For the general public, the prospect of watching a movie centered on Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Opus 131 sounds more like an assignment as opposed to a pleasurable movie viewing experience. With no reservation, I fully admit to thinking this to myself as the opening sequence of A Late Quartet began. Yet, as the closing credits made their pilgrimage across the screen, it was apparent that I had just witnessed a work of art that goes beyond the perceived pretense of culture and pomp, speaking directly to the raw essence of people and creation itself. I got the chance to sit down with director Yaron Zilman and talk with him about his creative process, how it was to work with such an accomplished cast and his deeply seeded passion for the music of Beethoven.
CINEDELPHIA: Are you a musician?
YARON ZILMAN: I am not a musician. I played the cello for one year when I was younger, but I would not call myself a musician, but music is very dear to me.
C: I only ask because the movie was very sensitive to the relationships that form between collaborative musicians. I was convinced that you had to have played music to get such a genuine feeling that seems to only occur between musicians.
YZ: When I made this movie, that was my number one concern. There had to be an authenticity to the world in which the movie takes place. I would rather lose all of the audience for the sake of the one musician who felt that it was his story.
C: What was it like putting together such a nuanced and musician-specific piece?
YZ: It was a long journey, but it’s very exciting to finally see it all put together. From the original writing to now, it took seven years. There were three to four years of intense work; from the writing, the casting, financing, getting the music, shooting, editing and so forth. It felt like the movie was coming together in distinct phases, much like Beethoven’s Opus 131.
C: So, the Beethoven stuff was pretty central to the process?
YZ: Absolutely. Here, you have a piece that was written in 1826, but here it is again. It’s still here. This piece has longevity to it and it hasn’t gone away. It’s very difficult to perform; it has seven movements to it when the average for this is four, plus it’s played very fast with no breaks between movements. For me, it’s rooted in hardships on a local level, but as those hardships are exposed to art, it uplifts you spiritually. That’s the effect of culture and art on human beings. For me, it was a very spiritual thing.
C: You have an amazing cast with you on this movie. What was it like working with such big names?
YZ: Everyone I worked with was very inspiring in their own right. Throughout the movie, moments were found that only great actors can bring out. A lot of it was a process. For example: watching Christopher Walken and the way that he handled the cello. He was so concerned with the details of how to hold it, how to put it down, how a musician would treat it. Only a great actor would know that it was these details that would eventually matter. They seem small, like nobody would even notice, but it was those small things that make the movie so real.
C: Was it the actors that brought that attention to detail?
YZ: Yes, but it was also myself. There’s a scene where Christopher’s character envisions his deceased wife singing an aria. I picked that aria because it comes from an opera about a man who loses his wife, but then sees her everywhere he goes. I know that this is where that aria comes from, I know why I put it here. Nobody else would probably look into it and, for most people it is just a song in the movie, but it’s an important detail for me. It completes the scene.
C: I read in the production notes that this movie was shot in twenty seven days. Was it difficult working with such a tight schedule?
YZ: It was difficult at times. Working with such great actors, they want to know every word and are very strong minded. They challenge the director. As I said, that is part of the process. Even though it is difficult, it’s nothing compared to what is achieved, which is an authentic movie. All of the details are there.
C: Given the subject of Beethoven, were you worried that this would put viewers off?
YZ: I have an interesting anecdote about this. I was talking to John Adams about this and he told me “If Obama told the country that he loved Beethoven, his approval rating would go down.” It just goes to show how afraid people are of art and culture. Still, that is my passion. I have to follow my passion, I have to follow what I love. At the center of it all, the movie is a very human drama and I hope that people see that.
C: The movie is very beautifully shot and visually engaging. What was it like working with DP Frederick Elmes?
YZ: He is very accomplished and diverse. He’s worked with many different directors such as Ang Lee, David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch. I picked him because I didn’t want the film to fall into sentimentality. When you do a movie with violins, it’s very easy to become sentimental; like an overflow of emotions from nostalgia. I didn’t want nostalgia, I wanted something more of the moment. I wanted honest emotion. I wanted to present Beethoven like rock’n’roll; emotional and at the same time, distant and raw. Fred Elmes is a master of that kind of thing, that rawness. Also, like me, he was very concerned with detail. We went to the free collection in New York City and we looked at the great works of artists like Rembrandt and other great master painters. We decided that we were going to try to capture the essence of these great works and their compositions while staying in the moment.
C: How was it filming in New York City?
YZ: I love New York City. The culture, the people are great to me. All of the scenes in the movie are the places that I go to; places that I know well. New York City is almost a character itself in this movie, specifically, New York City in the winter. The movie wouldn’t be the same if it was shot anywhere else or during any other time of year.
C: One of the main components of this movie is Parkinsons Disease. Why did you choose this particular ailment?
YZ: I wanted to put what I thought would be the most devastating problem for a professional musician in this movie. What could possibly be worse for a classical cellist than Parkinson’s Disease? Not just a cellist, but to any musician, you lose your ability to play.
C: I also read that you had actual Parkinsons sufferers in the cast?
YZ: It was difficult because of the politics with the actors unions, I was told that I had to have all union extras, but I fought to have an actual Parkinsons support group in the movie and I won. The scene where Christopher is in the group with all of the other people, they were an actual support group in New York. The leader of the group was a professional dancer before she suffered from this devastating disease and she had to relearn how to move her entire body, but she did it. I was so impressed by her that I had her as a consultant on the movie and she helped us during all of the shooting.
C: I noticed that the actors all seemed to know how to play their instruments in the movie, did you pick them because they knew how to play?
YZ: Actually, none of them knew how to play the instruments. We got coaches for them that taught them how to play certain short phrases, then we shot it from eight different angles. I think it worked pretty well, that it looked like they really knew how to play. Also, we picked actual instruments for them. We asked private owners if we could shoot with their instruments. Some of the instruments were very rare and expensive, but it added another level to the performances in the film.
C: Well, all of the attention to the subtle details made a very impressive movie. Thanks for taking time to talk to us.
YZ: You’re welcome. Glad you enjoyed it.
A Late Quartet is now playing at the Ritz Five.