ABOVE: CATHERINE KEENER IN YARON ZILBERMAN'S A LATE QUARTET. IMAGE COURTESY OF JOJO WHILDEN
For most of us, the tunes we blast from our cars as 16-year-olds have little bearing on our lives as adults. This is not the case for Yaron Zilberman, who fell for classical music as a teen when a friend lent him a mixtape, and whose first feature film, A Late Quartet, centers on the unraveling of a string quartet. Zilberman came to the film as a fan of the music, but he doesn't let it overshadow the delicate performances of his four leads, played by Catherine Keener, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, and Mark Ivanir. The film follows the Fugue String Quartet as they prepare for their 25th Anniversary Concert, even as clashing egos, lust, and tragedy threaten the quartet's demise. We talked with Zilberman about turning actors into musicians and finding inspiration in New York's art museums.
GILLIAN MOHNEY: Tell me about why and how classical music inspired you to make this film.
YARON ZILBERMAN: It came from an instinctive love and passion for this music. Not only the music itself, but the dynamic between the musicians themselves who make it. It's a unique dynamic, it's not something [where] you can just get together and make this music. You have to practice for at least 10 years to get this unique sound. These are already accomplished musicians, each one a master musician himself or herself. They get together and they need 10 more years, anyway. That fascinated me. When I started to want to make a movie about a family dynamic, it was something I wanted to tell. The string quartet came to life.
MOHNEY: The film really focuses around the quartet's signature piece, the Beethoven 131 opus. Did you know you want to use that piece of music from the very beginning?
ZILBERMAN: I think the Beethoven 131 came before the story of characters... Then the story developed from movement to movement, more than act one to act three. I tried to get the seven-movement structure within the more conventional three-act structure. That was the process. First came the music, and then the story [began] to emerge. Once you have characters, they have their own lives, and you have to let them make some decisions for you—I think just like you go through the moment with a live performer. You have to go through that as a writer as well. You have to let the characters tell you, as well.
MOHNEY: You have an incredibly talented cast, but no professional musicians. How do you approach preparing them to play this extremely complicated music?
ZILBERMAN: First, I want to say that there's no hand doubles for the majority of them. There's only one actor who needed a little bit of help. [laughs] But other than that, it's what you see is what you get, and I think that was very important. If there were musicians—and I offered at some point to do that—[they said] "No, we don't need that. We don't want that." They worked so hard on getting it right. They didn't want to have a shot with a hand double. They said, "No, we're doing this ourselves." The way to prepare for that was to be very precise about what kind of music exactly we're going to show in the movie... I had a huge library of shots of how to play each frame. Then we created a library for each actor. They had 15-second segments or 20-second segments that they had to really master. Then I gave each actor two coaches that were available to them whenever they were needed. They actually learned how to do these [musical] phrases.
MOHNEY: Your previous film was a documentary; was it challenging to take on directing a dramatic feature?
ZILBERMAN: I mean, there were so many challenges. First of all, the winter was challenging. It was a humble budget movie... You go to three different locations sometimes, and [you're] moving all those trucks through a harsh storm. Many times we couldn't open the truck, because it was frozen. Of course, working with such a great cast, you get amazing performances. You learn a second world of acting, but at the same time, they're so great for a reason. They demand to see every thought and vision behind every word, and they're part of the process. They're not standing by. In that respect, it calls for being very alert on all levels. You have the visual and the production design, the camera movement, and the actors. That was a challenge.
MOHNEY: This film really emphasizes the way music can move people and affect people. Were there any other music or art pieces that moved you when you were started on this film?
ZILBERMAN: The Frick collection, which is one of my favorite museums, was a visual inspiration and art inspiration. In particular, there are many incredible portraits there, including one you see in the film. You see a history of 400 years of the Old Master filmmakers in a way. They didn't have cameras; [portraiture] was the visual depiction of people at the time. We used to spend hours and watching and talking and looking at how this was made. I think it informed a lot about the movie. The [film] required an approach which was built on tradition and the accumulated wealth of visual knowledge.
A LATE QUARTET IS OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE TODAY.