Exterior of a film set in Budapest with the skeleton of the building visible from the outside, photographed at night. The shadow of photographer Yorgos Lanthimos and his tripod is visible on the ground in front of the building

Behind the curtain of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things

The director’s debut book brings us closer to the film’s richly detailed sets and eccentric characters with striking large format photographs, which were developed by the director himself and Emma Stone

The term ‘worldbuilding’ is bandied about these days, and we sometimes forget that it can be a practical endeavour, rather than simply an aesthetic or narrative one.

There to remind us is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose recent film Poor Things tells a twisted franken-tale of Emma Stone’s Bella Baxter and the rapid transformation of her life after being ‘created’ by Godwin Baxter – God, for short. It’s equal parts disturbing, fascinating and funny, a mix that Lanthimos revels in.

The film immerses audiences in decadent sets that conjure fantasy visions of London, Lisbon and Marseille, all from a film lot in Budapest. Though the reference point was the late 19th century, these places also feel somehow out of time.

Emma Stone with red smeared around her mouth and wearing a shiny rust-coloured dress gazing off camera
All images: Untitled from Dear God, the Parthenon is still broken © Yorgos Lanthimos
A person wearing a suit standing on a Poor Things film set of a cruise ship deck in front of a bright sunset with lighting and rigs visible

From the intertitles to the costumes to the backdrops, the film is indebted to design at every corner, which audiences can now pore over in the director’s new book, Dear God, the Parthenon is Still Broken, its name lifted from a postcard Bella had written to God in a deleted scene.

The beautiful, bruised skies and smog-drenched cityscapes of the film reappear here, but this time, rigs, lighting and scaffolding creep into the frame. The real and the staged bleed into one another throughout the book, where it’s never quite clear if Stone, and her co-stars Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo and Margaret Qualley, are in character or not.

Mark Ruffalo on the set of Poor Things sat on a blue ornate chair with pink frilly fabric draped over him
Black and white photo of Emma Stone wearing a short puff sleeved dress and long hair below her waist, crouching and looking around a wall

It’s a curious book befitting of the film itself. Unexpected foldouts reveal contrasting scenes in different colourways. Patti Smith wrote a poem for it. And Stone even worked with Lanthimos on printing the photographs in the evenings after a day on set.

“The creative complicity I have with Emma added to the excitement of the task,” says Lanthimos, who also cast her in 2018’s The Favourite and the recently premiered Kinds of Kindness. “One would push the other no matter how tired we were after a full day of filming to process the negatives in the evenings.”

Black and white photo of Emma Stone on the set of Poor Things, standing on a podium in the middle of a large empty set, with a monitor showing the same scene visible in the foreground
Black and white photo of Emma Stone lying in a curved window frame looking out of a window with bars on it

“I always hoped that I would manage to get enough decent pictures to make a book out of them – a body of work that could exist on its own, independent of the film. I didn’t know if we had achieved this until we started seeing the initial edits and sequencing of the book.”

Rather than simply documenting the making of a film, the book feels like a narrative of its own set in the world of the movie, as though imagined by Charlie Kaufman.

Emma Stone lying on a bed with her very long dark hair draped over the side and pooling on the wooden floor
Black and white photo of a young person the set of Poor Things wearing Victorian era-style trousers, jacket and hat, with their hands crossed in front of them

“One day I asked if I could try to load some negatives in the little tent Yorgos had set up, then moved on to the chemicals, and I became obsessed,” says Stone. “The high-stakes meditation of it is very special to me – you have to remain in control, you don’t want to screw up the pictures, and sure, they’re only pictures, but they’re his pictures, his art, not my own.

“I remember accidentally clipping a beautiful portrait too low in the drying process and to this day I see the marks I made. It’s of course all I can focus on because it was a mistake. Or when I loaded the film wrong and a few pictures came out with an inch-long black bar. But it’s an instantaneous reminder that all of this – photography, films, life – is full of mistakes and human error that can also end up being very beautiful and alive.”

Black and white photo of a set of Poor Things designed in the style of Victorian era street in London. The scaffolding holding up the set is visible in the frame
Black and white photo of Emma Stone wearing a black puff sleeved dress and suitcase in front of a Victorian era London street

Dear God, the Parthenon is Still Broken is published by Void; void.photo