The Rough Cut: Bringing Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things” to Life

Poor Things editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis, ACE was already an established editor when he started collaborating with a young director named Yorgos Lanthimos. At that point, Lanthimos was only known for doing commercials, but by their third feature together, 2009’s Dogtooth, the pair began to be recognized as a formidable storytelling team. Over a decade later, they would finally take on what Mavropsaridis considers their first true studio film, Searchlight Pictures’ Poor Things.

Poor Things plot summary

Poor Things tells the story of a young woman, Bella Baxter, who was brought back to life by her guardian, the scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter. Initially naïve, Bella was eager to learn about the world around her, albeit under Baxter’s protection. Wanting to see more, she ran off with Duncan Wedderburn, a slick and debauched lawyer, and traveled across continents. Free from the prejudices of her times, Bella demanded equality and liberation.

In our discussion with Poor Things editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis, we talk about:

  • Polishing up the Ektachrome
  • Making a studio film for the first time
  • Feeling the atmosphere in the cutting room
  • Going all “Godard” with ADR
  • Ways to make the telling of the tale interesting

Listen while you read…

Editing Poor Things

Matt Feury: With Poor Things, you are once again working from a screenplay written by Tony McNamara, who co-wrote The Favourite. But this time, it’s a screenplay adapted from a book. Did you read the original book to prepare for the film? Did Yorgos Lanthimos ask you to watch any films for reference?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis, ACE: I did read it, but only because I was curious. I believe they did a fantastic job in the adaptation. The book is different. It’s about Bella Baxter, but it’s narrated through letters. Also, the characters, especially Dr. Godwin Baxter, are a bit different. Godwin is more willing to be with her. There’s an antagonism between Max McCandles and Godwin Baxter about Bella that does not exist in the film. The character of Godwin Baxter is transformed into a benevolent monster.

MF: What was your reaction when you read the screenplay? Did you have any questions for Yorgos?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: The only note I made was that the character played by Margaret Qualley was named Victoria. I thought that might be confusing for the audience because Victoria Blessington was the name of the woman who became Bella Baxter. That character became Felicity. That was my only contribution.

MF: There have been superficial comparisons to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but once you see the movie, you realize there are bigger themes at play. How Bella Baxter is created is secondary to how she recreates herself. Did Yorgos say anything to you about the themes that he wanted to explore and what he wanted to say in this film?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: Mainly, it was this peculiar idea of a woman with a baby’s brain. I think Yorgos wanted to explore how it feels when she starts having her sexual appetites as a teenager but in the body of an older woman. He was interested in that perception of a young woman experiencing not only a sexual appetite but a need to learn about the world.

Of course, there was no time for her to have all the restrictions that we put on ourselves in our civilization. Bella is very pure. She has a pure brain and it is experiencing everything as it comes without the hindrance of societal norms or etiquette. The only obstacle for her is Godwin Baxter, but she easily overcomes that when she says, “I will run away.”

She is a character that we haven’t seen before. She is so open to experiences, to learning, and she goes through a lot of stages. Bella is a very quick study. For example, when she’s on the cruise, she doesn’t know what a cynic is. Then, after a day or so, she starts acting like a cynic herself. She says, “You’re standing in my sun.” She learns very fast. The main theme is Bella Baxter herself and how she develops.

MF: Bella is evolving. One minute she doesn’t know something and the next minute she does. As an editor, was that something you had to be careful about in the cutting room? Did you have to pay attention to where Bella should be intellectually at certain points of the film?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: In a sense, we had to find it in the editing room as they found it in the shooting because there was a lot of improvisation. For example, in the first cuts of the breakfast scene, I played around a lot because there were a lot of options. In one option, Bella climbed up on the table, teasing Godwin Baxter, or doing other funny stuff.

Some things had to be lost in the end, because the length of the whole film was important. We had to keep in the basic scenes that gave us the idea that Bella was a baby at the beginning, showing her following Godwin around, peeing herself, and stuff like that. But other things had to be shortened. We had to turn a lot of her development into a kind of montage sequence. That’s when Max reads his report on her development to Godwin. By the time Bella meets Duncan Wedderburn, she’s about twelve or fourteen years old.

By the end, we see her develop into a full-grown woman. She’s very responsible and has an opinion about everything. She gets married, but it’s a very practical marriage. They agree that people can be fixed, and human beings can get better. That’s the basis for their marriage, a creative collaboration.

MF: Poor Things has a very unique story, but the story is not the only unique thing about the movie. The visual language is something to see as well. Let’s discuss the practical aspects of how you made this movie. I believe filming began in August of 2021. You had a film studio in Budapest. How long did principal photography go? Where were you cutting during the production phase?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: I was cutting in Athens. We had a very good team in Budapest and we had the rushes the next day, the black and white and the color. The only negative that came a bit later was the Ektachrome. Bella’s adventures with Weddernburn were shot on Ektachrome, with a huge LED wall behind them.

There was a lot of material. There was a lot of improvisation. I was enjoying what I was doing, but an assembly is an assembly. It’s a way for you to learn the material, to see all of the variations and possibilities that exist.

Yorgos and I met up about two weeks after they finished shooting in Europe. We didn’t watch the whole film at once. It was not possible. It was around four hours long, so we took it section by section.

Usually, the way I work with Yorgos is that we meet and watch twenty or thirty minutes of footage, or as much as he can bear. Yorgos always feels bad about the first cut. He gave me notes during this screening. For example, the first time we saw Godwin Baxter, we had about ten shots. Yorgos told me, “He has to be sweet. He has to be a master with a nice heart.” That gave me an idea of how to proceed with the development of the characters. That’s how we usually work.

After that, I took maybe four or five days to work by myself, and then we met again. Yorgos is a director whom I admire a lot. I was impressed by the aesthetics of the film. It was many steps ahead of anything else. This was his first studio film, you know? Everything was constructed.

Also, Yorgos gives me time. He creates the right environment for us to work creatively. There is no outside interference. We usually reach a point where, after a long process, we can start showing the film to five or six people that we trust. We’re in the room with them and we experience the film with them. Their notes and reactions inform the changes that we make. I think it took us about six months to finish the edit.

Yorgos gives me time. He creates the right environment for us to work creatively.

MF: I think anybody would be happy to be editing in Athens, Greece. Do you like to be on location or is it better for you to be removed from production?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: It’s much better to be removed. The only time I went with production was when we did The Lobster in Cork, Ireland. And honestly, it was not a good experience.

When you’re on location, you are influenced by the environment. Your opinion and your aesthetics get influenced. Also, when you’re with production, your job becomes, “Hey, the shooting stopped because it rained. Can we make an edit of this scene to see if it’s okay?” It’s not that creative. It took me a while to get back to what I wanted to do. I had to find myself again. I had to rediscover my pace. I shouldn’t be on set.

MF: How do you like to set up your cutting room? What do you do to prepare?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: Honestly, we just need what we used on Dogtooth. It was a simple thing. We did rent a place for this film. Lanthimos had his own office with a projector and a big screen. But we used to just work on a big plasma TV with an iMac and an assistant. That’s it, nothing more. But the assistant was very capable. He could solve any technical matters easily.

Yorgos is very particular about how we see the film when we edit. It’s color-corrected already. The colors that we see later are much better, of course, but the idea is there.

Yorgos is very particular about how we see the film when we edit.

When we work, my assistant does a lot of work with the sound because we need to hear and understand what is going on there. We fix a lot of things, like all the carriages around and the atmosphere. Also, all the visual effects, even if they were done in the Avid or in After Effects, had to be finished. Some skies had to be added. The animals had to be there too.

We had to find the right animals because those were actually filmed. They were not CGI. They were shots of live animals stitched together, so we had to find the right animal combination to give to the people in VFX. But we had a great VFX team. We could send them shots before the edit was finished and ask, “Can we see these animals together?” and they would show us. Sometimes, we would even send the sound to Johnnie Burn and say, “Please, Johnnie, can you try this idea with the sound design?” We had the freedom to try out different sound designs in the edit. We did the same thing with the music.

MF: For monitoring sound in your cutting room, do you like to work with just stereo? Do you prefer left, center, right? 5.1?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: In the cutting room, it’s simple. It has to be stereo. But all the atmospheric sounds have to be there, the dialog has to be cleaned. The noises happening in the background have to be added. We want to already be entering the film’s world in the cutting room. There is also this fantastic piece of equipment that we use. Blackmagic makes this little box that shows you exactly what is there. It’s great.

MF: Philosophically, do you approach the job as, “My role is to create the best story. So I don’t need to do too many temp visual effects or sound design.” Or do you think, “No, I have to do some basic color grading, effects, and sound design.”

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: Yes, it has to be done because Lanthimos doesn’t like to imagine how things might be. We have to actually be in the world. So, we do add sounds. It didn’t happen so much in this film, but a lot of The Favourite was edited with the sound in mind. We had to have the sound to create that atmosphere. In this film, when Bella goes out for the first time, looking at the roofs of London, we had to fill that atmosphere.

MF: You’ve mentioned Dr. Godwin Baxter a few times, played by Willem Dafoe. Willem has a lot of prosthetics on his face to create the character of Godwin Baxter. Did that hinder his delivery of dialog at all? Did you have to do a lot of ADR for him?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: Not at all. Lanthimos hates ADR. There’s an idea from Godard that you cannot separate the body from the soul. So, we try to never use it. We didn’t have to do ADR in this film because we filmed in a sound studio. The dialog was clean.

But we try not to use it even in the most difficult circumstances. I remember one shot in The Killing of a Sacred Deer that took place under a bridge. The sound was very difficult, but we had to use the sync sound.

MF: Poor Things was shot on film. I believe The Favourite was shot on film as well, but The Lobster was shot digitally. Was there a specific reason why Yorgos wanted to shoot Poor Things on film?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: He wanted to shoot on film after the budget got better. He always wanted to shoot on film. The Lobster was low-budget, so he couldn’t afford it. Otherwise, he would have shot on film. Even when we started, the first film we worked on together, Kinetta, was 16mm. Dogtooth was shot on film as well, and anamorphic. It was a matter of aesthetics for him to use film all the time.

MF: Does shooting film affect the number of cameras that he uses or how much footage he shoots?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: Not on this one. He never used more than two cameras at once. But he always does the same number of takes. I’d say he averages around ten or twelve takes per shot and each setup is usually four or five, maybe seven setups.

It was a big-budget film for us and his decisions were mainly aesthetic. For example, he does a lot of research about which lenses he wants to use and what kind of negative will work best. The Ektachrome was for a particular scene and the other negatives were for others. The black and white was chosen for the gothic atmosphere at the beginning. So, it’s mainly aesthetic reasons that dictate how the film is going to be shot.

MF: Does Lanthimos give you a lot of freedom in the edit? Or does he like to stick very specifically to the script?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: Oh no, he doesn’t edit while he’s shooting. He respects the continuity of time and space. The actor has to say all of his lines in every setup, every time, even in a close-up.

Also, he does a lot of complicated movements. He tried a lot of new ideas in this film, apart from his usual ones, the fisheye and all that. He did a lot of zoom-outs and lateral tracking shots, and that gave us a lot of coverage. His découpage is very clever. It gives you many ideas. But of course, we try to be simple. We try not to do a lot of cutting when it’s not needed. We only do it when it’s needed. Long shots are sometimes followed by montages. There’s a game played between when to edit and when not to.

We try not to do a lot of cutting when it’s not needed. We only do it when it’s needed.

MF: How long did post-production take?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: We edited for about six months. During that time, some of the VFX had to be sent and tried out. The different animal combinations took a little bit of time to work out. We worked on a big screen. It was only me and Yorgos. We finished about a month before the Venice Film Festival.

MF: You already talked about some of the very interesting visuals in the film, like the fisheye and the black and white. What was the reasoning behind when to go to color or when to go to black and white?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: I think the basic reason was that the first part of the film, which has a gothic atmosphere, should be in black and white. Then, when we go with Bella and discover the world, it becomes this explosion of color. It’s not just color, it is an explosion of color. That was the basic idea.

We did make a slight change to the beginning of the film. There were two options we could have started with. We could have started with the black-and-white shots of Bella playing the piano. Or, there was the other option of seeing somebody falling from a bridge. That was a fantastic shot where the camera started behind a woman and we used music to follow her into a close-up of the back of her head, and then she fell.

We thought that the beginning created a mystery and expectation for the audience, and it was a nice way to indicate a falling of the body artistically. It also created a good opposition when Goodwin Baxter revealed to Max what happened. Intercutting the black-and-white footage and the color together was a nice way to show the two atmospheres.

The Ektachrome was for aesthetic and technical reasons. There was an LED screen behind them for those scenes, and that stock created a nice aesthetic that set it apart from the other parts of the film that were shot in color.

MF: What about the fisheye lens? What was the reasoning behind that?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: It’s his style. I can only tell you where we used it. I had the opportunity to use it in many scenes, but I always try to find reasons to include it.

For example, the first time we used it was after the close-up of Godwin. I thought it might be a nice point of view for him. Other times, you want to show something to the audience as if they are looking through a keyhole. Sometimes I used it when there was something not-so-realistic happening. In the dance, for example, when Duncan hits the other guy, we cut to this big fisheye shot. I thought it was a good way to present the scene.

You must understand that Lanthimos likes the form a lot. The edit is not like the script. We need to find ways to make the telling of the tale interesting. That is our approach.

MF: The camera itself is very active. Does a lot of camera movement make it more of a challenge to find the place that you want to cut?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: I always like the way Lanthimos works. When I met him, I was already an established editor in mainstream films. But he showed me a new way of seeing films and a new way to formulate film language.

I began to see the camera as the consciousness of the director who experiences what is happening. That’s the way we see it. It’s not descriptive as much as it transports you into the inner world of the film. Not to the exterior, but to the inside of the film. Lanthimos also likes to shoot some scenes in slow motion. He’s done it in other films, and it’s always fun for me to play around and find the right small moment to use it.

MF: Where was most of the VFX work in Poor Things? What things were you doing in visual effects?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: We fixed all the skies. We were in a studio, so we had to put in all the skies. There were a lot of arrays that had to be taken out.

Mainly, it was the animals. They were shot in real-time. They were not CGI. For example, there is a shot where Bella chases after Godwin Baxter and we see them go past a guy walking with an animal that is both a dog and a duck fused together. That was a fusion of different shots where the guy walks past with a dog and again with a duck.

There’s another shot where Max is lying down and there’s a chicken/pig on top of him. There were many possible combinations for that one. There was a cat, there was a duck. But we had to find which combination of shots matched the best. Then, we would send both shots to Union VFX in London to stitch the animals together.

The challenge was to find the right combination of animals. There were a lot of different options. We had all kinds of animals around. We had to find the funniest ones or the most irreverent, and we had to make sure they could be stitched together properly.

The Ektachrome scenes didn’t need much work. The LED screen background was already there. We just had to watch if the sea waves had to move. The ships were big two-meter-long models, so we had to place them and they had to create all the backgrounds.

The film also has a few VFX-heavy shots for the title cards of the different chapters. We had those shots, but we had to find the right shots of Bella to put in there. But all the other elements, like the brain, were there already. We just had to combine them in the assembly and then send them to be properly worked on by the VFX people.

MF: I’ve heard that Yorgos gives you music to work with ahead of time.

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: It’s true. In our previous film up to The Favourite, we used classical music. We didn’t have a composer. Poor Things was the first time he used music from Jerskin Fendrix. The music was composed eight months before the shooting started. So, the themes were already there.

I don’t use the music at the beginning, though. It distracts you. It takes you to different places. You don’t need that. You need to focus on the performances or the pace without music. After that, music comes. Of course, that’s the time when we deconstruct the film. We break it apart, and music can help us do that. It gives us the pace.

For example, in the scene where Godwin Baxter explains Bella’s situation to Max, the pace of his presentation is a combination of the dialog and the music. They both dictate the length of the shots.

Since we had theme music already, we sometimes added it in to fit a particular situation. Sometimes, the same theme would play twice in the same scene, but it had to be a little different the second time we heard it. So, we would send the scene to Jerskin and say, “This is the situation, can you work on that?”

It was a pretty clever way to work because you can edit the music. You can change things, you can punctuate something with the music. You can edit the music just like you can a picture. In the end, it has to be sent back to Jerskin and then he refines it. The idea, though, is there. The themes are there.

MF: Earlier, you mentioned one of my favorite scenes from the film, the dance fight sequence in Lisbon. Does Yorgos give you storyboards or animatics or any kind of previs to build that, or is that just you and the footage?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: It’s just me and the footage, but the idea is always there. Dancing is one of Yorgos’ trademarks. We had it in Dogtooth, we had it in The Favourite as well. But the edit is always different.

In Poor Things, it had to be from Bella’s point of view. She suddenly feels exuberant. She wants to go out and do crazy things. So, we had to follow her movement. Also, the idea of the choreography was there, but we had to concentrate on the fight. It’s a microcosm of the whole film. Somebody tries to control her and she reacts. That’s why all these movements are there.

We had to tone down the choreography. The first edit, I remember, was nicely done. People were dancing around fantastically, but we missed the point, which was Bella. The point was Bella Baxter fighting over who is in control. She’s very aggressive in the end. She throws a glass of water and it cuts directly to them kissing. That changes the mood and surprises the audience.

MF: Mark Ruffalo plays Duncan Wedderburn. It’s a very funny, terrific performance. But when do you play up the comedy versus the drama? There are some very dark times for Bella in this movie.

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: It’s true. It’s always a big challenge to balance all these different emotions in all of Yorgos’ films. This one was not as difficult as the others, although Bella went through a lot of phases. We had to be true to this character and also to this mainly positive feeling. Even the dark feelings are not as dark as they are in our other films.

Even the dark feelings are not as dark as they are in our other films.

Bella has a positive opinion about human beings, although the character played by Jerrod Carmichael in the boat is very pessimistic. This film is not as dark as, say, Dogtooth or The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It has a lighter tonality that agrees with Bella’s character. She is always pure. Even when she goes to the bordello, she’s experiencing things as a matter of excess. It is not a dark feeling for her.

I think a more characteristic shot is when she’s making love with one of her clients at the bordello. She experiences a mixture of fear and pleasure. It’s always mixed to her because she’s usually very stoic. She just experiences things as they come. She doesn’t have any preconceived notions about anything. She takes the bad with the good.

MF: I’m surprised to hear that there was a lot of improv in this film. Do you like that? Does it give you a lot of choices to work? Or is it more challenging because it’s harder to find exactly where to take the story?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: I like it because you have all these opportunities. We have all kinds of these stages we have to go through in the edit. We know that at some point we have to take out things, but it’s a way for us to discover the inner core of the film. In the end, we just keep the parts that tell the stories simply, without making the audience lag behind us. We like to be with the audience. We like them to understand all the things that are happening.

Specifically, we want the audience to enjoy the present moment. Film is an art of the present. We have to make sure that the audience enjoys and understands what is happening.

Film is an art of the present.

Of course, we want to give them some time to think about what is happening. But we don’t want that to keep them from experiencing what is happening at the moment. Those things should not interfere. They shouldn’t interfere with experiencing the moment. That’s something that you think about afterward.

MF: I already told you what my favorite scene from the film is. Do you have a favorite scene?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: I like the dance a lot. I like the scene when Godwin tells Max the story of Bella Baxter. I like the Alexandria scene too. There were so many nice things to watch and be absorbed by in this film.

MF: It’s like asking which kid is your favorite.

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: Even the scenes we had to take out were fantastic, but we had to take them out. It was so great to follow this character from being a baby to becoming a grown woman. That procedure was very important to me.

MF: Looking at it a different way, what was your biggest editorial challenge on this film?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: I think my biggest challenge was keeping Bella Baxter’s spirit of pureness and enjoyment alive. For example, she has scenes that are a bit more explicit. We had to find a way to be truthful to what we saw without being puritanical about it. We were trying to make the audience feel the simplicity of being naked or enjoying what life brings you, even if it’s a sexual thing or a bad thing or it makes you cry. That was the biggest challenge, to make the viewer feel exactly as Bella Baxter does.

But in that sense, there’s no previous character that Bella can be based on. She is entirely new, so the film had to be done in a way that persuaded the audience to let their inhibitions fall away and enjoy everything as it came.

MF: You just did a film that was directed by Phedon Papamichael. Most people know of his work as a cinematographer, but he also directs from time to time. Has your extensive experience as an editor given you any desire to be a director?

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: Not at all. I’ve known I was an editor since my time in film school. I was an editor from the first semester and everybody knew me as an editor. Well, they didn’t see me that much because, in my idiosyncrasy, I’m not so easy with a lot of people around me.

MF: As a fan of your work, I’m glad you stuck with editing and I hope you keep doing it.

Yorgos Mavropsaridis: Yes, of course. I see my peers working in their old age and I’m happy. I hope I can do it for the next ten years.

Matt Feury

Matt Feury is host and producer of The Rough Cut podcast, as well as the Sr. Director, Market Solutions – Video & Post for Avid.

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