Yaron Zilberman Performance Interview

Yaron Zilberman Performance Interview

Yaron Zilberman Performance Interview

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir
Director: Yaron Zilberman
Genre: Drama
Rated: MA
Running Time: 105 minutes

Synopsis: On the eve of a world renowned string quartet's 25th anniversary season, their beloved cellist, Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), is diagnosed with the early symptoms of Parkinson's Disease.

When Peter announces he wishes to make the upcoming season his last, his three colleagues find themselves at a crossroad. Competing egos and uncontrollable passions threaten to derail years of friendship and collaboration. Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the quartet's second violinist, announces his desire to alternate chairs with first violinist Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir), after years of sacrifice and peacemaking for the benefit of the group. Robert's wife, violist Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener) has a particularly difficult time grappling with the tragic diagnosis, as Peter has served not only as a colleague, but as a dear father figure since childhood.

When Juliette is unable to support her husband, their marriage is strained with a palpable tension that they can no longer ignore. Tossed into the maelstrom is their daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a talented violinist in her own right. Like her father, she too decides to act on her desires. As the string quartet prepares to play Beethoven's Opus 131 for what might be the members' last concert together, the seven movements of the piece echo their own tumultuous journey. Writer/Director Yaron Zilberman (Watermarks)'s Perfromance features incredibly moving performances from a cast including Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Mark Ivanir and Imogen Poots.

Release Date
: March 14th, 2013

Director's Statement

I first came up with the idea for Performance while traveling with Watermarks, the film I had just completed. I wanted my next film to be an intense relationship drama which explored the complex iconic bonds formed between parents and their children, between siblings, and long-term married couples. As an avid fan of chamber music since my teens, I thought that the close-knit dynamic between the members of a string quartet could be the ideal setting for this journey. Becoming an established string quartet involves years of intimate, intense rehearsals and performances, punctuated by frequent arguments over every note and every sentiment. While each individual has the potential to star as a soloist, their success is dependent on their ability to rise above their egos and complement each other despite their individual differences.

Arnold Steinhardt, the first violinist of the legendary Guarneri String Quartet describes a string quartet as "Four people let their individual personalities shine while finding a unified voice... endless musings, discussions, criticism that... end up as an interpretation." In Performance, I aimed to explore the delicate balance required to achieve a gratifying relationship dynamic, one that frees the individual to ascend to his or her highest potential while remaining a significant contributing member of a team-gapping the tension between the individual and the group, between the I and the We.

To anchor the film musically, I chose, as its centerpiece, Beethoven's groundbreaking and favourite quartet Opus 131 in C-sharp minor. A striking element of the composition is that Beethoven indicated it should be played "attacca", without a pause between its seven movements. When playing a piece for almost 40 minutes without a break, the instruments are bound to go out of tune, each in a completely different way. What should the musicians do? Stop somewhere midway and tune, or struggle to adapt their pitch, individually and as a group, until the very end? I feel it is a perfect metaphor for long-term relationships, inevitably challenged and demanding a constant need for readjustment and such fine-tuning because of the myriad ways we change over long periods of time.

Musically speaking, Opus 131 takes us on an emotional rollercoaster ranging from the deepest valleys of inner contemplation to the cathartic peaks of explosive energy. To further ground the script in the world of quartet musicians, I filmed the Juilliard School's Attacca String Quartet for several months; they were coached by some of the world's most prominent chamber musicians, as they learned Opus 131. For further research, I filmed the Brentano String Quartet, one of the leading string quartets working today (who later provided the music for the score), as they played Opus 131 in front of five cameras-an invaluable experience in helping define the cinematic style of the film and prepare the actors for their role as musicians.
--Yaron Zilberman

Interview with Yaron Zilberman

Question: What was the inspiration behind Performance? What drove you to write it?

Yaron Zilberman: String quartet music is very dear to me, as I've been a listener of this music since my mid-teens. A friend of mine gave me a jazz cassette once. When one side finished, it automatically flipped over to a side with piano trios and I was blown away by it. I fell in love with chamber music right away and soon realized the string quartet was the most powerful form for me, especially Beethoven's string quartets. They were intellectually and emotionally explosive. I've been listening to them ever since, about 30 years now, and every time I listen it's a new experience. With Performance, I wanted to tell a story about family… about the strong unique bonds that are formed in a family, the love and devotion that are always accompanied by suppressed emotions, resentment, jealousy, and competition. I thought a string quartet would be a perfect setting considering the time they spend together and their codependency. They play ten years before developing a unique sound, travel seven months a year together… the relationships are intense. I felt this was a great and fresh way to tell a family story, where the artistic and familial success must work harmoniously.

Question: Was there a particular string quartet you modelled the film after?

Yaron Zilberman: I modelled the film after a couple of string quartets. The first was The Guarneri String Quartet, one of the most prominent having played for 40 years. The cellist, David Soyer, was the oldest of the group and wanted to retire, and they were in doubt about disbanding or staying together. They decided to continue only if David's protégé Peter Wiley, the cellist of the piano trio Beaux Art will join and he did. They continued on for several years, but eventually disbanded. The second quartet was the Italian String Quartet, which had three men and one woman. It was rumoured that she was romantically involved with each one of them. They were unique in playing the repertoire by memory, without notes. It brought musical tension to their interpretations that, for my taste, are unmatched. The third quartet was The Emerson which is based in New York and their two violinist's alternate chairs, they have no designated first and second violinist. These are the three major quartets whose stories and themes are prominent in the movie.

Question: What was the concept of Performance in general, and as a metaphor for what happens in the story?

Yaron Zilberman: The centerpiece of the movie is Opus 131 in C# minor, which Beethoven wrote a half a year before he passed away. There are several revolutionary aspects to this piece. It was written in seven movements when the standard was four - each movement in a different form, length and tempo, and I tried to follow these patterns in the script and film. Beethoven also decided to write the piece with no pause (attacca) which means the musicians can't tune their instruments between movements. They go out of tune during the piece and each in a completely different way. This is a great metaphor for life and relationships that are bound, at some point, to go out of tune- especially long-term ones.

How do we manage to go back to a relationship that works?

Question: What particular themes were running through your mind when writing the script?

Yaron Zilberman: I was especially focused on talking about a family - marriage, brothers' relationships, the father figure of a family, what happens when he is taken out of that structure. Long term relationships in general are the most challenging, yet can be the most fulfilling; importance of art in life, as a means to overcome hardships and doubt; beauty, culture, how they transcend the day to day problems we face, and how one can use them as a spiritual source to elevate one's emotional being.

Question: You made a huge leap from your acclaimed documentary, Watermarks, to Performance. Can you talk about the process?

Yaron Zilberman: In some aspects it was a huge leap, creating a world out of scratch, but there are a lot of similarities like the idea of telling a story. In both, one has to tell a story that is engaging from beginning to end through characters - the difference was working with actors to portray the characters, as opposed to documenting people being themselves. An interesting aspect of a string quartet is that they play without a conductor, so I felt I had to try to minimize my intervention, not to force the situation, but let their chemistry unfold in front of the camera, to give the actors as much space to become a tight ensemble, facing the same challenges a string quartet would face. A good consequence was that each actor brought their own life and reality to the movie - a personal realness behind each performance. Then there are more literal connections. For example, we featured real Parkinson's patients in the movie to better understand the disease, and how it changes one's psychology and mobility, or in a documentary segment, we recontextualized actual photos from the actors' youths to represent the characters when they were younger, to achieve a stronger emotional connection.

Question: Talk about each of the actors and their characters.

Yaron Zilberman: Christopher Walken is an exceptional actor- charismatic, strong, and iconic. Peter Mitchell is a very kind, gentle, cultural, soft spoken, encouraging individual. Christopher traditionally does not play such characters - we're used to seeing him in rougher, in your face roles. Here his character is a father figure to fellow musicians, and has to deal with an illness. I think that when an actor is challenged and does something against type often something magical happens. Christopher's childhood friend was a cellist. He grew up in Upper west side NYC (where many classical musicians reside) and he remembered meeting those musicians and talking about music in a very specific way. Chris felt he knew this atmosphere.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the greatest actors working today. He portrays Robert, who is ultimately fighting for his role in the quartet and in his marriage. I attended a concert of the Takacs String Quartet at Carnegie Hall, in which Phil read excerpts from Philip Roth's Everyman. The quartet music combined with Phil's reading brought tears to everybody present. I realized that this music was dear to him. Phil is also a prolific theater director and actor, so the intense live interaction within a quartet has qualities that are natural to him. Catherine Keener is a fascinating actress because of the way she's emotionally present. It's so raw when she's on set and on screen. She plays Juliette who faces all aspects of her life collapsing - her father figure illness, infidelity, a rebelling daughter. She's the perfect actress for the challenge. Catherine uses music as an inspiration on a deep level, which came handy playing the role of a violist.

Mark Ivanir plays Daniel Lerner-a bit of a loner, and perfectionist, who devotes his life to the violin, and pays the ultimate price of being alone in the world. Mark took the role very seriously, given the extraordinary company he was in. He immediately jumped in and learned how to play the violin -he has that fearless, risk-taking aspect to him as an actor. He grew up in a cultural family of writers in a rough neighborhood, and he really brought that into this role and into the quartet. You can feel him fighting for his place, his leadership, and artistic perfection.

Imogen Poots plays Alexandra Gelbart. Our casting director, Cassandra Kulukundis, recommended her, as she was shooting a movie for DreamWorks at the time. I was taken by her audition and how she interpreted the character. She also knew how to play the cello from childhood, so it was easy for her to connect to another string instrument. She really related to the script and understood the family-drama story surrounding her character and her mother. Catherine and Imogen really hit it off on camera.

Question: Tell us about the music behind it and getting the cast to practice, etc.

Yaron Zilberman: To make the playing possible, they needed to learn short phrases instead of the entire piece. At least two coaches were assigned to each actor so there was someone available at any time to give them a lesson. We created a video board from which they've learned about 30 phrases each, which they practiced and practiced… Their dedication was exceptional and eventually you could see their progress in how they played the instruments-their bow hand movement, the fingering on the strings, the body language with the instruments… it is all very real.

Question: What about the instruments? How did you decide to film them and how did you know what would best reflect classical music?

Yaron Zilberman: The instruments they play are the real deal. We had a rare violin vendor here in New York collaborate with us in providing high quality instruments for our quartet; they selected for each actor, depending on the personality of the role, a particular instrument and taking into consideration the sound of the quartet as a whole. We also selected instruments that will look good on camera, with the right colour and wood pattern. In some ways, the colour of the instruments inspired a more general palette for the film - one of earth tones, rich browns, wooden hues…. The support of the classical music world from violin and bow makers to professional coaches was invaluable; everybody really got together to make this project feel as real as possible.

Question: Talk about the filming process.

Yaron Zilberman: The shoot was only 27 days, so we had to work very quickly. Luckily, we had great team that was experienced and dedicated. We filmed in New York City, during one of the coldest winters in decades. The extreme cold and the amount of snow, while visually perfect for the shoot, were difficult for production. We were shooting New York's cultural world in locations like the Frick Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Sotheby's where one has to be exceptionally careful and delicate. Filming the music playing was also a challenge, figuring out how to capture different phrases from different angles with several cameras filming at once.

Question: Talk about the team and crew you worked with on the film.

Yaron Zilberman: Fred Elmes cinematographic style and sensitivity was a perfect match for a film about classical music in terms of careful structures and compositions. Also filming New York in a new light required a DP who knows New York very well and has a filming relationship with the city. We listened to Op. 131 many times together both from CDs and in live concerts and developed a way of filming the playing so that it fits our larger story. Also, we were visiting Frick several times to draw the inspiration from the compositions of the great master painters, and be informed by the colors of the Frick galleries and paintings. Fred has a unique ability to capture profound emotions and still avoid the pitfalls of sentimentality. He was very precise and stylistically it felt like a Beethoven piece, where each composition is meticulously, yet beautifully and freely constructed. Also Angelo Badalamenti, one of the great film composers, managed to bring such pain and beauty to the film with his score. It's a tremendous challenge for a composer to create original music around Beethoven, but Angelo rose to the challenge and succeeded wonderfully. John Kasarda, the production designer, masterfully portrayed the interiors inhabited by these musicians. The costumes, designed by Joe Aulisi are casually elegant, and really reflect the characters' lifestyles. It's still New York, but a very different part of New York than we are used to seeing in popular culture. More Juilliard than Madison Avenue. This was my second experience working with editor Yuval Shar. His editing sensitivities and exceptional musical ear helped tremendously with the cutting of Performance. His attention to detail was also very helpful in depicting a world that is all about paying attention to detail. Yuval's style is realistic, no gimmicks, and a film about relationships requires this approach.

Question: What about the reference to time in the beginning with the T.S. Eliot quote and other references throughout the movie? Was "time" one of your underlying themes?

Yaron Zilberman: It's definitely an underlying theme in the film, but I didn't want to draw too much attention to it. Life is structured around time, and poetry and music reflect that. Some of these ideas are present in the film - to live in the now, to understand how time changes us, and also how we cannot fight time, despite how hard we try.

Question: What do you hope the audience takes away from this movie?

Yaron Zilberman: Contemplation about our relationships, and a window to the beauty and intensity of quartet music. This film pays homage to the Beethoven's late quartets. In them Beethoven expresses his emotions and thoughts in painstakingly intricate ways, sometimes uplifting, sometimes desperate - always alive. I'd also like to remind us of the power of art in transforming our hardships into elevated life experiences, and to touch on the notion that over long periods of time, problems will arise inevitably, and this is intrinsic to the way we function and what we learn in life, and the question is what do we do with that.


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