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‘The Father’ Production Designer Peter Francis on Using Set Design to Reflect Memory Loss

The Father Anthony Hopkins
Courtesy of Sean Gleason

Sony Classics awards contender “The Father” takes place inside a London apartment, and production designer Peter Francis says, “We weren’t just designing a set; it was an integral part of the storyline.”

When Florian Zeller began adapting his 2014 play into a film, he resisted suggestions to “open up” the work by moving some scenes outdoors.

Zeller tells Variety, “While I was writing the script, I drew a layout of the apartment, as if it was a main character. When I first met Peter Francis, I asked him, ‘What would be the apartment in your vision?’ He showed me a drawing he did. Then I showed him my drawing — and it was exactly like his. This is when I made the decision to work with him,” Zeller laughs.

In the film, protagonist Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) interacts with daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) and other characters who give him conflicting accounts of the past and present. Like Anthony, the audience has to solve the puzzle of what’s real and whose truth should be believed.

The apartment might be Anthony’s, might be Anne’s, or might be somewhere else. So Zeller, Francis and his crew, along with director of photography Ben Smithard, “tried to visually translate Anthony’s disorientation for the audience,” says Zeller. “The challenge was to go from one atmosphere to another without ever being certain of the change. The audience is intelligent, and I didn’t want to make it too easy. You feel something has changed, but you can’t tell exactly what. This is created through the set and lighting.”

Anthony’s flat is dominated by ocher; Anne’s is a dusty blue-gray, but the colors subtly shift. So does the furniture. Francis points out that the armchairs in Anthony’s living room show up in a different room in Anne’s. Anthony’s flat has “a layered history” of furniture and items, says Francis, because he’s been there 40 years. But Anne’s flat has newer things, and furniture gradually disappears because she’s planning a move to Paris — or is she?

Says Francis: “The audience is confused but it’s not bad; it’s a fascinating confusion. You want to know what’s going on. You have to concentrate on the story and the actors, not the sets; our dressing helped portray the confusion.”

Francis and Zeller agree that the corridor is the spine of the set. “There are so many doors and corridors because I wanted the set to be like a labyrinth,” Zeller says, “so the space could become almost a mental space.”

Notes Francis: “When you design a set, you want depth and something in the background to tell the story. That corridor became even more important than we’d anticipated.” It links the various rooms, with Anthony’s room, significantly, at the end of the long hallway.

“I always say that I design spaces for actors to work in, and it’s always interesting to see how actors use it. And these actors, of course, were amazing,” Francis says.