Award-winning French novelist, playwright and director Florian Zeller makes his feature film directing debut with The Father, which he adapted for film from his celebrated stage play with British writer Christopher Hampton, his long-time collaborator and translator.
It is an inescapable fact of life that for every relationship between a parent and a child, there is a moment in time where the child becomes a carer, and the parent a dependent.
This is at the core of The Father, a beautifully wrought family drama that brings together Academy Award winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman in a heart-rending account of what happens when a relationship which has coloured our every waking moment for decades suddenly and irrevocably changes.
In The Father, Hopkins plays the eponymous role of a mischievous and highly independent man who, as he ages, refuses all assistance from his daughter Anne (Colman). Yet,such help has become essential following Anne’s decision to move to Paris with her partner.As Anne’s father tries to make sense of his changing circumstances, he begins to doubt his loved ones, his own mind and even the fabric of his reality.
Florian Zeller is an award-winning French novelist, playwright and director. He is, according to the Times of London, “the most exciting playwright of our time”. He has written more than 10 plays, including The Father, The Mother, The Truth, The Lie, The Height of the Storm and most recently The Son, which premiered in London in 2019. His plays have been staged in more than 45 countries. The Father, is one of the outstanding hits of recent years and was described as “the most acclaimed new play of the last decade” by the Guardian, and has won several awards in Paris, London and New York. The Father is Zeller’s first film as a director.
Florian Zeller, who has moved into cinema from the world of theatre, is accustomed to building a relationship with the audience which he describes in French as “ludique” – best understood as “playful”. Far from film’s common role as a naturalistic medium, audiences will discover that what we see on the screen does not necessarily give us a true version of the world.
In The Father we experience the world through the prism of the character Anthony’s confusion, as his dementia set in motion a gradual decline effecting every part of his reality.
But this is not just a film about dementia, and he is more than an unreliable narrator. He is at the centre of a struggle which gives The Father elements of both thriller and horror – with Anthony’s mind as the unremitting nemesis.
In the words of the director, the audience should feel as if they are “groping their way through a labyrinth.”
Despite such apparently dark subject matter, The Father is built on a foundation of human empathy, with moments of laughter and even a sense of joy. It celebrates the unbreakable bond between parent and child as they are locked together on a journey into the unknown.
The close relationship between frequent writer-translator collaborators Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton
Over the course of the shoot Parfitt remembers a very companionable atmosphere –particularly the close relationship between frequent writer-translator collaborators Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton.
The project would not have been possible without Christopher Hampton’s instinct that Zeller, relatively unknown outside of his native France, was an international talent. Zeller frequently and publicly pays tribute to Hampton’s work, and for introducing him and his writing to an English-speaking audience.
“My resume would tell people that The Father is not the first time I have worked with Florian,” says Hampton with a smile. “I started my career in the theatre by working with dead people such as Laclos, the author of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. I’d seen Florian’s play La Verite (The Truth) and I could tell that he was one to watch. Then I heard good reports of Le Pere (The Father) and when I saw the play, it knocked me out. I met Florian and asked him for permission to translate it, as I thought it was the ideal play with which to introduce Florian to British audiences. Florian has always trusted what I do to his plays.”
The pair are faced with a dilemma every time they bring out a new production: should it be set in London or in Paris? In choosing the location of The Father there was no context to guide them.
Hampton remarks: “With The Son, we really believed that it had to have a French setting because of the differences that exist between the French and British systems for treating depression and The Son had to reflect that difference.”
While they set the play of The Father in Paris, and chose London for the film, they never feared this would make it harder to access for audiences.
As Hampton says: “Florian’s work finds an audience all over the world.”
These are human emotions, human connections, and human empathy – the setting is in most ways irrelevant.
In making his debut as film director with his own adaptation of his hit play, Zeller has taken to this new discipline with a calm manner and charming attitude. Zeller wishes to play with a cinema audience in the way he enjoys manipulating a theatre audience.
Describing The Father, he comments that “In a way it’s like a thriller. It asks the audience to be part of the story by building a narrative, as I had done in the theatre. I wanted the audience to feel closer to the characters. With Tony (Anthony Hopkins) as Anthony, we had an actor who has always had a powerful presence on screen. But it was fascinating for me to watch him working with Olivia (Colman) who in my opinion is the greatest actress working at this time.
The story is about that moment when you become your parents’ parent, and Anne, played by Olivia is at the heart of the narrative. She has to decide if she is going to lead her life or lead her father’s life.”
He continues: “for me writing is a lot like dreaming and it was only when I saw the plays in production that I realised what I’d written. Theatre and the movies remind you that you are part of something bigger than yourself. Despite its labyrinthine qualities, there is also a distinct sense of joy about the play which I wanted to keep.”
Hampton is also careful to emphasise that The Father is not a medical treatise.
“It is not about a medical condition and the people who suffer from it,” he explains. “The Father tries to find an artistic way of presenting the way dementia affects the people around the patient – those who suffer the fall-out. I’d also argue that the screenplay is surprisingly funny.”
Parfitt agrees, describing the film as “in parts, almost a black comedy”.
Bringing Zeller’s vision from the stage to the silver screen
Producers David Parfitt, Phillippe Carcassonne, and Jean-Louis Livi. Phillippe and Jean-Louis were responsible for the acquisition of the film rights and the project’s initial development in France, and Parfitt joined the team to help ferry it across the channel and into production.
Livi previously produced a short, directed by Zeller, and once word got out about Zeller’s feature screenplay for The Father, the two were keen to work together again.
The Father was to be Zeller’s first feature film as a director, but the producers and other insiders were confident that Zeller’s talent and personal connection to the project made him the only choice.
Parfitt, who formed both the Renaissance Theatre Company and then Renaissance Films with Kenneth Branagh, was solely responsible for bringing The Father from stage to screen. However, he protests that he played a more minor role in the early stages of development.
Parfitt maintains, “A lot of my work starts in the theatre and I still produce in the theatre. I saw the play in the West End, and every scene surprised and engaged me. The narrative is meant to confuse, but what was so striking were the elements in the play of a thriller. The gradual realisation was masterful, but like Anthony – you’re not meant to find your way out of the maze. I knew the film rights to The Father were unavailable, so I didn’t pursue it, but you could see immediately how this play could be made into a film.”
According to Parfitt, the success of this transition is chiefly down to Zeller’s clarity of vision, and Carcassonne agrees.
“Florian has the extraordinary ability to adapt himself to whichever set of circumstances he finds himself in”, says Carcassonne. “He demonstrated a resilience which we all know is essential to film development and was instrumental in attracting the best of British acting talent in The Father. It is on the strength of his passion and the quality of his screenplay that we were able to attract the people we wanted to support the leads. We ended up with big names in relatively small roles.”
Once the trio had secured the cast and crew, production ran smoothly for the five-week shoot.
“Filmmaking is a pretty standard experience in whichever part of the world you find yourself,” Carcassonne continues. “But life on The Father set was a very comfortable experience. We weren’t too worried about Florian’s lack of directing experience, because experience can be as much a curse as a blessing in a director. But it was a pretty smooth ride. I think that what matters is the nature of the characters you see: ordinary people who are trying to deal with basic issues. I haven’t had direct experience of decline and confusion in old age, but my mother is ninety now and although she’s very spry, it may soon happen that I’ll be faced with overcoming that last trial. Besides, I don’t feel that the subject of the film is really dementia. It’s more to do with making amends and the changing relationship we have with our parents.”
Casting The Father
“When I started working on the adaptation of my play, the face that came and came again to my mind was always Anthony Hopkins” says Zeller.
“I had the profound conviction he would be so powerful and devastating in this part. He was at the beginning of my desire to make this film. This is the only reason for my decision to do it in English: it was a way to come to him. In that sense, he was part of my dream. That’s why the main character’s name is Anthony.”
Christopher Hampton’s relationship with Anthony Hopkins stretched back for more than forty years to the early 1970s and a dramatization of The Good Father.
Zeller and Hampton flew to LA to discuss Hopkins playing the role of Anthony: “we approached him and he agreed to do it almost immediately,” says Hampton, “but then we had to wait patiently for his availability!”
Hopkins and Zeller struck an immediate rapport. “I knew Christopher Hampton from having worked with him several times in the past. I knew that it was going to be a relatively small cast and crew. Everything was so compact: it felt almost as if we were working in a cottage industry. I was delighted to hear from Florian that the screenplay of The Father had been written with me in mind. If that is the case, I feel very flattered and honoured.”
“Working on this film,” he continues, “has concentrated my mind on my own mortality. In away, I half-feel that I might avoid contracting dementia by making it! We had a lot of fun on set trying to memorize Florian’s conversational style of dialogue. In some ways, by the time the cameras were on me, no acting was required!”
“I’m eighty-two now and I’ve managed to survive past the age my father was when he died. I think I understood Anthony from the beginning – in a way it was like playing my father.”
When questioned on his own age and possible retirement, Hopkins response is typically strong: “I’d die if I ever gave up the business. I must be an old warrior! A survivor!”
Though international recognition for Olivia Colman’s extraordinary talent has only relatively recently emerged, the actress has been producing diverse and critically acclaimed work in the UK for many years. Her steady, global rise culminated last year in her receiving the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in The Favourite.
She is also forthright with her praise for Zeller’s writing and the film’s cast:
“I completely love this story. It’s one of the most beautifully written scripts about this subject. The script really shows what it must be like to live the life of a man suffering from Alzheimer’s, when there are moments of clarity mixed with moments of obscurity. Anne wants to care for her father, but she also has to live her life. She must make some very hard decisions.”
Discussing what drew her to The Father in particular, Colman says, “For me, it’s always the writing that clinches it. If the script is good enough, that’s the way I’ll go.” She adds, “Some first-time directors can become a bit precious about their work. But Florian has been the opposite: incredibly generous, kind, and understanding. He’s a really lovely man and he’s the only one who properly understands what’s going on in the film. Christopher Hampton who has co-written and translated the screenplay has also been very supportive and it’s been very lovely to come into work when everybody has been so nice.”
One of the ideas expressed in the script of The Father is its universal application – how few of us are likely to escape some kind of direct exposure to the themes of the film. This resonated with Colman.
“My lovely mum was a nurse specialising in geriatric care, and I remember as a child watching her with her patients. My parents are still young enough to take care of themselves, and the roles have not yet been reversed. But I saw my mum looking after granny, and so it won’t be long before I have to step up to the plate.”
Discussing the way in which the set and screenplay cause the audience to question the ‘reality’ they’re watching, Colman continues: “The use of the set has been brilliant. You see that Anthony starts off comfortable and at home in his flat, but gradually he sees that there has been a series of small, incremental changes. It is terrifying to think of your world shifting beneath your feet when you’ve lost the ability to comprehend the change. I’ve read the script again and again, but for all the complexity I think at its heart it very simple. It’s about loss and love, and the way you suffer when the person you love no longer knows you. The script is beautifully written and very moving. ”