The Doors of Our Mind: Director Florian Zeller on Memory, Mystery and The Father
The following interview was originally published in Filmmaker‘s Winter, 2021 print edition.
Among the techniques used to remember is one dating back to the Ancient Greeks: the Memory Palace. Facts, people, life events are “placed” within the rooms of a building, preferably a real one the remembering person is very familiar with. To summon the memories, the person mentally strolls from room to room, allowing the individual locations within the building to trigger the images placed inside.
The Memory Palace’s ability to associate memories with place is given a devastating twist in French director Florian Zeller’s debut picture, The Father, currently in release from Sony Classics. Adapting his own play in collaboration with screenwriter Christopher Hampton, Zeller has made a location—the warm, comforting London apartment of the avuncular yet intimidating Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), an 80-year-old man in some stage of dementia—the site of memory’s deterioration. Early in the film, Anthony learns from his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) that she intends to move to Paris, where she’ll live with her new boyfriend. Anthony has already alienated his previous caretaker, and Anne doubts his ability to live on his own—a fear we, the audience, understand when we see Anne again, now played by another actress (Olivia Williams). Further slippages ensue as characters walk in and out of the elegant apartment. A new caretaker may actually be an estranged daughter; a boyfriend blurs with an ex-husband. And far from being a locus of memory, the apartment itself may not be a single place, as it subtly morphs throughout the film’s mysterious timeline in ways suggesting that it’s any number of spots that Anthony’s unreliable mind is triggered to skip back to.
There have been good movies, such as Still Alice, that capture the confusion, panic and ultimate tragedy of dementia. And there have been films, such as Memento, that make a protagonist’s memory impairment into a sort of cinematic puzzle. The genius and heartbreak of the ferociously assured, wonderfully acted The Father is its ability to do both of these things from, as Zeller says below, “the inside.” Anthony is not a medical specimen we observe but a person whose fears we are elegantly seduced into recognizing as our own. By the time of the film’s shattering ending, a question repeated by Anthony at different points in the film—“What will become of me?”—becomes the starkest of existential laments.
I spoke with Zeller, also a celebrated playwright whose other works include The Mother, The Truth and The Son, via Zoom from Paris.
Filmmaker: I wanted to start by asking you about time. Any art dealing with memory is also dealing with time. Working in cinema, how did your conception of dramatizing time differ from your work in the theater?
Zeller: Starting from the theater, my desire was not to film a play, you know? I thought a lot about what only the cinema can do, so I kept the narrative of the play, which is basically to try to tell the story “from the inside,” but thought about what could be used, especially with the editing, to make this a bit more than just a story, to make it an experience. I wanted the audience to be like in a labyrinth, trying to figure it out, questioning everything they are witnessing, questioning the narrative as if it were a puzzle. Playing with time, the loops, jumping in time helped with this feeling of disorientation.
Filmmaker: I believe your co-screenwriter, Christopher Hampton, is also your translator—he translated the original play. How did you begin your screenwriting process with him? Did you start with the bones of the play?
Zeller: The process started early on, even before starting to write the script. [Christopher] has translated all my plays into English, so we had that relationship and friendship. We are very close, and he’s a writer I really admire, so it was a very easy, joyful and friendly process. When I made the decision to adapt this play into a film, the decision to do it in English was not obvious because—as you can hear—I am French. It would have been way easier to do it in French, but as soon as I started dreaming about the film—because everything starts with a dream, especially movies—it was clear that it would be in English.
The main reason why was, I wanted to do it with Anthony Hopkins. I was aware it was not an easy dream to fulfill, but it was my instinct, my desire. I had this feeling that he would be extraordinarily powerful in this part. That’s the reason I asked Christopher to help because I was not able to write in English. Also, as I said, I didn’t want to just film a play. To do [the screenplay] with someone else was a way for me to make sure I was going as far as possible from the play and as far as possible from the theatrical process. So, it was not only about [Christopher] translating the script into English, it was also about having a dialogue together to make sure that [we were making the] right choices to go to the cinema.
Filmmaker: Do you think the film answers different questions than the play?
Zeller: I think it’s very close in terms of what I was trying to explore and the emotions. But I wanted to try to find a visual way to tell that story. For example, when I started writing the script, I drew the layout of the apartment straight away, as if the apartment was one of the characters. I wanted to use the sets as a part of the narrative. That’s the reason I made the decision to shoot the whole film in a studio, so I could do whatever I wanted—to, overnight, remove a wall, to change the colors. As you have probably noticed, throughout the film the set has many changes, many metamorphoses. At the beginning, it’s Anthony’s apartment. You recognize the space, the pieces of furniture. This is his space. And step by step, always in the background, are small slight changes I wanted to be as subtle as possible, so that as a viewer you have the feeling that something has changed, but you cannot tell exactly what has changed. It was a way to, again, play with the feeling of disorientation. A lot of the preparation was about trying to find the delicate visual balance to make it work, as if this apartment could become like a labyrinth. That’s the reason why there are so many doors and so many corridors. I wanted to play with it, to sometime
to use the same [shots] to travel into a space, but then it’s not exactly the same space. Or, sometimes, it’s exactly the same frames [but] not the same characters within them, so that you have the feeling of the repetition, but again, not exactly the same repetition. It’s like hell.
Filmmaker: Was there fundamentally one set and then different walls and different set decoration were flown in? Or did you have more than one set?
Zeller: It was only one set. Also, because we didn’t shoot in chronological order, and had to [change] from one set to another and then come back, it was almost funny because everyone on set was absolutely lost about where in the journey [we were]. Is it the end? Is it the beginning? In a way, it was helpful because it allowed the actors to forget about the journey because, the thing is, when you are too aware that you are telling a story about dementia and it’s so sad, you could be trying to underline the sadness or the disease from the very beginning. The fact that it was like a puzzle that sometimes we were a bit lost within allowed us, and especially the actors, to forget about where we were and just focus on that scene. To be sometimes very playful or sincere and to forget about everything else.
Filmmaker: What was the logic behind the shooting schedule in terms of the order in which you shot the scenes? Often in films, it’s location based. Sometimes, it’s actor-availability based. Sometimes, it’s to shoot chronologically. But you said you would be changing from one set to another and then back again, but that also you didn’t shoot in chronological order.
Zeller: From the very beginning, I knew that the most important day of the shooting was the last scene. If that scene was not as powerful as it [needed to be], the whole thing would mean almost nothing, you know? So, I had the intuition that it could be helpful to not do that last scene the very last day, when everyone is probably more exhausted, and you’re a little bit less focused because [the shoot is] almost done. And maybe I was a bit more nervous about that scene. So, I made the decision to do it in the middle of the shooting. That’s the reason why everything had to be different than in chronological order, and also because we were very short in terms of time—we shot just a bit less than six weeks. We would have to use the weekends to change the sets when overnight would not be enough.
Filmmaker: I believe that both your production designer and DP worked with Anthony before on King Lear. Was that a coincidence or—?
Zeller: It’s almost a coincidence. I knew that but didn’t make the choice to work with them because they’d done this. The reason why I decided to work with Peter Francis, the production designer, is because he’s brilliant, and also, as I told you, I drew the layout of the apartment when I was writing the script. When we first met, he said, “I read the script and drew a layout. Let me show it to you,” and it was exactly the same as mine. I was like, “Oh, we are so connected.” And Ben Smithard, who is the DP, it’s mainly because we talked a lot about movies, and we had the same references.
Filmmaker: What were some of those references?
Zeller: We talked about David Lynch a bit and about Mulholland Drive. In Mulholland Drive, the narrative is complex and also very demanding for the audience. I’m sure that that film has a strong influence on me. It’s like a puzzle, and what I like about it is that you can play with all the combinations, and it will never work. You are trying to understand, trying to deal with all the contradictions in the narrative, and then the moment comes when you understand that your brain is not capable of understanding everything, and you have to let it go, as the main character does. And when you let it go, you can understand the whole story on another level, which is a more emotional level.
In The Father, the narrative is complex, and sometimes the journey is chaotic, but the destination is very, very simple, even though, in the end, you’re not quite sure who is who or whether a scene was before or after [in the timeline]. You can’t understand the whole story with your brain anymore, but with your heart. And I’m pretty sure everyone knows exactly the emotions we are talking about.
I also watched Rosemary’s Baby again because it’s two characters in an apartment, and the apartment is one of the characters. It’s the same with Haneke’s Amour. [Those films] helped me a lot to trust the fact that you can dare being just in an apartment. You know, when you start thinking about an adaptation, the first advice you get is to write new outdoor scenes. It’s a temptation because it’s easier [that way] to make it more “cinematic.” But from the very beginning, I tried not to go there and to stay in this apartment in order for that space to become like a mental space, to stay in this claustrophobic atmosphere. I allowed [the film] some time to look through the window, just to have the feeling that life is going on without you. But I wanted to dare not going outside and to play with the space itself. It was a struggle because, as we said, there are several apartments, each after the others.
Filmmaker: A number of amazing actors, including Frank Langella and Alfred Molina, have performed in the play version of The Father. Is there a difference in interpretation that Anthony brought?
Zeller: Yes, of course. Every time you have another actor, it’s a completely new world that he’s bringing, and this is what is so amazing about theater. But I would say that I was so personally moved by Anthony, so deeply, that I think that the emotions that you may feel when you watch the film is really the emotion that I had behind the camera, and this is really connected to Anthony himself. It’s hard to explain. He was like someone I knew. In a way, I have grown up with Anthony, as have so many people of my generation, and it was as if I was losing someone I have known for years, someone from my family. That’s also the reason why I wanted the character’s name to be Anthony.
I wrote the script with him in mind, so to name that character Anthony was to make him know that it was written for him. But the day before we started shooting, he said, “Are you certain, Florian, that you want to keep Anthony? You don’t want to take another name?” And I really wanted to keep that because, of course, there is this game between what is real and what is not real. For the audience, I thought that it would be disturbing that he’s playing with something very personal and intimate—playing with his own feeling of mortality, in a way. I know that he used something very personal to achieve those emotions.
Filmmaker: Anthony Hopkins is known for the precision of his speech and for the specific cadence he brings to his words. There were lines in that last scene that broke my heart simply because of the tiniest changes in inflection that he gave to them. It was almost as if the rhythm of his dialogue earlier in the film was a buildup to the devastating way he delivered those lines at the end. I’d love to hear about how you discussed with him the precise nuances of his performance.
Zeller: It’s hard to be precise because it’s more instinctive. When I first met him, I was of course a bit intimidated because he’s Anthony Hopkins, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. But after two minutes, it was clear that it would be almost easy to work with him because he’s humble. He’s very clever, he’s very intelligent—we know that—but also very humble. And for an actor to be humble means he is not there to serve himself, he’s involved to serve something larger, bigger than himself, which is the story, the emotions and also the director’s vision. It was clear from the very beginning that he would give me the possibility to do exactly the film that I wanted to make, which is amazingly generous of him. He’s 83 now, but still an artist putting himself at risk. And it was a risk for him because I didn’t ask him to do what he’s known for, which is [being] intelligent and in control. I thought it would be very challenging and disturbing to see this man losing control, to be in a world where intelligence doesn’t mean anything anymore. So, at the beginning of the film, I shot it as if it was almost a thriller because I knew that from what we know of [Anthony] we could feel those feelings of anxiety and danger. I didn’t want the audience to be from the very beginning, “OK, it’s about dementia.” We are in his head, and I wanted the audience to understand the fear of having a stranger in your apartment, you know?
So, I use what we know from Anthony, but the challenge was to explore a new emotional territory. We had a lot of time before we shot to prepare together, but he’s not this kind of actor who needs to talk a lot about the character and background. He’s not a Method actor, he’s a pure instinctive actor. I understood very early on that he was a bit anxious about the conversation. That’s the reason why I made the decision to do no rehearsals before we shot with him. Also, because from my point of view, because I didn’t want to shoot the play, I wanted to be as far as possible from the theatrical process, including the rehearsing. Olivia Colman, she’s so different from [Anthony], but they have in common that they are so instinctive. So, basically, we did just a reading the day before we shot, then took time every day to rehearse the scene we were supposed to shoot that day in the room—just five, six people in the room focused within this intimate atmosphere and intimate sets. In a way, it was an easy process, friendly and joyful and very simple, rehearsing like children in a room, trying to make it as sincere as possible.
In the last scene, there is this line when he’s trying to express what he’s experiencing. He says, “I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves.” What I like about that line is that at the same time you understand exactly what it means, it means nothing, you know? I wanted the whole film to be like that, meaning that there are so many contradictions, so many things that are not working in this person, but at the same time you understand everything, with your heart.