Now playing in theaters everywhere is the new film, A Late Quartet, directed by Yaron Zilberman, which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master; Synechdoche, New York), Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich; Synechdoche, New York), Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter, Annie Hall), and Mark Ivanir (Schindler’s List, The Good Shepard). When the beloved cellist of a world-renowned string quartet receives a life changing diagnosis, the group’s future suddenly hangs in the balance: suppressed emotions, competing egos, and uncontrollable passions threaten to derail years of friendship and collaboration. As they are about to play their 25th anniversary concert, quite possibly their last, only their intimate bond and the power of music can preserve their legacy. Inspired by, and srtuctured around, Beethoven’s Opus 131 in C# minor, A Late Quartet pays homage to chamber music and the cultural world of New York.
I recently had the chance to speak with Yaron Zilberman about A Late Quartet. He discussed when he first became interested in chamber music, the inspiration for the screenplay, the intense research he did, working with his actors and how he filmed them playing the instruments so well.
Here’s what the talented filmmaker had to say:
Latino Review: Were you a fan of chamber music prior to making this film and if so, at what point in your life did you become a fan?
Yaron Zilberman: I was a fan from my mid-teens. I think I was sixteen when I heard chamber music for the first time and then I fell in love with it and I’ve been falling in love with it ever since.
Where did the idea for the screenplay come from?
Zilberman: After I finished my previous movie I wanted to make a film involving a familial drama and explore family dynamics. In a sting quartet I wanted to explore the dynamics between the four members. It’s so intense, playing so many years together with the rehearsals and the performances and traveling together. I thought it would be a great way to explore the family dynamic.
Your last film was a documentary. Have you always wanted to delve into a work of fiction?
Zilberman: I think at that point at that time I wanted to write a fictional piece because it was the most natural way to discuss what I was interested in and what I was exploring and writing about. Fiction was the best way to do that. In each particular case it depends on the story and the inspiration at that given point in time in one’s journey. It was a major challenge because it was new to me although the story and characters and delving into the subject matter is the same.
Can you talk about the research you did for this film. What string quartets did you study? Were there particular string quartets that were influential to you in the writing process?
Zilberman: I worked with two string quartets. One was Attaca String Quartet. The Attaca String Quartet, when I met them, had just graduated from the Masters program at NYU’s Juliard. They had not tackled the Opus 131 at that time. I asked them to learn a late quartet, they needed to learn one anyway, so they chose Opus 131 at my request. They worked with masters of the field and each one taught them a different movement. There are seven movements of this piece and I documented it along the way to see how they talked about the music, and to see what the rehearsal looked like, to see what the dynamic was like between teacher and student. They are now a prominent string quartet in the US but back then they were just finishing their Masters. So that was a fascinating process which I brought into the script and later on into the directing: the intimate knowledge of the workings of a quartet.
In researching string quartets did you come across any where two of the members were married to each other like how Robert and Juliette are in the film?
Zilberman: There was an Italian string quartet called Quartetto Italiano that played between 1940 – 1985, over forty years together and the woman was a second violin in this quartet and she was romantically involved with three of the members of the quartet which was the rumor but she was married to the first violin. We do have a marriage relationship in that quartet; it is also a string quartet that played without notes, which made them very unique. I think they are the only string quartet that played without notes. I used that theme in the movie in the argument between Daniel and Robert to stop using notes and play by heart.
Beethoven’s Opus 131 in C#minor plays a major role in this film. I was wondering if you could talk about the role that piece played in the film; also, Peter struggles with Parkinson’s in the film is causing him to lose his craft whereas Beethoven struggled with deafness at that point in his life. Was Beethoven’s affliction an inspiration for Peter’s illness?
Zilberman: Beethoven was not an inspiration for any particular character but his personality was an inspiration to the story. I tried to use a lot of what I could thinking about him writing Opus 131 at that period. Going deaf relative to the Parkinson’s, which for him as a composer not being able to hear and for Peter it made him lose the movement for his hand and the ability to play. I used as much Beethoven as I could and Daniel’s character has inspiration from him as well. There is a backstory which I filmed that I didn’t use in the movie: Beethoven’s father would wake him up in the middle of the night and make him play for his friends when he got drunk. It put a particular mark on the way his personality developed. Daniel had a backstory related to that. But I tried to use as much inspiration from the particular piece, Opus 131, as I could and Beethoven’s world with who he was as a person. So it was definitely an inspiration. Opus 131 is written in seven movements which was the first time a piece was written in seven movements. The piece is played in “attaca” which is the musical notation for playing without stopping from one movement to the other. When you play without stopping the instrument goes out of tune. How do you manage to keep the instrument in tune and how do you play the instrument with the same pitch? It’s a challenge to the musician and the listener to be able to handle all these seven movements together without having a break in the listening. I took each movement which has a different length and statement and used them in the equivalent part in the script and the story and to follow that. Music and Drama are different of course so I didn’t want to follow it exactly but I did want to use it as much as I could.
The acting in this film was truly amazing. You were working with some of the greatest actors in the field. What was it like working with them and was it intimidating for you, directing your first dramatic feature, to work with such amazing talent?
Zilberman: It was definitely challenging in a constructive way. They are great actors for a reason. They really want to discuss every line and every action. They challenged their director that way which was a good way. It was challenging but very constructive which I think elevated the movie and the performances. So I liked that very much, but I wouldn’t say that I was intimidated because I wouldn’t say that I’m a youngster. I’m forty-six years old so at that point you’ve seen enough to keep your ground. Definitely it was challenging.
What was it like filming the actors playing the instruments. You actually see them playing rather than close-up’s of their hands. Did they actually learn their instruments?
Zilberman: What you see is really them playing with the exception of one instance where they needed some help. When you see them play it was their hands. We did not use any doubles and they insisted on not using doubles because they reached such a great level of authenticity in playing that we wanted to keep it this way so there wouldn’t be any ambiguity whether it was them or not.
A Late Quartet is now playing in theaters!