For many film audiences in 2020, one of the best films of the year was The Father, written and directed by Florian Zeller. Hailing from France, Zeller’s debut was the most honest depictions of dementia ever put to screen, led by an outstanding, Oscar-winning performance from Anthony Hopkins. In his directorial debut, Zeller put the audience in the mind of Hopkins character and built an empathetic, heartbreaking psychological drama that ranks with some of the best first features we’ve seen in some time, and garnered Zeller an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, an adaptation of his original play of the same name.
Before he was behind the camera, Zeller started his career as a novelist in France, winning accolades for his novel when he was just 22 years old. He then moved on to the stage where he wrote the stage version of The Father, hailed as much from the theater community as the film version. What followed were several more well received plays, including two that went alongside The Father in an unplanned trilogy with The Mother and The Son, the latter of which is now his second feature film.
Much like The Father, Zeller’s The Son looks at a very serious issue, personal depression. In this case, the mental state of a young 17-year-old boy, who has stopped going to school and doesn’t see the point in making friends or going on with the normalcies of life. It is up to his divorce parents to figure out how to help him in a time of desperate struggle before it gets to a point of no return.
In a conversation at the 2022 Middleburg Film Festival, I sat down with Zeller right after an extensive Q&A, in which we discuss his decision to make The Son as his second feature, how he wants the audience to understand his characters in the film, and what’s changed about him since the original stage version just a few years ago. We also discussed working with this all-star cast, what it was like casting the titular role of the film, and if we will see a film adaptation of The Mother on the horizon.
Ryan McQuade: When did you know after making The Father that this was what you wanted to pick up as your second feature?
Florian Zeller: I knew before I stopped The Father that I would make it afterwards if I had the opportunity to do it because it’s never granted. I knew it strongly because this is the story I needed to tell and also that I felt that needed to be told. I felt that necessity, this urgency. I didn’t take the time after The Father to question what would be the better opportunity or the better strategy or nothing. I was focused on my conviction that I wanted to explore these emotions.
RM: What changed the most for you from first creating the project for the stage to now in its cinematic form?
FZ: Yeah, so it’s true that it comes from theater and to me it was like a pairing, I would say, to have the experience so many times in a room, this story with the audience and the emotions, it gave me the direction I would say that I wanted to follow. Somehow, I feel that it was the continuity of that experience. What you don’t want to do for sure is just to film a play and you have to find a cinematic way to tell these stories and for example, but every story has its own necessity. For example, for The Father, we stayed in the same apartment. We did everything in the studio in three, four rooms because this is what the story required according to me. Meaning that it was a way for me to build like a labyrinth, to make the audience experience it from the inside as if we were in Anthony’s brain. It was the whole thing about that story.
Here it was not needed to use the sets in a cinematic way. I really wanted to try to be as simple as possible and as straightforward as possible, as linear as possible somehow in order to reflect what was my intention, which was not to shy away from this topic. I really wanted just to face that pain and to ask people to face it as well in order to force us or to invite us to have a conversation about it. As I said, I really feel that there is so much ignorance and so much shame and so much guilt about these topics. The only way to prevent bad things to happen is to talk about it.
I know that strongly and my only contribution that I can make is to make a film about it. That’s the answer to your previous question about why this film is that I think that it’s urgent, strongly urgent to speak about it, to feel comfortable talking about it, not to shy away and to share these emotions because I know that so many people are related, so many people are connected. There are so many people in pain, so many people alone with that pain. To experience something like that, I hope makes people remember that we are not alone. When you are going through a difficult moment, you feel like you are alone, you are the only one to experience this as a parent and you’re completely lost. To remember that you know are not, and we are all in the same boat and we are all part of something bigger than ourselves, which is humanity. I think it makes a lot of sense and it’s a consolation and this is what art can provide.
RM: You mentioned The Father and that is primarily in one location, but most of these conversations about mental illness, depression in this film, they are done in an apartment, more specifically a living room. What about being in one location really draws out the emotions you want to see as a director and as a writer?
FZ: Yeah, you’re right. I mean it was a way also to be as close as possible to the actors and to the characters. There is a lot of conversation in that film that’s true. It’s not because it comes from theater also. I really wanted to keep, there is a lot of words, a lot of sentence and still we don’t say what needs to be said. I only wanted to highlight the fact that they are not capable to face the real conversation by talking too much somehow. I thought that it would be even more clear, even clearer, sorry if it was in everyday lives space, kind of small, but it was not about creating something claustrophobic or something that it was in The Father.
Because again, I was not trying to tell the story from the son’s perspective. It could have been another film, it could have been a bit like The Father, and I could have done that, and I would’ve loved to do that, meaning to try to experience from the inside, what it could mean to feel this kind of anxiety and suicidal thoughts and to use the cinema as a way to reflect this internal experience. This is not what I was, somehow it would’ve looked a bit like The Father. I was tempted to do something like that because somehow this is the way I think. Also, I know it’s somehow more challenging. My intuition was to try to dare being as simple as possible.
Sometimes simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve in order to tell that story from Peter’s perspective, those who are around someone who’s suffering, and they don’t know how to deal with that. He’s trying hard to help his son. He is a loving father. He wants to open a door, but he doesn’t have the keys. This is the feeling and the frustration I wanted the audience to feel. Sometimes love is not enough. You can have the best intentions. Sometimes it’s not enough when you’re not capable just to face the right questions. This is what happens with this character who is in a way completely blind and he’s blind because he feels guilty, because he thinks that everything is his fault, and he wants to repair what he thinks he has destroyed.
What we have to learn, I think, is that there is no simple explanation. No responsibility, so no guilt and nothing good could come from guilt. There is no explanation. Of course, some traumas we know that could lead to mental health issues, but most of the people, you don’t have a simple explanation. Of course, there is psychological layers but also biological layers or chemical layers. It means that we have to accept not to see this reality like is it the result of what I did wrong? It’s a major shift I think we have to do in our way to see mental illness. The same it would be completely pointless to blame someone for having a heart issue or a stomach issue. I think we should be the same for someone who is suffering from struggling with pain, with mental illness issues. We all know people that on paper they have everything in life to be happy and still they are in pain. There is no responsibility. This character is completely missing the point because he doesn’t know that there is no explanation. He thinks everything is his fault in a way.
RM: And hopes that it will go away. As an audience, we can sit there and we can watch these characters and we could feel as if we’re going to yell at the screen, “Oh no, you’re doing this all wrong.” It’s very easy to be an armchair critic in this case.
FZ: Yeah, you’re right.
RM: But the way you write these characters, you’re trying to evoke that empathy for the situation, especially for Nicholas and what he’s going through.
FZ: It’s through that from the outside, as you said, it looks like you want to shake these characters and say, “this boy needs treatment” or “you shouldn’t do that.” I like trying to put the audience in an active position, trying to be part of the narrative and to have a specific reaction to what is happening on screen. To me, it was a way to highlight the fact that when you are not in that position, watching it from the outside, but when you are like a father or a mother or a brother, it’s so difficult and painful and takes a lot of courage to dare open your eyes to their question, see the reality as it is. Sometimes it takes time, and we don’t have that time or sometime this is when tragedy could happen. I think the more we know about it, the more we learn about it, the more we talked about it, the better we have the chance to save people from tragedy.
RM: You work with an extraordinary cast here. Can you speak to your relationships with them working on this film? Because it must’ve been a lot on them.
FZ: Yeah, it was a lot. I don’t know if you know that, but Hugh came to me in the first place. It started that with something very genuine, honest, and humble approach. He said, “I will love you to know why I should be the one to” so I’m going to try to be very quick. From the start, I felt that he would be available to do something very special, that he would do something that he hasn’t done yet, which was not to try to perform in order to perform or to fake something or to imitate something, but just to be in front of the camera and to be as connected as possible to the true reason why in the first place. He approached me that he felt connected to this issue as a son or as a father.
I mean, who knows, but to me what matters is not his backstory, but just the fact that I felt instinctively that he knew what we were talking about and from that point on, he was so generous, he followed me exactly where I wanted him to go. He explored all these tough emotions with a superb open heart. I’m extremely grateful to him because it was a joy to share that with him because he was always honest, humble, and brave. That was not easy. Somehow, he knew that he was, I mean, we all wanted to tell that story so much. Everyone that was involved, Laura Dern, it was the same. They were here for specific reasons and that’s why it was an intimate space where just few people in the room trying to tell that story and we knew why we wanted it to be told. We knew that it was important to tell that story.
That they were not trying to be characters, they’re just trying to explore in deep down in who they were, who are the truth emotions, the true emotions that could overwhelm us. For example, Laura, she was the brilliant actress she was, but she was also a woman and a mother. It gave a lot to her performance, I think.
RM: The titular role is played by Zen McGrath. What was the process of finding him and him working on this film, since he is the centerpiece and discovery of the film?
FZ: The casting process started with Anthony Hopkins, to be honest.
RM: Then you wrote the new scene in the film because it wasn’t in the play?
FZ: Right, it was not in the play. I wrote it because I was hoping to work with him again. It was such a sentimental experience to share with him. I really wanted to do it with him again. Also, I knew that it would be a pivotal scene in the film when we understand that this father is actually a son and he’s a son in pain and still trying to deal with his past. That’s probably why he was not able to deal with his present and that he was just trying to be a better father than the one he had. We are all like that, trying to deal with what we received from our parents.
It was an important moment for me, and I was so happy that he read the script and three hours later he called me, and he said, “I want to be part of it.” It was the beginning. I was so happy with that. See I tried to be quick. Then it was so, so powerful to have that conversation with Hugh and to feel that he would do something extraordinary. Then I started to dream about who could be there and Laura Dern, I love her, and she was extraordinary. I think when I edited the film, I was so many times so moved by what she does in the restaurant scene, for example. I think she’s tremendous. Vanessa Kirby, I think she’s one of the greatest in the UK and she’s so intense. It was great.
The real question then was so who is this young person? What I knew is that I didn’t know him yet because he’s 17 years old. That was something very joyful when you have the chance to have these great actors to know that you could find a new face and someone you don’t know yet. I met a lot of people on Zoom because it was COVID to find him. I remember when I received his tape, I immediately knew that he was the one. He was coming from Australia, so it was more complicated for travel, COVID, accent. Still, I really wanted him. I took another meeting with him just to see how he would react to my direction. Then I made the decision, pure instinct, but real conviction. I met him two days before we started shooting because of COVID. It was not possible to do otherwise. It was very strange.
He was very professional, brave, and strong to be that fragile. Also, I think that he was very helped by Hugh by the fact that he’s the kindest person in the world, Hugh. That’s the truth. He creates something very special around him. I mean he’s one of the nicest human beings. I don’t say that like a general sentence.
RM: You’re not the only one that says that about Hugh. (both laugh)
FZ: You know what, people told me that when I was talking about the fact that I was about to work with him, so many people. I was surprised not because I didn’t believe, but it was coming and coming all the time. Now I can tell that’s the truth. That’s what I felt that that’s also the reason why I wanted him to be involved is that I needed someone new. You feel that he’s a good person. You feel that he’s a good father, you feel that he’s a loving father doing his best. Just to make people an audience feel, understand that sometime love is not enough. It was the whole point of that film to experience the situation where you are powerless and that you do not know what to do anymore as a parent, even though you have the best intentions. I thought that he would be the best to explore this paradox.
In real life, on set, he brings the best energy around him, and you need only one person that good to force everyone to be in the best version of himself. He was really, really helpful to make sure, Laura did as well, and Vanessa as well, to make sure he felt comfortable that he was part of the family and in order to try to tell that story without being too much hurt.
RM: You’ve done The Father, and now you’ve done The Son. There’s one more piece in this stage trilogy of yours that we have yet to see adapted for the big screen. Is that something that you are looking into and interested in doing?
FZ: To be honest, I don’t know. No, it’s true. I don’t know. I mean, I love the idea of a trilogy. I did it with Isabelle Huppert on stage in New York and she’s the best. I love her so much. Only this could be a good reason to do it. The thing is that to make a film takes so much time, energy that you need to do it for good reasons. Today the honest answer is that I don’t know, I’m still with The Son and I like also to stay a bit in the unknown to see what could appear that I am not aware of yet. It could be that but I’m not sure. I don’t know.
RM: I appreciate your time Florian.
FZ: Thank you very much.
Sony Pictures Classics will release The Son in select theaters on November 11.