In 1825, Beethoven completed the first of his six Late String Quartets, which are widely regarded as some of the greatest musical compositions of all time.
Of those six compositions, the third, Opus 131, is the most difficult to play, and consists of seven movements played without pause over the course of approximately 40 minutes. In the new movie “A Late Quartet,” writer and director Yaron Zilberman crafts a tale of classical music and personal relationships that mirror the technical difficulties within Beethoven’s brilliant work.
The film stars Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir as a famous New York-based string quartet called The Fugure. On the eve of the group’s 26th season, cellist Peter (Walken) reveals he’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a revelation that ultimately casts the group into a downward spiral of ego, change, betrayal and lust. At the heart of the conflict is the quartet’s opening night, which will feature the challenging Opus 131 and serve as Peter’s farewell performance.
At the 21st Philadelphia Film Festival, I caught up with the Israeli-born Zilberman, who makes his narrative feature debut with “Quartet,” to talk about the nuances of classic music, fake-playing an instrument and taking a walk with Christopher Walken.
David Onda: What made you choose to write a movie about classical music?
Yaron Zilberman: It originated from me wanting to tell a story about a family dynamic – maybe to discuss my own family, the one that I had, the one that I have right now. And I love chamber music from my mid-teens, in particular string quartet. I thought that making a story about the dynamic between string members as a family would bring a fresh look at the family dynamic. That’s how it originated.
Onda: You get the sense that the conflict between these characters has been brewing for 25 years. Why did it take so long for this to come to a boiling point?
Zilberman: I think life, from my experience and the lives of people I know, sometimes it takes 25 years for things to explode. They brew and brew and brew and you always think, “Oh, this is not the right time, now is not the right time – it’s his birthday, why bring that…” There’s always something good or bad to postpone raising important issues in life. But there’s a moment where – this is it – you can’t hold it anymore. In this case, it took 25 years.
Onda: How did you get this cast? You don’t just say, “I want Phillip Seymour Hoffman.” How did he become involved?
Zilberman: You say, “I want Phillip Seymour Hoffman.” [laughs] And then he’s busy for the next year and a half and then you go through a process, and a year and a half later, the timing is right and he does it. So, you do sort of choose your actors. You don’t always get what you want, for various reasons, but some of it you do. We were fortunate enough to get an incredible cast.
Onda: When did you come up with Beethoven’s Opus 131 as a metaphor for life?
Zilberman: I know this music for almost 30 years now, and when I started that concept of family, I knew that I’m gonna use Opus 131, because Beethoven’s Late Quartets that he wrote about six months before he passed away were the pinnacle of classical music. And this piece, within the Late Quartets, was Beethoven’s favorite. So that was a good beginning; to go with Beethoven’s favorite. And then the structure – it has seven movements that are played without stopping, so it just lent itself beautifully to dramatic structure.
Onda: The technical aspects of classical music are not easy to grasp. How much research did you have to do to make it authentic?
Zilberman: A lot of research. Because I’ve been following this music for many, many years, I knew a lot about it. It was more to do a refined research into the details. And that took, actually, several years. I also documented a string quartet from Juilliard to see how they learned this particular piece, Opus 131. And just by documenting it as a documentary filmmaker would do, I learned about how they talk to each other, how they learn the piece, how they talk among themselves. I had over a hundred hours of [video].
Onda: How have real classical musicians responded to the movie?
Zilberman: It’s been incredible. This is, for me, the most encouraging. They say, “Initially we’re afraid of how it’s gonna look on camera,” and then they completely forget. And five minutes into the movie it’s like, “Yeah, these guys are musicians.” For me, it’s the biggest compliment – that they forget that they’re not musicians.
Onda: Tell me about the process of teach the cast how to, essentially, fake playing instruments.
Zilberman: It’s, of course, challenging to portray. I documented a string quartet called the Brentano String Quartet with five different cameras, different angles, and then I edited it down to what I want, in the script, to see. And then I created these elaborate shots of each [musician] in five angles. And each actor got a DVD where you had a menu, and you go from first movement – shot B, C, D, E – and each actor had two coaches available for them to learn the shots. It was a library to cover. It’s hard to do the whole thing, but if you just focus on – [plays an air cello] da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da – eventually you get something which is credible enough.
Onda: In a recent interview, I saw Christopher Walken admit he had the hardest time learning to fake playing an instrument.
Zilberman: [laughs] Yeah, but then we helped him in the editing. I think he really seems to be… I mean, it’s real. When I looked at him, I think that it’s real.
Onda: This is a much more restrained performance from Walken. Was it difficult to reel him in?
Zilberman: No, it was not difficult. It wasn’t difficult for him. It more shows how great of an actor he is, that he’s able to go against type and be able to do it so naturally, so convincingly and so profoundly.
Onda: Everyone has their favorite Walken story. What’s yours?
Zilberman: I have a story which has nothing to do with the filming itself, but when we scouted the locations, we went together to see his [character’s] apartment. We started to walk and suddenly a fire truck – this huge New York fire truck with all these firemen – they notice him in the street, they stopped the fire truck, they blocked the whole avenue and they started to shout, “Walken! Walken! We love you!” And for me, the firemen are supposed to regulate traffic and suddenly they lost all sense of reality and they were cheering to him like kids. And he was, like, very shy about it. Although he’s accustomed to his fans, he was very shy and very humble about it.
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