Anthony Hopkins stars as Anthony, a man experiencing dementia, in 'The Father.' (Sean Gleason/Sony Pictures Classics)
Writer and director Florian Zeller was very close to his grandmother. "She was like my mother in a way," he says. "She was very important in my life."
But when Zeller was 15, his grandmother started to experience dementia. It was "a painful process ... to suddenly be impotent," he says. "You know, you can love someone and you discover that love is not enough."
Zeller drew on this personal experience in his 2012 play Le Père. The new film The Father is based on that play, and unfolds from the perspective of Anthony, who has dementia. Anthony is played by Anthony Hopkins, and Olivia Colman co-stars as his daughter.
On the effort to make the film mirror the experience of dementia
Zeller: There are so many films about dementia. ... I wanted that journey [in this film] to be more uncertain, more complex. For example, the film starts as if it was like a thriller in a way. And we go through that labyrinth, you know, without being absolutely aware of where we are going. I said that the film was like a puzzle, but a piece is always missing in that puzzle, you know, and it was a way for me to play with that feeling of disorientation. Because I wanted The Father to be not only a story, but also like an experience of what it could mean to lose everything, including your own identity.
On taking on the role of someone living with dementia
Hopkins: My initial reaction when I read the script was an immediate 'Yes.' Same reaction I had to Silence of the Lambs, it was one of those scripts that I just thought: 'I'm so lucky to be offered this.' Phoned my agent immediately, said: 'Yes, I would love to do it.' And so here we are. And my reaction to it all from the word go was one of confidence and a sense of, I knew how to do it because I'm that old now. I'm 83 and I just had a sense of it. It was easy to play.
On wanting the audience to relate to Colman's character—a daughter trying to care for her father
Zeller: With someone like Olivia Colman ... she has something magical; as soon as you see her, you love her and you feel empathy with her. It's a painful situation because there is no absolute answer. You know, what do you do when the people you love start to lose their bearings? Are you allowed to live your own life? ... Is it the moment to take painful decisions such as going into an institution? And there is no clear answer. ... Art and especially cinema is not a place for answers, it's just a place for questions.
Hopkins: There's one moment after Olivia leaves the hospital ... She says goodbye, she gets into the taxi, and she's got to face her life now. And she's going to face the inevitability of her own demise and her own mortality. And there's something really heartbreaking about that.
On the freedom of not being in control
Hopkins: I remember standing at my father's bedside after he died ... my mother was with him, with his body. ... And I remember thinking to myself, 'Yeah, you're not so hot either, because one day it'll happen to you.' This is life. And when death presents itself to you in those moments ... well, we have no control and we don't know what's coming. We have no means of predicting anything. And there's a great freedom in that—in realizing that we are inadequate, really. So, for me to play this—part of it was easy and in a way, yes, life-changing. It's made me think even deeper.
Danny Hajek and Simone Popperl produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.