probably trying to regain. She is a modern woman in this time and she gets to retain that human curiosity that we all had at a young age. It really shows the multitude of what is thrown at women from a young age. Bella gets to experience that from a different vantage point and then pick it apart and demolish it.’

As a ladies’ man who has been with many different women, when Duncan unexpectedly falls in love with Bella, it ultimately destroys him. ‘She’s the perfect woman for him if he would just let her be herself,’ Ruffalo explains. ‘She’s rebellious, she’s game and she makes him feel something, but his need to control kills the relationship. Under every raging narcissist is a broken vulnerable person and Bella just cracks him open.’

‘We call them the Sid and Nancy of the Victorian age,’ Ruffalo concludes. ‘The two of them together are just destruction, hedonism, and sex.’

Yorgos Lanthimos and Robbie Ryan on the set of POOR THINGS. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

Working With Yorgos Lanthimos

With the cast in place, they assembled during a rehearsal period with Lanthimos before filming. ‘The rehearsal worked beautifully because Yorgos comes from a theatre background and he’s very smart with actors. He knew how to push our buttons and gives excellent instruction,’ Dafoe comments.

‘There’s this intimacy that happened in rehearsals that continued on set,’ Youssef adds. ‘The speed in which that intimacy happened is a real testament to Yorgos’ process. We spent three weeks rolling around on the floor doing all sorts of weird exercises together. It’s like we went to ‘art war’ together.’

The cast played lots of games to really make a company out of themselves and feel comfortable with each other, which allowed them to mindfully approach the material with a sense of humour.

‘Everyone dropped their expectations and communally reached a new kind of appreciation for the adventure,’ says Dafoe. ‘Yorgos is very precise about rhythm and certain shifts in the scene. He’s orchestrating at many levels and you’re one of the players.’

‘Some of it almost felt like theatre games. You kind of get being embarrassed out of the way,’ adds Abbot.  ‘You shake out all the cobwebs and it allows you to be free when you shoot.  Yorgos sets up the world and he sets up the way we do scenes.’

Hunter, being Greek herself, expected Lanthimos to act like most Greeks she knows. ‘The cliché of Greeks is that they are very explosive and melodramatic, but Yorgos isn’t like that at all,’ she explains. ‘He’s more enigmatic and focused and very, very warm-hearted.’

Yorgos Lanthimos is a BAFTA-winning and four-time Academy Award®-nominated screenwriter, producer and director. He launched to international attention in 2009 with his second feature film, DOGTOOTH, winner of the Un Certain Regard Prize at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival and nominated for the Academy Award® for Best Foreign Language film. 

His most recent feature film, THE FAVOURITE, with Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, premiered in 2018 at the 75th Venice Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize Silver Lion and Olivia Colman won the Copa Volpi Best Actress award. The film went on to receive five Golden Globe nominations, winning the Golden Globe award for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for Olivia Colman. The film received a record of ten BIFA awards and was nominated for twelve BAFTAs, winning seven of them. It also received a leading ten Academy Award® nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, two nominations for Best Supporting Actress and Best Actress, which Olivia Colman won. 

His next film for Searchlight Pictures, AND, which he co-wrote with Efthymis Filippou, also stars Emma Stone and Willem Dafoe, as well as Jesse Plemons, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau and Joe Alwyn. 

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, which Lanthimos directed, produced and co-wrote, stars Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman.  The film, his fifth feature, premiered in competition at the 70th Cannes Film Festival and won the Best Screenplay prize. It was nominated for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor for Colin Farrell in the European Film Academy Awards.  

His first English language feature film, THE LOBSTER, was presented in competition at the 68th Cannes Film Festival where it won the Jury Prize. It also won Best Screenplay and Best Costume Design at the 2015 European Film Awards. In 2016 it was nominated for a BAFTA for Best British Film and in 2017 Lanthimos received an Academy Award® nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Colin Farrell was nominated for a Golden Globe and a European Film Academy Award for his performance in the film. 

Born in Athens, Greece, Lanthimos began his career directing several dance videos in collaborations with Greek choreographers, in addition to TV commercials, music videos, short films, and theater plays.  His first feature film, KINETTA, premiered at the 2005 Toronto and Berlin Film Festivals to critical acclaim; and ALPS, won the Best Screenplay prize at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, and Best Film at the Sydney Film Festival in 2012.