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Saturday, January 28, 2023

‘The Son’ filmmaker talks mental health and working with Hugh Jackman and Anthony Hopkins

For Oscar-winning filmmaker Florian Zeller, “The Son” comes from a personal place. It’s not the crop of characters he created, but the underlying emotions of the story that he’s familiar with. Simply put, he wanted to open up the conversation on mental health.

The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and opened in theatres across Canada on Friday, is directed by Zeller from a screenplay he wrote alongside Christopher Hampton. It is based on Zeller’s 2018 stage play of the same name and is a prequel to 2020s “The Father,” which earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination and earned Zeller an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

“The Son” follows Peter (Hugh Jackman), whose hectic life with his infant and partner Beth (Vanessa Kirby) is upended when his ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) enters to discuss their teen son Nicholas (Zen McGrath), who suffers from severe depression. The family struggles to support him through his mental health crisis.

“It comes from a personal place for me, maybe even more than ‘The Father.’ But you’re not making a film to tell your own story. You’re making it to share something with the audience. When I say that it comes from a personal place, I’m not talking about characters or situations, but the emotions that I’m familiar with,” he said in an interview ahead of his TIFF premiere.

When his play was on stage in Paris, the French playwright and novelist was moved with the audience’s response, who approached him to share their own stories. “For me, that feeling that there are so many people dealing with mental health issues, sometimes without knowing what it is, so many people dealing with that fear, not knowing what to do anymore with your children, dealing with that guilt … I really needed to do something with it. I know that there is so much ignorance about mental health issues, so much guilt and so much shame, and so much denial that I wanted to open the conversation, to try to find a way to face these issues without shying away.

“I love to put the audience in an active position to try to find the truth. But my intention was really to never give ‘the why.’ Because I think it’s faithful to reality. To me, at least, there is mystery about mental health issues. We don’t know exactly where it comes from, there are so many layers, psychological, of course, but also biological, chemical. And so, when you are in pain, when you see people that are doing things that seem so easy for them, and it’s so difficult for you, you feel it’s so unfair that you want to find someone or something to blame. In this story, the teenager is blaming divorce and his parents, but that wasn’t the plan to say that it’s because of the divorce.”

When it came to casting Hugh Jackman in the lead, Zeller shared that Jackman reached out to him with a letter expressing his interest in the role. “I was really surprised and moved by his simplicity, honesty and courage to do that. I, of course, met him, but I was not planning to make a decision. It was our first conversation. But I remember that after a few minutes, I stopped the conversation. And I said, ‘It’s for you’ and I offered him the part.”

Jackman has already earned a Golden Globe nomination for his work in the film. “What I love is when you try to explore something that the actor already has in himself deep down and I felt that he was as a son and as a father, completely connected to this fear that we were trying to explore and that he was available for that journey to follow me and to go to these very emotional places.”

“Every time I mentioned his name, before I worked with him, everyone was saying the same thing — that he is the nicest person in the world … It was not about judging him, so I needed someone who could create this empathy and he has that because he’s someone very special as a human being.”

Jackman wasn’t the only actor Zeller raved about. Anthony Hopkins also makes an appearance in the film. In fact, the character is even named after the Oscar-winning actor. “When I finished the script, the first person to read it before my friends and before my agent was Anthony really, because making a film with actors is such an emotional journey. I respect his sensibility and he’s very intelligent and he knows a lot about mental health. So I really wanted him to read it right away and he called me three hours after I sent it and said, ‘I’m doing it.’”

This was also the first time Jackman and Hopkins met. “For me to have this opportunity to have these two in the frame was really exciting. And it really was an intense moment.”

“The Son” opened in theatres across Canada on Friday.

Marriska Fernandes is a Toronto-based entertainment reporter and film critic. She is a freelance contributor for the Star’s Culture section. Follow her on Twitter: @marrs_fers

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