I first saw THE SON at the London Film Festival a few months ago and haven’t been able to shake several scenes from the movie ever since. Written and directed by Florian Zeller, who won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for his incredible film THE FATHER, the film is based off of Zeller’s play. It is almost shot as a play too, with much of the action occurring within the four walls of a New York City apartment. The film is also a masterclass in acting, with such talent as Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Anthony Hopkins, and Vanessa Kirby knocking it out of the park from scene to scene.
Peter (Jackman) is a wealthy NYC-based attorney, who has his hands full with his job, his new wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby), and their baby. When Nicholas (Zen McGrath), Peter’s son from his first marriage, begins having problems at home, his ex-wife Kate (Dern) agrees to let Nicholas try living with his father for awhile. But when Nicholas begins missing school, lashing out at home, and hurting himself, it’s clear Peter may have bitten off more than he can chew. Peter doesn’t want to be like his own father (Anthony Hopkins), who prioritized work over family, but when he is offered his dream job in the political realm of DC, he has to make hard sacrifices. Will his family be one of them?
I was so lucky to have had the opportunity to speak to Zeller about THE SON last month in Washington, DC. We talked for thirty minutes, but I could have talked to him about the film all day. His thoughtful, insightful answers painted the movie in a new light. Upon my next viewing, I will be able to experience it in a far more nuanced way, which is my favorite thing about interviewing brilliant filmmakers like Zeller.
We first talked about how financial considerations and the COVID-19 pandemic affected where he shot the film. He had to move filming from New York and Washington, DC to London, finding locations that could stand in for the U.S. locations. “It was an interesting challenge. It’s part of what cinema is. It is an illusion, and you have to deal with that and not complain about it and try to find ways to tell the story in your mind and heart. It was important to me that the story took place in New York and DC. Actually, it was the first image that came to my mind when I started dreaming about that film… this man in a train, between New York and DC. This man traveling between his present (New York) and his past (DC) because we understand Washington, DC is where he grew up. But also it was between his present and future because he is about to start a new career in the political world so he must be in Washington.”
Because THE SON is based off of Zeller’s play, I was interested to hear if there were any scenes in particular that he was excited to film for the big screen; maybe there was a scene that he knew would transfer better in a cinematic setting than in a play. But it was actually a new scene, written for the film, that Zeller was most excited to shoot. “There is a scene that was not in the play, which is an additional scene with Anthony Hopkins, that became pivotal… the grandfather or the father’s father was in the play like a ghost. But the story is told from the father’s perspective, from Hugh Jackman’s character, and at some point we understand he is also a son. He is a son in pain and he is a son who is trying to be a better father than what he had or be the father he never had. It was about trying to explore this idea of trauma and how you pass it on to the next generation what is not resolved. And so it was easy to do it with Anthony Hopkins, to use his extraordinary cruelty [laughs] to make us understand that Peter was a son in pain.”
And speaking of Anthony Hopkins, this is Zeller’s second time working with him on-screen after THE FATHER. He told me a fascinating story about Jackman and Hopkins meeting for the first time, which just so happened to be on-camera. “[On-camera] was the first time Hugh Jackman met Anthony Hopkins, and Anthony is a legend for an actor to meet, so Hugh was extremely excited about the idea of sharing that moment… I had the opportunity to organize a meeting before that scene, but I decided not to because I knew Hugh, who is such an amiable person, was a bit intimidated and I knew it would serve the situation to have Hugh at the top of his game, but still impressed by Anthony Hopkins. So I didn’t want him to feel too comfortable.”
Zeller also told me an adorable story about Hopkins, who has been on hundreds of movie sets, but still clearly loves his job and missed it during the shutdown. “Anthony was excited because it was the first time for him to be back on set because of COVID. He was really keen to be on set. He would show up at 5 AM and wasn’t expected until 10 AM. He really wanted to be there.”
As I said before, there are so many scenes in THE SON that I am going to watch in a completely new way based on behind-the-scenes stories Zeller told me. I love that he is such a spontaneous filmmaker, who is concerned less about rehearsing the scene to make it technically accurate, and more interested by the natural flow of the scene and trusting the actors’ actual reactions. “We made the decision not to rehearse at all. I asked Hugh to be almost unprepared in order to be as truthful and connected to the real reason why he came to me about the role in the first place. It was a bit scary for him, but he was generous to follow me on this and I was very, very impressed by him throughout the shoot. I have a tremendous respect for him as an actor and as a man.”
One of the most critical scenes in the film involves a loud noise, and Zeller tricked the actors in order to get their natural reactions. I can’t imagine what Laura Dern and Hugh Jackman must have been feeling in the moment. “It was an opportunity to create special things because I didn’t want the actors to be overtrained. For specific moments, we would limit the takes. There’s a loud noise [editor’s note: I am cutting the actual word for spoiler purposes] and you cannot fake surprise and terror ten times. So what I did was rehearse the movement with the DP [director of photography] because it is basically one take with the camera. So the actors came and I told them it would just be a rehearsal for the camera, which was not true. I told them at the end of the scene there would not be a loud noise so don’t be surprised but do the scene. So they did it without expecting anything, but I knew it would happen. They were completely in a terror and they had to make a decision based on what happened. So they stood up and ran into the [other room]. So that’s what happened in their body and the emotion they dealt with was the truth. Then I said cut and Laura cried for ten minutes and we moved on. And that was the take in the movie. I wanted to catch something real and something they wouldn’t be completely aware of.”
As I said, I could have talked to Zeller for another 3 hours about more behind the scenes stories for THE SON. It is so exciting to talk to someone that cares so much about their art and has put so much time into thinking about the story, characters, and how the audience will react to the piece. This film is admittedly not an easy watch, but it is a powerful conversation starter about issues surrounding mental health, and that love is not always enough; it is important to get support from experts as well.
THE SON is in theaters now.