Few people enjoy the kind of directorial debut that Florian Zeller experienced with his father . This 2020 play — based on his own critically acclaimed stage play about dementia, deftly drags audiences into an immersive labyrinth of disorientation and confusion — is a important commercial blockbuster. The film also became an awards season darling, earning Zeller and his co-writer Christopher Hampton the Academy Awards and BAFTA Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay and Anthony Hopkins for Best Actor Award.
Two years on, the Parisian is ready to reveal his sophomore profile. Adapted from another of his dramas, The Son this time around 17 year old Nicholas tackles depression— A remarkable man is turned by newcomer Zen McGrath—whose battle with a growing mental health problem begins to destroy the lives of his parents, especially his New York lawyer father (the emotional sledgehammer of the Hugh Jackman show). Has he divorced his beloved ex-wife (Laura Dern) and most recently the child (Vanessa Kirby) of his new partner (Vanessa Kirby)? While Nicholas has made the accusations, the film — shot primarily in London — doesn’t try to point fingers (or even suggest something to point out), but rather deals with serious consequences.
Zeller discusses with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of world premiere of Son in Venice Feeling the need to share the emotional pain of parenting incompetence, fighting myself to tell a much more complex story than The Father and how Jackman humbly claimed the role for himself . He also described how he chose his young lead over Zoom, but didn’t actually meet McGrath in person until three days before filming.
When you were writing the original stage play Father , about dementia, you said it came from yourself and Your own grandmother’s experience. Is The Son also from personal experience?
Yes, it comes from a personal place. It’s not my story in terms of characters or situations, it’s about my own emotions. So it wasn’t because I wanted to tell my own story, it was more because I felt like there were a lot of people involved with these issues and thought it would make sense to share those emotions. Just like father, when we were doing stage plays, after every show, people were waiting for us to share their experiences. I’m amazed to relate to the fact that so many people understand what’s going on in this story. Maybe because it’s about what it means to be a father or mother, sometimes you have to accept that you can’t do anything about it. It’s part of the parenting experience. Sometimes love is not enough and it is really painful to accept it. So share those emotions, not tell my own story. But it does come from a private place, which is why it is so important to me to tell this story and not another. I can’t make any other movies except this one.
Son doesn’t focus on the cause of depression, just thinks it’s a monster. What is the reasoning behind this decision?
Because I think it’s part of the mental health problem, it’s like a mystery. You can’t quite understand why it’s there. This may seem unfair because there is no clear explanation and in a way it’s not anyone’s fault. But because we are human, we feel guilty. Of course, we mentioned there was a divorce, but my plan was to absolutely not tell the story of what would happen if you got divorced, because I don’t believe it. But we try to find an explanation for what we’re going through, especially mental health. From the son’s point of view, he doesn’t understand why he is going through this pain, so he needs an explanation, and the easiest way to understand is that it’s because of his parents. This is what we do. And Dad was dealing with his own guilt, thinking it was all his fault. That’s why he’s almost like a tragic figure.
Most directors don’t have the kind of success you have in their first movies Father . Did this put any extra stress on your son ? Do you feel that your expectations are higher?
I should have said yes, but it wasn’t. At least I didn’t feel pressured during the shoot because, as I said, I knew very well that this was the film I wanted to do. I know why I do it and how I want to do it. So I didn’t question people’s expectations of me at all. But now it’s about to come out and start thinking, “Oh, I see your problem.”
Because of ‘s father Like an unsolvable mystery, it didn’t become apparent until the end, I first looked at Son , I just assumed you had made a mystery in a story question, or you will play with me in some way. Is this a consideration?
Most of my scripts are labyrinth-like, but the only thing that isn’t actually is Son. It’s very simple and very linear. My intuition is always to build more complex narratives, but I remember having to control myself and, in a way, dare to get straight to the point. Because I know that in order for the audience to actually buy the final scene and make it as powerful as possible, I need them to believe that every moment of the movie is real.
How easy was it to find your son and how did you land on Zen McGrath?
I saw a lot of young actors on Zoom because you couldn’t meet people at the time. It’s been a very exciting process – I know there will be someone in this role somewhere, and it’s an important journey for all of us. But as soon as I saw Zen, it was obvious that I wanted him to play Nicolas. It’s very subjective and intuitive, and it’s hard to do on Zoom. To complicate matters, he is in Australia. But I know he is right. I felt such a strong combination of vulnerability, sensibility, and the ability to experience these emotions. But we only met for the first time a few days before we started filming.
Giving Hugh Jackman the role of Nicholas’ father was a particularly good casting. How did this happen?
It happens in a very bizarre way. I just started the process and spoke to the agent and he wrote to me. It’s so special, at least for me. He said he had seen father and drama son and heard that I was working on an adaptation, if I was already talking to someone, that too Well, please excuse the letter, but if not, please give him 15 minutes so I can understand why he is doing this role. I was very surprised by his humility and honesty. So we met on Zoom and after 15 minutes it was really amazing because I really felt like he was that character. He wasn’t cheating or trying to act, he was just talking to me, being himself, and I felt every element I needed. He was a very special person, very extraordinary. I’m not saying that out of politeness.
And, don’t want to give up anything, Anthony Hopkins – you got an Oscar in Father The Father of – There’s a small but great scene where he plays a pretty good asshole. Is he your lucky charm?
Actually he was the first person to read the script. I sent it to him as soon as I wrote it because I respected his sensibility. Of course, he noticed that the character’s name was Anthony. Interestingly, this is really the opposite part of father. In this regard, he is in complete control.
for The Son You also joined See-Saw Films as a producer and they were apparently Prestigious fashion makers have incredible records, but what do they bring to the film?
I met Iain Canning on Zoom and we got on really well. I like his movies. He’s also done some movies in New York as a British producer – I’d say mostly Shame, which I respect very, very much – so I think he can help I do this translation. As much as I don’t want to tell the American story, I want it to connect with American reality. For example, especially in psychiatry, each country works differently. So he was very helpful in the process. But it’s also great to work with a producer who’s made a movie you admire so much.
Given that you quickly went from father to son, are we assuming you – and Christopher Hampton – are busy adapting the third play in your trilogy, Mother?
No, I am not. However. Honestly, I’m still at The Son, . But it does relate to father and son . It suddenly occurred to me.