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Our dirty questions to Peter Francis

The production designer of double-Oscar winner The Father shares the secrets of how to make a convincing and riveting single-location drama

Despite a tumultuous, pandemic-hit launch schedule, The Father (Florian Zeller, 2020) has seen runaway success in the 2021 awards season, landing the supreme Anthony Hopkins his 2nd Academy Award for Best Actor and a Best Adapted Screenplay for writer-director Zeller and fellow playwright collaborator Christopher Hampton. DMovies was fortunate enough to catch a screening back in late 2020, at the San Sebastián International Film Festival and named it one our dirtiest movies of 2020 (The top 10 dirtiest movies of 2020 – DMovies).

The hype train is set to keep rolling on with follow-up film The Son (Zeller) recently announced, to star Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern and Vanessa Kirby. Amidst this starry, storied background, we sat for a down-to-earth discussion with production designer Peter Francis, to find out firsthand how the careful crafting of this single location dementia drama was managed. Peter was also nominated for an Academy Award in this capacity and for obvious reason – the constant reimagining of the apartment is essential to the storytelling. Indeed, we said that “spacetime itself seems to fold along with the turns of Tony’s mind, reminiscent of the scenery quick changes used to create location transitions in theatrical productions”.

The Father is available now for Digital Download, and also on Blu-ray and DVD, from Lionsgate UK.

Spoilers follow from the first – you have been warned.

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Charles Williams – So we at DMovies loved the film – I saw it last year in a press screening full of battle-hardened film journalists and the atmosphere the film created was extremely memorable. Everybody was hyper aware, hyper silent, then audibly gasping as the film reveals its true nature. It’s really quite an affecting film and I was first wondering how you came to be a part of it. Had you seen the stage play from which it is adapted beforehand?

Peter Francis – I haven’t seen the play! I got involved like I usually do, in that they sent the script to my agent and my agent got in touch and said “there’s an Anthony Hopkins/Olivia Coleman film, would you be interested in reading this picture?”. Absolutely, yes, just without even a doubt! They sent me the script and I loved it obviously and the opening page on the script explains that the set has to be like the third character in the film. The challenge of the architecture having to stay the same but with the set evolving and changing into these different locations… It grabbed me straight away. I had a few days to prepare and I’d worked out a little layout of the apartment in my head and I’d done a sketch of it for when I went in to meet Florian for the first time.

We talked about references and ideas and how we wanted it to look and so I described my ideas, showing the plan that I’d drawn. He put his own plan on the table and said “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine” and it turned out he’d also been working on a plan whilst writing the script they were virtually identical. So we got off to a good start. Really, we were both in exactly the same frame of mind about how the layout of the apartment should be. So I hadn’t seen the play and I’m glad I haven’t seen the play because I think I would have then been influenced on a look, on a feeling, and I know Florian didn’t want it to look or feel like the play either. He wanted to do something cinematic.

CW – The plan that you speak about the apartment, is that the apartment at a fixed point in time or is this the of the various different faces of the apartment you see during the film?

PF – Well the layout never changes, the space is the same all the way through. So the plan is identical in each situation. We changed it a little bit for the doctor’s surgery but architecture stays the same. What changes is the colours and the dressing and the feel of the space, and so it’s getting your head around how you make it feel like the same place but also feel different. Compare it to redecorating your home in a way, but then it also had to be different places. The way I approached it and the way for me to make sense of it is to say that Anthony is in the care home from day one. This was how my logic worked. So that everything we see is through Anthony’s eyes and how he sees it and what’s on the walls and the furniture are of his memories. We might go into that apartment, stand next to him and see something completely different, but what we’re seeing is what the character is seeing through his point-of-view. So, I take it from the outset that he’s in the care home, all the way through, and that’s why the architecture doesn’t change. It’s just the atmosphere that changes.

CW – Can I ask whether you have any personal experience of dementia that informed this kind of sensitive understanding of how it could be?

PF – Yeah, my uncle actually had it and died of it about four years ago. So it has all the elements that we went through and also all of the quirks and the mannerisms are there. I think everybody who has had some experience of somebody with dementia sees that in the story. They can see it in the way he reacts, and how he thinks – how he approaches problems with other people. I understand that Florian had a personal experience as well with his grandmother, so he’d written the play from his own perspective and experience. He said that many people would see the play and come up to him afterwards to comment on how it really struck home because of having a mother, or a father, a grandparent that experienced dementia or Alzheimer’s.

It affects different people in different ways of course – there are so many different variables in the way it affects different people. Anthony Hopkins fully embraced it and he’d obviously done a lot of homework and understood the problems that they face. The mannerisms and how it confuses people. So yes, I had some firsthand experience but Florian has said that this is a film about memories. We don’t specifically mention Alzheimer’s or dementia but of course that’s what he’s got, we see the doctor, but the film is also about memories.

CW – Please tell us more about the effective use of changing colour schemes and furnishings!

PF – When I first started I was looking at the care home. For example, you know how in dementia care homes they use colour in a certain way, they use patterns in a certain way. All the floors are the same because a dementia patient moving from one room to another with a changing floor thinks that they’re going to fall off the edge. There’s all sorts of these things but we decided that wasn’t the way to go for the care home. We were just going to go as if it was a normal care home, not necessarily for dementia, and so talking about changes in coloration at the different time points was informed by the typical kinds of decor during the events in the film. In the beginning it’s all yellows and greens and oaks. He’s lived there for 30 or 40 years by then so we wanted a colour palette that reflected that he hasn’t redecorated in quite some time. We also wanted something that was very different to the blue, which was the important colour in the end. It was dictated to us by the end of the film in the care home, so that cold blue was where we were aiming at.

We needed a transition so Anne’s apartment was like a dusty blue but we wanted a strong change in decor from Anthony’s flat to Anne’s. I gave him a little bit of a backstory for myself, to come up with a look for his apartment. I told myself that he’d been an engineer, that he’d worked all around the world. Maybe he’s been to South America, maybe he’s been to India… So he’s worked in all these different countries and developed an eclectic taste; he’s brought furniture back with him. We wanted it to feel like his apartment told you a bit about his life story and then Anne’s apartment had to feel very different. Florian wanted Anne’s place to feel much softer – he used the word ‘pastel’ but not necessarily meaning pastel colours, more a softer tone all over.

The shapes in Anthony’s place are quite hard and angular, from his engineering background, and then softer colours and softer shapes… The paintings, for example. We have very sort of hard, linear, angular paintings in Anthony’s and Anne’s were much softer and gentler. It wasn’t a masculine vs. feminine thing, it was more just a contrast between the two to give us that difference in feeling. Then the blue became very important and colour became more important as the job went on. We started talking about and playing around with the colours. Of course, the blue came first when we went to shoot a scene in a hospital which had a very cold blue wall. That was the colour that we decided was essential for the care home in the end and so we went back from that. I worked very carefully with Ben Smith, the director of photography. We tried lots of colour samples, we did boards of different colours, with different tones to try, to give us a flavor and a feel of the different characters. Working with Ben we found out what worked best on camera and what would tell the story better. So that was how the colours evolved, really. We went for this very distinct change from Anthony’s apartment then to this inevitable colour change. The film gradually gets colder as we move to the end.

CW – You can pick up on the colour changes, but it’s very interesting what you say about the different artworks as well. There is a central painting that is very integral to the film, with the link to the daughter who passed away sometime previously.

PF – Yes, there’s a trace there in the branching of the two art themes. The painting of the daughter is meant to have been produced previously and is kind of branching painting to delineate the difference in taste between the two flats. That painting is the same painting right the way through, so that one key element persists through the story and is a constant in all those different locations. It’s present in Anthony’s apartment and then you see it in Anne’s. There’s a confusion there and that then brings in the story of the daughter. However, the original concept of the painting above the fireplace is that the final shot of the film, looking out the window at the leaves, originally was going to pan down and become the live version of that painting. We were going to see the little girl dancing in the park in that final shot but they cut it shorter at the end. The painting was actually created from some footage that we shot of a little girl dancing in the park, so that was going to be the final image and they changed that in the end to hold on the leaves because that tied in with the dialogue better.

CW – Yeah, I agree that would maybe have introduced a bit too much ambiguity, if he’d been imagining the painting the whole time.

PF – It would have been different, but everyone else was seeing a painting as well, the same painting. It’s interesting, though. Somebody else asked me a question about how things evolve and how things planned on paper change and evolve. Things like that evolved naturally. If you are involved in this kind of problem and involved in the editing, once we come up with all our different scenarios and once it is pieced together then you can decide what works and what doesn’t work. That final shot of just the leaves on the trees blowing gently just ties in beautifully with the dialogue in that final final moment. So the painting above the fireplace is the one constant but then all the other paintings in there were interesting because we when we redressed Anthony’s back into Anne’s flats, for example, we hung the paintings on the walls when we stood back and looked we realised that we’d put all the paintings in similar arrangements, in similar places. It was sort of planned but in a way it was a happy accident. It worked in that you have a triptych of three paintings in the living room, above where the piano was, and that makes one arrangement.

Then, at Anne’s, we didn’t try to make a similar version, so it’s slightly different, but it’s still three paintings and your eye goes to paintings on the walls once more. You don’t necessarily notice that they’re different paintings. We didn’t want to give it away totally, to say “Yes, we know it’s completely different – this is a different apartment”. You don’t notice you’re actually somewhere else at first and some members of the audience don’t notice until later than others, if you know what I mean. We wanted to be subtle and subtlety was really key throughout, apart from the colour changes. Subtle changes and gentle changes were key and they work better than trying to drastically change something.

CW – I think that I need to revisit the film with this in mind. I was so focused on the characters and the narratives that it was only when you see the big changes, like the kitchen completely changing, that’s when it clicked into place for me. I’d love to go back and look for more of these subtle differences.

PF – It’s quite interesting that some people notice different things than others. There’s no right or wrong way around it, like some people get it straight away and some don’t notice it until the second time they watch it. Most people say that the second time they notice that things have changed, the third time they notice different things again. It’s the same for me as well, actually. It sort of brings back different memories, because gradually things disappear out of the flat. It actually empties, so by the last time we see the flat, we see it virtually empty . Everything’s gone but there’s quite a lot of inbetweenness. You’ll see some boxes in the corner and you’ll see the corridor without the lamps in it… You’ll see some paintings stacked on the floor or a carpet rolled up. It’s all been redecorated throughout completely different colour schemes as well. It was one of those jobs that comes along where it was complicated but once you put your head around it, it made sense and was exciting to do, to play with it and to play with the audience. To kind of cheat, just a bit, and see if they notice or not, because subtlety was our key word all the way through.

CW – You mentioned references in your early discussions with Florian. Did you mean reference films as well? What kind of films came to mind when you were envisioning this project?

PF – We talked about Polanski obviously – Repulsion (1965) was a key reference visually – but in terms of other films… Of course we reference other films but in terms of production design, in terms of a look of small interiors and styling what sort of things might work, paintings were key as well. I don’t mean the paintings in the set but using paintings as a reference source of which way to go with a design. There’s a painter whose name I always forget but I’ve used him quite a few times… A Dutch painter. They used him as a great reference for ‘The Danish Girl actually… Hammershøi. Vilhelm Hammershøi. We quite often look at paintings because paintings are always a great source for atmosphere and color and tone, as well as composition. Hammershøi always paints doors and corridors. It’s all very much like Polanski and it was doors through doors, rooms beyond rooms. What was something that you get with the cinematography in the film as well, these kinds of telescoping corridors. Ben Smith gave the whole thing a more claustrophobic feel as the film went on, but that whole thing of interconnecting doors and rooms and corridors and linking doors… They’re a bit like synapses in your brain. You’ve got different rooms connected and we wanted this set to feel quite labyrinthine, in that you know the living room has three sets of doors, so you’re never quite sure where he’s come. He’s in the corridor but you’re not quite sure what’s behind the door so he’ll suddenly appear in the dining room, for example, and that’s linked to the living room which is linked to the study and all those are linked to the corridor, so he could come through any door at any time. That helped to give the feeling of ambiguity and confusion for the audience and obviously you can do that as well with the camera. Ben did a great job with lenses to give the sensation of claustrophobia. He also had a beautiful lighting rig, which gradually moves as the film goes on to mimic the setting of the sun. The light gets lower in the sky as the film moves. Again, it’s just a very subtle change. We’re not shouting about it, but just adding another layer of subtlety to show the progression of the film.

CW – I love that analogy about the doors and synapses in the brain. I’m a biochemist by trade so that really speaks to me, a model of dementia stopping the connections between memories.

PF – Doors became very important in the film. It’s all about doors opening and closing, isn’t it, but you think about it in your mind it’s the same. They don’t shout at you, but they’re the same. You notice the same doors in each of the locations so that was quite important for those to be distinctive and so we would do shots of doors open, doors closed. We did quite a lot of shots of the flat with no actors in it at all, so it’s quite often you’ll move through to an empty room and that’ll set the scene for the next part of the story. But certainly, doors open and closed was a big, big deal. You’re in the dining room, for example. Double doors open, it’s the living room, double doors opening to the study. That’s a very long vista to then shut one off and suddenly you’re in a completely different space. We played a lot with the layout of the flat by closing areas off again and again to add confusion. That was an interesting way to help tell the story and one thing which appealed to me about this project was that the flat itself is almost the third character in the story. It plays a really integral part in the way that characters behave, living in this space.

CW – It’s really the distinguishing feature of the film. There’re so many films recently about dementia but most of them just depict the main character having an episode or forgetting something, none of them quite draw you in the same way that having the space shifting like that. The concept of this third character really manages to hammer home the reality of it.

PF – It was certainly a novel approach to telling the story. Florian came up with this great concept in that you eventually realise it’s from Anthony’s point of view, but you don’t really understand what’s going on at first, until it becomes fully apparent that we’re seeing it through the patient’s eye. It was fascinating for all of us, as well. Quite often you read the script and you have to read it three or four times before you can visualise the film. Then, you watch the finished product once, you see it twice, see it three times and again you understand something different from it. We were the same with the script. We’d ask about Anne, does she ever go to Paris and Florain would say that we don’t know, we never know, nobody knows. It’s all ambiguous, there’s no right or wrong answer to any interpretation. f you like um so all really interesting and you know quite some time well like where are we now you know just even for us it’s like i’m confused you know

CW – It’s like a remixing of memories into new ones, memories and falsehoods intertwined.

PF – When Anne walks into Anthony’s bedroom and starts strangling him, you’re thinking that you know what’s what, but then that happens. You don’t realise it’s sort of a dream sequence flashback. It’s more to confuse the audience so that you’re never quite sure of yourself. When he’s walking at night down the corridor and goes through the cupboard, and there’s his other daughter lying in the hospital bed… Everyone’s asking where’s that coming from but it’s all just another level to the jumbling up of memory. It was a very brave thing to do, to really try and confuse the audience as Florian did because it’s one of those things where you never know if they’ll quite work or not. We all knew it though, we all had real faith in it. The Father was one of those jobs where it just felt good and it was such a fantastic team of people who were fully behind the project. I believe it helped massively and it shows in the final film. Everyone worked so closely together and got on well which was really one of the keys to its eventual success.

CW – I wanted to quickly ask about your work on Mindhorn (Sean Foley, 2017) as well. I grew up with that kind of British TV comedy – The Mighty Boosh and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace were quite influential to me. The kind of experience you describe of a team being very invested and pulling together, was that something you experienced there as well?

PF – Mindhorn! That was brilliant, honestly. That was really quite a film and we had a great time doing that as well, actually. That was quirky and interesting and there weren’t really any rules with that, because we were sort of living in this sort of slightly retro world. We weren’t in the ’80s, apart from one scene, but it was all slightly surreal which for me was great fun to do. The director, Sean Foley, was great and he was keen for us all to just have fun with it. He wanted it to be a bit quirky so we tried to give it a slightly not-quite comic book feel, but just slightly off . Melly’s lair, which is Russell Tovey’s underground hideyhole. I mean, we just had a ball with that. Honestly, I really enjoyed that film. Of course the script in The Mighty Boosh, it’s all just like “whoa, that’s really weird”, but that’s the way that type of comedy goes. I think that because it wasn’t a big budget, it worked because people seemed to really embrace it. With that film, the London Film Festival really took it on board. i think and really liked it and um yeah i was great i’d love to do another one actually i i should they should do a sequel because we could really do i always thought actually they sort of slightly set it up in a little bit that you can do a sequel and i think they should yeah.

CW – A team up with Steve Coogan’s character, perhaps?

PF – Something like that you could do but they developed the original script for such a long time. I think that script was like 10 years in the writing… I loved Mindhorn, I really would love to do another film like that again, actually, because there were no rules on that one, that was fun.

CW – To again bridge the two films, do you prefer working in that more expansive, outdoors setting or the kind of bottle episode atmosphere of the flat in ‘The Father’? Was that something you’d like to continue in or was that just a one-off challenge in your mind?

PF – To be honest, I’ve done quite a few apartment films. I did The Children Act (Richard Eyre, 2018), of which much was set in a single apartment. It’s nice to do a bit of both, it’s nice to have interiors next to us. To stay honest, what I’d really like to do is something quite stylised, actually. That’s what I really liked about Mindhorn. Although we didn’t have that much money we had a chance to play around a little bit. I’d actually like to do something stylized, something. slightly quirky – another sort of off-kilter film. They’re the ones that interest me. The Father was a challenge because we had such a short preparation time and we had to get so much into it. It was a really rewarding project in the end because the final result was so fascinating and worked really well for everybody. I don’t just do a certain type of film, so I’d love to flip into a quirky setting in future. It doesn’t matter to me so much in terms of interiors vs. exteriors. I mean, interiors you get to design it more, if you know what I’m saying. Exteriors are harder because as soon as you get outside, unless you’ve got a huge budget to build a huge set then you sort of tie the set dressing into the location.

If you’ve got the money to build interior sets and if you’ve got a director who wants something slightly quirky… Wes Anderson or Guillermo del Toro, perhaps. There’s some people who have really got the money to do something extraordinary . I worked on a couple of Harry Potter films with Stuart Craig, who is the best production designer in the world, I would say. When they started Harry Potter, a lot of the budget was originally for on location work and gradually, as the films went on, Stuart built more and more in the studio, because he loves to build sets. If you build them in the stage you can control them a lot more, you can design what you like, come up with whatever you like, easier to light. In the end, interesting scripts, with a director that has an interesting vision or that wants something slightly interesting and unusual is always better. For us, as production designers, that’s what we want. Something that is going to stretch our imagination and challenge us.

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Peter Francis is pictured at the top of this interview. The second and the third picture are from ‘The Father’. The last image is from .Mindhorn’


By Charles Williams - 06-10-2021

By Charles Williams - 06-10-2021

Charles Williams is a researcher in San Sebastián, Spain. Consumpt...

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