Florian Zeller has made a specialty of disorienting his audience. Last year, The Father’s cleverly fuzzy timeline, based on his own play inspired by Alzheimer’s disease, won him the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as a Best Actor award for Anthony Hopkins. Yet the French playwright and director’s new work The Forest, about to have its world premiere at London’s Hampstead Theatre, is perhaps his most disconcerting yet.
“I tried to create a maze,” Zeller explains on Zoom from his home in Paris. On stage, the scenes are repeated with micro-variations: different actors may or may not play the same character. “The goal was not to lose people in this forest. It was to put them in a confused situation and let them reconstruct the situation.
For such a labyrinthine storyteller, Zeller seems to conduct his career with unerring clarity. He’s been described as a hit machine: from The Father, which propelled him onto the international map after numerous hits at home, to The Son, currently being made into a movie starring Hugh Jackman and Laura Dern, almost everything he wrote in the last decade has turned to gold. When I ask Jonathan Kent, who directs The Forest and who directed Zeller’s The Height of the Storm in 2018, to describe the 42-year-old, the first adjective he comes up with is “certain”, before adding “He has a kind of intellectual certainty about what he wants or what he feels his job needs.
Oscar winner or not, Zeller is one of the most courteous people I’ve interviewed. He apologizes for not meeting in person (he had life-threatening asthma attacks as a child, which may have contributed to his caution with Covid). He pauses to consider each question before crafting specific answers.
The central character of The Forest is a wealthy man who has had an affair and loses his bearings as his life threatens to fall apart. “The subject of the play is anxiety,” Zeller says. “I think it grows in the brain in a circular, obsessive way and creates the illusion of hell. It’s a story of a man falling apart in front of us. Was he writing from experience? A pause “Yes, I know what it is. And the guilt too.”
Zeller started working on The Forest years ago, but didn’t find the structure he was looking for until he took it over in 2020, following the first lockdown in France. The working title of the piece was Trains Across the Plains, a lyric from a beloved and enigmatic French song by Alain Bashung, At Night I Lie.
Red herrings abound. “They’re two people lying about their feelings,” Kent says of the cheating central character and his wife when I visit rehearsals and see Gina McKee and Paul McGann polishing a version of a scene that repeats multiple times. with different dialogues. “Just make it more awkward,” Kent advised McKee, who tried different ways to suggest the woman wasn’t as oblivious as she might initially seem.
Watching them work, it is evident that Zeller conveys in very few words. His lines, translated by his frequent collaborator Christopher Hampton, are concise, often innocuous, but sharp. (The “Seemed rather important” line, about a phone call, managed to sound both worried and passive-aggressive.) “When I did The Height of the Storm, [for] the first week or so, the actors felt constrained,” Kent explains. “Then when they bought into it, they discovered that if you observe the rigor of it, it gives you total freedom.”
While reality is slippery in many Zeller plays, The Forest goes one step further. “It’s a strange combination of surrealism and Pinter-like austerity,” Kent says. “He deals with metaphysics, which is not particularly an Anglo-Saxon pursuit.” As in the film version of The Father, Zeller drew inspiration from David Lynch: the piece’s fragmented nature is meant to reflect the “deep duality” of its central character. “I’ve always been fascinated by people who are able to sustain this duality without guilt or anxiety causing it to collapse,” he says. He mentions a former French minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, who categorically denied having a secret offshore bank account before he was convicted of fraud and money laundering in 2016.
This could apply to many people in public life today, I emphasize. From politics to sexual harassment cases, outright confessions of guilt are now extremely rare. “Yes. There is something like madness in the ability not to recognize reality,” says Zeller. He quotes a song by Michel Houellebecq (yes, the French novelist once released an album): “We must achieve a clarified heart.” He adds, “I think we stand tall in life when we deal with that clarified heart, when we know what we want and who we are.”
Zeller seems to have succeeded. He was raised mainly by his mother while his father worked in Germany as an engineer, and he rose to prominence early in France with a series of youth novels, winning the prestigious Interallié prize at age 25. His pivot to the stage came when he was asked to adapt the libretto of a rare opera, Háry János by Zoltán Kodály, in 2002. The collective nature of theater appealed to him and he proved inordinately good at it, reaching a rare level of international popularity for a French playwright, with multiple end and Broadway hits.
He’s cautious about his personal life, but in 2010 he married French actor Marine Delterme (best friend of former first lady Carla Bruni), who recently called him ‘the most noble soul I’ve ever had. have ever met”. Zeller has a son and a stepson with Delterme. His play The Son, which depicts a teenage mental breakdown, is partly inspired by Zeller’s own experience as a father.
Zeller is currently editing the film adaptation of The Son, which he shot mostly in London last year. He has thoughtful praise for all the cast members, from Jackman – “extraordinary, generous and courageous” – to Dern, whose “quality of being” he describes in very French terms. And he added a role for Hopkins, as a difficult grandfather who was just mentioned in the play. Did he rename the character Anthony, like he did to convince Hopkins to play the main character in The Father? “Yeah,” Zeller admits sheepishly. “We went through something so intense with The Father and what happened next, that I wanted to prolong it. I have a lot of tenderness and affection for him.
Father’s awards chase “made it easier” when it came to financing his second film, he says. “When the Oscars rolled around, my first thought wasn’t that it would open the door to blockbusters. It was that I would be able to do The Son, despite the difficult subject matter. I jokingly ask if Marvel movies can still to be in his future. “No”, he says quickly, before looking worried: “But I don’t judge.”
Zeller has yet to take a vacation since last year’s Oscars. It will be soon, he said. “I’m not very good at holidays. What really excites me is work. Some people have set times to write, but I have the opposite problem: I try to schedule times when I won’t be working.
The mostly virtual 2021 awards campaign means Zeller has at least been able to be home. “Of course, I would have preferred to travel, but that’s okay,” he says. Zeller is very close to his sons. The values he tried to instill in them, he says, are “kindness, caring and respect – but that seems pretty obvious to me.”
I ask him questions about his youngest son’s interest in the cinema. For the first time in our conversation, Zeller looks taken aback. “How do you know that?” he says. Your wife mentioned it in a recent interview, I tell her. Fleetingly, he lowers his guard. “Yes, he has a passion for Legos, and he makes small stop motion films. He is someone who needs to create parallel worlds, to find a kind of refuge there. Could it be a family trait? “We always compensate for things when we create,” Zeller says with a smile, before returning to his own creation of the world.