With “The Son”, Florian Zeller wants to make the public uncomfortable
Many directors who find huge success with their first films find it difficult to know what to do next. Not Florian Zeller. The French playwright-turned-director, who won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for co-writing the 2020 drama The father, was already hard at work on his follow-up as he navigated the awards circus that year.
Zeller, working with his co-author Christopher Hampton, was determined to adapt his 2018 piece The son– a story centered on divorced parents whose teenage son struggles with mental illness. Zeller, who spent the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown writing the screenplay, calls The sonwhich is part of a trilogy of plays which also includes The mother, his most personal work.
Zeller’s work has a knack for bringing out uncomfortable emotions in audiences. With The father, we looked like a woman (Olivia Colman) witnessed his father’s breakdown as he sank into the depths of dementia (Anthony Hopkins, in an Oscar-winning performance). In The son, which will debut at the Venice Film Festival on September 7 before a theatrical release on November 11 by Sony Pictures Classics, the parents played by Hugh Jackman and Laura Dern struggle to understand the situation of their teenage son (Zen McGrath) an increasingly intense anger against life – and their attempts to help it often lead to disaster.
“It’s so hard to be a good dad or a good mom and deal with a situation where you don’t know what to do anymore,” says Zeller, who has a son and stepson with his wife. Marine Delterme. He recalls that after the play debuted in Paris, audiences came to see him afterwards to share their own experiences with mental health and family issues. “That’s when I really realized that so many people were connected to this,” he says. “There is so much shame and ignorance about mental health issues, that this was a way for me to share what I learned and also open up a conversation.”
Inside the Movie (Awards Insider Releases New Exclusive Images of The son here), Nicholas can only describe it as a crushing weight that takes away his will to live. This ambiguity only increases the frustration of her parents – and the public – as to how to resolve it.
“As an audience, what I really like is being in an active position; not just to sit and watch a story already written and told, but to be part of the story and be active,” says Zeller. “It’s a way of opening the conversation and not sulking on these subjects, because I know that it takes time to ask the right questions. And sometimes that’s the time we don’t have, to avoid tragedy.