Writers & Company

Florian Zeller explores family, memory, love and loss in his Oscar-nominated drama, The Father 

The celebrated French novelist, playwright and director spoke to Eleanor Wachtel about emotion, narrative and how he writes for theatre and screen.
Florian Zeller is a French novelist, playwright and director. (Elevation Pictures)

French novelist and playwright Florian Zeller has achieved remarkable success in his debut as a film director — the screen adaptation of his award-winning play The Father. With riveting performances by Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman, it's an unsettling family drama about a man struggling with dementia. The film has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor for Hopkins, best supporting actress for Colman and best adapted screenplay. 

Zeller has been described as "the most exciting playwright of our times" by the Times U.K. He won early acclaim in France for his fiction, publishing four novels while still in his 20s; but it's in the theatre that he's made his name internationally. His plays have been hits on Broadway and in London's West End, in English translations by British dramatist Christopher Hampton. The Father — part of a family trilogy that includes The Mother and The Son — won France's Moliere Award for Best Play. 

Zeller spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from his home in Paris.

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins star in the film The Father. (Elevation Pictures)

Trusting the audience

"In a way, The Father starts as if it was a thriller. I profoundly believe that the audience is intelligent — and this is something I know from experience.

"I come from the theatre, and I'm used to this relationship with the audience. And so, because I believe and know that the audience is intelligent, I don't want to make it too easy for them. 

It was important for me to put the audience in a unique position — as if they were going through a labyrinth, questioning everything they are witnessing, as if they were in the main character's head.

"So I saw the film as a more complicated journey, in a way. It was important for me to put the audience in a unique position — as if they were going through a labyrinth, questioning everything they are witnessing, as if they were in the main character's head. 

"It was a way for me to play with the feeling of disorientation. It was in order to make them experience what it could mean to lose everything — including your own bearings as a viewer."

Narrative and emotion

"When you start thinking of adapting a play into a film, the first ideas you have, or the first advice you get, is always to write new scenes outdoors to make it feel more cinematic. 

"But from the very beginning, I knew that this was not what I wanted to do. I made the decision to stay in this apartment, so that that space could become like a mental space — and to use it as a labyrinth in a way. 

"The film is not about making people feel lost; this is something that is quite easy to do, but it's not very exciting. It was more about giving enough information to make you believe that you are in the process of understanding what is going on, but something is still not working. 

I wanted the audience to be in an active position, not just to sit and watch a story already told, but to be part of the narrative — to question everything, to use your brain, to try to make it meaningful somehow.

"So it's not about creating contradictions in the narrative: it's about giving enough information so that you are trying to understand. I wanted the audience to be in an active position, not just to sit and watch a story already told, but to be part of the narrative — to question everything, to use your brain, to try to make it meaningful somehow. 

"It is like a puzzle: you can play with all the pieces to find the correct combination to make it meaningful. But you have to accept that your brain is not capable of understanding everything — and you have to let it go, just as the main character has to to let it go. 

"When you let it go, you can understand the whole story on another level, which is a more emotional level. And even though the journey, or even the narrative, is sometimes complex or chaotic, in the end everyone understands exactly where we are, what we were talking about, what were the emotions and what was the journey."

Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman in a scene from The Father. The film has been nominated for six Academy Awards. (Elevation Pictures)

Exploring family dynamics, on stage and screen

"The theatre is a place where you can say things that you are not allowed to say anywhere else. In the play The Mother, the mother says that she prefers her son. But it's in a scene where we do not know if it's reality or not; we are exploring her subconscious. 

"And in the film The Father, the father says awful things to his daughter — but because he has dementia, we don't know if he's consciously aware of what he says. 

I'm not trying to tell my own story when I write. I try not to be too aware. I try to keep the door open to something I do not know.

"So it was more about what you are allowed to say, or to feel. It's precisely to explore what is not said — and what you are not allowed to say.

"I'm not trying to tell my own story when I write. I try not to be too aware. I try to keep the door open to something I do not know. And then, when it's done, when it's written, when I look back, I can easily see connections, or understand where it comes from. But my impulse or my desire is not to tell my own stories. 

"When I read a book, or when I see a play or a film, I do not care if it is the writer's personal story. What I do care about is if I believe that this is my story, as a viewer. To me, what is important is to leave room for the viewer or for anyone to say, 'This is my story.'

"This is what matters, in my opinion."

Florian Zeller's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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