Anthony: “You’re abandoning me. What’s going to become of me?”
Seeing the spellbinding and heartbreaking “The Father” (2020), which just received six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, reminded me of a well-known film by Stanley Kubrick. In “The Shining” (1980), the interior of the Overlook hotel has a maze-like quality that resembles the topiary labyrinth in front of it. There’s no internal logic to the corridors or to the layout of rooms. Kubrick designed it so that it would put you inside the characters’ thought patterns. When Jack Nicholson first walks in for his job interview, he crosses the lobby and enters the manager’s office, and in back of the desk there’s a window. When you think about the layout of the building, it’s impossible that there should be one in that particular spot. He also uses long corridors and entrances that upon close examination defy logic. As the characters descend into a state of confusion and madness, we have been with them all along witnessing it. Perplexity is key. Kubrick knew he was building a rubik’s cube.
First time director Florian Zeller does a similar trick. Like in Kubrick’s masterpiece, the set, in this case a posh London flat, becomes another character in itself, and it shifts ever so slightly throughout. Gradually things that should be in a room, like a painting, are no longer there. From scene to scene, at first not noticeably, the colors of the walls you’ve seen in the previous scene that were yellow are now brown, and eventually become blue. There’s one moment in which you abruptly start to understand that the apartment is not exactly the same as you remember it from a second ago. You begin to realize that the room down the corridor, Anthony’s bedroom’s location, will remain a constant, but everything else will evolve. The arrangement of doors, the fixtures in the hallway have been altered. The evenness of the lighting coming from the windows peering at the street below is startling. We are told it is 8pm, so why does it look like a permanent morning? Are we still in the same abode? Is this all a memory? Once I understood I couldn’t figure it all out (it’s impossible), I was able to let go. I was being given a very privileged opportunity to fully immerse myself. Once I stopped resisting, that’s when the emotional impact of the film overwhelmed me.
Before seeing it, I was working at an advantage and a disadvantage. I had seen Zeller’s play by the same title at the Samuel J. Friedman theatre in NYC in 2016 starring Frank Langella in his Tony Award-winning Best Actor performance. The main character is suffering from dementia and you were theatrically seeing his world through the prism of his advancing state. On stage, the narrative felt like a natural descendant of the work of Beckett or Ionesco. The protagonist meets other players he is supposed to know and the surroundings are not what he thinks they are.
My problem seeing the film was that I had gone in to see the play not knowing anything about it. My father battled with this illness and I saw up close an embattled giant fighting to ground his own two feet. It is the hardest theatrical production for me to endure.
My other hesitation was how well it would translate to film. In the theatre, we accept abstraction. In film we embrace realism. Zeller does something astonishing here. He blurs the lines of realism. He presents to you contradicting scenes that make you, like the main character, question your sense of reality. And you have to sort it out, and find your way. Wait…I just walked in here: it’s a scene where the daughter’s husband is saying “he’s ill” and you watch the scene take place while you join the dinner table, but when Anthony gets up, the scene is where it originally started. “He’s ill” is whispered. Like the main character, it is inevitable that you cannot sort what took place before and what is the ultimate chronology of it all. Yet, there’s one steady anchor, the bedroom in back, the end of the journey.
Just like the stage version, this all fails or succeeds on the acting. Zeller wrote the screenplay with Anthony Hopkins in mind. He went as far as changing the name André, from the play, to the actor’s. Hopkins approaches the role with such conviction that it is overwhelming. From his posture to his rage that clicks on like a switch as he clings on to any sense of self, you can’t take your eyes off him. It is heartbreaking seeing him seek for his watch which he’s always losing, but understandably he needs it, for he’s losing track of time. The last scene is a masterclass, one in which the actor seems to be facing his own mortality and wrestling with it. It made me think of Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
He’s supported by a powerful ensemble that includes Rufus Sewell in the role of the patient boyfriend to the daughter. She’s played by a luminous Olivia Colman, who tries to be a stabilizing anchor to her dad, although it is obviously tearing her apart.
Anthony: “What am I doing here?”
Available to stream online via premium on-demand starting on March 26 through platforms, including Amazon Prime Video, FandangoNOW, iTunes, Vudu, Redbox, and other VOD providers.
Screenplay by Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton
Based on the play by Florian Zeller
Directed by Florian Zeller
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman, Mark Gatiss, Imogen Poots, Rufus Sewell, Olivia Williams
Bringing “The Father” to the Screen
…Zeller’s film — based on his acclaimed stage play and co-adapted by Oscar-winning scriptwriting icon Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons”) — makes them part of what the director describes as his “immersive experience,” akin to collaborators in the narrative. “My idea was to try to put the audience in a unique position — as if they were going through that labyrinth, questioning everything that they’re witnessing,” he says. The labyrinth Zeller refers to is an upmarket London apartment, around which Hopkins shuffles — often in his pajamas — and where almost all of The Father’s drama takes place…”From the very beginning, I had this desire to see The Father as a puzzle,” says Zeller, who acknowledges David Lynch’s twisting “Mulholland Drive” as an early inspiration. “As a viewer, you have to play with all the pieces of that puzzle, to try to find the correct combination to make it work. But it never works. There is always a piece that is missing.” The effect — as becomes apparent when attempts to find this missing piece fail — is to drag the audience headfirst into an experience of what it feels like to lose one’s bearings. “And, in a way, to experience a slice of dementia and to develop an understanding of this disease,” says Zeller, who claims that, while many “beautiful films” have been made about dementia, all of them have been told from the same outside perspective. “So you know where you are and you know where you are going — I was looking for something more challenging, which is why I had this desire to tell the story from the inside.” Raised outside Paris by his grandmother, who began suffering from dementia when he was just a teenager, Zeller drew on these memories — “what it was like to find yourself in a position when you are impotent, when you love someone, but you understand that love is not enough” — when he wrote the stage play “The Father.” First bowing (as Le Père) in Paris’ Théâtre Hébertot in 2012, the production became something of a phenomenon, moving to the West End — after being translated into English by Hampton — and later Broadway, where Frank Langella won a Tony award in 2016 for his turn in the title role. It’s easy to imagine how the story of The Father would work onstage, with a set shifting and disappearing, bit by bit, around its cast with each scene change. But Zeller says moving to cinema — where the audience has no acceptance of theater’s abstractions and there exists a “necessary contract with reality” — enabled him to really ramp up the immersive experience he wanted to achieve. “What I wanted to do was film everything with no hierarchy of realism,” he notes. “So when you have two scenes that contradict each other, you have no information about what is real and what is not real. You have to deal with that contradiction as a viewer, and you have to find your path to the meaning of the whole journey.” The journey’s inevitable destination in The Father is one of acceptance, where it becomes clear that the film’s pieces — be they location, dialogue or characters — simply cannot be reassembled in any coherent order, even by the most experienced cryptic crossword fanatic. “The moment comes when you understand that you’re not capable of doing it. And in a way, you have to let it go,” says Zeller. “And when you do let it go, I think that something happens and you understand the story on a more emotional level. It’s as if you have accepted that your brain cannot do the job, and you just have your heart.” (hollywoodreporter.com)
Anthony Hopkins on “The Father”
Hopkins got the screenplay out of the blue from his agent. “It was just a perfect script,” said Hopkins, “the clarity and compactness got my attention right way. I read it, ‘Boy, God, this is it!’ I want to do it, it’s written so simply, no fanfare of Hollywood, it’s a small independent film, a French film with an English actor in it. The style is a very French film.” As soon as he met Hampton and Zeller at a Los Angeles hotel, the actor agreed to shoot the film. At 83, Hopkins has been on a roll, having starred in not only Oscar-nominated “The Two Popes,” but in two recent Richard Eyre films, “The Dresser” (2015) opposite Sir Ian McKellen, and Shakespeare’s “King Lear” (2017), 40 years after he first played the title role. “I was too young in my 40s,” Hopkins said. “By the time I played him, I was old enough, with more experience of life, and more understanding of age and mortality and all the rest of it.” At this stage, the actor no longer worries about delivering a performance. “My only theory, I don’t know very much, is you have to have confidence,” he said. “You have to be sure you know what you’re doing, like driving a car, playing tennis, or being a carpenter. You have to know the technique, learn the text. I stopped overthinking. You devour the text until it becomes part of you for those days. You follow the impulses and the director’s suggestions, and you listen.” Instead of conventionally “opening up” the play, Zeller and Hampton designed a puzzle of a script that would throw the audience off-balance and make viewers feel the disorientation of the character by leading them through an interior labyrinth that was like the Hopkins character’s dementia-distorted mind. “I wanted ‘The Father’ to not only be a story, but an experience,” said Zeller, “what it could mean to lose everything including your bearings. I had to find a visual way to tell that story. I worked with Peter Francis the production designer with the space. The memory has to do with time but also space as well. The apartment, that space is like a mental space. At the beginning, this is Anthony’s apartment, with knick-knacks and furniture. Step by step in the background are small changes. You know where you are but you don’t know exactly where you are anymore.”
The goal was to keep the audience alert, trying to figure things out, and eventually, to experience the emotional journey. “There’s always one piece missing,” said Zeller, “so you can never completely understand…When the moment comes, you let it go, and can understand on another more emotional level. The journey of the narrative is sometimes complex, but we lead to a simple place, simple emotions.” The destination of the film is a scene at the end when Hopkins breaks down completely. “We knew it was the most important scene to film,” said Zeller. “If it was not as truthful and powerful as it should be, then the whole film was a bit pointless in a way. That was where we want to go.” Hopkins understood this. “It was the most challenging scene,” he said. “You have to be emotionally ripe for it.” So when the first take didn’t go well for him, Hopkins retreated to his dressing room to collect himself and give it another go. He held onto several keywords to trigger emotions from his childhood: “Mummy, the wind, the rain.” He also recalled a childhood moment in Wales when he was five years old, on a Sunday afternoon, when a friend told him “we all die.” That was enough to bring on powerful feelings. He also conjured up a trip to the hospital where his father had just died. “The bed was already occupied by another old man,” he said. “It had a tremendous cumulative effect…This is it, forever and ever. What was it? Was it all a dream? Life, I’m convinced it is all a dream, it’s a personal conviction. Both my parents are dead. Did they ever exist? There is no proof any of this exists. That’s my peculiar take on life: it’s all an illusion. I’m free, in a way. I can’t take credit for any of it. It’s not modesty or humility. It’s a puzzle to me. I think, ‘my God, how did any of this happen?’ It’s true, those emotions are on the surface. I’m 83, facing my own mortality.” (indiewire.com)
Production Designer Peter Francis on “The Father”
…“We’re inside Anthony’s head virtually the whole time,” Francis said. “We weren’t just designing backgrounds. It was more about choosing the right elements to be part of the story.” Francis said the script secured his interest from the first page, which begins with directions for the production design. “The majority of the film is to be made in the studio, on a set representing Anthony’s flat,” it reads. “As the film goes on, the appearance of the flat will evolve.” Francis got the script on a Saturday and had three days to develop a proposal before his interview with Zeller. When the pair met, they compared their drawings of the set. “Our plans looked exactly the same,” Francis said. “I had the bedroom in a different corner, that was the only difference. It was really uncanny. We were on the same page from day one.”… The set was conceived with a trio of doors all running into a single living room where much of the action took place. On one side was a kitchen; on the other, a bedroom; a third doorway led to the dining room. Francis and his team built a 50-foot-long hallway leading from the entrance to the apartment into the living room, which provides a key signpost as the set evolves. Pictures and lamps shift around on the walls and tables, and colors change, but the overarching geography of the space remains just consistent enough to lead the viewer through Anthony’s discombobulated state. Francis said he and Zeller often spoke of Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” as a reference point for the way it uses a single location to explore one woman’s descent into madness. “It was just so fascinating,” Francis said. “We all started questioning what we were doing all the time. How different should Anne and Anthony’s flats be? We talked about different scenarios, how much we should change things. You’re not sure where he is, which door he’s gone through. All the doors are quite graphic, strong statements. The furniture would change, but the architecture would stay the same.”
They marked up the script to indicate different passages in the storyline, even as it remained jumbled in Anthony’s head. At a certain point in the drama, Anne decides to move out of her apartment; that meant some scenes required the space to be littered with her packing boxes. But sometimes, they would vanish altogether — or mingle with other props related to different moments in the story, including a chair that Anthony associates with a doctor’s visit later on. Color schemes became crucial signifiers of the various backdrops. Francis settled on ocher for Anthony’s apartment, which the script indicates the character has inhabited for 30 years. Anne’s flat, by contrast, takes on a dusty blue, which sets up the transition to the cold, harsher blue of the nursing home in the final passage. “It was a lot of trial and error,” Francis said. “We did loads and loads of different color samples — big boards of colors — and talked at length about each shade.” Anthony’s furniture was crucial as well. Francis, who previously worked with Hopkins on the 2018 BBC production of “King Lear,” emailed at length with the actor’s assistant before the shoot to get a sense of Hopkins’ preferences. When he showed up to set, the team had four different armchairs to try out. “He had to sit on them and feel comfortable,” Francis said. “It had to feel like part of his character.” Hopkins settled on a worn leather option that suited the darker hues of his surroundings. With a budget estimated at $6 million, Francis had to get inventive about how to source various components of the set. He picked up small items at antique fairs, found Anthony’s ‘70s-style kitchen on Ebay, and purchased Anne’s more modern version from Ikea. Some of the blue tiles used to indicate Anne’s apartment were nabbed by Zeller’s assistant from a Paris seller and brought over last-minute by train. “I love this scale of film,” Francis said. “It’s more personal and involved.” Francis welcomed the contrast to his experiences on studio projects. “When you have some money on a big film, listen, you can do anything,” he said. “You have weeks of prep and millions of dollars in budget. When I look at our art film alongside some of those films with bigger budgets, I’m very proud of what we did with the money we had.” (indiewire.com)
About Co-Screenwriter Christopher Hampton
Christopher Hampton is a playwright, screenwriter, director and producer. Born in 1946 in Portugal, he spent his childhood in Aden, Egypt and Zanzibar, then studied French and German at Oxford University. He was the youngest writer ever to have a play staged in the West End, and in the late 1960s, was resident dramatist at the Royal Court Theatre. His own stage plays include “When Did You Last See My Mother” (1966), performed at The Royal Court Theatre, “Total Eclipse” (1968) about the relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine; the comedy “The Philanthropist” (1970); “Savages” (1974) and “Treats” (1976). His screenwriting credits include translations of classics such as Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” (1970); “Tales from the Vienna Woods” (1977) and Moliere’s “Tartuffe” (1984), and his television work includesThe History Man for the BBC,” “The Ginger Tree” (1989) and “Tales from Hollywood” (1989). In 1985 he wrote the play “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” adapted and translated from the novel by Choderlos de Laclos, and later adapted this as a screenplay. The resulting film, “Dangerous Liaisons,” was an international success and won many awards. He also wrote and directed “Carrington,” about the relationship of Lytton Strachey with the painter, Dora Carrington. Other work includes translations of Yasmina Reza’s work for the stage, and further versions of Chekhov and Odon von Horvath. He wrote the stage adaptation and co-wrote the lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard,”and the recent screenplay for the BAFTA nominated film, “Atonement” (2007), for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Hampton’s recent works include the plays “The Talking Cure” (2002) and “Appomattox” (2012), the musicals “Rebecca” (2012) and “Stephen Ward the Musical” (2013) and film adaptations of “A Dangerous Method” (2011) based on John Kerr’s “A Most Dangerous Method,” “Ali and Nino” (2012) adapted from Kurban Said’s novel of the same name; and “The Thirteenth Tale” (2013), adapted for the BBC. (literature.britishcouncil.org/)
About Director Florian Zeller
Florian Zeller is a critically acclaimed French novelist and playwright, the recipient of numerous literary awards, a university lecturer at the prestigious Sciences-Po in Paris, and a journalist for Paris Match, Vogue, and Vol de Nuit. He is, according to The Independent, ‘one of the hottest literary talents in France’. For his first novel Artificial Snow he received the Hachette Foundation Literary Prize, the Writing Talent Award from the Jean-Luc Lagardère Foundation and the New Writer Award from the Prince Pierre of Monaco Foundation. His third novel The Fascination of Evil, received the Prix Interallie. Zeller has won several Molière Awards (the highest theatrical honor in France) for La Mère and Le Père. Le Père (The Father) in the English translation by Christopher Hampton has been nominated for Best Play at the Olivier Awards and the Tony Awards. Zeller’s plays, which have been produced in many countries, include: “L’Autre,” “Le Manège,” “Si tu mourais” (“Prix Jeune Théâtre Académie Française”), “Elle t’attend,” “La Mère,” “La Vérité,” “Le Père,” “Une Heure de Tranquillité” (translation “Jeremy Sams”), “Le Mensonge,” “L’Envers du décor,” “Avant de s’envoler.” Novels: “Neiges artificielles” (“Artificial Snow”), “Les Amants du n’importe quoi” (“Lovers or Something Like It”), “La Fascination du pire” (“Fascination of Evil”), “Julien Parme,” “La Jouissance.” (remybumppofieldguide.org)