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“THE SON” director Florian Zeller speaks about his new film at PALM SPRINGS FEST

It’s the second in an unofficial trilogy that started with "THE FATHER" in 2020

PALM SPRINGS, Calif.—Florian Zeller broke our hearts in 2020 with “The Father,” which placed us inside the mind of a man suffering from dementia. It featured a bravura performance from Anthony Hopkins, who justly took home an Oscar. Zeller appeared at the 34th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival on Tuesday for a screening and conversation about “The Son,” his new film.

“They are connected in terms of themes, I would say, but it is completely two different stories and also different narratives,” Zeller told me on the red carpet ahead of the screening at the Annenberg Theatre. “The whole thing about ‘The Father’ was to try to put the audience in the main character’s’ brain. … Here it’s a more straightforward and languid drama about how to try to help someone who is going through mental health issues.”

“The Son” stars Hugh Jackman as Peter, a Manhattan lawyer living with his much-younger wife (Vanessa Kirby) and their newborn son. Peter also has a teenage son called Nicholas (Zen McGrath) from his earlier marriage to Kate (Laura Dern), and as the film commences, it becomes clear that something serious is troubling young Nicholas.

Following the screening, Zeller said that “there is no easy explanation for such a pain” as what Nicholas faces in “The Son,” and to which he is scarcely able to put into proper words. “When you are in that position, you want to have something to blame,” he said. “I try to film this pain as if there was no explanation—as if it was a mystery or black hole, because sometimes we need to accept that there are no explanations.”

It’s a tall order, both for audiences as well as Peter. (Zeller apologized for Jackman’s absence given his ongoing commitment to “The Music Man” on Broadway.) McGrath, the young actor who portrays the unstable Nicholas, is masterful in his attempts to deal with his psychological agony. And we can’t help but feel sympathy for Peter and Kate, who desperately wish to help their son yet make several incorrect, and fateful, decisions regarding Nicholas’s care. Zeller said it’s very common for parents to make decisions similar to Peter and Kate’s in the film: You’d much rather not see your child suffer at all than imagine you might be causing them even more discomfort by getting them help.

“When we did that play on stage in Paris, I was very surprised and moved by the response of the audience…not to say ‘congratulations’ but to share their own story [of] my son, my daughter, my uncle,” Zeller said of the play that inspired the screenplay he wrote with Christopher Hampton. “And I realized so many people are connected to this kind of issue.

“There is so much ignorance and shame and guilt around these topics that I knew I wanted to make a film about it to open up a conversation.”

In translating his own play to a screenplay, Zeller opted to add in another level by creating a new role for Peter’s father, who is never named in the film but shows up for a biting scene in which can be located the familial anguish that Peter hopes not to visit in turn upon Nicholas.

Fittingly, Peter’s father is portrayed by Hopkins, although Zeller was quick to point out he is not in fact the same character from “The Father”—although that’s an entirely natural inference. Zeller said that he purposely didn’t allow Hopkins and Jackman to meet until the day they shot their lone scene together, which he felt added to the natural alienation between Peter and his father, which had festered over decades.

“I felt that it would be interesting for Hugh as an actor not to be completely comfortable,” Zeller said of the scene between the two acting titans. “That’s what we were trying to tell: a son who is not totally at peace with his father.”

Hugh Jackman and Vanessa Kirby in “The Son”

Zeller used this no-rehearsal style for much of “The Son.” A rather difficult scene late in the film sees Peter and Kate reacting to something heard offscreen but not seen. Zeller shared with the Annenberg crowd that he told Jackman and Dern they were only rehearsing in order to elicit the genuine reaction to a sudden noise.

“As actors but also as human beings, they have to make decisions, so they made the decision to stand up and run out of frame,” Zeller said of the one and only take used in the film. “It was only one take because the truth was there. There was no point in covering it again.”

It was actually Jackman who got in touch with Zeller about starring in the film, not the other way around. Jackman wrote the filmmaker a letter saying to the effect that if he didn’t yet have a Peter, the Wolverine actor was game for the role. Zeller was touched by the “gentlemanly” letter offering his services or to step aside if he wasn’t the correct fit. Zeller and Jackman soon spoke over Zoom; Peter had been found.

“As a father and as a son, he was concerned and connected to these issues,” Zeller said of his leading man. “I felt it was an opportunity for him—and to us—to explore these emotions without trying to fake anything. I felt he would be ‘available’ for that journey.”

Zeller shared that the “X-Men” star is indeed as kindly and spirited as the legends say, and heaped praise upon the Australian’s willingness to go for some rather dark yet truthful emotional moments in “The Son.” He also said that Dern, who is a mother in real life, bowed out of another film in order to join his cast.

Though it takes place in New York, “The Son” was shot largely on a soundstage in London during a later covid wave there. Because the cast and crew were so cautious about the disease, this helped foster the intimacy of the performances seen in the film, the director believes.

“I didn’t want to tell a French or British story or an American story, I wanted to tell something that was more universal,” Zeller said of choosing to set the film in New York, even if so little footage was actually captured there. “I knew these types of stories could happen and do happen everywhere.”

The covid pandemic not only took a toll on our physical health, Zeller believes the psychological costs were as high, if not more devastating.

“We are going through a specific time after covid, a real mental health crisis,” he said. “But I feel that we are not [yet] comfortable about it [or] watching films about it.”

Asked by an audience member if he would be willing to direct an adaptation of his play “The Mother,” to sort of complete his informal trilogy of plays, Zeller allowed that it may be possible down the line, but not just yet.

“To make a film takes a lot of energy and time, and you need to know why you are doing it,” he said. “At the moment I am still with ‘The Son.’ I know you should allow it to live its own life as you must with any child. Then I will let it go.”

The 2023 Palm Spring Festival took place January 5-16.

(featured image: Florian Zeller / photo: Eric Althoff)