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Yaron Zilberman

A Late Quartet tells the story of the Fugue String Quartet during the lead-up to its 25th anniversary concert, a performance of Beethoven's play-without-resting Opus 131. As cellist Peter Mitchell (a subdued, dignified Christopher Walken) notes at the outset, this demanding format forces the players to adjust to each other as they inevitably fall out of tune. It's the first of many analogies between music and life in a screenplay that might read as overdesigned if it weren't so rigorously constructed. Director and co-writer Yaron Zilberman was kind enough to answer a few questions about the project.

Matthew Lickona: Whenever a film has the kind of personal feeling about it that this one does, I ask, "Why did you decide to make this film?"

Yaron Zilberman: I wanted to make a movie about family dynamics. And I thought that making a film about a string quartet, which always involves very intense relationships between the musicians – it takes about ten years for a string quartet to develop a unique sound – would be a fresh way of looking at family dynamics. I love string quartets, and this [film] comes from listening, in a meticulous way, for several decades. For me, string quartet music is perhaps the greatest music. But you can’t make that amazing music without working together. Each one has got to keep their own individual sound and uniqueness, but at the same time, it’s got to work together for something that’s even bigger than that. At all times, you have to maintain your individuality and also the ability to merge as a group. If you hear only one sound, it’s not satisfying; it doesn’t have that depth. And if you hear one individual rising too much, that’s not satisfying, either.

ML: Tell me about researching those interior dynamics.

YZ: I did a lot of reading, and eventually, I documented a string quartet as they learned the piece at the center of the movie. While they learned from other masters in the field, I documented that, and it gave me an intimate look at how they talk, how they work, and how they appreciate the music.

ML: In the film, Imogen Poots gives a long explanation about what each member of the quartet brings to the ensemble. You have a remarkable quartet of actors playing these musicians, and I was wondering if you could do something similar with regard to what they brought to the film.

YZ: Christopher Walken, the cellist, was going against type, in a way, by playing the father figure here. I thought it would be interesting, and it paid off. He’s such a great actor, and also a great stage actor. He’s bringing that ability, in terms of intimacy and range, into every scene. Philip Seymour Hoffman is such a volcanic force, and he’s the second violin here. He’s fighting to alternate with the first chair, and he’s also reaching a point where there’s an issue with his wife, a marital stagnation. Catherine Keener, the violist, has an extraordinary ability to work with emotions. In this role, she has her feelings for the father figure who has just been diagnosed with Parkinson's and is thinking about retiring; she has this crisis with her husband; she has this past relationship with the Daniel, the first violinist; and this issue with her daughter. It’s coming from all sides, and she has to hold all those emotions, all those relationships. Mark Ivanir, the first violinist, is an Israeli, and he’s originally from Ukraine. Having that dimension of someone not born in the United States was fascinating for me; he’s the first violinist, but he’s also an outsider. He gave the part a different feeling than what was written, and it’s really heartbreaking. He’s obsessed with his own music, yeah, but he’s giving everything he’s got to the quartet. That’s his family.

ML: Tell me about your own experience with the Beethoven piece that they're preparing.

YZ: It's a journey. You listen to it for so many years, and each time, depending on your life's experience, you experience it differently. For me, it has somehow become a life story, the journey of a human being from birth - and in a way, not only from birth. The first movement is a fugue, a very slow, meditative fugue. It's the first time a composer starts with a slow fugue, and I feel that it's [the time] leading toward birth. Then, later, it goes into adolescence and maturity, and eventually old age and saying goodbye to life - the last joy of being alive. I tried to follow that inspiration for each movement in the piece in terms of the color, the pace, and the rhythm. Each movement informed me about the drama of the plot.

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ML: One of the central conflicts of the film comes when the second violinist, Robert, proposes alternating chairs with the first violinist, Daniel. Daniel tells him it's a terrible idea, and it's hard to tell if he's just protecting his status, or if it really is a bad idea for a quartet to have that kind of internal variability.

YZ: Well, there's a legitimate argument there and I didn't want to resolve it. The Emerson String Quartet does alternate between the first and second chair. They're one of the greatest quartets working today, but it's very interesting - you need to check, when you go to a concert, who is playing first chair at that moment. Because it does produce a different sound, a different dynamic.

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