Israeli director proves a lord of the strings with world-class ‘Quartet’

Israeli director proves a lord of the strings with world-class ‘Quartet’

Yaron Zilberman explains how he scored Christopher Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman for his first US movie, a well-reviewed drama with an Israeli co-star

Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, left, in Yaron Zilberman's "A Late Quartet." (Courtesy of RKO Pictures)
Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, left, in Yaron Zilberman's "A Late Quartet." (Courtesy of RKO Pictures)

At the opening of Yaron Zilberman’s new film, “A Late Quartet,” world-renowned cellist and teacher Peter Mitchell (played by Christopher Walken) discusses Beethoven’s Opus 131 with his students. The composition has seven movements, he explains — all connected, played without pause. As the musicians play the piece, the instruments inevitably go slightly out of tune, each in its own way. To the very end, they will struggle to adjust to one another. Perhaps Beethoven’s goal, Mitchell speculates, was to point out some deeper cohesion within the seemingly chaotic, random disunity of life.

It may sound like the character’s flatly explaining the thesis of the film (and, let’s face it, he is), but like the music in question, Zilberman’s film has an elegance and emotion that are remarkable.

Walken’s character discovers he has Parkinson’s disease and, as a result, must end his career. He’s part of a globe-trotting quartet portrayed by Israeli actor Mark Ivanir, Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and two-time Academy Award nominee Catherine Keener. Although they’ve been winning accolades for 25 seasons, the looming change in their dynamic will expose long-buried aspirations and grievances.

“A Late Quartet,” which opened Friday in the US, is a mature film about urbane people in a refined setting, but it is also, admittedly, a bit of a soap opera. (Hoffman and Keener play a married couple with a blossoming daughter who catches Ivanir’s eye, and then there’s the flamenco dancer who jogs in the park with Hoffman.) Among its other accomplishments, the film does a good job of showing just how hard professional classical musicians work to stay at the top of their game.

The movie, which Zilberman also co-wrote, is his first narrative film, coming off a successful documentary, “Watermarks,” about a Jewish women’s swim team in pre-war Vienna. An Israeli who lives in New York, Zilberman spoke with The Times of Israel about how he landed such a big-name cast, whether Ivanir’s character is Israeli, and cultural similarities between the Big Apple and his homeland.

A transcript of the interview, trimmed for length and continuity, appears below.

This is a movie for grown-ups, something that’s more and more rare these days.

Schubert heard the Opus and asked to hear it on his death bed

I followed my passion, to tell the story I wanted to tell. I didn’t compromise, so yes, it is a film for adults. This wasn’t what I set out to do — it is just where the story led me.

There’s a great ambiguity in the film. I’m still not sure if the characters made the right decisions. Without getting into spoilers, when is it right to tamp down your dreams for the good of a collective?

What happens at the end … I am not so sure what you are seeing isn’t just a reaction to the emotion of that big final scene. But I don’t want to discuss this in an interview people will read before seeing the film! [Laughter.] I’ll say that I have my own theories about what happens to the characters afterward, but it is very much in the eye of the beholder. The actors have their own opinions, too.

Most importantly, I don’t know what they should do. I know that in all group dynamics, in every family, there are problems, ego issues, psychological issues, and it needs to be addressed. If you don’t address it, people will have to disband. If they are addressed, then there is a chance. It can be a string quartet or a marriage or a business partnership — you all start with one vision, one goal, then time goes by and then there is a slight change, a slight diversion because of different personalities, and then years later, you discover you are far away.

This is why using Opus 131 as a metaphor works so perfectly.

This is a piece of music I have loved for 20 years. It lends itself so well to the drama, structurally, but also has a rich history. Schubert heard it and asked, “What is left for us to write?,” then asked to hear it on his death bed as the last music he would listen to. Wagner called it the most emotional music ever. It was just natural, if a film is about a quartet, to work this in.

Yaron Zilberman's previous film was a documentary about a Jewish women's swim club in prewar Vienna. (Courtesy of RKO Pictures)
Yaron Zilberman’s previous film was a documentary about a Jewish women’s swim club in prewar Vienna. (Courtesy of RKO Pictures)

The life of a classical musician is fascinating. These people work as hard as Olympic athletes. What did your cast do to prepare for this?

They rehearsed a lot! My goal was that when they were playing their instruments, a professional musician would say it looked convincing.

Well, I bought it, if that means anything.

Thank you. That’s good. We filmed the playing in small chunks with five different angles — each actor had two coaches so they could perfect just those small segments. On set, I had the coaches with me at the monitor. I had them with me until we had a take where they said, “That’s real.”

This is your first narrative film after only making documentaries. How did you get such a great cast?

[Laughing.] My job was to write an interesting script to try and get the interest of good actors, and to come to the project prepared. But timing, also. These are busy actors.

It was great to see Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener as husband and wife. They’ve played opposite one another before.

Yes, they played best friends in “Capote” and husband and wife in “Synecdoche, New York,” so in a way this is perfect because they are almost at a stage in their professional career that is similar to the characters in “A Late Quartet.” Not that they are having marital problems, but it is very appropriate, especially since they know one another so well.

Mark Ivanir is terrific. In the movie, there is only one line where it is mentioned that he isn’t American, and his accent is very hard to pin down. I had a hunch that he was meant to be Israeli, but it is never stated as such in the film.

It was one of those things where you have a crisis, but in the end, it works out even better

It was a decision we made about that. Initially, he was supposed to be “from somewhere else,” coming to study at a young age because he is brilliant, and then getting caught in this quartet for 25 years … Mark can do a better American accent … but keeping him foreign helps set him a little bit apart from the others. But it is a little bit of a Russian accent, too.

Yes, at times I thought he was Russian. But then I’d go back and think he was Israeli because of his character’s name and the emphasis on classical music in Israel. Although Russia is known for its musicians, too.

Well, he was born in the Ukraine, actually. But he moved to Israel when he was seven. His first language is Russian, but his Hebrew is perfect. His English is a little bit of a mix. But all that matters is that he is from somewhere else. Even if we had an another actor, [the character] is a loner and sets himself apart. The truth is, originally we had another actor — not American, not Israeli — but it fell through. And then my co-producer, an Israeli — and also my wife — she knew Mark, and then it was perfect. It was one of those things where you have a crisis, but in the end, it works out even better.

As an Israeli, you come from a place with a very different approach to arts funding. How does that affect the experience of making a movie about classical music in the US?

New York City is full of culture. I don’t feel a significant difference between this city and Israel. Israel is very cultural, yes — people are always talking about books and art. But that is how it is in New York, too. Here, perhaps, everything is more grand, everything is a little bit more of a spectacle.

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