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Quartet – Dustin Hoffman interview

Quartet

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DUSTIN Hoffman talks about what made him decide to make Quartet his first film as director and why he kept a quote from Billy Wilder nearby to continually inspire him.

He also talks about a documentary that also inspired the movie and why he decided to cast real-life retired opera singers and musicians throughout the film. He was speaking at a press conference held during the London Film Festival.

Q. Can I ask about the origins of the project? It’s inspired, of course, by Ronald Harwood’s play but also, in part, by a documentary?
Dustin Hoffman: Tom [Courtenay] and Albert Finney met Ron Harwood on the dresser, so that’s how it started. It’s a wonderful documentary. It’s called Tosca’s Kiss and Mr Hardwood told me about it when I asked him what the genesis was. It was made in 1983 and Verdi, who was rich and successful, toward the end of his life decided to build a mansion for himself in Milan, where he lived, and he stipulated that when he died opera singers and musicians – because he knew so many who were no longer playing at the Scala and some were poor – could live there. So, the documentary is about these retired opera singers and musicians at the Verdi house, which still exists in Milan.

Q. Did you give the documentary to your cast to see first?
Dustin Hoffman: I told them all to see it and I think they all ignored me [laughs].

Q. Why did you decide to take a chance as a film director?
Dustin Hoffman: I decided a long time ago but sometimes it takes you 40 years to get around to doing something – and that’s the truthful answer.

Q. You once said that filmmaking was like some kind of magic. Did you feel that being a director?
Dustin Hoffman: Well, this is the first time I’ve directed and I don’t know if I’ll feel this again. I think we all felt it on this movie – crew and cast. You never know when you’re making a movie… no one is saying in the middle of Casablanca that this is going to be a classic. The lead actors had turned it down and I think they wound up with B-list actors at the time. So, you’re always in a tunnel that you can’t see the end of. But there’s something that took place on this movie that I don’t think we expected and that was that once we decided that the entire cast would be real retired opera singers and retired musicians… and these people the phone hadn’t rung for them for 20 or 40 years even though they can deliver.

The trumpet player, Ronnie Hughes, has still got his chops today but for some strange reason the culture doesn’t call him because he’s 83-years-old. And these people are in their 70s and 80s and 90s and came with such verve every day and would still be shooting these 10 and 12 hour days. So, that in itself made this an extraordinarily special occasion for all of us. It wasn’t a job for the crew after a few days, it took on another tone.

Q. Is it true that you had an inspirational quote from Billy Wilder that fired you up every day?
Dustin Hoffman: That’s right. There were a few things that went into it. When you’re doing something you’re trying to be your audience at the same time, so if somebody tells me that this is a movie about retired opera singers, you think ‘maybe I’ll wait for it to come to DVD’. You’re not rushing off to see it. So, I knew that we had an obligation and that was to keep an energy in it and try to keep the audience interested. In fact, I asked some of the actors to take a look at His Girl Friday, a Howard Hawks film with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, because they talk over each other and there’s a great energy. And I said: “We have to have energy here… This is not a movie about smelling the urine! It’s another kind of movie.” Volker Schlöndorff got Billy Wilder to agree to these conversations – you can buy it – because Volker spoke German at times. And he said to Billy Wilder: “What is in your mind?” And he said: “If you’re going to try to tell the truth to the audience, you’d better be funny or they’ll kill you.” And I haven’t forgotten that.

Q. Despite the films you’ve been in over the years, this film feels very British. Was that intentional?
Dustin Hoffman: I had to. It was written that way. I had just finished a film called Last Chance Harvey a few years ago and I had become friends with [cinematographer] John de Borman and after the film – because we’d talk about shots during the shooting – he said ‘you should direct’, and I said: “Well, find me something to direct.” I was going to get on the plane [home] but the next day he called me and said that Finola Dwyer, who was the producer of a film he did called An Education, had sent him a script, which was this script, and the director had fallen out. So, he asked me to read it, and I read it and jumped in. Sometimes it’s a coincidence, or it turns out that way.

Q. Was there any rehearsal time? And how involved in casting were you?
Dustin Hoffman: Well, I came in on this movie after there had been a director and I came in after Tom Courtenay had talked to Ron Harwood about making a movie. So, you know Tom and Albert Finney had been friends since the beginning of their career as they became stars around the same time – Tom always reminds me that Albert was first with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and then Tom with The Long Distance Runner. So, they had this 40-odd year friendship with each other and with Mr Harwood. So, when I came on it Albert, Tom and Maggie were in the cast. But then Albert wasn’t up for it, so he had to withdraw.

So, in terms of the stars, the only ones I cast were Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins. I was in Los Angeles working and a lot of this took place on the telephone. I’d met Maggie [Smith] once and I’d come back-stage, which I’m usually loathe to do because as an actor you don’t want people coming back because you want to get home [laughs]. So, most of it was done over the phone. But one of the first things I did as a director, because it’s one of the first things you should do, even though most don’t, is to ask good actors who they think is right for the part. They know better than anybody. But without missing a beat Maggie said Pauline Collins. I didn’t know Pauline because I hadn’t seen Shirley Valentine, but then I saw this thing that she did with Woody Allen [You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger], in which she was wonderful as a psychic, and I said to her on the phone: “The dialogue seemed improvised.” And she said that it was. I said: “With Woody Allen?” And she said that he’d encouraged her to say whatever she wanted. So, that’s how I came into it. I lucked out, as they say in America.

Q. How did you find the transition from actor to director and did you draw from other directors you’d worked with?
Dustin Hoffman: Well, 45-odd years of doing it, so we all pile up the things we like about directors and the things we don’t like about directors. And sometimes they’re very similar. I think one of the things you have to be aware of as an actor is that if you come on the set and see the director standing there mouthing all the words while a scene is going on, that’s usually a very bad sign because it means the director has already shot the scene in his head. He knows exactly the rhythm and the nuances that he wants delivered in the line and you’re not going to dissuade him.

Usually, those people don’t even like actors and they can’t wait until they get in the cutting room. They kind of break down in categories: directors who like to be surprised and some of them abhor being surprised. As far as directing, we all direct when we’re acting in movies… every single one of us. I always think we’re like convicts in those old Hollywood movies… you know where the two guys are talking beneath their breath and then they say: “Here comes the screw!” We’re like that during takes. It’s what we do. But you have to protect yourself. Anyone with half a brain, who does movies year after year after year, learns that they have to protect themselves because it’s a bastard art form for us. We’re not allowed in the cutting room – and that’s extraordinary. So, when a director is asking for certain nuances and colours and we feel that they’re phoney, but we do it because the director asks for it, that’s the one that they pick in the cutting room. And I contend that when you see a movie with bad acting, don’t blame the actor… blame those guys in the cutting room because they like that take.

Read our review of Quartet