With ‘The Father,’ Florian Zeller Pivots From Stage to Screen

With ‘The Father,’ Florian Zeller Pivots From Stage to Screen

When you adapt a play for the screen, you’re immediately tempted to write new outdoor scenes, so it feels more cinematic. I didn’t want to do that: We stuck to one location, the apartment, which acts as a mental space. The main character has lost his bearings due to old age, and I wanted the audience to start doubting reality, too — to understand what it feels like when the world around you ceases to be trustworthy.

What did cinema allow that wasn’t necessarily possible onstage?

I found we could go much further in conveying disorientation and making it immersive. One of my greatest film memories is David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” and similarly, I wanted the viewer to be in charge of making sense of what happens. We worked hard with the set designer, Peter Francis, to create a kind of maze. That’s why there are so many doors, hallways and symmetrical effects.

The film was shot in a studio in London, so we could completely transform the apartment: Slowly, the furniture becomes different, the proportions, sometimes even the colors. Only cinema can make it this unsettling, like a puzzle where a piece is constantly missing.

How did Anthony Hopkins react to getting a script in which the lead character is named after him?

I wrote the script with him in mind, stubbornly, even though I knew it was a somewhat unrealistic dream. I sent it to his agent, and one day, I got a phone call. Anthony wanted to meet me, so I got on a plane to have breakfast with him in Los Angeles.

He immediately understood why the character was named Anthony, but he asked me whether it really made sense to keep the name and his real date of birth in the film. I told him it was important to me, in order to blur the lines between reality and fiction, and so it could act as a door to his own self, which he could open at any point.

It shaped the entire process: I didn’t want us to craft a character and fall back on clichés. What mattered was for him to connect with his own mortality, which was courageous on his part. It involved confronting the part of his mind that might be scared, at 83, of what’s to come, and tapping into this sense of fear.

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