The Father was recently nominated for 6 Academy Awards including best picture. Back in November 2020, I had the chance to speak with writer-director Florian Zeller about his terrific movie…
Matt: Your acclaimed play was first performed close to a decade ago. Where did that idea first come from to tackle the subject matter of dementia and to do it in this particular way – through the eyes of the sufferer?
Florian: I was raised by my grandmother, who was like a mother, and she started to suffer from dementia which I was 15 years old. While I have a very personal connection with the issues, I realised early on that everyone is connected to it unfortunately. When the play was on stage in Paris and then in other countries, I was surprised and touched to see the response from the audience was the same everywhere. People were coming to us after every performance to share their own story and I realised there was something cathartic about it. Art has the power to make you feel part of something bigger than yourself and that’s the reason why I wanted to make the film.
Matt: At what point did you envisage that it could also work as a film?
Florian: I kept the narrative of the play which, as you say, is to try to tell the story from the “inside”. I wanted to put the audience in a very specific position as if they were in the middle of a labyrinth trying to figure out where they’re going. I wanted The Father to be an experience as much as a story. I wanted them to know what it’s like to lose your bearings. It was a way for me to play with the audience and try to disorientate them.
All of that is taken from the play but I didn’t want to just film a play. I worked a lot with Christopher Hampton to make it as cinematic as possible. For example, we worked a lot on the sets to increase the feeling of disorientation.
Matt: And you serve as both writer and director here. What lured you into the challenge of directing for the screen (I believe this is your feature film debut) as opposed to handing that responsibility over to someone else?
Florian: From the very beginning, my desire was to direct the film. I was familiar with the material because of the play and I was clear about the emotions I wanted to share. Strangely, I also wanted to do it with Anthony Hopkins from the very beginning. That’s the main reason I did it in English. I’m French and it wasn’t an obvious decision but when I started to dream about the film, the one and only face that came to mind was Anthony’s.
I spoke with my friends at the time and they were laughing at me because I’m French and this is my first feature film. Most of the time, it’s us who close the door on what’s possible but this time, I followed my desire and my intuition and sent the script to Anthony Hopkins through his agent. I waited a bit and one day, I received a call from an unknown number and it was the agent saying Anthony wanted to meet with me. I took a plane to Los Angeles to have breakfast with him and this is how it started.
Matt: How’d you get Olivia Colman on board with the film?
Florian: I have always adored her as an actress. She’s been the queen in my heart for years as I’ve known her through films and series and stage. I really think she’s the greatest actress in the UK. There’s something magical because you love her as soon as you see her on screen. I don’t know how she does it. It’s the same as real life.
I knew this film needed her because it’s not just the story of a man losing his bearings but it’s also the story of his daughter trying to save the situation and face this painful dilemma. What do you do with the people you love when they are starting to suffer from dementia? I needed someone you can instantaneously feel empathy with and she’s a genius for that.
Matt: It’s an interesting setting in that almost all of the movie takes place inside of the apartment but it feels like a character in itself in the way our view of it changes. Can you talk about that and the approach to the cinematography and production design?
Florian: You’re right, it’s like a character. When I wrote the script, I also drew the layout of the apartment and so it was always part of the story. When you start thinking about adapting a play into a film, the first ideas you have is always to write new scenes and stuff outdoors to make it more cinematic. I didn’t want to go that way through. I wanted to stay in the apartment and do the whole film in a single space so that it would be like a mental space.
We are in Anthony’s apartment but step by step, we are making small changes in the background. You can’t tell what’s happened but you know something has happened. We shot the whole film in a studio so it was easy to move walls, change proportions and change colours so you have this strange feeling that you know where you are but at the same time, you’re not quite sure where you are.
Matt: I like the use of music also. It’s quite haunting and reflective in places. Can you tell me about your approach with composer Ludovico Einaudi?
Florian: He’s a fantastic Italian composer. He did a very small composition for us and we also used music taken from a French opera by Georges Bizet. The story is connected to Anthony Hopkins. We were chatting before shooting the film and we discovered we were both in love with an aria taken from The Pearl Fisher by Bizet.
He discovered that piece of music when he was 30 years old and he was touring with a play in the UK. He ran to the piano in the hotel trying to find the melody and everyone in the hotel went nuts because he played it for 3 days. He said he’d always dreamt to make a movie one day with that music in it. It used it 3 times in the movie to fulfil his dream because he’d fulfilled mine by starring in the film.
Matt: The film premiered back at Sundance and it’s been touted as an awards season contender but clearly this has been a crazy year for films and movie theatres. Has the release and promotion of the film been affected heavily by COVID-19?
Florian: It’s hard to tell because we’re still right in the middle of it but up until now, everything has been virtual. It’s a bit sad but we’re lucky that we can still stay connected to each other in this crazy world and to talk about what we have done. I really hope people get a chance to see this in theatres because making a film is a lot about sharing experiences and emotions.