Peter Francis has blockbuster stories to spare. He can wax nostalgic about Margarita Fridays on the set of “Titanic,” the practical challenges of three James Bond films, or the precision of the first two “Harry Potter” movies. Francis served as set designer or art director on those and many other projects before stepping up to become a production designer on much smaller movies over the past decade.
No matter the high-profile nature of those earlier gigs, however, Francis beams the most about his most recent credit, “The Father” — an intentionally disorienting chamber drama all set in one location, made on a limited budget, and the latest justification of his decision to gamble on riskier gigs.
“You’re only as good as your last job,” Francis said. “‘The Father’ is the best thing I’ve done, one of those projects that comes along so rarely where everything just clicked from every angle.”
The movie finds French director Florian Zeller adapting his 2012 play about an aging man contending with Alzheimer’s (though the ailment is never named) as he grows increasingly confused about his surroundings. In a bravura performance, Anthony Hopkins plays the aptly named Anthony, a crabby and overconfident figure who wanders his London apartment in an increasingly bewildered state.
At times, his home transforms into the apartment of his grown daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), who cares for her father as he continues to confuse his surroundings; by the final act, that same environment has morphed into a nursing home, where Anthony may have been all along. Like Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” Zeller’s movie is a subjective experience designed to plunge the viewer into the fragile consciousness of its protagonist. That gave Francis the opportunity to craft a complex set of interlocking set designs built to echo and juxtapose against each other throughout the story. Of all the movies vying for attention this awards season, nothing else utilizes the set as such an overt narrative device.
“We’re inside Anthony’s head virtually the whole time,” Francis said. “We weren’t just designing backgrounds. It was more about choosing the right elements to be part of the story.”
Francis said the script secured his interest from the first page, which begins with directions for the production design. “The majority of the film is to be made in the studio, on a set representing Anthony’s flat,” it reads. “As the film goes on, the appearance of the flat will evolve.” Francis got the script on a Saturday and had three days to develop a proposal before his interview with Zeller. When the pair met, they compared their drawings of the set. “Our plans looked exactly the same,” Francis said. “I had the bedroom in a different corner, that was the only difference. It was really uncanny. We were on the same page from day one.”
The set was conceived with a trio of doors all running into a single living room where much of the action took place. On one side was a kitchen; on the other, a bedroom; a third doorway led to the dining room. Francis and his team built a 50-foot-long hallway leading from the entrance to the apartment into the living room, which provides a key signpost as the set evolves. Pictures and lamps shift around on the walls and tables, and colors change, but the overarching geography of the space remains just consistent enough to lead the viewer through Anthony’s discombobulated state. Francis said he and Zeller often spoke of Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” as a reference point for the way it uses a single location to explore one woman’s descent into madness.
“It was just so fascinating,” Francis said. “We all started questioning what we were doing all the time. How different should Anne and Anthony’s flats be? We talked about different scenarios, how much we should change things. You’re not sure where he is, which door he’s gone through. All the doors are quite graphic, strong statements. The furniture would change, but the architecture would stay the same.”
They marked up the script to indicate different passages in the storyline, even as it remained jumbled in Anthony’s head. At a certain point in the drama, Anne decides to move out of her apartment; that meant some scenes required the space to be littered with her packing boxes. But sometimes, they would vanish altogether — or mingle with other props related to different moments in the story, including a chair that Anthony associates with a doctor’s visit later on.
Color schemes became crucial signifiers of the various backdrops. Francis settled on ocher for Anthony’s apartment, which the script indicates the character has inhabited for 30 years. Anne’s flat, by contrast, takes on a dusty blue, which sets up the transition to the cold, harsher blue of the nursing home in the final passage. “It was a lot of trial and error,” Francis said. “We did loads and loads of different color samples — big boards of colors — and talked at length about each shade.”
Anthony’s furniture was crucial as well. Francis, who previously worked with Hopkins on the 2018 BBC production of “King Lear,” emailed at length with the actor’s assistant before the shoot to get a sense of Hopkins’ preferences. When he showed up to set, the team had four different armchairs to try out. “He had to sit on them and feel comfortable,” Francis said. “It had to feel like part of his character.” Hopkins settled on a worn leather option that suited the darker hues of his surroundings.
With a budget estimated at $6 million, Francis had to get inventive about how to source various components of the set. He picked up small items at antique fairs, found Anthony’s ‘70s-style kitchen on Ebay, and purchased Anne’s more modern version from Ikea. Some of the blue tiles used to indicate Anne’s apartment were nabbed by Zeller’s assistant from a Paris seller and brought over last-minute by train. “I love this scale of film,” Francis said. “It’s more personal and involved.”
Francis welcomed the contrast to his experiences on studio projects. “When you have some money on a big film, listen, you can do anything,” he said. “You have weeks of prep and millions of dollars in budget. When I look at our art film alongside some of those films with bigger budgets, I’m very proud of what we did with the money we had.”
Francis’s transition into production design required significant compromise. He made the big jump in 2013, graduating from art designer to production designer on the 2013 short film “The Phone Call,” which starred Sally Hawkins and went on to win the Oscar for Best Live Action Short. Since then, he has accrued a wide range of production-design credits, including 2017’s “The Children Act” with Emma Thompson. He occasionally dips back into his previous life, as when he served as a last-minute set designer on reshoots for “Rocketman” just before “The Father” came his way.
“It was fantastic to have all this money on ‘Rocketman,’ but on ‘The Father,’ I felt like I could do it even if they didn’t have money,” he said.
Francis said he revels in the opportunity to talk to filmmakers about their scripts at early stages, even if they can’t pay him for the advice. “If you want my input early on while you’re doing the budget, I’ll tell you what’s feasible,” he said. “I don’t think that happens enough. It’s always left to the last minute.” He hoped that “The Father” would make it clear that the large-scale projects of his past didn’t define his potential.
“People may have preconceptions about you before they even meet you,” he said. “They look at my CV and think I’m not right for a small film. I’ve done some big-budget things in my past, but they aren’t me. I’m passionate about making beautiful things.”