Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton met for the first time when Hampton, a British playwright, screenwriter, and translator, attended a production of Zeller's stage play, Le Père. "At dinner that night, I asked him, 'Will you allow me to translate this play?'" recalls Hampton. "We've had an unusually harmonious partnership ever since."
It was his creative partnership with Hampton that ultimately helped Zeller, who'd garnered acclaim in France as a novelist and playwright, step away from the world of theater to make his feature debut. In 2019, the pair teamed up to adapt that same play into a film, The Father, which went on to win two Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay. "I had a partner who could help me create adaptations that actually felt cinematic," Zeller tells A.frame. "It was never about just trying to film the plays, which wouldn’t be very challenging or interesting. And I really respect his sensibility: He's such a subtle man, and that’s reflected in his words and work."
Now, nearly two years after their Oscar win, the duo have returned with The Son. Like The Father, The Son is based on an original play written by Zeller and explores familial tension, mental illness, and tragedy. Unlike The Father, however, which adopted a non-linear structure in order to capture the subjective experience of dementia from the inside, The Son tells a straightforward, linear story about divorced parents, Peter (Hugh Jackman) and Kate (Laura Dern), as they struggle to address their son, Nicholas' (Zen McGrath), crippling depression. Coming off The Father, it was the in-person experiences Zeller had when The Son was put up as a play that inspired him to tackle it as his second film.
"I remember the emotions I shared with audiences whenever The Son was performed. After so many of the performances, people would wait for us and share their own stories and emotional reactions. They'd say, 'I know what you're talking about because of things I've experienced with my daughter or my sister or whomever,'" Zeller remembers. "So many people understand what it's like when you reach a place where you don't know what to do anymore as a parent, and to share those emotions with members of an audience — that was really where my desire to adapt The Son as a film originated."
As both Zeller and Hampton observe, the structural differences between The Father and The Son also made the idea of adapting the latter especially appealing. "Florian was determined that The Son was going to be his next project," Hampton says. "I think it means the most to him personally, and he was interested in doing a different kind of film from The Father, one that was more linear, narrative-driven, and naturalistic in its approach."
Zeller notes, "Most of my plays are built like The Father — that's just naturally the way I think — but I was interested in trying to resist my own innate instincts this time. I wanted to really face the story of The Son without any kind of narrative gimmick."
Despite its narrative simplicity, the writers still faced plenty of challenges in adapting The Son for the screen. "Unlike the approach we took with The Father, which we kept very close to its original form for tactical reasons, Florian wanted to open up The Son, set it in New York, and introduce new characters," Hampton explains. Because the film was set in New York and not France, they researched differing medical laws between the two, took Zoom calls with doctors in New York, and adjusted as needed. "We didn't majorly change anything. We both come from the theater, so we're used to writing scripts that people can learn and deliver," Hampton notes, before adding, "We're not inflexible, though."
According to Zeller, quite the opposite was true during the making of The Son, which was heavily shaped by the filmmaker's decision to forgo any rehearsals with the film's cast. Zeller made that decision after learning "the benefit of not rehearsing or over-preparing for a scene" while making The Father. For The Son, "I cast the film on the basis that these actors were connected to this story. They knew why they wanted to tell this story in particular. They had a deep, secret connection to the story, not only as actors but also as fathers, and sons, and mothers," the director explains. "I really wanted to try to catch those truthful connections to the story, and my way to do it was to not rehearse at all."
And while he notes that his actors were "a bit unnerved" when he told them his plan, Zeller believes that the benefits gained by not rehearsing are on display in the film.
"There was a kind of fluid, open feeling on set each day. We all had the feeling that anything might happen, which made making the film a really interesting experience."
"The first scene of the film is Laura Dern knocking on her ex-husband's apartment door in order to talk about their son. That wasn't the first scene we shot for the film, though," Zeller says. "We'd already shot some of the scenes between Vanessa Kirby" — who plays Peter's second wife, with whom he has a second son — "and Hugh Jackman so that their apartment could become their space. They became really familiar and comfortable with it, and then, Laura arrived. I asked her not to come to the apartment set at all before she shot her first scene, so she knew nothing about the set and she hadn't met Vanessa yet."
"That was a conscious decision I made in the hopes that, when she knocked on Vanessa and Hugh's door, it would be the very first time she got a sense of this new life that she had not been invited into. We put the camera on her and captured that reaction. It was the first time that those three actors were all together in the same room," Zeller continues. "I ultimately spent so many hours, and days, and weeks in the editing room, but I can really see all those emotional layers playing out on Laura's face in that scene."
Hampton, who was present on the set, believes that Zeller's approach helped create a better and livelier atmosphere during filming. "There was a kind of fluid, open feeling on set each day," he remembers. "We all had the feeling that anything might happen, which made making the film a really interesting experience."
Zeller points to another moment at the end of the film, when a gunshot is heard off-screen and Jackman and Dern's characters react to what's happened. "The audience knows all along that they’re watching a tragedy, so they always have a sense of where the film is taking them," the filmmaker says. "There's a gun mentioned early on in the film and, as Chekhov said, when you have a gun in the first act, it has to go off in the third." The audience, then, is always on-guard knowing that the gun could go off, but Zeller wanted both viewers and his actors be unprepared when it actually does.
"I shot the scene in one take and told Hugh and Laura that it was just going to be a camera rehearsal. I said, 'Don’t expect anything to happen at the end of the scene, but try to act as if something has.' So the feelings of surprise and terror that you see on their faces are real," Zeller reveals. "They had to do something in that moment, and what they chose to do is stand and run out of frame. It was purely instinctual because they didn't actually expect to hear the gun go off in that moment. That’s the moment I felt the most pressure to get right, because it could be awful if the actors were to over-perform throughout it."
In bringing The Son from the stage to the screen, Hampton says that he and Zeller, above all else, felt a responsibility to approach the film's subject matter with the utmost care and consideration. "Broadly speaking, the subject of teenage depression is so widespread all over the world. We wanted to do it justice and, specifically, not give any easy answers," he states. "Obviously, with The Father, we felt that the subject of dementia and Alzheimer's was a very important one to address. However, with The Son and this particular story, I think that burden was even more obvious to us. We just wanted to get it right."
The Son premiered during the 79th Venice International Film Festival, with additional screenings at TIFF and the AFI Fest. This month, the film opens nationwide. As their journey on the film comes to an end, neither Zeller nor Hampton know what the future holds. Will the two reteam for another adaptation of one of Zeller's plays? (The Father and The Son are, after all, part of a trilogy that began with The Mother.) When asked, Zeller admits that after two back-to-back adaptations, he's looking to "explore different things and jump into the unknown a bit more." ("I'm really at Florian's disposal," Hampton says for his part.)
No matter what comes next, Zeller is eternally grateful that he had Hampton alongside him as they made The Father — and experienced all that came after with it — and has now made The Son with him. "Not only is he a great writer, but he's also a close friend," Zeller says. "His presence has helped me feel like I haven't been completely by myself on these last two films."
By Alex Welch