Frenchman Florian Zeller recounts the genesis of “The Father”, his film nominated four times for the Golden Globes

9:00 p.m., February 27, 2021

We know him as a multi-award-winning novelist and playwright. At 41, Florian Zeller is now also a director. He adapted one of his successful plays, The fathermounted in around fifty countries since 2012. Preceded by an impressive buzz, The Father (scheduled for April 7 in France) has already won 25 awards at various international festivals. Sunday evening, he is in the running for the Golden Globes, the antechamber of the Oscars, in four categories: best film, best actor for Anthony Hopkins, best supporting actress for Olivia Colman and best screenplay for Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton.

In 2012, The Artist, by Michel Hazanavicius, won six nominations and three trophies. An example to follow for Florian Zeller, who has campaigned “several hours a day” in recent weeks during Zoom interviews from his home in Normandy. It is through the same channel that he answers us.

Where will you be Sunday night for the Golden Globes?
Here at home! The ceremony is virtual but live, from 3 a.m. in France and until the early morning. There was talk of having cameras in my living room, and then the organizers went with something simpler, like an enhanced Zoom meeting. Despite the situation, we will share an intense evening with people all over the world gathered to celebrate cinema. I haven’t planned a party. I am quite cautious about the Covid and I want to stay focused. I’d be hard pressed to find friends willing to wait until dawn anyway…

When I started dreaming about this film, I had this obsession of wanting to do it with Anthony Hopkins, the greatest living actor in my opinion.

The Father has four nominations, unheard of for a French film since The Artist. Can you imagine the same career, Oscars included?
There’s nothing worse than rejoicing over things that didn’t happen. It’s such a singular year, all prediction exercises are troubled. This is my first film, its theatrical release is constantly being pushed back. So, emotionally, it’s a funny situation. These nominations surprise me and delight me at the same time because I share them with Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman.

How do you manage to make a film with such sacred monsters when you are a French playwright, certainly recognized internationally?
I followed my intuition and my desire to the end. When I started dreaming about this film, I had this obsession of wanting to do it with Anthony Hopkins, the greatest living actor in my opinion. I had the conviction that it would be extraordinary. And that seeing this man lose his bearings would inevitably affect the public because we all have a familiarity with him. When I talked about it to friends, they smiled kindly and I took the measure that it was more a wish than a project… I named my character Anthony, to make this idea real, which could seem unrealistic. I sent the script anyway. His agent called me. Anthony wanted to meet me to find out who was the one who wanted to bring him back to Europe, him, the Briton who has lived in the United States for decades. I caught a plane to have breakfast with him in Los Angeles. He didn’t know the room, but our discussion gave him the confidence to commit.

Anthony Hopkins put himself in danger with extraordinary generosity

And Olivia Colman?
I have always loved him passionately. I remember taking the Eurostar just to see her at the theater in Mosquitoes, by Lucy Kirkwood, in London. I thought of her long before her Oscar [en 2019 pour La Favorite, de Yorgos Lanthimos]. She was easily accessible and nothing in her behavior has changed since her success. Very quickly, she was enthusiastic about the project and the idea of ​​working with Anthony Hopkins, the absolute reference of the great actor for the English.

It is overwhelming as ever. Confronting your own finitude must not have been easy…
I wanted him to be just him, to play as little as possible and to summon his most personal emotions, which must have vibrated particularly in him at 83 years old. We had to touch this point of pain and intimacy for the film to take on its full force. He put himself in danger with extraordinary generosity. The final scene, the most perilous, was the subject of conflict between us. He went away for a few minutes, then I saw him travel back years and become the child he probably once was. He remembered a nursery rhyme his mother used to sing to him and it completely destroyed him. He embodied the awful truth that the end of life looks shockingly like the beginning of life.

I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the character, who is losing his bearings. The cinema makes it possible to push this immersive experience

You grew up with your mother who practiced fortune-telling. How did that influence your relationship to reality?
She read tarot and was always interested in invisible, elusive things. It marked me in a beautiful way, this taste for the spiritual and the esoteric. These multiple dimensions of reality have influenced the writing of my plays. For The father, I thought more about my grandmother whom I was close to and who suffered the degenerative process of Alzheimer’s, it upset me. But the project was not to write my story. I prefer a universal narrative that relays the fears that we all share.

Directing a film, it was an old desire or did you especially want to continue the adventure of Dad on the big screen?
I had a desire for cinema for a long time which crystallized around this project. I started writing the screenplay in 2015-2016. When you adapt a play, you are tempted to imagine new outdoor scenes, to be more cinematic. I made the opposite decision to stay in the apartment. So that it becomes a mental space. I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the character, who is losing his bearings. The cinema makes it possible to push this immersive experience.

I consider that the public is intelligent, it should not be made too easy for them

We feel that you have digested the codes of fantastic cinema well. Is it a genre that excites you?
The film begins practically as a thriller. I wanted to use what Anthony Hopkins conveys through his past roles: control, danger, anxiety. I injected elements of horror cinema to show that something was wrong, and I messed up the timeline. I consider that the public is intelligent, we must not make it too easy for them. Mulholland Drive [2001], by David Lynch, marked me deeply because his narration is deliberately unfinished and the public must find meaning in what he sees. I wanted to make The Father a puzzle where the spectator plays with all the pieces to try to find a combination.

Who are your reference filmmakers?
There are many. Many films have been decisive. The first is Rain Man [1988], by Barry Levinson, with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. I was 8 years old, and he had a major impact in my life because I had someone with such a pronounced difference in my family circle. No one explained it to me, so there was anxiety, even fear. Suddenly a movie wore a different light and I felt like I understood what was going on. Recently I was upset by Manchester by the Sea [2016]by Kenneth Lonergan, also a playwright.

Did you seek technical advice before shooting?
Not really. It’s more a question of energy than of technical knowledge. My point of support is the love of actors, which has always guided me in the theatre. To love them is to know how to look at them, listen to them and take them somewhere. When you are precise in what you are looking for, you find the words to make yourself understood, even in English. And then this project was so difficult to mount that when I finally had the chance to do it, I was ready!

Why was this film so complicated to edit?
When you shoot in English, you exclude yourself from the French production aid system. So we went to the market, as they say, which is not necessarily benevolent with independent cinema when it comes to a first film on a subject that may seem perilous. This long road allowed me to remember that we are lucky in France, where we help the cinema and the creators enormously.

In France, we sometimes forget that artists are well and better supported than elsewhere

Do you still believe in an April 7 release?
I can’t do anything but hope… The Father was only released in Spain, the only country that did not close its theaters. Everywhere else is off. We are one of the few international films that have not chosen to go on streaming platforms. It’s a bias. We believe in the hope that the rooms will reopen soon.

Do you share the anger of the cultural community, which considers the closure of its places unfair?
It is very difficult to agree to participate in an effort when the principle of closure is unfairly applied. I share this dismay and this anger. The need for culture is vital. But you have to look at what is happening elsewhere in the world where theaters have also closed. We can say that it is a political decision, but it is also common sense. I also see that some of my English friends have had to work in supermarkets even though they are confirmed actors. It takes nothing away from the ordeal that we undergo in France, but we sometimes forget that the artists are well and better supported there than elsewhere.

The Father made me want to direct again, and it’s true that I’m working on adapting the Son

According to our information, you will adapt The son, your last piece. And you would have contacted Leonardo DiCaprio and Ryan Gosling!
[Il sourit.] Who told you that? The Father made me want to direct again, and it’s true that I’m working on adapting the Son. Yes, I hope it will be my next film. If there’s a story I want to tell, it’s this one. [comment un père remarié tente de redonner le goût de vivre à son adolescent dépressif]. But I’m only on the project. It will also be in English. I already know who will be the main actor, but I can’t announce it. In any case, it will not be one of those that you quote me!

And the movie version of The mother? If you convinced Anthony Hopkins, you could have Meryl Streep…
I love Meryl Streep, but if anyone were to play The Mother in the cinema, it could be no one other than Isabelle Huppert. Stage this play in English with her in New York [en 2019] was one of the most beautiful theater adventures of my life. I love it. She is fascinating, impressive, exceptional.

Could you make a film not taken from your plays?
Sure. What matters is having a burning desire to tell a story, even if it doesn’t come from within.

The place where I feel like I’m most alike is in theater writing, and now in cinema. Precisely because their collective dimension speaks to me more

Is your next piece ready?
Theater has been my life for years and I intend to continue doing it, but this film took up a lot of my time and energy. I have no project in a drawer, nor in my head.

Will you return to the novel, or does it correspond to a more individualistic past?
My first books were a way to start living, to discover myself. The place where I feel like I’m most alike is in theater writing, and now in cinema. Precisely because their collective dimension speaks to me more.

By the way, why does your 12-year-old son Roman appear in a scene from The Father?
Anthony looks out the window and sees a child playing with a plastic bag. We don’t know if it’s real or if it’s a memory. Somewhat selfishly, I liked that this child was mine. In a movie called The Fatherit seemed to make sense to me to be a father too, at one point…

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Frenchman Florian Zeller recounts the genesis of “The Father”, his film nominated four times for the Golden Globes