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CAIRO 2020

Florian Zeller • Director of The Father

"Anthony Hopkins is the greatest actor alive today"


- The author of the most widely performed French plays in the world, Florian Zeller chats to us about his directorial debut The Father, brilliantly acted by Anthony Hopkins

Florian Zeller • Director of The Father

Unveiled at Sundance, walking away with an Audience Award at San Sebastián and opening the 42nd Cairo International Film Festival today, The Father [+see also:
film review
interview: Florian Zeller
film profile
is the first feature film to come courtesy of Florian Zeller, the author of the most widely performed French plays in the world, who has chosen to adapt his own theatrical piece into an English-language film starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman.

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Cineuropa: Why the decision to become a director, and in particular to make an English-language film out of one of your plays, The Father?
Florian Zeller
: The play was devised in French, in France, in 2012 and it toured lots of different countries, mainly thanks to Christopher Hampton who translates my plays in England. So I’d already had the experience of working with actors who spoke a different language to my own, and they’d turned out to be memorable adventures. The audience would come to see us after every performance to talk about and share their own stories. I could tell there was something cathartic about it for them. Often, when we’re going through difficult times or feeling genuinely afraid, we feel as if we’re the only ones experiencing such problems. Art is also there to remind us that we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves, that we’re all connected to humanity in all its pain, that we’re all connected to one another and that we can find real solace in this realisation. That was when I felt a genuine, conscious desire to make a film, with the aim of moving as close as possible to those emotions. When I started daydreaming about this film, the face that kept coming back to me was Anthony Hopkins’, and it was with a view to working with him that I decided to make the film in English. Obviously, I knew it was a dream that was unlikely to come true, because I’m French, because it was my first film and because he’s Sir Anthony Hopkins. But I worked on the script with the intention of sending it to him, and that’s why the character is called Anthony. I sent it to his agent, I waited a few weeks and one day, an unknown number popped up on my phone. It was his agent calling me to say that Anthony Hopkins wanted to meet me.

To what extent did you modify your play while developing the screenplay with Christopher Hampton ?
We kept the main narrative principle which is the play’s distinguishing feature; that is, telling this story from the inside, catapulting the audience into a maze of uncertainties, placing them in the very active position of trying to understand what’s happening, as if they were trialling what it would be like to lose their own bearings. It was a way for me to play with that sense of disorientation and, to me, it offered a rather film-like trajectory: being totally immersed in the mental labyrinth of this character. It came from the play, but what I really didn’t want to do was to film a play, so I looked to work on the decor and on the way in which a human being’s disarray could be conveyed visually, via the apartment in particular, as if it were one of the main characters.

My conviction from the outset was that audiences are intelligent. I didn’t want to offer up something that was too easy for them; I wanted the film to be a bit like a puzzle where the viewer has to move the pieces around, to try different combinations in order to really understand what’s going on: who is this character who’s just popped up and is pretending to be something he isn’t? And that scene which I thought came before - should it not come afterwards instead? The viewer plays an active part in the development of the story, because I think we derive a special kind of pleasure - or I do, in any case, as a viewer – from doing something other than simply sitting and watching a story which has already been told. What makes it different is that none of the combinations work and will never work because one particular piece of this puzzle will always be missing. So much so that, at a certain point, our brains have no choice but to let go, to accept that we can’t understand everything, and then suddenly something happens: we come to understand the entire story on another, more emotional level. That is, despite the complex nature of the narrative, we arrive at an almost extreme level of simplicity, one of pure emotion; a place which we all have in common, where love and fear resound.

How did you find the right balance of comedy and suspense in a storyline as tragic as senile dementia?
What I didn’t want was for the audience to say to themselves, three minutes into the film: ok, I get it, it’s all about senile dementia and we’re in the main character’s head. That’s why the film opens on a different tone that’s nigh-on thriller-esque, and Anthony Hopkins is the best possible vehicle for these sensations because he’s the master of anxiety and uncertainty. He throws us off the scent somewhat, steering the film into anxious territory and then gradually moving on to explore lots of different emotions, before edging towards the more intimate, psychological drama experienced by this character who is wrestling with senile dementia. And as I moved along this particular path, I tried to explore the various sides of the illness, sometimes with humour, because when a person loses their bearings, some funny situations arise.

Has this experience given you a taste for a career as a film director?
It’s a wonderful and intense adventure. In my eyes, Anthony Hopkins is the greatest actor alive today. The way in which he offered himself up to this film, his courage, because it’s pretty rare, especially for an 83-year-old actor, to choose to play a character who’s more or less the polar opposite of anything they’ve done until then, without any reservation or safety net and with exceptional generosity. It really left an impression on me. And to also have Olivia Colman on board, who’s one of the purest, most human and most brilliant actresses I know… It really was a magical experience getting to work with them. Clearly, I’ll look back on this time with fondness and amazement and, right now, all I want to do is make another film.

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(Translated from French)

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