The Dominion Post
Unforgettable depiction of dementia
Florian Zeller tells Dominic Maxwell why Anthony Hopkins was key to The Father, his film about dementia.
IT’S hard to forget the excited hush there was in the room. It was October 2014, and little more than 100 of us were crammed into the Ustinov Studio theatre in Bath for the opening night of a play, The Father ,bya French playwright called Florian Zeller. None of us knew what to expect. None of us, as it turned out, had seen anything quite like it.
Yes, on the surface, it was theatre as we knew it: a Parisian flat, an old man losing track of reality, a concerned daughter, an irked son-in-law. A sort of bourgeois-chic King Lear. The treatment, however, was elegantly surprising. If the 80-year-old man of the title didn’t understand what was going on in his life, nor did we. Different actors were suddenly and inexplicably playing the daughter, the son-in-law. Objects and bits of furniture were slowly emptying from the set. It was so rivetingly unpredictable, so playful and yet so sad, that now and then you had to remind yourself to keep breathing. Slowly, we realised that we were seeing the world through the main character’s eyes. We were being made to experience what dementia might feel like.
It was one of the great theatrical experiences of the decade: tours, a West End run, a Broadway production and productions in dozens of other countries followed. People would come up to the actors after performances to tell them how much it had moved them, how it had tallied with their experiences. So how did Zeller, who was seeing it in English for the first time that night – the playwright Christopher Hampton had handled the translation of a play that had first opened two years earlier in Paris as Le Pere – make it into a great cinematic experience? One that has earned six Oscar and six Bafta nominations, including for best film; for its leading man, Anthony Hopkins; for Olivia Colman as the daughter; and, thanks to being made in west London with a British cast and crew, a Bafta nod for best British film?
The usual answer, Zeller says on the phone from his country home outside Paris, would be to move the story away from the flat. Move scenes outdoors: be more ‘‘cinematic’’. People told him to do that. And the last thing he wanted was something that felt like a filmed play. However, for his directorial debut, he decided instead to keep most of the film indoors, in Anthony’s flat. (The character, Andre on stage, is Anthony for the film. At one point he even gives Hopkins’ real birthday, December 31, 1937, as his own.)
And by making this mansion-flat home a kind of labyrinth that we think we know but that keeps subtly changing, Zeller, 41, hoped to bring cinemagoers the same sort of discombobulation he had wrought on theatregoers. ‘‘I wanted The Father to give the experience of what it means to lose everything,’’ he says, ‘‘including your own bearings as a viewer. But then I had to find a way to make it even more immersive and even more subjective. And I thought that using the grammar of cinema made that possible.’’
The exterior is a block of flats in Maida Vale, yet the sumptuous interior was shot in a studio in Hayes. ‘‘In a studio you can easily remove a wall, change the proportions, change the colours. So you start out thinking you know where you are, but we move things
around . . . the apartment becomes Anthony’s brain in a way.’’
And talking of playing with things you think you know, the casting of Hopkins, now 83, was crucial. Zeller considers him the greatest actor in the world. Imagining Hopkins in the role was what inspired him to want to make the film in English. (Le Pere was turned into a 2015 French film called Floride but Zeller says that it bears almost no
relation to the play. ‘‘You would recognise maybe one line of dialogue.’’)
Four years ago he and Hampton wrote a screenplay and sent it to Hopkins’ agent in a spirit of blind optimism. A few weeks later they heard that Hopkins was interested. They flew to Los Angeles, ‘‘so I could convince him he was not crazy to do it with me. I was nervous because the stakes could not have been higher for me.’’ They talked for two hours. At the end Hopkins told Zeller: ‘‘Let’s do the film.’’
Easier said than done: even with Colman and Rufus Sewell and Olivia Williams and Imogen Poots and Mark Gatiss also in his cast, finding funding for the story of an old man with dementia was no doddle. ‘‘Several times I was told it was not going to happen. Independent movies are hard to finance these days, even with this cast. I just knew I must not give up.’’
Hopkins told The New Yorker podcast recently that starring in The Father was ‘‘so easy . . . acting’s not required’’. Sure enough, his performance is great precisely because he makes it all look so unforced, whether he is just sitting about listening to music or lashing out at his daughter or carer, or finally, heartbreakingly, crying for his mummy. He and his director would sometimes remind each other ‘‘no acting required’’ before a take, Zeller says. ‘‘It was important to give the character the same name as him. I didn’t want him to feel protected by the character, by fiction. I wanted him to be connected to his emotions, to his feelings of mortality.’’
And who better to play a man being outfoxed by his fading faculties than a man known for conveying such a sense of power in so many films? ‘‘We know him for all these roles, always so intelligent, always so in control of the situation. And I thought it would be disturbing to see that man lose control. I didn’t come to him for what we know he can do. The challenge was to go to a new and vulnerable place.’’
Now Zeller has awards nominations and rave reviews for a film he fought hard to make entirely his own way. ‘‘It is pure joy,’’ he says. ‘‘The response means a lot to me. It is a challenging year and maybe not the best year when it is your first film.’’
He laughs – the film has been released in the US but delayed twice in the UK and not yet released in France. He hasn’t seen it with an audience since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah at the start of 2020. ‘‘So I can’t wait for the moment when I can share these emotions with an audience again because that is the whole point in a way.’’
The Father is in New Zealand cinemas now.