Florian Zeller’s film directing debut, The Father, adapted from his Tony-nominated and Molière winning play Le Père, takes the inside perspective of Anthony (Anthony Hopkins)’s slow slide into dementia, as his daughter (Olivia Colman) attempts to care for him. We find ourselves in the hellish hall of mirrors of Anthony’s declining mind as Zeller repeatedly wrongfoots us—is the daughter playing tricks? How can this be a different apartment? How much time has passed?—and we experience his shattering loss of cognition again and again. Here Zeller explains why he always wanted to cast Hopkins, and how the medium of film added to the story.
DEADLINE: The protagonist’s name in the film is Anthony and you had Anthony Hopkins in mind from early on. Is that a coincidence?
FLORIAN ZELLER: It’s true that when I started to dream about writing the script, the face I had in mind was Anthony’s. It sounded a bit unrealistic at first, and probably I made the decision to use the Anthony name to make it, at least for myself, a bit more real. It was a way to be absolutely connected to him and to write that script for him, and take into account who he is, because he’s such a special personality. I think I’ve grown up with him in mind, as probably everyone has, as if we knew him as part of our family, somehow. It was meaningful to me, because I wanted the audience to experience what it could mean to lose, step-by-step, someone you are intimately related to.
Also, he’s so strong, so powerful, so this man was always in control. I thought that it would be even more powerful and disturbing and sad to see that man losing control. I wrote the script with this character, this new character named Anthony, and also, because I wanted him to know that it was written for him, of course. I thought that maybe it could help me to be more convincing.
And I thought that it could help to do what I wanted to do—to play with what is real, and what is not real. A few days before we shot the film, Anthony came to me and told me, “Florian, are you certain about this name? My name, and his date of birth is my real date of birth. Are you certain that it is useful?” He was doubting it. And I said, “Yes, I really want to keep it that way,” because I thought that it could be like a door. It could open any time during the shooting, and to let in his own very personal emotions, and more precisely, his own personal feeling of mortality. The challenge was to try to explore a new territory, a new, emotional territory. I didn’t come to him to ask him to do what he’s known for, in a way. I wanted him to go into the unknown with me, to explore this place where he is only fragility and insecurity.
DEADLINE: I interviewed him recently and he said it really did make him address his own age and mortality.
ZELLER: It’s true that, in the end, he was amazingly generous to the project. He did his job, but he did more than his job. He gave himself entirely to the story, in my opinion, in a very generous and uncommon way. I admire him a lot, but also because I think he’s really brave, humble and brave. He’s 83 now. He knew that it was not an easy task to take. Trying to do something he hasn’t done yet, trying to be pure emotion and this vulnerability, it was something that he hadn’t explored yet, cinematically talking. I think it was a risky choice and he’s an artist still open to put himself at risk. This is something that is, in my opinion, really daring and admirable.
DEADLINE: You’ve previously said that getting into playwriting after first being a novelist almost happened by accident, not by design. Did it feel like that here, going into making your first feature?
ZELLER: No. For years I was dreaming about not making a film, but about making that film. It took me years to make it happen, but it was a plan. I would say it was a profound desire. That play has been staged in many countries, and I was surprised and profoundly moved to see that everywhere, the response of the audience, in spite of the local differences, the response of the audience was always the same, meaning that they were always waiting for us after every performance, just to share their own stories. I realized that there was something cathartic about it, just to give or to share your own story and to realize that you are not just by yourself and just alone. I think that art is done for that, mainly, to make you feel part of something bigger than yourself. I wanted to make that film because I had the conviction that it could be something different. I profoundly thought that something could be done, only thanks to the cinema, something that was not possible on stage. And it was to experience subjectively what it means to lose your bearings. I thought that thanks to the cinema, to the language of the cinema, it could be even more unique and even more painful, even more emotionally challenging. That’s the reason I started to dream about making that film. It was a plan and it was not an easy plan, because I made the decision to do it in English.
DEADLINE: And then you visualized Hopkins.
ZELLER: I remember a friend of mine, when I was sharing my ideas, they were laughing at me, because it’s Sir Anthony Hopkins, it’s not an easy dream to fulfill, but my intuition was that until someone comes and tells you, “It’s not possible,” it means that potentially it is. Most of the time, we are the ones who just close the doors of what is possible and what is not possible. I sent the script to Anthony’s agent, and one day I received a call from someone I didn’t know, letting me know that Anthony wanted to meet with me. I took a plane to Los Angeles to have breakfast with him and it was an amazing meeting, because of course I was a bit impressed, because it was Anthony Hopkins and the stakes couldn’t be higher for me. But to tell you the truth, after two minutes I knew that it would be almost easy to work with him, because of who he is, because he’s humble. And humble for an actor means that he’s not here to serve himself, he’s here to serve the emotions that you want to share. He is here to serve the director’s vision. I knew that he would give me the room to do the film I really wanted to make.
DEADLINE: There’s a scene where Anthony breaks down at the end. Tell me about shooting that?
ZELLER: It was the real destination of the film. This is where I wanted to go and I was probably more nervous about that scene, because I knew that if that scene was not good enough, the whole scene would mean almost nothing. It was the real challenge for him just to let everything go. It was not easy to shoot that scene and when it appeared, all the emotions that we can see in the film, I can tell you everyone on set was crying, because it was something very powerful and truthful and sincere, meaning that he was really talking about himself in a way. It was a strange experience, because it was, at the same time, one of the most joyful moments of my life and one of the saddest experiences that we had, because what he was expressing was so sad and so universal in a way. It was exactly what I wanted to do. In the end, the film is very close to what I had in mind in the first place.
DEADLINE: What about working with Olivia Colman?
ZELLER: Olivia gave a lot, also, to the film. She’s very humble too. We shot it one month after she won the Oscar and she was so easy to work with, so nice. She’s not faking anything, because as soon as you meet with her, you love her, in my opinion. And this is the same on screen. As soon as you see her, you feel empathy with her. And to me, it was exactly what the film needed, because it’s not only the story of this man losing his bearings. It’s also the story of that daughter trying to figure it out, trying to face this painful situation. I wanted the film to have two perspectives at the same time. The father’s perspective—to put the audience in this unique position as if they were in the main character’s head—but strangely, at the same time, to have this other door to open, a more emotional door, which is about what do you do with the people you love when they are starting to lose their bearings? And thanks to Olivia, I think the film also explores this dimension of dementia.
DEADLINE: You take such a unique approach to representing his confusion, even changing the actors around, so at one point his daughter is played by Olivia Williams. How did you fix on that idea?
ZELLER: It came to me when I wrote the play. Actually, I remember that moment. It was more than 10 years ago. Suddenly I had this idea, if it was another actress, what would happen? And suddenly he was absolutely lost and so was I, and this is when this process of putting the audience in his shoes started. There are so many plays or so many films about dementia, and it’s always told in the same way, from the outside. It could be very painful. It could be very moving. I can quote some films that are very good at that, but in my opinion, it’s always a bit… Almost boring. Meaning that you know where you are, and you know where you’re going, and that’s it. And in the meantime, you could have an extremely convincing performance, but that’s not enough, in my opinion. I wanted this film to be not only a story, I wanted that film to be an experience. I think that the film adaptation was the opportunity to try to find a translation of this confusion, but in a very cinematic way.
DEADLINE: You also have the set itself play a role in confusing things.
ZELLER: When I wrote the script, I drew the layout of the apartment and at the same time, it was like one of the main characters of the story. I knew that it would be part of the narrative, and I wanted to try to do something that is not common, meaning that here, the set design is not only about providing a background to the story, it was to use the set as a part of the narrative.
At the beginning, we have this apartment. There’s that apartment, this is Anthony’s apartment and there is no doubt about it. Step-by-step, as subtle as possible, always in the background, things are changing. There are several metamorphoses. At the beginning, you cannot notice what it is exactly, but you just have the feeling that something has happened and you cannot tell what. Sometimes, the pieces of furniture are disappearing or not the same, sometimes the proportion of the room is not the same, and sometimes the colors are different.
DEADLINE: For the first few scenes, I wondered if there really are two women saying they’re both his daughter and they’re playing tricks on him.
ZELLER: I wanted you to feel like maybe they are gaslighting him. I didn’t want the audience, after five minutes, to think, OK, this is about his perspective and I am in his head. I just wanted the audience to discover, step-by-step, that they are just feeling as he does. For example, do you remember there’s that scene with Anthony humming in the kitchen? That incident, he sees some plastic bags, blue plastic bags on the table with things inside. He doesn’t know exactly where they’re coming from and he decides, never mind, and he does what he has to do in the kitchen. Later on in the story, we are obviously in a new apartment. It’s not the same colors. It’s not the same kitchen. It’s a new kitchen, and we see Olivia Colman coming from the outside with two plastic bags, the same two blue plastic bags, and she puts them on the table in the exact same position. This is the exact same frame. With just one frame, you have contradictions about the time and the space. We are obviously later in the story. And obviously it’s not the same space. It’s the same space, but it’s not in the same place.
I wanted to put the audience in an active position of trying to make it work. Trying to play with all the pieces of that puzzle to try to find the correct combination to make it work. It does not work. As we are going through the film, there are so many contradictions that you understand that. You cannot understand the whole story. You just have to let it go. When you let it go, when you accept that your brain is not capable of understand everything, something could happen, which is, you can understand the whole story with your heart on a more emotional level. In the end, the answer is given by your heart and by the obvious emotions that we all share.
DEADLINE: What’s on your mind to do next?
ZELLER: What I would love to do is, The Father is part of a trilogy I wrote with The Son and The Mother. I would love to do The Son as a film. This is something I’m working on. Maybe it will be my next project, but who knows? Because it’s so hard to know anything, especially this year.
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