Friday, September 13, 2013

Interview with Yaron Zilberman (A Late Quartet)

The wonderful film A Late Quartet was released on DVD this summer (July 29th), from the director Yaron Zilberman. The film was, perhaps unfairly, marketed towards the so-called ‘grey pound’ alongside other films such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Iron Lady, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The King’s Speech. All of these films were aimed at drawing an older audience back to the cinema, presumably to combat the haemorrhaging of younger audiences lost to digital (and illegal) filmmaking.

Zilberman’s film focuses on four middle aged musicians who have found international fame as a string quartet.  As they are practicing for their latest tour of North America, the cellist (Christopher Walken) one day realises that he may be getting to old to perform and that their next show may be his last.  The news begins to affect the performances of the others and the drama moves from the stage to their personal lives…  I managed to ask him a couple of questions:

You obviously have a background with string instruments, but can you explain a little how you came about writing this script? 
I've followed chamber music, in particular the string quartet repertoire, since my mid teens. I'm drawn to the intense musical dialogue and gamut of intellectual and emotional interactions between four like-minded musicians (with like-minded instruments). So naturally, this passion for the music brought an interest in string quartet ensembles and their interpersonal dynamics. 
Over the years, I've read a lot about a variety of ensembles from Haydn and Beethoven's time until today. It started as a form of music played in a family setting - very intimate. When I started thinking about what film I wanted to make after I finished my documentary, Watermarks, I realized that it was to explore family dynamics related to family themes I've experienced. And almost simultaneously, I saw the potential of combining the two obsessions - family and relationship psychology, and string quartet music/ensemble. From these elements, the script emerged.
It is a wonderfully literary film.  There are scenes full of books and closes ups of paper, newspapers and handwriting.  It feels very much like an adaptation of a novel – how long did you take to write the script? 
From characters' description and defining their relationships, through outline to first draft of a script, it took roughly a year. Then rewrites all the way to filming took another 3 years. The literary aspect of it has to do with the subject matter. I felt that the equivalent of chamber music for a film would be intense interactions with words, mostly functioning as notes. Also, I tried to refer to the various themes of the film and Beethoven's late quartet within the context of art in general, so poetry and paintings were essential elements too.        
The snow feels so essential for the tone of the film –was that in the script or was it a decision made in pre-production? 
The snow came as an "angel" to the film, a cameo appearance by nature. The script had a Fall season in mind, working under the assumption that it's a fall film. But NY in the fall is so vibrant and almost spring-like, and the shooting got postponed by a few months, so suddenly we were in one of the harshest NYC winters in decades. The first realization was that it's actually a winter film, and that the weather had to be right for us to be ready to shoot. Then we went along with the snow as far as we could - the silence of the snow flakes dropping, the white cold street against the warm red and yellow wood of the string instruments, the contrast of the weather against the emotions, and Peter's wintery farewell.    
The film seems to both caution and celebrate growing older.  Was that your intention?  Did you have that target audience in mind?
In Watermarks, celebrating old age was a main theme. In A Late Quartet, it's more about facing some of the inevitable consequences of aging- Parkinson's, losing a loved one, and quitting a profession, in this case a passionate life endeavor...  All of which one has to face, to learn to cope with, and accept. It's more about the challenges associated with growing old and finding a new meaning and path for the possibility of enjoying life fully. But there is also the story of Alexandra who is 21, the couple in their 40s, and Daniel who doesn't seem to follow age conventions at all. I was not making a film for a particular age group or demographics; I made a film about subjects that I was interested in exploring and sharing, hoping it would find as wide an audience as it could.   
Even though Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of my all time favourite actors, Daniel seems the most understated character – and is actually also the funniest.  Do you write yourself into any of the characters?
Of course. There are parts of me in all the characters of A Late Quartet. However, none are me, in the sense that it's a film about a string quartet and not about any one person in particular, including myself. They have a life of their own, especially after the actors embody them. The actors "own" their roles and become who they are when you see the film.    
There is a wonderful amount of psychology between the characters as they hear each other playing their instruments.  No question – I just wanted to congratulate you on it…! 
The breakfast that Jules makes for Peter looked incredible… (even though it arrives at a heartbreaking moment in the film) could you talk me through it?!
It was written as a "post hangover" breakfast. Catherine Keener chose to make a delicious Mexican dish which she felt she would make on such an occasion.    
 The soundmixing in the film was beautiful – to the point where the modern music that Alex is dancing to on her iPod sounds wonderfully uncanny. 
Thanks. It's the result of an ensemble work: sound designer Robert Hein who is a master of Manhattan's atmosphere and sounds (designing such classics as Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and "Husbands and Wives"), sound mixer Reilly Steele ("Brokeback Mountain"), music editor Annette Kudrak ("Drive") and music supervisor Maureen Crowe ("Chicago"). We paid a lot of attention to the sound mix since it's a movie set in a world of sound makers.     
The final scene is so beautiful.  I hope that it brings more people into the power and urgency of orchestral music.
Me too! 
On a political note, do you think that enough money is provided by world governments to encourage classical music and independent film? (Very different I appreciate, but arguably both important to different demographics)  Do you have any thoughts on this?  Did you have any trouble funding the film?
Art projects have always been challenging to finance. Luckily for the makers and for society they continue to be made. One has to keep being obsessed about making them.  
In our film, we had several angels supporting us. And we tremendously appreciate it!   

(This interview was originally on the now defunct

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