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INTERVIEW: Florian Zeller, Writer/Director of 'The Father' and Co-Writer Christopher Hampton

Andrew Bloomenthal interviews Florian Zeller, writer/director of 'The Father' and co-writer Christopher Hampton, about adapting the award-winning play into a film that explores the nightmare of slipping into confusion.
Olivia Colman as Anne, Anthony Hopkins as Anthony in THE FATHER. Photo by Sean Gleason. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Olivia Colman as Anne, Anthony Hopkins as Anthony in THE FATHER. Photo by Sean Gleason. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

No matter how you slice it, The Father, where Anthony Hopkins plays ‘Anthony,’ a prickly octogenarian skidding uncontrollably toward dementia, is no light lunch. But thankfully, this film, directed by French playwright Florian Zeller, who adapted his same-named stage play with frequent writing collaborator Christopher Hampton, is as mesmerizing as it is unsettling. This is mainly due to the flow of subtle physical changes constantly sweeping through Anthony’s London flat as a show-don’t-tell suggestion of cognitive warp.

Wasn’t there a painting over that mantle a minute ago? Did Anthony place those groceries on the counter, or did somebody else purchase them? Does Anthony even live here, or is he merely a guest of his over-taxed middle-aged daughter Anne (Olivia Colman)? And why is Anne’s husband Paul chilling on the sofa when she sent him packing decades ago? Furthermore, why is Paul sometimes portrayed by Mark Gatiss and other times by Rufus Sewell?

For Anthony, squaring his mercurial new reality is a losing battle, and we’re right there with him--step by hellish step. And by the time the story marches to its inevitable conclusion, you will shed tears.

But you’ll also celebrate how The Father’s stylistic éclat helped it snag six Academy Award nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay nods for Zeller and Hampton, who sat with Script to tell us more.

Editor's note: Conducted separately, these interviews were edited for content and clarity.

SCRIPT: Florian, what were your biggest challenges as a first-time feature film director?

FLORIAN ZELLER: My life in the theatre was all about telling stories and working with actors. So, in a way, shooting the film was a continuation of that. However, I still had to adapt to the process of these actors. For example, I understood quite early on that Anthony and Olivia are both very instinctive. Anthony isn’t method, so he’s not about talking and talking and talking about his character. That’s why it was very meaningful for me to have ‘Anthony’ as his character’s name, to let Anthony Hopkins be very organic, as if no acting was required. Of course, this is not true because he was acting the whole time, but I wanted him to approach the pure simplicity of just being in front of the camera and connecting to his own mortality. And that’s what he did, in a very brave way.

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SCRIPT: In collaborating with Christopher Hampton on the adaptation, how did you resolve creative disputes?

FZ: Basically, we agreed on everything because Christopher had translated all of my plays into English, so we already had this friendship, so, even though we don’t speak the same language, we somehow speak the same language. And the first thing we agreed on was that this film had to be cinematic. We didn’t just want to film the play. But when you start dreaming of adapting a play into a film, the first idea is to write new scenes that take place outdoors, but we knew we didn’t want this. We wanted to stay inside the apartment to make it even more claustrophobic than the stage version, and that’s why I made the decision to shoot the whole film in a studio because as a filmmaker, a studio lets you do whatever you want. We can remove a wall, or change proportions, or change the colors very easily, and I wanted to use these possibilities—to treat the set as if it were a labyrinth and play with the feeling of disorientation. I wanted to put the audience in a unique position of losing everything--including their own bearings.

Florian Zeller

Florian Zeller

As you probably noticed, at the beginning of the film, there’s no doubt that we’re in Anthony’s apartment because you recognize his space and his knick-knacks. Then step-by-step, there are small metamorphoses on set, done as subtle as possible. Sometimes it’s just a piece of furniture that has disappeared. Or sometimes the proportion of a room changes, so you still know where you are, but at the same time, you’re not quite sure.

SCRIPT: Did you govern those aesthetic decisions and tell the production design team, “There’s too much clutter here—remove that vase!”

FZ: It was my job to do that because the production designer couldn’t tell what I was looking for. It was about them giving me all the options so I could make decisions.

SCRIPT: Christopher, were there any elements that you could not retain from the play due to the difference in medium?

CHRISTOPHER HAMPTON: The first thing I said to Florian was, “Look, the play is about 100 minutes. You can have a film that length with half the dialogue.” You need to pare away the dialogue that’s spoken in the theatre because with film, the audience has a close-up view of the actors who can convey information simply with their eyes or through their demeanor. So, we did some fairly detailed work making a longish speech into a much shorter speech. And that opened up possibilities for characters to move around in silence, from one part of the apartment to another, and we could just observe them. One of our strategies was to have Anthony just stop and stare down corridors and contemplate his environment, the way someone with his condition would do.

SCRIPT: One of the most disturbing scenes occurred when Anthony overhears Anne and Paul speaking in a repetitive loop, like a snake eating its tail, to signal Anthony’s non-linear state of mind. Was that scene unchanged from the stage play?

Christopher Hampton

Christopher Hampton

CH: It was in the stage play, but we tweaked it to be more concise in the film. We wanted the sense of the scene playing itself again. Has this happened before, or is this happening for the first time? Is this the morning or the evening? Why am I sitting down to eat dinner in my pajamas? We felt that someone in Anthony’s state would be suffering those agonizing repetitions.

FZ: I wanted to give the audience room to be part of the narrative and find the combinations to make it meaningful. And if there’s a contradiction in the narrative, they have to deal with that contradiction and find their own path to determine the meaning. You know, when I first discovered the David Lynch film Mulholland Drive, it had a strong impact on me because I learned the narrative could be like an incomplete puzzle. It’s a way to play with the subconscious of the viewer and engage the audience in the process.

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SCRIPT: Christopher, were you on set for any of the filming?

CH: Yes, I was there for the first week and a bit, but at the same time, I was rehearsing a stage play in London, starring Maggie Smith, so I alternated. It was like a master class in acting, wherever I turned.

SCRIPT: Was the atmosphere on the set intense, given the dark subject matter?

CH: You know, it’s a very strange thing that I’ve observed all my life, which is that if you’re working on something particularly grim, the atmosphere seems to be a bit of a joy. It’s only with comedies that the people get anguished. There’s something about the release of doing something tragic that liberates everybody, and this film was very enjoyable between setups, with people gossiping away. Mark Gatiss was tremendously fond of Anthony and very interested in hearing about his anecdotes from the past.

Anthony Hopkins as Anthony in THE FATHER. Photo by Sean Gleason. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Anthony Hopkins as Anthony in THE FATHER. Photo by Sean Gleason. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

SCRIPT: Can Anthony Hopkins get through a film shoot without someone asking him about Hannibal Lecter?

CH: I don’t recall anyone asking him about that, although Mark has a particular interest in horror films, so he may well have asked Anthony stuff about The Silence of the Lambs. But mostly, Anthony talked about being in the theatre and working in films with (Laurence) Olivier and Ralph Richardson. It was more to do with the beginning of his career and the memories that came back to him from working in a small studio in London, as opposed to the more cosmopolitan places he’s been in the last couple of decades. And as a matter of fact, because it was on TV last night, I just watched The Elephant Man again. The quality of his attention to other actors and the swiftness of his thought is always baffling. But his performance in The Father is transcendent. I don’t think he’s ever been better.

The Father is now available to watch in theaters nationwide and On Demand.

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