Florian Zeller: The Father’s Personal Journey to the Screen

March 26, 2021
The multiple Oscar-nominated film is a family affair for the celebrated playwright turned filmmaker.

Playwright Florian Zeller, 41, is one of the stars of French theatre and now international cinema. After his 2012 theatrical version of The Father was hailed as a masterpiece in France, Zeller, together with his frequent collaborator and good buddy, Sir Christopher Hampton, mounted adaptations in London and New York.

In 2014, Kenneth Cranham played the dementia-suffering father on London’s West End and Frank Langella won the Tony Award for his interpretation on Broadway in 2016. John Bell starred in the 2017 Australian production at the Sydney and Melbourne Theatres Companies.

The play is part of a trilogy, together with 2010’s The Mother (Gina McKee starred in the British version and Isabelle Huppert reprised the role off-Broadway) and 2018’s The Son, which Zeller is currently preparing to direct as his next film. In France, The Father won the coveted French Moliere Award for best play, The Mother won for best actress (Catherine Hiegel) while The Son was nominated. Zeller’s plays have been staged in more than 45 countries.

The film version of The Father, starring Anthony Hopkins as a character called Anthony, has now garnered six Oscar nominations. While Zeller missed out in the directing category, the film has been nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Production Design and for Best Actor for Hopkins and Best Supporting Actress for Olivia Colman, who plays the daughter struggling to care for her father.

Helen Barlow spoke via Zoom with Zeller when The Father opened the Cairo International Film Festival.

The Father is a personal story for you.

“Yes, I’m very connected to this sad issue, because I was raised by my grandmother (who was like my mother) and she started to suffer from dementia when I was 15. But I wasn’t sure if the audience would want to share such a journey. When the play premiered in France, I was so surprised and moved to discover that the response was very powerful and that it had the same response in every country. People were coming up to us after every performance to share their own story. I realised there was something almost cathartic about it. I think art is here to make you feel that you are part of something bigger than yourself and that you can share things with other people. We are all part of this humanity, a painful humanity, of course.”

How did you approach turning your play into a film?

“I was so familiar with the material that from the very beginning it was very clear to me what kind of film I wanted to make. I was very precise about the emotions I wanted to share, and what I wanted to explore. And so, I started to dream about it, because everything starts with the dream, especially in movies, and in that dream the one and only face that came into my mind was Anthony’s. That’s the main the reason I made the decision to do it in English.

“I remember my friends laughing at me when I was speaking about my desire to work with Anthony, because I’m French, this is my first feature film and he is Sir Anthony Hopkins. But you know, as soon as someone tells you it’s not possible, it means that potentially it is. I made a decision to follow my instincts and sent the script to Anthony’s agents and one day they called me saying he wanted to meet me. So, I took a plane to Los Angeles and this is how it started.”

In one scene, a boy (Zeller’s actual son) is playing outside as Anthony looks out the window. What does that represent?

“When you start adapting a play into a film, the first advice you get is always to write new scenes outside, to create something more cinematic. It’s a bit obvious and this is something that I didn’t want to do. I wanted to stay in the apartment so the space could become like a mental space. So, there is almost nothing outdoors, except when you have Anthony looking through the window in that scene. I needed this because I wanted Anthony to feel connected to his own childhood, to his own innocence, and at the same time to feel like he’s locked down in an apartment while outside life is going on without him. I wanted to underline the feeling of loneliness, but at the same time it’s a sweet memory of who he was.”

It’s a great role for Hopkins as Anthony runs through a gamut of emotions.

“Anthony Hopkins is the master of subtext, the master of anxiety, the master of uncertainty, and I wanted to use all that. But the main reason I wanted to do the film with him is because I think he’s the greatest living actor.”

The film becomes a kind of thriller.

“I truly believe that the audience is intelligent and after five minutes I didn’t want them to say, ‘Ok, I got it, we are in his head, this is about dementia’. I wanted it to be as if they are in the labyrinth, trying to figure it out. It’s more than just a story; it’s a chance to experience what it means to lose your bearings. And that’s the reason why the film starts almost like a thriller. You feel the danger and uncertainty, and this is what Anthony could bring. You know, he’s 83, and he’s still this artist, capable of putting himself at risk, which I think is really rare.”

Will he win the Oscar for best actor?

“I think this is the year when it’s not possible to make predictions. But I’m happy that people are so moved by his performance. We were very moved during the shooting too, especially for the last scene. Initially, we had a bit of trouble to make it work, but then suddenly after we talked about it something appeared in him. He did something so amazing and so powerful that I can tell you everyone on set was crying. It’s true. After I said cut, I ran to him and took him in my arms. And he was crying as well. It was obvious that we were exactly where we were supposed to be, without him being forced to talk and talk and talk about the scene, because he’s a very instinctive actor. He is not someone who needs to talk about the character a lot and Olivia Colman is the same.”

You did not shoot in chronological order.

“The set was constantly changing, and it was a bit difficult sometimes to remember where we were. It was as if we all got dementia! The technicians were like, ‘is this the beginning or the end? Where are we?’ So, because it was taken from my play and I wrote the script, I was in charge of the coherence of everything. And in a way it allowed everyone, especially the actors, to forget about the journey, to forget about where we were and to focus on that present moment, that scene, and to work to make it more truthful and sometimes playful.”

The playfulness stops the film from being depressing.

“Yes. For us it was a joyful process. We were a small group of people in a small room, every day rehearsing like children, trying to make each scene work with a pure, joyful, but focused energy. And then we had to piece everything together. It was really an intense process. Of course, to work with such great actors made it easier and more exciting. I’m very aware that I’m very lucky.”

Tell me more about Olivia Colman.

“She’s really a queen; she has something very special. Two minutes after I met her, I was in love with her. I think it’s impossible not to love her and this is the same as soon as you see her on screen. You feel empathy with her, and I don’t know how she does that. I think she does nothing. She’s just this pure human person. I knew that the film needed her, because it’s not only the story of this man losing his bearings. It’s also the story of his daughter facing this painful dilemma, which is basically what you do with the people you love when they are starting to suffer from dementia, which is, I think, one of the most painful dilemmas. So, I knew that I needed someone the audience could feel empathy with immediately.”

The Father is in cinemas April 1 2021

Read our review of The Father here.

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