Perhaps among some of the most overlooked films of last year sits A Late Quartet, a poignant film looking at the breakdown of one of the most successful string quartets the world has ever seen. As a group, the Fugue Quartet are a family, but when Christopher Walken’s Peter develops Parkinson’s disease and is forced to retire, the resulting void leaves the future of the group in jeopardy. Despite this perhaps high-brow focus on classical musicians, director Yaron Zilberman never feared that the specialist content of his film would hold it back.
“I didn’t expect a film set in the world of chamber music to become a popcorn blockbuster.
“I don’t think that the audience interested in dramas and independent films would shy away from a film because it has classical music in it.”
Watching the film, there is a great sense that this content holds a particularly personal significance to its director, with its strong focus on family only adding to this atmosphere.
“It’s music I’ve been listening to and following for many years now. I consider it an intense roller coaster, an intellectual and emotional dialogue between like-minded people.
“Putting this music making within the context of family dynamics, which indeed integrates some autobiographical elements, seemed exciting grounds to explore for me.”
Previously having only directed the 2004 documentary Watermarks, the story of a Jewish women’s swim team in the 1930s, Zilberman is no stranger to unconventional material for his storytelling. However, for his first fiction piece to also take a unique subject, Yaron needed a cast to match his touchingly rendered script. Thankfully, enlisting the talents of two Oscar winners in the form of Christopher Walken and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as well as the Oscar-nominated Catherine Keener and respected actor Mark Ivanir, meant that the characters of A Late Quartet were in safe hands.
For any director to get these renowned actors to star in their first film would be a surprise to say the least, but Zilberman clearly had enough confidence in his project to attract the cast he needed.
“I think that the script, the characters, and the world it’s set in, were key factors for the actors’ decision to join.
“I mainly felt fortunate and honoured.”
Of course, once the cast was assembled, the next challenge was to make them convincing as musicians. A lot of the film sees the group playing their instruments together, or individually, as any quartet would. However, as actors and not musicians, the task of making this as convincing as possible was not an easy one.
“It took months of preparation! We filmed a string quartet with five cameras playing the music that ended up on screen. Then we edited a DVD for each actor and their respective coaches with their “on-screen” music segments from five camera angles.
“These segments were studied by the cast until they reached a high level of imitating them. When we finally filmed the actors play, we had all our music coaches on set both helping the cast with the instruments and watching a monitor to approve the way the shots looked for authenticity.”
Despite the lengths that were taken to make the film reach this level of authenticity, the truly affecting moments of A Late Quartet come from the more personal moments, no more so than the harrowing story of Peter. Oldest of the Fugue, alone due to the recent passing of his wife, and now with Parkinson’s disease, Walken’s character faces more hardship than any of the others. However, Yaron Zilberman states this harsh state of affairs has a purpose:
“If one is set to capture these moments and see what naturally comes out of such situations, hopefully some truth will emerge on screen. In Peter’s case, that truth is mostly revealed through sadness.
“There’s also hope, rage, despair, and acceptance.”
It is that sentiment that best describes A Late Quartet, as it is a film that explores growth through hardship. Whilst the characters may disagree, fight and even break apart from one another, the sense that this is a family is ever present, allowing the film to reach a deeply personal, touching, and poignant place that seldom are able to achieve. Thanks to the vision of director and writer Yaron Zilberman, A Late Quartet moves above pretension or bitterness, and instead leaves a lasting impression.
A Late Quartet is released on DVD on July 29 2013.