IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Yaron Zilberman Talks 'A Late Quartet' Blu-ray and DVD

Sunday, 10 February 2013 23:58 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Yaron Zilberman Talks 'A Late Quartet' Blu-ray and DVD

Every once in a while, an absolutely brilliant film is released that just doesn’t get the credit that it deserves. For me, A Late Quartet is one of those movies. 

Released last fall amongst all the film’s vying for award season consideration, A Late Quartet was for some unknown reason completely ignored, and it’s a damn shame because I think it was one of the best films of 2012. Furthermore, I believe actor Christopher Walken gives one of the best performances of his career as a respected cello player suffering from the onset of Parkinson’s disease, and it is an absolute travesty that he was not at least considered for a Best Supporting Actor nomination at this year’s Academy Awards. As someone who’s own beloved father has been stricken with the terrible disease, I can tell you personally that the film and Walken’s performance are both equally authentic and unbelievably touching. But now you have a chance to judge the film for yourself as A Late Quartet will finally available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning February 5th.

The film, which is directed by documentary filmmaker Yaron Zilberman (Watermarks), revolves around a quartet of respected musicians that are portrayed by a quartet of respected actors including Oscar-winners Christopher Walken (Seven Psychopaths), and Phillip Seymour Hoffman (The Ides of March), as well as Oscar-nominee Catherine Keener (The Oranges) and actor Mark Ivanir (Big Miracle). Ivanir plays Daniel, the outsider violinist of the quartet who is at odds with Hoffman and Keener’s married couple. After Peter (Walken) is forced to leave the group because of his illness, Robert (Hoffman) makes a power-play that jeopardizes their dynamic, which is further complicated when Daniel begins a relationship with Robert and Juliette’s (Kenner) college-age daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots). 

I recently had the absolute pleasure of speaking with director Yaron Zilberman about A Late Quartet. The impressive director discussed his brilliant film, the idea for the project, developing the script with screenwriter Seth Grossman, Parkinson’s disease, Walken’s exceptional performance, casting his quartet of excellent actors, and teaching them to play their character’s instruments as if they were classically trained musicians.

Here is what he had to say:

IAR: To begin with, I have to tell you how much I adore this movie. It was number two on my top ten list last year, second only to Zero Dark Thirty. I wished it had gotten more attention and I really think Christopher Walken deserved an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. 

Yaron Zilberman: Thank you. I agree with you, he is fantastic in the movie. He was really, really great. It was an exceptional performance and kudos to him. 

Can you talk about coming up with the idea for the film and then writing the script with screenwriter Seth Grossman?

Zilberman: The idea for the film was a combination of wanting to make a movie about family dynamics and talking about some elements of my biography, but more about talking about family dynamics, that was key. The second thing was my love for chamber music, string quartet in particular, and my knowledge about string quartets, not music but the music making. I thought that it could be a new way to look at family dynamics so it wouldn’t be just another film about family but to show it in a new way. Like in The Godfather, they used the mafia story basically to talk about family, the father figure and the son, and all these questions that are related to family themes. So that was the origination of the idea. Then I worked on creating the characters, and finding the characters, their relationships, the drama, the story, and outlining it. It was my first feature film, so in terms of writing a script, Seth Grossman joined me to really sit down and write the script, and that is what happened so that is the origin of the film.

Then at what point in the writing process did you and Seth decide to inject the subject of Parkinson’s disease into the script and eventually the film?

Zilberman: That came very early on when the initial idea, before Seth joined, was to have the father figure in a King Lear type of story telling where the father figure decides to retire, which also resembles a story from my family. Once he does that, the question becomes what would be the reason, and I chose Parkinson’s for several reasons as the disease that he battles with. One of the reasons is because music is all about the quality of the hands. You need the hands to be at a level of an Olympian athlete and once your body betrays you in that way that you cannot do the preparation any more but still you are healthy mind wise, I thought it would be both devastating and appropriate for that particular story as apposed to other disease that would not be related to music playing per say. Because I wanted it to be about this subject matter, I think that was the beginning of it. Also, in my previous documentary called Watermarks, which was my first film, one of the lead characters had Parkinson’s and we really befriended each other. So it was sort of a continuation of dealing with that illness, although the documentary did not address it at all. It was also about aging, so it sort of leaned into the previous movie. So these are the two reasons, with the first one being more prominent and related to music playing. What I did was approach a doctor who is the most prominent doctor in the U.S. for dealing with Parkinson’s, a doctor from Columbia University, and he sort of gave me the whole world of early diagnosis and what happens in terms of the physical aspect of it. Then I met Pamela Quinn and she is the instructor for the film in the scenes where Walken has the Parkinson’s manifestation. She has Parkinson’s, but she also teaches patients how to deal with it on a regular basis. She worked with him very closely on helping him, first in terms of his state of mind, and also how to deal with it in the early diagnosis, as well as the shame and how you deal with the revealing of it. So she, and another friend of hers who have Parkinson’s as well, were there in every scene to help Chris get as nuance as possible, so it would not be overstated but not understated where you don’t see anything. I think Chris really mastered the portrayal of early stages of diagnosis. 

The film is about a quartet of musicians but you also have a lovely quartet of actors in your lead roles, can you talk about casting your four leads for the film?

Zilberman: Yes. Catherine Keener was definitely my first choice for Juliette, as a woman who needs to hold the whole structure together and have a special relationship with each one of the characters. So I thought she would be perfect to handle these three, the father figure, the husband, and the one she had a love affair with early on, before the quartet was formed and now there is that relationship of great respect with a past, so that was her. Christopher Walken is really cast against type. The beauty was that he was looking for a role to play a normal person, or at least not an extreme role. So he was looking for that and his agent read the script and loved it. So she gave the draft to him, he called me immediately, we met in his home, read the script together, and there was an immediate bond there. We listened to the music together, Beethoven’s Opus 131, and discussed it while listening to the music, which is about forty minutes long. When I left his home it was obvious that he would be perfect because he wanted to play against type with this role and it would in a way bring (the audience’s) emotions. With Phillip Seymour Hoffman, I went to a concert at Carnegie Hall with a string quartet and he was reading the vocals on stage with them. The interaction between the quartet music and Phillip Seymour Hoffman reading was very emotional. He had tears, and the audience was in tears, and it was a powerful experience. Immediately I knew that the music was very important to him. Not only is he one of the greatest actors alive, but also I knew he would be perfect for that role of claiming the first violin chair that he deserves rightfully, the relationship with the wife, and holding together the string quartet and that being a balancing factor. I thought that he would be perfect and I gave him the script but it wasn’t the right time because he was busy for a year. But then when the time was right, he read it and he decided on the spot to do it. So that was the journey. It all had to do with music, reading the script, and in a way they were all looking for the script so to speak. That is what happened. With Mark Ivanir, the first violin, he was a last addition. Very close to the shooting there was a scheduling problem with another actor that didn’t work out eventually and I knew about Mark because he is originally from Israel and he works in Los Angeles. He is a great actor and also very much looks like what I imagined Daniel to look like. I gave him the script, we clicked, and he enjoyed the music. He had a week to prepare. So I needed somebody who would be brave enough to join so late in the stage and be on par (with the other actors) very quickly. So I needed his courage and he said he’d do it. He called it “jumping from a plane without a parachute and trying to land safely.” Eventually, he managed to do that. 

Finally, can you talk about how the four actors had to learn to play their character’s instruments as if they were really classically trained and the process in which they went through to achieve that so well on screen?

Zilberman: I knew first thing first, that it must work. Because if it did not work, it would be very hard to show that on screen and I needed to show them playing. The second thing is, I knew that they would not be able to really play for long periods of time on screen so what I did was film a real string quartet, who provided the music for the soundtrack, with five cameras on each musician. So I had five different angles and then I edited down all the music that was going to appear in the movie as a video board and I gave that to the actors. Then each actor had two coaches from their quartet position and they worked with them on the particular shot from the video board. So they knew, “Oh, I only need to do this for fifteen seconds and they will only see the right hand with the bow, or this will be a push shot and then they will only see my face and some of the fingering.” It was very precise and methodical. I knew that they would be able to achieve it, being that they are all such great actors with the experience of having to learn new things very quickly. I also knew that they would be able to achieve learning short segments well enough that a professional musician would not be distracted, and for those who are not professional to completely believe in their playing. So that was the approach and it all had to do with that video board, otherwise I don’t think we would have been able to manage with so much music. 

A Late Quartet will be available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning February 5th. 

To read our exclusive interview with Mark Ivanir about A Late Quartet, please click on here.

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