For his debut feature, The Father, French playwright Florian Zeller envisioned only one actor in the tricky lead role of an elderly man slowly losing his grip on reality: Anthony Hopkins. But when he told his friends he was hoping to cast the Oscar winner, they laughed at him, Zeller admitted at a Q&A during this year’s fest.
“Of course, I was aware it was not an easy dream to fulfill,” he said. “Because I’m French, this was my first feature film, so Anthony Hopkins is not that easy [to get]. But until someone comes and says, ‘No, it is not possible,’ it may be possible.’”
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Since Hopkins only works in English, Zeller wrote the script in English with Christopher Hampton, who has translated all of Zeller’s previous plays. Et voilà: “We sent it to Anthony, and one day someone called me and said, ‘Anthony wants to meet with you in Los Angeles.’ And this is how it happened.”
Hopkins signed on, and he wanted to do the film right away. “When I first met Anthony, he was very enthusiastic about the script,” Zeller noted. “He said, ‘Let’s do it in four months.’”
Zeller was stunned: “I was like, ‘What?’ I was excited for his energy. But the shooting was postponed a few times, and so during that time we were able to have a conversation about the characters. By the time we started shooting on set, we had these strong relationships, very intimate. And we were aware that we wanted to tell the same story. In the end, it was really part of the story and part of the film.
As for casting Olivia Colman in the role of Antony’s dutiful daughter Anne, Zeller said, “I come from the theater and I saw her on stage several times in London. I knew that I needed someone like her—someone you could really feel empathy for. I didn’t want just to have the story of this man losing his bearings. I also wanted to tell the story of the daughter trying to save and help her father.”
It’s a powerful film with another stunning performance from Hopkins that is almost assured to have the actor—an Oscar nominee again this year for The Two Popes—back at the Academy Awards next year. As can be said for Colman, whose loving devotion is tested daily by her father’s mercurial moods.
Zeller confessed he did not do any research in writing his play or the script. He relied on intuition and his own experiences. “My grandmother, who raised me—she was almost like my mother—started to suffer from dementia when I was 15,” he said. “So I am very deeply and directly touched by this. subject. But I didn’t want to tell my own story. I wanted something more universal, because everyone has a father or grandmother or everyone knows someone dealing with some of these issues. Everyone will have to face this issue: ‘What will I do with someone I love when they start to lose their bearings?’”
He began to realize that the issue was a very universal when the play was first staged: “I was very surprised and deeply touched to see that after every performance, the audience came to share their own stories with the actors. There was something cathartic about it. The play has been staged in many countries, and everywhere the response of the audience was the same.”
Zeller shared one contribution that Hopkins made to the film: an aria from the Georges Bizet opera The Pearl Fishers: “That was something that came from our conversation. He loves music; so do I. One day he told me, ‘One of my favorite pieces of music is this aria,’ and he told me this story: When he was 30 years old, he was doing a play in the UK. and one night he heard that music for the very first time. He came back to the hotel where there was a piano and he started to try to find the melody. He drove everyone crazy, because it took him something like three days to find the melody. He told me, ‘I have always dreamt of making a movie with this music in it.’”
Concluded Zeller, “So I tried to fulfill his dreams as he fulfilled mine.”