Inspiration can come from many sources: a rock formation, a vintage doll, or, perhaps, a piece of classical music. In the case of the director Yorgos Lanthimos, it springs, above all, from the endlessly talented and versatile Emma Stone. His latest film, Poor Things, recounts the fantastical psychological evolution of Bella Baxter, a woman played by Stone, who has had the brain of a baby surgically implanted by a Dr. Frankenstein–like figure. Stone and Lanthimos had an instant rapport when they worked together in 2018 on The Favourite, Lanthimos’s Oscar-winning movie about power struggles in the court of Queen Anne. “There is absolutely nothing that Emma cannot do,” Lanthimos told me at the time. “She is fearless.”
Poor Things, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in September, put that fearlessness to the test. Stone, as Bella, progresses as a child would: first gradually mastering mobility, and then language. As Bella’s mind continues to develop, she becomes fiercely independent and sexually adventurous. The changes are rapid and surprising, and Stone is riveting. “Above all, this film is the central character of Bella Baxter, this incredible creature, and she wouldn’t exist without Emma Stone, another incredible creature,” Lanthimos said while accepting the Golden Lion. “This film is her, in front and behind the camera.” After completing Poor Things, Lanthimos and Stone made another film together, tentatively called And, in New Orleans. But before starting on either of those films, Lanthimos had asked Stone if she would be interested in a project called Bleat, which would be set in Greece. “I said yes immediately,” Stone recalled. “As always.”
Stone and Lanthimos were speaking with me during a joint phone interview. Because of the SAG-AFTRA strike, they could not discuss Poor Things or any of their other feature films. They could, however, talk about Bleat and the photo shoot they created for W. Bleat was granted a waiver from SAG-AFTRA, as it is not being released by any of the studios that oppose the union’s terms. In fact, Bleat has been shown only twice: in Athens, where Lanthimos lives and where the photos you see here were taken, and at the New York Film Festival.
“Bleat was conceived as a live performance,” Lanthimos explained. “It will only be shown with the one and only print that we made, and it will always be accompanied by an orchestra playing live music.” The idea for the project came from the Greek National Opera director Giorgos Koumendakis, who fosters an ongoing program to create partnerships between artists and composers. “I liked the idea of bringing together different disciplines,” Lanthimos said. “The story, idea, and images began there.” The short film, which is completely silent, was shot in black and white on Tinos, a rocky, desolate island. “It was winter and there wasn’t anyone there—no tourists,” Lanthimos said. Stone plays a grieving widow whose husband rises from the dead; there is a goat that seems to have a spectral quality, as if it were a visitor from another world. “The goat is the star,” Stone joked. At the New York Film Festival, she told the audience that she wished all her films were silent. “I was half-kidding,” Stone said. “But I do love the silence. It’s a nice thing to not have any pressure to use words to communicate. There’s something wonderful in being able to speak with just your eyes and your body.”
To celebrate Bleat, Lanthimos envisioned a black and white shoot for W that would be set in Athens. “I love the contradictions that you find in the city: the mix of the very modern and rather ugly next to the very beautiful. We wanted to do a combination of wide landscapes and intimate portraits. And we wanted to tell a little story.” In the photos, Stone, wearing Louis Vuitton (she is an ambassador for the brand), embarks on a tour of contrasting locations. She has a child with her, which may or may not be a life-size doll. “Who said she was a doll?!” Stone exclaimed, in mock outrage. “Her name is a secret because she’s very shy and this is her first role. We found her.… She was perfect!”
They shot the eight exterior pictures in one day, using natural light, while quickly driving from place to place. Lanthimos chose all the settings: an urban street with a cruise ship at the end of it, a basketball court next to the bay, a palm tree next to a wire fence. For one particularly dramatic shot, Lanthimos asked Stone to run across a busy highway and pose in the middle of it. Stone, wearing a silver sequined dress, camel-colored coat, patterned headscarf, large rectangular sunglasses, and flat boots, sprinted on cue, looking out for cars as they sped by. She stopped at the median, and Lanthimos captured the moment. “Have you seen the things I’ve done in films?” Stone joked later. “In comparison, running across a highway is not scary.”
Lanthimos says that the photograph on the cover, in which Stone is wearing a white and teal dress, evoked the undulating folds of the curtains in his office. That picture, as well as the other close-ups in the story, were taken on another day. “Together, we looked at different references,” Lanthimos said. “I was particularly impressed by Harry Callahan’s photos of his wife and daughter—he shot them in natural settings, where the figures appeared tiny, and he also did closer portraits. Emma, apart from being a model and a muse, helped develop the photos. We created the prints together.”
Stone continued: “A few years ago, Yorgos became interested in film photography. He began developing his own prints, and he taught me. We started in a makeshift darkroom in his bathroom, but over the past few years, he’s built a professional darkroom in his studio in Athens. He pretty much learned how to develop film by watching YouTube videos.” Lanthimos laughed. “I did have a master printer teach me for 20 minutes,” he said, still laughing. “But, yes, YouTube!”
So, after being photographed, Stone joined Lanthimos at his office and printed many of the more personal photos while he sat on the couch with his new, very large dog, Búpwvaç (which is pronounced “Vironas” and translates to Byron), whom he adopted during the photo shoot. “We reviewed the contact sheets together,” Stone recalled. “We tend to agree on which photos we like and dislike. In general, we agree on most everything.” Lanthimos interrupted: “We sometimes disagree about small details. That’s our pattern.” Stone continued: “But we don’t fight. We have a way of working things out. And we learn from each other. Or, at least, I learn from Yorgos.” They laughed in unison.
Produced by Blackbird Productions; producer: Eleni Kossyfidou; location manager: Yota Skouvara; photo assistants: Zacharias Dimitriadis, Alexandros Dimitriadis; layout by Vasilis Marmatakis; film processing & contact sheets by Elias Kosindas; production assistants: Stella Bizirtsaki, Vangelis Vrochidis. Special thanks to Athens School of Fine Arts.