Florian Zeller adapted his own play, “The Father,” into a new film which he also directed, starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. The film just earned six nominations including Best Picture and Zeller himself for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Zeller recently spoke with Gold Derby executive editor Paul Sheehan about changing the name of the protagonist when adapting the play to film, working with Hopkins and Colman and why he didn’t want to do a rehearsal process. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Is it true that you changed the name of the title character of the film version of your stage play, “The Father,” from André to Anthony because you dreamed of Anthony Hopkins in the role?
Florian Zeller: Yes, it is true. When I started dreaming about that film, because everything starts with a dream, especially a film, the one and only face that came to my mind was Anthony’s. That’s the main reason why I made the decision to do that film in English, because I’m French, as you can hear. It was not an obvious decision, but the true reason is that I really wanted to try to do it with him. So I wrote the script with Anthony in mind. So the character’s name became Anthony and I knew it was not an easy dream to fulfill because he is Sir Anthony Hopkins. But until someone comes and tells you it is not possible, it means that potentially it is. Most of the time, we are the one who closes the door of what is possible and what is not possible and this time, I really wanted not to close that door and to follow my instinct and my desire, because I knew that he would be very powerful in this part.
GD: You and Christopher Hampton go to Los Angeles, you meet with him, and this dream becomes true. What was that moment like when you find out that this idol of yours is going to play this part that you’ve written?
FZ: You’re right, he’s like an idol for me. I mean, he’s a legend so I just sent the script to his agent and I waited a bit and one day I received a call. I didn’t recognize the number. It was his agent letting me know that Anthony wanted to meet with me. So I took a plane with Christopher Hampton just to have breakfast to Los Angeles with him. I was a bit impressed because the stakes couldn’t be higher for me. But after two minutes, it was almost clear that it would be easy, in a way, to work with him because he’s not only such a brilliant and intelligent man, he’s also someone very humble. For an actor to be humble means to try to serve the story, to serve the emotions, to serve the vision of the director and not to serve yourself. He leaves room for the director to do the film he really wants to do. It was clear from the very beginning that we were going in that direction together. So it was a very joyful meeting and the whole process was really, in a way, simple and joyful.
GD: So this is a play you’ve written, one of the most produced plays of the last decade, and you decide that this is what you want to make your directorial debut with. I’m curious, was it liberating to take the story from stage to screen? Did you find that you were able to open it up? Was it daunting? How did that work for you?
FZ: What I didn’t want to do is just to film a play because I think it’s not very exciting. It’s not challenging. I wanted to do something very cinematic. So I kept the narrative of the play because I think that it was what was original about it, which is to try to tell the story from the inside and to put the audience in a very unique position, as if they were trying to go through a labyrinth, trying to figure it out, trying to understand what is going on, in a way. I wanted the audience to be in an active position, not just to sit and to watch a story already told, but to try to understand as if they were experiencing something. I wanted “The Father” to be not only a story but an experience and to play with the feeling of disorientation because it’s about a man losing his bearings. It’s about dementia and I wanted the audience to experience it as if they were losing their own bearings. So it was a way for me to play with the feeling of disorientation and I thought it was very cinematic. But again, I wanted to do something that the cinema can do and that only the cinema can do.
For example, I worked a lot with Christopher Hampton when we thought about making that adaptation of what could be very cinematic. I remember when I started writing the script, I drew the layout of the apartment. It was really part of the story as if it was one of the main characters because I wanted to use the set. The film was shot in a small studio in London so that I had the liberty to do whatever I wanted. I could remove a wall, change the proportion, the colors, the furnishes, and to use that in a cinematic way, because at the beginning of the film, we are in Anthony’s apartment. We recognize his space, his knickknacks, and step by step, as subtle as possible, things are changing. You have small metamorphoses in the set so that you recognize the space, the way to travel into it, but at the same time, you’re not quite sure where you are, where you’re not anymore, and it’s the beginning of this doubting process. So I used the sets and all the production design was done for that, to serve the narrative and to make the set as if it was like a labyrinth and to play with it.
GD: Watching it, in the beginning, I’m trying to piece this puzzle together and it’s like, “Wait,” and then Olivia Williams sort of looks like Olivia Colman and you keep questioning and then at some point, I think halfway through the film, you kind of give over to it as a viewer.
FZ: This is what I wanted the audience to experience. The film, you’re right, is like a puzzle and you are trying to make it work. You play with all the pieces. You’re like, “Who is this character claiming that he is someone else? And that scene, is it before or after?” This is what I call being in an active position. You’re part of the narrative. You’re trying to play with the combination to make it work. But the moment comes when you have to let it go, in a way. You have to accept that your brain is not capable to understand everything, and when you let it go, you can understand the whole story on another level and even though sometimes the journey itself is complex, I think where we are going, the destination, is very simple. It’s like a pure emotional territory and this is where I wanted to go with Anthony to explore this emotional territory.
GD: I think on stage, and I’ve seen a couple of productions of it in New York and in London, and it’s from the audience and you have one perspective. You’re sitting in the audience. So film gives you that 360 degrees. Was that ever inhibiting to you that you could go anywhere in the apartment at any time?
FZ: Yeah. Even though, when you start thinking of adapting a play into a film, the first ideas you have, or the first advice you get is always to write new scenes outdoors, as if it was more cinematic to go out of the apartment. But what I wanted to do from the very beginning is to try and to dare staying in that apartment, even though it is a changing apartment, but to try just to stay in a few rooms to do that film so that that space could become like a mental space. So there is nothing outside of that apartment and strangely, it was as if the liberty was even wider to do whatever I wanted.
GD: And then, what film has that stage doesn’t is the close-up, that intimacy. You’ve got this actor like Anthony Hopkins, who’s been on film for more than 50 years, or Olivia Colman, who just won an Academy Award, the expressiveness of their faces in close-up, do you not feel sometimes the performance, you’re a playwright, but there is no need for dialogue because they’re able to give me so much?
FZ: Sure. This is how you can define a great actor, and they are both the greatest. You just have to look at their face and this is already a miracle. But it’s something that you can use for the story. For example, in that story, in “The Father,” the story starts at that precise moment of their relationship when the daughter is becoming the parent of her own parent. But we can understand through what is not said, through Olivia’s smile, eyes, what was their relationship for years. With almost nothing, you can understand everything. This is something that could be done when you are such amazing and extraordinary talents. So, of course, as a filmmaker, it’s so exciting and challenging at the same time to be as close as possible to those emotions.
GD: I’m curious because you come from the theater and rehearsal is a big part of the process, did you have time to rehearse with them much before filming?
FZ: We could have time, but I made the decision not to rehearse at all before shooting, for many reasons. First of all, I wanted to be as far as possible from the theatrical process. I come from theater. I’m very familiar with it and I thought that it would be a challenge for me to go into the unknown. But also, I understood from the very beginning that Anthony and also Olivia, they are both very instinctive actors. I was kind of certain that it would be more powerful just to rehearse a bit every day before every scene and just to try to be here when or if the miracle appears. So basically we started shooting the very first day and every day we did small rehearsals and it was enough, in a way.