Saturday, November 27

‘Anthony Hopkins got engaged in five minutes’: how I wrote The Father with Florian Zeller | The father

I I met Florian Zeller about eight years ago. It was in the lobby of the Théâtre Hébertot in Paris that he had just seen his play The Father, directed by Ladislas Chollet, with the amazing 88-year-old French actor Robert Hirsch in the title role. I was quite overwhelmed by what I had seen, but I think I was able to convey to Florian that I loved his work and hoped that he would allow me to translate it.

The father was not the first Florian work he had seen. The previous year, also in Paris, he had seen a very clever and funny comedy called The Truth and had been telling him who cared about that, as long as a really talented director could be found (because the play required sharp precision and considerable ingenuity and timing), he was sure a British audience would accept it. However, what struck me now, having seen The Father, was how remarkable it was that a playwright in his 30s could have written two such radically different plays, with nothing in common beyond his skill. construction.

Christopher Hampton.
Christopher Hampton. Photograph: Dan Wooller / Rex / Shutterstock

It has never been the easiest job in the world to persuade English theaters to present works by unknown foreign writers; fortunately, however, Laurence Boswell was scheduling a series of adventure seasons at the Ustinov studio theater in Bath and had decided, in 2014, to release a season of new European play. So in that year, I translated both works, with a strong recommendation, to both Florian and Laurence, that the work chosen to introduce Florian to the English-speaking world should be The Father. They agree.

We opened at the Ustinov in October 2014, with an exceptional cast led by Kenneth Cranham and Lia Williams in an exquisite James Macdonald production. The reviews, in general, were perhaps the best for any job I have been involved in; But, for a time, the future of the English play seemed to be at stake. Its seemingly grim subject was seen as a potential audience impediment. Fortunately, the Tricycle (now the Furnace) intervened, the beginning of a relationship with the theater that later saw them staging the other two panels of Florian’s triptych (The Mother and The Son). The considerable success of the transfer resulted in two West End races, in 2015 and 2016 respectively, which sealed the play’s success and earned Kenneth Cranham a much-deserved Olivier Award.

Kenneth Cranham and Rebecca Charles in The Father at Wyndham's Theater, London.
‘The future of the English play seemed to be at stake’ … Kenneth Cranham and Rebecca Charles in The Father at Wyndham’s Theater in London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton / The Guardian

Father traveled to the United States, where the central role was played in New York by Frank Langella (who won his fourth Tony for the role) and, on the West Coast, by Alfred Molina. And things could have stayed there, if it weren’t for the fact that, sometime along the way, Florian had conceived a desire to turn the play into a film, which he too wanted to direct.

This was easier said than done. Apart from everything else, there had already been, in 2015, a French film (with Jean Rochefort) called Floride, based on the play. Under normal circumstances, that would have been the end of the discussion. But surprisingly, the film’s producers, Jean-Louis Livi and Philippe Carcassonne (coincidentally, Philippe had been one of the producers and main promoters of Carrington, my own directorial debut film) were very open to the idea. It’s hard (well, okay, impossible) to imagine a similar scenario playing out in the UK (or the US): A remake, with a rookie director, of a not remarkably successful film released just three years earlier, but Philippe and Jean-Louis seemed completely optimistic about the risks involved. And Florian invited me to collaborate with him on the script.

We begin by establishing some general principles. We were both determined, more than anything else, that the film be cinematic and not give off anything theatrical. How to accomplish this when turning a work into a film (one of the most difficult transitions) is generally seen as a matter of “opening” the work in a multiplicity of locations to make it appear more inherently visual. But, in this case, the story, that of a man struggling to retain reality as he helplessly slides into dementia, did not encourage this approach. It was more, we reasoned, a matter of, so to speak, opening it up, so that the erratic consciousness, the inability to understand the time and events that our hero is undergoing, becomes increasingly claustrophobic.

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in The Father.
‘More powerfully claustrophobic’ … Olivia Colman with Hopkins in The Father. Photograph: Landmark Media / Alamy Stock Photo

Once the broad approach was agreed, Florian wrote the first draft in French and I responded with a second draft, translated into English with some additional suggestions and modifications. Florian wrote a third draft, again in French, incorporating some of these and making more changes, and I translated again to arrive at a fourth draft. Finally, we met for a few days in Paris and negotiated our way through a fifth and final draft. My initial instincts had been to harness the medium in a slightly more elaborate way, creating perhaps more striking hallucinatory effects, but Florian’s work combines extremely original ideas with a rigorous simplicity of execution. It’s a very rare type of cocktail, the effectiveness of which I came to appreciate more and more as we worked on the script.

The final stage was finding some actors for the film. Florian’s unwavering determination to cast Anthony Hopkins had already led us to set the film in London and change the main character’s name from André to Anthony.

That was the easy part. In the mists of time, I had already made two films with Anthony: my first script that was shot (based on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House) in 1973 and a Mike Newell film in the mid-80s called, curiously, The Good Father. . , which still seems to me to have defined that era quite precisely. So there was good will, but it all depended on Anthony’s reaction to the script. This, thankfully, was overwhelmingly positive, and before long, Florian and I were heading to Los Angeles to meet him. Five minutes after sitting down to breakfast, she had enthusiastically committed to the role. The next morning, Florian and I went to the CAA agency, where the agents of almost every major actress you could think of came, one by one, to have an audience with Florian and offer their client as a co-star. It was Florian’s first visit to Los Angeles. Afterward, I felt compelled to warn him that not all of his future trips to Hollywood would necessarily unfold in this way. Upon our return to Europe, after some thought, Florian offered the role to Olivia Colman.

And that, he might have thought, was that. But what I hadn’t anticipated was that the climate had so definitely changed that, even with this spectacular cast, even with the play’s worldwide success, and even on an excessively modest budget (roughly what I had been given by Carrington in 1994). – the film would be almost impossible to finance. Just like when we were trying to bring the play to London, people were shaking their heads judiciously and wondering if this was the kind of subject that audiences would want to see.

Anthony Hopkins and Florian Zeller on the set of The Father.
‘Anthony’s reaction to the script was overwhelmingly positive’ … Hopkins and Zeller on the set of The Father. Photograph: Sean Gleason / Sony Pictures Classics via AP

Unlike Florian, whose beloved grandmother died of Alzheimer’s when he was a teenager, I have been fortunate not to have had a direct family experience with dementia. My two most inspiring teachers, however, men who dedicated their lives to weighing and discriminating the subtleties of language and literature, both, by savage irony, fell victim to this brutal condition. Most of us have been or will be affected in one way or another, and people’s reluctance to reopen these kinds of wounds is, of course, understandable. But both Florian and I have had a lot of responses from those who said they had to strain to see the film, but then found that the precision with which the condition is portrayed and the rounded humanity of the performances had, in the end, been a real comfort to them.

Ultimately, however, The Father stands or falls like a movie, not a treatise. I cannot speak completely objectively, it goes without saying, but I am proud to be associated with a work that cuts its own original groove without external pressures, absolutely reflecting the intentions of its creators, and miraculously filmed in 25 days, at the beginning of the prelapsary summer of 2019.

The Father is now available on digital platforms, Blu-Ray and DVD.

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