When Florian Zeller set out to turn his harrowing hit play The Father into a film, he made a minor, talismanic tweak to the main character. André is an elderly man with dementia, who suspects his daughter of plotting to steal his flat. This meatiest of roles – which demands sudden waves of confusion, charm, rage, terror and sobbing helplessness – has been quite the awards magnet: Kenneth Cranham won an Olivier in 2016 for his performance in the London production, while Frank Langella took home the Tony in New York.
Zeller had a dream actor in mind for the movie version so, as he embarked on the screenplay, he switched the character’s name from André to Anthony. “It was a way to make my unrealistic idea a bit more realistic,” says the 41-year-old, Molière award-winning French playwright, with the sheepishness of a grown man confessing to penning Anthony Hopkins fan fiction.
And Hopkins pounced on the script, expressing misgivings about only one aspect: the character’s name. “He was slightly embarrassed,” says Zeller. “He asked me, ‘Are you sure?’ I told him it matters. It will be like a door we can open any time during shooting for him to connect to his own personal feelings. I wanted there to be no acting required, so he would be overwhelmed by his own emotions, fears and mortality. Sometimes it was very painful for him.”
A good example is the distressing scene in which Anthony, deprived of any sense of who or where he is, cries for his mummy. “I kept asking for another take, another take,” says Zeller, who made his directing debut with the film. “I could see he was in pain when he did it. There’s no mask – there’s nothing in the way. After I said ‘Cut’ he took me in his arms and we knew. The miracle had happened.” It may be the first act of borderline elder abuse to result in a raft of awards nominations.
The film has far more to recommend it, though, than just Hopkins’ most wrenching performance since The Remains of the Day. “I never wanted The Father to be only a story,” says its creator. “It had to be an experience – of what it could mean to lose everything, including your own bearings.” In the opening scene, Anthony is visited in his London flat by his daughter Anne, played by Olivia Colman. When we next see Anne, however, she is played by Olivia Williams. The identity of her partner is no more stable, with the role shared between Mark Gatiss and Rufus Sewell. Rarely is it possible for the viewer to feel pity for the old man, since we are usually as bewildered as he is.
What Zeller has made, he explains, is a puzzle with several pieces missing. “It emerged on the last day of shooting that my English and French producers had differing versions of what is and isn’t real, and they were worried about that. I said, ‘That is the point. You must doubt your own understanding.’”
The Father is about what it means to lose everything, including your own bearings
The confusion even extends to the layout of the flat to which the action is confined. In the stage version, items of furniture were spirited away during the blackouts between scenes until nothing was left at the end of the play but a bed in a blank white room. A cinematic equivalent has been found in the form of a labyrinthine set that changes in almost imperceptible ways. Wasn’t that wall a different colour half an hour ago? Isn’t the broom cupboard now where the front door used to be?
It’s a long way from the previous screen adaptation of the play: a 2015 comedy-drama called Florida that was not released in the UK. A glance at the trailer, with its sunny colours, frolicking tone and twinkly-eyed old rascal (played by the late Jean Rochefort) suggests it is as different from Zeller’s film as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is from The Shining. “I do not want to be rude about it,” he says diplomatically. “I was not involved. I think they kept one line from the play. But what helped when I came to make The Father was that it showed me exactly what I didn’t want to do.”
He also had no intention of using the film to preach about society’s treatment of elderly people. “Cinema is a place for questions, not answers,” says Zeller. “Anthony’s daughter is in a painful situation. She’s trying her best but she understands that love isn’t enough. It must be so hard becoming the parent of your own parent, or to leave them in an institution. The film is not about telling people what they should do. There is a consolation, a very real and beautiful one, in remembering that we are all in the same boat. Art reminds us we are not just individuals. We are part of something larger.”
You could say the same about each of Zeller’s plays. They share a common style, one heavily indebted to Harold Pinter, and characterised by circuitous conversation that flips from banal to sinister. But they also form a kind of multiverse, with the same names cropping up repeatedly, and subtle variations on similar scenarios. The Height of the Storm, staged in London in 2018 with Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins, features a confused elderly man named André and his daughter Anne; it also incorporates other parallel realities, such as one in which it is André who has died, survived by his wife. Some works are grouped together: The Father is part of a trilogy, sandwiched between The Mother and The Son, while The Truth shares its characters and theme (marital infidelity) with The Lie.
“It is a game, in a way,” says Zeller. “I want to create echoes between the plays. It is true, as with The Father, that if you were to piece all these realities together they do not quite fit. And that is deliberate. They are resisting any attempt to say, ‘OK, I understand, this is easy.’ I wanted it to be simple – but never easy.” The occasional doubter has suggested that this elliptical, enigmatic mood lets Zeller off the hook. Reviewing The Mother in the Spectator in 2016, Lloyd Evans said the writing has “the biddable imprecision of conceptual art. And because it means nothing, every opinion about it is correct.”
Like a character from his own plays, there exists another iteration of Zeller, too, and one which he is in no hurry to revisit during our conversation: the wunderkind novelist who, at the age of 25, won the prestigious Prix Interallié for his third book, The Fascination of Evil. I ask how he was affected by all that approbation, but he sidesteps the question and turns the topic back to The Father. Is he not going to tell me about his youthful success, then? “I was not completely at ease with it,” he admits eventually. “I knew my novels were not what they should have been. They were a beginner’s steps. The real beginning for me was my plays. That is what I am proud of.”
He insists it is too early to say how the pandemic will affect his writing, if at all, though lockdown did inhibit him in ways he hadn’t foreseen. “To be creative is about projecting something into the future – and the future was so uncertain I found myself unable to dream.” He got there eventually, completing a new play as well as a film adaptation of The Son, which unpicks the tensions between a depressed teenager and his well-meaning father. It is piercingly close to home for Zeller, who is married to the actor Marine Delterme, with whom he has a 23-year-old stepson and 12-year-old son.
“As a father, I went through a very difficult moment,” he says, referring to his relationship with the older boy. What did the stepson make of The Son? “He is very clever so he knew it was a piece of art. And I wouldn’t have done it without his consent. The play does not show the precise situation we went through, and there is nothing about him or me as characters in it. Instead, it is about what we discovered together about love, family ties, guilt. The feeling when you love someone and feel impotent. That is the connection with The Father.”
With his boyish face, blue denim jacket and scruffy blond hair, Zeller hardly looks like classic father material himself. Another piece of the puzzle that’s just a little bit off.
• The Father is released in the UK on 11 June.