Last week, French playwright Florian Zeller’s first feature film, The Father, earned six Oscar nominations, including best picture and adapted screenplay. Zeller adapted his prize-winning, 2012 French play of the same name with Atonement screenwriter Christopher Hampton.
Through this incredibly intimate story of a slow slide into dementia, Zeller allows the audience to experience the mind slips, identity confusions, and disorienting blends of settings through Anthony Hopkins’ ailing character (also named Anthony). Caretakers and loved ones, such as Anthony’s daughter (Olivia Coleman), try to settle his temper and help put his tangled memories in line. Everything is as fleeting to viewers as it is for Anthony, yet it all feels heartbreakingly and hauntingly real.
The Denton Record-Chronicle had the opportunity to speak with Zeller to discuss the narrative challenges of taking his play to the screen, the importance of keeping the audience front in mind, and creating a visual language that makes emotional sense. Read the transcribed conversation below!
Preston Barta: With your film, I feel like I got access to something that I haven’t had before in any other movie or documentary. You really invite viewers into the mind of someone with an ever-shifting mind (and all the emotions that come with it). Was it tricky for you to navigate the film’s tone considering what it’s about?
Florian Zeller: “Yes. I didn't want to tell The Father’s story from the outside. As you said, many movies have shared a moving story about dementia where you know where you are and you know where you are going. I was looking for something more challenging, more disturbing, and I hope to be more powerful in a way.”
“My idea was to try to put the audience in this unique position, as if you were going through a labyrinth, questioning everything you are witnessing. It needed to be an experience of what it could mean to lose your bearings, including as a viewer. So, the whole idea was to find ways, visually, cinematically, to play with that feeling of disorientation so you could experience a slice of dementia yourself, and as if you were in the main character's head.”
In adapting this from your play, did you feel pressure to write additional scenes?
“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. The temptation could be to write new scenes outdoors to make it feel more cinematic. But here, from the very beginning, I wanted to stay in this one apartment, so that that space could become like a mental space.”
Did you shoot it in a studio or in several different flats with similar floorplans?
“I shot the whole film in a studio in London. It was a small studio in West London, because as a director, when you are in the studio, you can do whatever you want. You can remove a wall, change the proportion, change the color overnight. It's very easy, and I wanted to use that, this language from the cinema to create that immersive experience.”
“You have probably noticed, for example, that at the beginning of the story, we are in Anthony's apartment. There is no doubt about it. You recognize his space, his knick-knacks, his pieces of furniture. And step by step, always in the background, you have some small changes, small metamorphosis on sets. Some pieces of furniture are disappearing, or some proportion are not the same, so that you recognize the space, you recognize the apartment, you know where you are, but at the same time, you are not quite certain. Something had happened. You cannot tell exactly what happened because I tried to do it as subtle as possible, but you just have the feeling that something had happened. And so it was a way for me to start the process of doubting everything, and to experience his journey into the unknown.”
That’s so fascinating, but I suppose it makes the most sense to do it that way. It certainly was effective, because my exact thoughts were, “Am I going crazy? I swear this apartment had a different kitchen a second ago?” How did you balance making those changes and deciding, “Yes, that’s the perfect amount,” or, “No. That’s too much?”
“No, it's true that I had the intuition that it was a way to tell the story through the sets, but I had to find the delicate balance, and it was done step by step, sometimes day after day. Because I had no other reference of the film that could guide me. And also, what I didn't want to do is to do too obvious things or choices, but I wanted the audiences just to have enough information to be troubled and to have to rethink or reread it. I wanted the audience to be in an active position. To be in an active position, for me, is to be part of the narrative. I wanted to leave a room for the audience to try to make it work.”
“The film was like a puzzle, and you can play with all the pieces of that puzzle to make it meaningful, to make it work, but it never worked untidy. There is always a piece that is missing in that puzzle, and it's done on purpose, that you have to try again to make it work and to deal with the contradictions in the narrative.”
“What I was aiming at, when doing it, is that the moment comes when you have to accept that your brain is not capable of understanding everything, and you have to accept to let it go in a way. And when you let it go, you can understand the whole story on another level, which is a more emotional level. And in a way, you understand everything, even though you're not quite sure of who is who, and that scene, was it before or after? But at that point, it doesn't matter anymore. Where you are is a place more simple, more emotional, and you can understand the whole thing very precisely in a way, but only with your heart. It was the journey I wanted the audience to experience.”
That’s remarkable. When did you realize how subtlety can be a true gift as a storyteller? There’s so much to dissect in the film’s visual language.
“It's hard to tell, but what I was aware of is that I had to make choices. For example, because it's an immersive experience, the temptation could have been to use the camera to do some effects to make you understand that it's dreamlike, that it's not reality, because it's something that usually cinema does. And it could have been a temptation to make you feel that it's really not theater, it's cinematic. But to me, it would have been a shame because I had to find, this is what I call subtlety, the right distance. And what I wanted is to film every scene with the same level of reality. I am not here to tell you what is real and what is not real, so that when you have a strong contradiction in the narrative, you have to deal with it, and you have to find your own path through those contradictions to make it meaningful. And so you are forced to be in that active position I was looking for.”
Well, I appreciate you believing in the audiences’ intelligence.
“My profound belief is that the audience is intelligent. This is something I know from almost every experience coming from theatre, and I wanted to start the process knowing this, that the audience is intelligent. So, I didn't want to make it too easy for them. The worst for me would have been for anyone to, after five minutes, say, ‘OK. I know where we are. I know where we are going. It's about dementia, and we are in his head.’ I wanted the audience to believe something, and that's the reason why this film starts as almost like a thriller.”
“And then to realize that it's not it. The truth is somewhere else, and it could be something else. And to be forced to travel into all those possibilities until you come to this point when you have to let it go.”
Is there anything that you got out of filming this that you wish you knew before you wrote the play?
“No, I don't think so. It was really going into the unknown to me because it was a new experience, but I really loved that process. Because it was my first feature film, I had to work so much before the shooting because the first fear is not to be prepared enough. So, there is a disproportion between what you have to do and what you are doing, and I really love this disproportion. Because for long months, there was no room for anything else but that film, and there is like an absolute relationship with that film. It was really intense to me, and I really loved that, and to discover that, making it.”
Earlier you said you didn’t have any references for making this film. Do you typically go looking to see how others have handled similar material, or do you distance yourself to challenge yourself as a filmmaker as a way to come up with tricks to illustrate your words on screen?
“I think both. The idea of this complex narrative is probably the continuation of something that happened to me as a viewer when I discovered David Lynch movies, such as Mulholland Drive. It had a strong impact on me, and I thought about it while writing The Father.
“I also was trying to think of which film made the decision to stay in a single apartment without being too theatrical, so I thought of Roman Polanski’s work. There are some references there, but because I was really familiar with the play, the main reference was the play, you know?”
For sure. As we wrap up, how would you say this experience has changed your own reality?
“It's a hard question because it's not absolutely behind me. I'm still with it. But I was really, really impressed by the humility [of Hopkins and Coleman]. Humility, in a way, is the signature of the greatest. For an actor to be humble means to sell something else than yourself, and they were really generous to me because they really allowed me to do exactly the film I wanted to make. And it was such a gift that they gave me because they really follow me. I'm really grateful.”
The Father is now playing in theaters and will be available Friday on Premium Video-On-Demand.