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Florian Zeller’s goal with ‘The Father’ was for an active, unsettling, film experience

Anthony Hopkins and writer-director Florian Zeller on the set of "The Father."
(Sean Gleason / Sony Pictures Classics)

Stage adaptations always seem to find their way into the awards season discussion. But for one writer-director it was not a common experience. For Florian Zeller, the celebrated French playwright, screenwriter and director of the dementia drama “The Father,” differentiating his narrative for a new medium was of paramount importance.

“The thing that I didn’t want to do is just film a play, because I think it’s not very exciting,” Zeller says. “I wanted to do something as cinematic as possible and to do what only the cinema can do. So, I kept the narrative of the play, which is basically to tell the story from the inside and to put the audience in a unique position as if they were experiencing a slice of dementia, as if they were going through a labyrinth trying to figure it out. I wanted the audience to be in an active position — not just to watch a story already told, but to try to be part of the narrative and to play with that feeling of disorientation.”

Zeller was a teenager when his grandmother began to suffer symptoms of dementia. That experience informed his 2012 French-language play “Le Père.” The film version, which opens this week, is set in London and centers on Anthony, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, an elderly man whose reality is slightly askew and lapses in his memory are finding him increasingly frustrated. Is his daughter Anne the woman played by Olivia Colman, or the other woman, played by Olivia Williams? Is Anne about to move to Paris, or has she moved already? And why can’t he find his watch?

Another important character in the film was Anthony’s apartment. When Zeller began writing the script, he drew a layout of the flat, which slowly begins to shift, to properly convey the feeling of disorientation he wanted the viewer to experience. The production also shot on a soundstage so that Zeller could do whatever he wanted with the space and set.

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“At the beginning of the story, we are in Anthony’s apartment; there is no doubt about it,” Zeller says. “We recognize his furniture, his knickknacks, and step by step there are some slight changes and metamorphosis to the set. You have this strange feeling that you know where you are and you recognize the space. But at the same time, it is as if it’s a completely new space so that you’re never quite sure of where you are and where you’re not anymore.”

Finding a way to balance the changes to Anthony’s world was extremely important to Zeller, because he didn’t want it to all be too obvious. He adds, “I profoundly believe that audiences are intelligent, and I didn’t want to make it too easy for them.”

Despite the fact that actors in more than 45 countries have played the title role to great acclaim (Frank Langella won a Tony Award for the Broadway production in 2016), Zeller says his friends “kindly laughed” at him when he suggested casting the Oscar-winning Hopkins for what was essentially his directorial debut. However, the 41-year-old playwright refused to close the door without at least trying.

“When I started to dream about the film, the one and only face that came to my mind was Anthony’s,” Zeller recalls. “That’s the reason why I made the decision to do the film in English. It was to work with him. I was convinced that he would be so powerful in it, especially because I think he’s the greatest living actor. But also because we know him [as] this man always in control, very intelligent. I thought that it would be very disturbing and challenging to see him losing that control and be in a world where intelligence doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

Despite the fact he’d never directed for the screen previously, Zeller decided to rehearse as little as possible before shooting. He wanted to take advantage of the fact that both Hopkins and Colman are, in his view, very instinctive actors. And that included not shooting the script’s somewhat confusing timeline sequentially, either.

“Every day before every scene, we rehearse the scene without taking into account the rest of the labyrinths,” Zeller says. “The challenge was just to be as truthful, as sincere, as playful sometimes or powerful as possible for that scene. In a way, it was a very easy process in the work with the actors, because, of course, they are so good and so instinctive about how to make it work in a single room. We were like children playing with the material to make it work, to make it feel it’s real.”


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