Interview with Yaron Zilberman

by Simon on March 12, 2013 · 2 comments

As a first time director of a feature film, Yaron Zilberman managed to pull of the near impossible – getting Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken and Catherine Keener to appear in his film Performance. These three A-listers are joined by Mark Ivanir (Schindler’s List, The Good Shepherd), the four of them playing members of a string quartet which has been together for 25 years, and which looks like self-destructing. It’s a fascinating drama about the passion and politics of a small group of friends, and is fuelled by Beethoven’s moving Opus 131 – an unusually structured piece of music that the composer insisted be played attaca – without a break. This challenges the musicians to adjust throughout the performance as their instruments go slowly out of tune in ways they can’t possibly anticipate.

Yaron Zilberman, Film DirectorFor director Zilberman, this was an important starting point for the film and a reflection of reality: “It’s a great metaphor for life and for relationships that are bound, at some point, to go out of tune – especially long-term ones.” The origins of the story come from Zilberman’s own family background – his mother remarried when he was six, and the young Zilberman found himself with a stepfather who had three of his own children. “We had a very intense family dynamic, and with five children and the personalities involved, I was in survivor mode,” he laughs. Zilberman’s competitive battles with his new stepbrother partly inspire the conflict that occurs between first and second violin in the film. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Robert, the under confident second violin who comes to realise that he can match perfectionist Daniel (Ivanir), who has always been first violin. The competitiveness extends to viola player Juliette (Keener), married to Robert but with a deep friendship for Daniel. The oldest member of the quartet is Peter (Walken), the cellist who realises that, because of the deterioration of his health, he should leave the group. This causes much of the reflective drama in the story. “It was much like my own step-father leaving my family” says Zilberman, “and it adds a biblical or Shakespearean flavour to the story.” Divorced himself, Zilberman realized that relationships, like Beethoven’s Opus 131, cant stop for re-tuning. “You can’t tell your wife ‘sorry let’s take a pause,’ you have to understand that you constantly need to readjust in relationships. Life goes on. It’s played without a pause.”

perforamnceConvincing such a stellar cast to be involved in the film was no easy job. Zilberman had just completed touring with his documentary Watermarks, and saw Phillip Seymour Hoffman on stage at the Carnegie Hall, reading extracts from a book as an accompaniment to a string quartet. “I saw how he was moved by the music,” says Zilberman, “and how the music informed the reading, and the power of it was due to him. After the concert, I approached him about playing Robert. For me was the ideal Robert. Of course, he’s an amazing actor, but he’s also a great stage actor, and I needed this because, in the film, the characters are on stage – performing – and the cast had to be able to captivate the audience while they did this. It’s all about the performance.” But Zilberman was out of luck. A very busy actor, Hoffman was booked up for a year. “But I convinced him to read the script anyway, and he agreed to do it – as long as I could wait a year.” It gave Zilberman time to approach some other big names in cinema – particularly the enigmatic Christopher Walken, famous for quirky roles including Bond villains, sadistic gangsters, and crazy father figures. What Zilberman didn’t know was that Walken was looking to play a quieter character – more like himself. “His agent read the script and she said that it was exactly what he was after,” says Zilberman. “She sent it to him and he invited me to his home the next day. I took a CD of the Opus 131 with me and we listened to it, spoke about the role, and read the script together. He agreed to do the part immediately. He is a humble and gentle person in real life, and was able to also connect as an experienced stage actor. I just asked him to be himself and he said to me ‘you know people think I’m a crazy person, but I am just like this character Peter.’ He felt that he knew the atmosphere.”

Beethoven’s music is almost another character in the film, and Zilberman structured the story around the film’s unusual seven movements. “I took the first three movements as my first act – setting up the narrative – and then, with all the story lines introduced, used the variations that followed as a second act. Each movement has its own tone and rhythm”, explains Zilberman, “and I tried to get that feel into the film.” The final two movements – played at a violent pace – build with the climax of the film, the quartet on stage for what may be their last performance. It also puts the actors under pressure to convince the audience that they can play like the world’s greatest quartet. “Technically its impossible for any actor to look like they’ve been playing that long’, admits Zilberman, “but I just wanted people to be convinced enough so they would stay in the story. The actors each had a quartet coach, and we filmed short segments of a world-class musician playing their instrument. The cast had to learn twenty or thirty 15 second segments and those are the ones we used on screen.” Zilberman’s experienced cast pull it off, and it’s hard not be captivated by the combination of their skills and the powerful music. “Opus 131 takes us on an emotional rollercoaster ranging from the deepest valleys of inner contemplation to the cathartic peaks of explosive energy,” says Zilberman, “and I hope that what audiences take away is contemplation about relationships, and a window to the beauty and intensity of quartet music.”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Shelley March 13, 2013 at 10:10 pm

So interesting to think of the analogies. Saw the trailer last week…or maybe the week before. Looking forward to going along tomorrow night. Music is another of my passions so the prospect of seeing/hearing this film has me quite excited. Thanks :)

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Shelley March 25, 2013 at 11:50 am

VERY hard to believe that was a directorial debut!!!

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