Florian Zeller: Father And Son

Florian Zeller launched himself as a filmmaker in a way few have done better. The celebrated playwright adapted one of his works for the big screen with colossal success. The Father was praised for its depiction of dementia and was one of the most revered films of 2020. Adored by critics and audiences alike, it was bestowed with some almighty honours. The film was a marvellous showcase for the incomparable Anthony Hopkins, whose performance would ultimately net him his second Academy Award for Best Actor. Zeller also received an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay alongside his writing partner, Christopher Hampton.

Considering the level of success he achieved, it’s no surprise that Zeller has adapted another one of his plays. For his sophomore feature, Zeller has returned with The Son, a story that also tackles a complex illness. The film revolves around a teenager tormented by clinical depression, and the attempts made by his family to make him happy again. It is a devastating portrayal of deterioration like his previous film, but it’s a bigger and far angrier piece of work. Zeller has assembled a wonderful ensemble that includes Hugh Jackman, Vanessa Kirby, and Laura Dern. And he never lets their characters off the hook for the collateral damage they’ve caused and the guilt they share.

Before the film’s release, Zeller spoke with FilmInk about how winning an Oscar changes your life, his thoughts on the film’s divisive response, and Hugh Jackman approaching him to secure the lead role.

Florian Zeller on the set of The Son with Hugh Jackman.

How does life change once you’ve won an Oscar?

“Do you want the truth or the lie?”

Give me the truth!

“To be honest, it was virtual. Everything was virtual in that year. It was in 2021, and everything happened from my office on Zoom. But on the other hand, it was very concrete because I found a way to finance The Son thanks to the Oscars. I bet that without the Oscars, it would have been tricky to find the money to make the film because it’s a difficult subject, and I knew that it would not be easy to make happen. It changed my life in that my first film won two Oscars and it allowed me to make this film, which was so dear to me. After the Oscars, I received several offers to do this film or that film, but nothing was really appealing to me because I really wanted to do The Son. I needed to tell that story. Also, I thought it was a story that needed to be told, so I am very grateful because this is what I was able to do, thanks to that.”

Florian Zeller on Oscar night.

Both your films have been adaptations of your stage plays. What do you enjoy about translating your work from stage to screen?

“It’s not an abstract decision. It’s just that I really wanted to make The Father in the first place. But I knew that if I had the opportunity to do another film after that — because nothing is granted — it would be The Son. So it was a strong conviction of mine, and it comes from the stage experience. I wrote the play The Son five years ago, and when we did it in Paris, something very specific happened — it was the powerful response from the audience. People were waiting for us after every performance, not to say congratulations, but to share their own story as if something was starting the minute the play was ending.

As you know, [the play] is about the father trying to help his son going through depression, and all these people were saying, ‘I know what you’re talking about because my son or because my daughter or because my uncle or because my nephew.’ And I almost physically realised there were so many people in this situation as parents when you don’t know what to do anymore to help someone you care for, and at the same time, there is so much guilt and shame. I really wanted to tell that story to open that conversation. That’s really where it comes from.”

Florian Zeller with Anthony Hopkins on the set of The Father.

This film sees you once again working with writer Christopher Hampton. Could you tell me about your relationship and why you think you work so well together?

“We have been working together for several years now because he’s the one who translated all my plays into English. And translating a play is not only translating a play, it’s also sharing opening nights, travels, and anxieties, so we became not only partners but friends. Even though we don’t speak the same language, somehow we speak from the same place, so I feel very, very close to him. I do not write in English, I write in French, so he is very important to me. To write a script in English, I wouldn’t be able to do that. I found liberty in French writing, but I found another liberty in making a film in another language. Not feeling completely comfortable on set with the language forced me to be even more precise about what I was expecting, what I was looking for, and what I was trying to say. I couldn’t rely anymore on my ability to talk in general conversation. It helped me a lot to feel uncomfortable by being even more precise.”

Being Australian, I’d love to talk about Hugh Jackman. I read that he approached you about playing the part of Peter. Did you need much convincing to know he was the right man for the job?

“I was surprised to receive that letter because it’s very uncommon for an actor — especially an actor like him — to take the risk to write to someone you do not know to let him know you want to be involved in a project. He knew the play, he knew that I was working on the adaptation, and he wrote me this letter saying, ‘If you’re already in conversation with someone else, I don’t want to be intrusive, but if you’re not, I would love to have ten minutes to let you know why I should be the one to do it.’ I was really impressed by what that said about who he is as a man. The courage, the honesty, the humility — this is really something that defines him.

We met on Zoom two years ago, and I was not supposed to make any decision. It was just a regular meeting, but after ten minutes, I stopped the conversation, and I offered him the role. He was surprised, and I was surprised as well that it went so quickly. This is what happens when it’s obvious. It was obvious to me because it was not about an actor trying to catch a part, excited about a performance they could do. It was more that he gave me access to the man he is, to his fragility, and how he was connected to that story and these emotions as a father and as a son.

Hugh Jackman in The Son.

I felt that it would be an opportunity for both of us to explore these emotions in a truthful way without pretending, without faking, without performing, but just exploring the deep-down connection that he had with that story and put him in a position in the first place where he contacted me. It was the best decision ever because I was very impressed by him throughout the shooting. He’s really an extraordinary actor, but he’s also an extraordinary human being, and that’s really something special.

Before I started working with him, so many people told me, ‘You’ll see, he’s the nicest guy in the world.’ I was surprised that so many people were saying that. Now that I have worked with him, I can tell you that’s the truth. He’s extraordinarily open with his heart and mind. He’s generous, courageous, honest, and I feel like everything that we did in that story, what he is as a man gave the colours of that performance.”

Zen McGrath and Hugh Jackman in The Son.

For a film called The Son, we should talk about Zen McGrath. How did you find him?

“I composed the family — Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Anthony Hopkins — and I started to look for this new face. I knew that it would be an actor that I didn’t know yet because he’s supposed to be a 17-year-old boy. I received many tapes. It was still COVID time, so it was all virtual on Zoom, but I received many tapes from the UK and the US, and a few from Australia. When I received Zen’s video, it took me two seconds to be completely convinced that he would be the one despite the fact that everything was more complicated because he was coming from Melbourne, and in COVID time, no travel was possible. We met in person only two days before we started shooting.

There was an additional accent challenge, but he was so special, so fragile, and at the same time, so strong. There was also something like an opacity about him as if it was hard to define exactly what was going on in his brain and in his heart. I was really attracted by that because I didn’t want to tell a story about depression and explain why this boy was in pain. It was more to try to see this pain as a mystery or a black hole and to be in a position as the parents are. They want to help, but they don’t know how to do that. They have questions, but they have no answers. They try to open doors, but they don’t have the right keys. I felt that Zen would not do the cliché depression performance but would do something uncatchable and difficult to define, again, like a black hole.”

A scene from The Son.

For such a sobering story, what was the energy like on set?

“It was a tender experience. We were in the middle of COVID, so it created a very intimate world. We made a decision not to rehearse at all in order to discover every emotion altogether in the moment with the camera, and it created a space of trust and creativity. It was really simple and intimate. But it was also only people that were here for good reasons, meaning they knew why they wanted to make this film.

Hugh contacted me, but also with Laura Dern, she’s not only this extraordinary actress, but she’s also a mother, and she has teenagers. She knew why she wanted to tell this story. She was really committed, and really engaged. Initially she was supposed to do another movie, a big studio movie, at the same time. It was a scheduling conflict, and we did everything we could to make it work, but it didn’t. I was convinced that she would let me down, and in the end, she made a decision not to go to that film, which was much more comfortable and bigger. She was engaged earlier, but she made the decision to leave it to do The Son. She felt, as an artist, that this was really something she wanted to do. We were all in this world of trust and desire.”

Florian Zeller with Laura Dern on set.

The Son is about the helplessness of depression. The Father is about the helplessness of dementia. As a writer, what intrigues you about exploring these illnesses? 

“There are many reasons to watch a film. One of them is probably to look at yourself in a mirror and to learn something about yourself. This is what art can provide, and also the feeling that we are sharing all the same fears and the same challenges. We can remember that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Even a hard watch can be cathartic in that regard. But this is not a decision that I made. It’s more that the film was here, and I had to do it without being completely aware of the stakes. You see what I mean? It’s not a rational decision; it’s just the film that I had in me.”

I’ve seen you refer to The Father and The Son as films that are part of a spiritual trilogy. Does that mean we should anticipate a film adaptation of The Mother in the future?

“I don’t know, to be honest. I would like to do that. I’m not sure what my next feature will be. I really don’t know. I’m in that position now where, like parents, you have to let your children go and live their own life — this is where I am at with The Son. I know that I now have to let it go, and when I have done that, I’ll have more space in my brain to question what’s next. But it’s slightly too early for me to answer that question. I do not know.”

Hugh Jackman and Vanessa Kirby in The Son.

When The Son was first performed as a play, it was very well received. The film, however, has drawn a more divisive response. Do you attribute that to anything in particular? 

“When the play was on stage, I experienced some uncomfortable reactions as well. I think it’s more connected to the issue of what it is about. I made the decision of making this film knowing that it would create this kind of reaction. I was not surprised. We are talking a lot about mental health issues as if we are aware that we need to talk about it, but I still feel that we are not comfortable about it. I also wanted to make a film that was completely different from The Father. Every story requires something specific — in The Father, it was about trying to put you in a specific position as if you were in the main character’s brain in order to experience from the inside what it could mean to lose your own bearings.

I could have done something like that with The Son, but this is not what I was trying to explore. It was not the condition of being depressed that I was interested in. It was about this powerlessness of being a parent without knowing what to do anymore. I wanted to tell that story from the outside and never try to explain the pain and to find a form — a very linear form — that would reflect that approach which is to face this pain without shying away. It could be disappointing when you are expecting something in The Son that could mirror the experience of The Father. But this is exactly the film that I wanted to make, and I just wanted to do something honest and not do something gimmicky.”

Florian Zeller

Before I let you go, you should know that I spoke to Zen McGrath… 

“Oh, did you?”

He wanted me to ask you what your spirit animal is!

“[Laughs] Because I’m a very superstitious person — it comes from theatre, I guess — it’s a pigeon, which is very convenient because when I was living in France, you had pigeons everywhere. Every day you’re like, ‘Oh, this is my lucky animal.’ It’s easier to do that more than, you know, dolphins. I never see dolphins!”

The Son is in Australian cinemas from February 9.

Source : https://www.filmink.com.au/florian-zeller-father-and-son/

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