Few people are interested in the kind of directorial debut that Florian Zeller went through Father. The 2020 TV series – based on his own famous stage play about dementia and deftly drawing audiences into an immersive maze of disorientation and confusion – is a success about commercially and critically. The film also became the darling of the awards season, landing Zeller and his co-screenwriter Christopher Hampton named best adapted screenplay and Anthony Hopkins best actor at both. Oscars and BAFTAs.
Two years have passed, and the Parisian is ready to launch his second year feature. Adapted from another of his plays, Boy this time dealing with the subject of depression, focusing on 17-year-old Nicholas – an unusual twist for newcomer Zen McGrath – whose growing struggle with mental health begins to wreak havoc on his parents’ lives. him, especially his senior New York attorney father (an emotional sledgehammer in Hugh Jackman’s gig). Is his divorce from loving ex-wife (Laura Dern) and recent child with new partner (Vanessa Kirby) to blame? While Nicholas makes the allegation, the film – shot mainly in London – does not seek to point the finger (or even suggest that there is anything to point to), and only deals with the crippling aftermath.
Talking to The Hollywood Reporter front Boyworld premiere in Venice, Zeller discusses feeling the need to share the emotional pain of parenting helplessness, battling with himself to tell a far simpler story with much complexity. miscellaneous of Father, and how modestly Jackman expressed himself for the role. He also described how he picked his young lead star via Zoom, but didn’t actually meet McGrath in person until three days before filming.
When you wrote the original theatrical play Father, about dementia, you said it came from your own experiences with your own grandmother. Do Boy Also from personal experience?
Yes, it comes from a personal place. It’s not my story about the characters or the situation, it’s about my own feelings. So it’s not because I want to tell my own story, but because I feel like a lot of people are involved in these kinds of issues and think it makes a lot of sense to share these feelings. Like with Father, when we perform on stage, people wait for us after each performance to share their own experiences. And I was surprised to be connected to that fact, that a lot of people understood what was going on with the story. Maybe it’s because it’s a father or a mother, and sometimes you have to accept that you are powerless. It’s part of the parenting experience. And sometimes love just isn’t enough and accepting that is a real pain. So it was more to share these feelings than to tell my own story. But it’s true that it comes from a personal location, which is why I had to tell that story, not another. I can’t make any other movies but this one.
Boy does not focus on the cause of depression, but treats it as a monster. What’s behind that decision?
Because I think it’s part of the mental health issue, it’s kind of a mystery. You can’t figure out exactly why it’s there. It seems unfair, as there is no clear explanation and in a way, no one’s fault. But because we are human, we feel guilty. Of course, we mentioned that there was a divorce, but my plan absolutely doesn’t tell a story about what might happen if you get divorced, because that’s not what I believe. But we try to find an explanation for what we’re going through, especially in mental health. And from the point of view of the son, he does not understand why he has to go through this pain, so there needs to be an explanation and the simplest way to understand it is because of his parents. This is what we do. And the father is facing his own guilt, thinking that everything is his fault. And that’s why he’s almost like a tragic character.
Most directors don’t have success with their first film you’ve been in Father. Does this add any pressure to you? Boy? Do you feel greater expectations?
I should have said yes, but the truth is no. At least I didn’t feel any pressure during filming, because like I said, I knew exactly that it was the movie I wanted to make. And I know why I want to do it and how I want to do it. So I don’t question anything about what people are expecting from me. But now it’s about to be released, but I’m starting to think, “Oh, I understand your question.”
Because Father plays out like a hard puzzle, only becoming apparent at the end, as soon as I start watching Boy, I just assumed that you created a puzzle in the story, or you will play with me in some way. Is this a consideration?
Most of my plays are built like a maze, but really the only one that isn’t Boy. It’s very simple, very linear. My instinct is always to build more complex stories, but with this, I remember that I had to control myself in a way, dare to be frank. Because I know that for the audience to really buy the final scene and make it as powerful as possible, I need them to believe every moment of the movie is real.
How easy was it to find your son and how did you land on Zen McGrath?
I see a lot of young actors on Zoom, because then you can’t meet people. And it’s been a very exciting process – I know that somewhere someone is going to be this character, and it’s going to be an important journey for all of us. But as soon as I saw Zen, it became clear that I wanted him to play the role of Nicolas. It’s very subjective and intuitive, and it’s very difficult to do that on Zoom. And to make it even more complicated, he was in Australia. But I know he’s the right man. I feel a combination of strong fragility, sensitivity, and the ability to experience these emotions. But we only met face-to-face for the first time a few days before filming started.
Having Hugh Jackman play Nicolas’ father was a wonderfully special step. How come back?
It happened in a very strange way. I just started the process and talked to the agent, and he wrote to me. It’s very special, to me at least. He said he saw Father and the play Boy and heard that I’m working on an adaptation, and if I’ve talked to someone, that’s great and please forgive the letter, but if not, please give him 15 minutes to let me understand why. why should he do this part? I was amazed at his humility and honesty. So we met on Zoom, and after 15 minutes, it was really impressive, because I really felt that he was exactly that character. He didn’t cheat or try to perform, he just talked to me and was myself, and I felt every element that I needed. He is a very special person, quite extraordinary. And I’m not just saying this politely.
And, not wanting to give anything away, Anthony Hopkins – your Oscar-winning father in Father – there’s a small but great scene in which he plays a pretty brilliant asshole. Is he your lucky charm?
Actually, he was the first to read the script. As soon as I finished it, I sent it to him, because I really respect his sensitivity. And of course, he noticed that the character’s name in this was Anthony. And the funny thing is that it’s actually the opposite of Father. In this, he is in complete control.
Because Boy you also brought in See-Saw Films as a producer. They are obviously prestige creators with an amazing track record, but what did they bring to the film?
I met Iain Canning, also on Zoom, and we got along really well. I love his movies. And he’s also done some movies in New York as a British producer – the main one I’m talking about is Shy, which I really respect – so I thought he could help me with this translation. Although I don’t want to tell an American story, I want it to be connected to American reality. Especially when it comes to psychiatry, for example, each country works differently. So he was very helpful in the process. But it’s also great to work with a producer who has produced movies that you admire so much.
Given that you quickly left Father arrive Boywe assume you – and Christopher Hampton – are busy adapting the third play in your trilogy, Mother?
No, I’m not. But. I’m still here Boy, honestly. But it is true that it is related to Father and Boy. It flashed through my mind.