A film about the backstage dramas of a famous string quartet features a cast of acting virtuosi
In Performance, cellist Peter (Christopher Walken) announces to the members of his string quartet that he has Parkinson’s and has to retire. While viola player Juliette (Catherine Keener) can’t imagine going on without him, second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) clashes with the perfectionist first violin, Daniel (Mark Ivanir), over who should play the lead parts.
This engaging drama about music, passion and obsession is the feature writing and directing debut of New York documentary director Yaron Zilberman.
Yaron, what inspired the film? Are you a musician?
I played several instruments and at a certain point I played cello for a year but I can’t call myself a musician. I decided to make a fiction film to explore autobiographical ideas that had to do with family. And I love string quartet music.
It’s clever that the narrative is structured like a quartet. The four characters weave in and out of the story the same way their instruments weave in and out of the music.
The cello is ‘home’ for a string quartet. So I wrote Peter as the home, as a big, warm, bass sound. The others get their strength from him, and they physically rehearse at his home. And then I asked myself, who is Juliette? What does it mean to play the viola? It’s not a cello, it’s not a violin. They have a particular personality, violists.
Watching the film you suddenly realise, yes! That’s what Catherine Keener is in movies – she’s a viola.
Exactly! She’s like a viola. There’s always an enigma around violists, and I tried to create that enigma. If you’re not accustomed to listening then you don’t hear the viola [in a quartet], and that’s also what I tried to do with her character.
She’s married to the second violinist (Hoffman) but in a way he doesn’t "hear her" – he cheats on her. And he wants to play first violin. Do second violinists all have that chip on their shoulder?
It’s quite common. In many quartets I know about there is an issue. I documented a young quartet that are approaching ten years together, and the second violinist said, “When they auditioned me they didn’t tell me it would be for second violin.” There’s still that grudge there!
It’s a real powerhouse cast for such an intimate film.
I was very fortunate. Catherine was the first to sign on. Her son plays the cello. Christopher Walken said that it was the first opportunity for him to play himself, to be himself – who he is in real life as opposed to the public image.
How did you get them all playing like professionals?
First I filmed the Brentano String Quartet, who recorded the music for the movie, doing [Beethoven’s] Opus 131 and we edited down the footage just to the [shots] that we were going to see on screen. So each of the actors only had to learn 20-30 shots of roughly 15 seconds. And each one of them had three coaches to work with them. It was something that they could master. So I took a problem that I knew was not achievable and tried to minimise it to something that was achievable. Hopefully it’s sufficiently convincing.
What were your filmic inspirations on this?
For this project I was drawn to Elia Kazan movies in which American acting became very raw, direct and honest. I was looking at Ingmar Bergman movies dealing with raw emotions and relationships within a family. And of course Woody Allen – the essential New York movie director. But mainly the music informed me the most.
The movie’s real title is A Late Quartet but in Australia’s it’s going out as Performance, presumably not to be confused with Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet. But Performance is also the name of that 1970 Nicolas Roeg film starring Mick Jagger.
It’s a masterpiece of an old film and the distributors were aware of it and comfortable with that, so I was happy to go along with that. My movie is about performance.
Performance screens from Thu 14 Mar.