The Hoffman Overture: Dustin Hoffman makes directorial bow with poignant 'Quartet'

How many first-time film directors are also two-time Oscar winners, American Film Institute Life Achievement Award recipients, and Kennedy Center honorees? The new kid in the auteur chair is 75-year-old movie icon Dustin Hoffman, whose thoroughly disarming debut feature, Quartet, should delight both the Exotic Marigold demographic and anyone looking for affirmation that age is just a number.

The estimable Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and Michael Gambon star in this film adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s 1999 play about the residents of a British home for retired musicians, who are shaken up by the arrival of legendary opera diva Jean Horton (Smith). The Weinstein Company opens the comedy-drama in limited release on Jan. 11.

Harwood’s play was inspired by Daniel Schmid’s 1983 documentary Tosca’s Kiss, about the colorful characters who live in Verdi House in Milan, Italy. “Verdi helped design it not too many years before he died,” Hoffman recounts. “After he finished it, he said to the architect, ‘This is best thing I’ve ever done,’ discounting all his operas. He stipulated in his will that after he died he wanted retired opera singers and musicians to live there for free. He knew by that point in his life how many of these people who had played La Scala couldn’t pay the rent. That’s the documentary. And after I saw it, I sat with [cinematographer] John de Borman and said, ‘If we can make the movie in that spirit, we can make this work.’ I also said, ‘We have to get real opera singers and musicians or it won’t be the same.’ In the film you see these people with real physical impairments, and yet they open their mouths and this thing comes out that refuses to die. And I think that would move anybody.”

Of his casting stratagem, Hoffman admits, “We had no clue how it would impact the making of the film. We hired these people with the great help of our casting director, Lucy Bevan. I was in L.A. finishing a job and she would send me videos of them, and we cast over the phone. These people, their phone hadn’t rung in 30 years. For example, the trumpet player, Ronnie Hughes, he’s 83 and he still has the same chops he’s had all his life, and all the trumpet you hear in the movie, that’s all his, even when he’s not onscreen. All of these people, in their 70s, 80s and 90s, shared that same fate, if you will, of just being ignored by the culture. And they came to work every day at six in the morning and worked long hours, 12 or 14 hours, with such passion and focus and love for what they were doing, so that by the second week of shooting, it was no longer a job for the crew. It was something they had never experienced before. And the last day of shooting, we just all applauded them and everybody was crying. They’d still be coming to work every day [if they could], because it was like they had been reborn.”

The aforementioned John de Borman was key to Hoffman’s involvement in the project. “I was doing Last Chance Harvey a few years ago with Emma Thompson, who is one of the most special people I’ve worked with. The director was young, it was his second film. And I got to be friends with John and we would talk over shots between setups. And he said, ‘Why aren’t you directing? You sound like a director.’ And I said, ‘Find me something.’ I called him up to say ‘Happy New Year’ three years ago and I reiterated, ‘If you find anything…’ And he called me back and said, ‘You’re not going to believe it, but five minutes after I hung up the phone, Finola Dwyer’—the producer of An Education, which he shot—‘called and said her latest director on Quartet had fallen out and she’s sending me the script to see if I have any ideas.’ So he got it to me in time for me to read it on the plane, and something touched me about it, and that was the beginning of it.”

Remarkably, Quartet is the very first teaming of two great veterans of British cinema, Smith and Courtenay, who play former lovers who suffered a bitter breakup many decades earlier. “I have a little bit of gossip,” Hoffman confides. “Before we started shooting, dear Tom, whose modesty is almost acute, said to me that he was very fearful that she wouldn’t like him once they started and he wouldn’t be up to her standard of work. And within a week they had become great friends and spoke on the phone almost every night—and they still have a relationship now, which is wonderful.”

Smith and Courtenay were already attached to the project through their longtime friendships with author Harwood (who also wrote Courtenay’s Oscar-nominated role in The Dresser). The part of irrepressibly flirtatious onetime opera star Wilfred Bond was originally intended for Albert Finney, who decided he wasn’t up to the demands of the shoot. The role ultimately went to beloved Scottish comedian Connolly, who showed some surprising insecurities. As Hoffman recalls, “The way I first knew him was playing opposite Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown years ago. I’d also seen him as a comedian, but I didn't know him. I called him and told him what a brilliant performance he gave, so understated and smart, and he stood his ground with Judi Dench. When I offered him this, he said, ‘Who else is in it?’ I said Maggie Smith, and he panicked. He said, ‘I’m not up to their standard. They’re legends!’ And he had to be talked into it. He said the first day he came into work, he was shaking all over.”

For the role of the dementia-stricken Cissy Robson, the fourth member of the eponymous quartet (who reunite for a benefit performance of a celebrated old recording), Maggie Smith served as a de facto casting agent. “I don’t understand why directors don’t ask actors who they think would be right for a part, because actors know actors,” Hoffman contends. “I asked Maggie if she had any ideas about Cissy. And without a pause, she said Pauline Collins. I hadn’t seen Shirley Valentine, but I had seen her in a small part as a psychic in a Woody Allen film [You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger]. When I called her, I told her that I saw a bit of Cissy in that performance—it was so alive, what she did, it was like it was improvised. And she said, ‘I did. I asked Woody if I could, and he said say whatever you want.’ Which is a tribute to Woody Allen, I think. She had a relative in her family who was suffering from dementia, and she wanted to reference her and gave me a little preview. And I said, ‘You’re right there.’”

Some people may be surprised to see Hoffman’s name attached to a film set in Britain with an all-British cast, but the veteran star insists, “There’s no difference. Actors are actors. Opera singers are different from actors, they have to keep balancing on the tightrope. In a sense, they’re victimized by their own voice. I mean, I lived with opera singers—that’s probably what drew me to this also. Bob Duvall was a roommate of mine and he had a brother who was an opera singer. And his brother had a friend who was an opera singer and we were all living together. And they would dissociate themselves from their instrument, in the sense that they would wake up in the morning and say, ‘The voice isn't good.’ It was not my voice, it was the voice. That was a constant preoccupation.”

Hoffman also came away from the project with a new appreciation for the zen of film directing. “I was humbled by the fact that directors are better actors than actors. Meaning, we all come to work every day and we’re in our chrysalis of discovery—you’re thinking about your character and what choices he’d make, You’re enveloped in that, and the director inevitably greets you with a big smile—Hey! How are you?—and you don’t know that in the last ten hours he’s lost a location or lost an actor or the wrong prop was delivered, a myriad number of stuff. And they keep it from the actor. That was a big surprise—they say you prepare as hard as you can for a war, then the war starts and nothing goes according to plan. Any director will tell you that—that’s the name of the game. You gotta make your day, you gotta make your day—that is what’s on the schedule. And when you have these things happen hours before you start, the schedule doesn’t care.”

That said, Hoffman is squarely opposed to inflexibility on the part of any director. “The best work I’ve done is when you get it to the point where it’s effortless. But it takes a long time to get to that point, and a lot of directors don't want to wait and they’ve predetermined how they want the scene played and how they want the part interpreted. And that’s not the way I ever like to work—there are ten different ways to do a character and a scene, and ten directors could have directed a piece and all done very good work. So allow it to be individuated to the artist.”

With such firm opinions, why did it take so long for the actor to transition to film directing? “It’s a combination of things,” he explains. “I started wanting to direct. I was taking acting classes, and I felt that I would have a tougher time directing. It’s hard enough to get a job acting—how do you audition as a director? In those days, you couldn’t make your own videos. I’d coach kids from class who would do a scene for me before class and I’d give suggestions. Then, during years of unemployment, I’d see on the Equity wall various and sundry jobs: Do you want to go to Fargo, North Dakota? The director is ill—you have to take over directing The Time of Your Life and Two for the Seesaw at the Fargo Community Theatre. And I was there the next day. I directed things in New York, downtown and off-off-Broadway. Then, after The Graduate, I started getting so much work—I worked a lot. A project or two would come up that I’d work on, but I never got it to the point where I thought it was ready, and then another film would come along. And the truth is, Hollywood is a business, and I didn’t get director offers because as a business they tend to be conservative and reactive. Even now I’m not getting any offers, because they have to wait for Quartet to open and see if it does any business. They’re pretty cautious.”

As he enters this new stage, Hoffman had a singular opportunity to reflect on his remarkable acting achievements (The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie, Rain Man, Wag the Dog, etc., etc.) on Dec. 2 as one of the Kennedy Center honorees alongside David Letterman, Natalia Makarova, Buddy Guy and rock gods Led Zepellin. “David Letterman and I talked and we both had similar feelings. It was less traumatizing to be able to live it through our children. He had his nine-year-old son there, I had my family of five kids and two grandchildren, six and eight, and it gave it a grounding—because it is a rather surreal experience.

“The thing that was most powerful for me is that you don't know who’s going to speak on your behalf. They say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Robert De Niro,’ and Bob comes out. I had done about four films with him. We’re friends but we don't hang out that much. And the things he said were so strong—actors don’t talk shop. What he said was so strong, I couldn’t hold myself together. He was so effusive in his compliments. He said something he had just told me recently: We first met when I was at a benefit for [Eugene] McCarthy. I had just done The Graduate a year and a half before. He brought this up on the last picture we did together. He says, ‘Remember when you did that dinner benefit in 1969?’ ‘Yes, Robert, I do. Why are you bringing this up now between takes?’ He says, ‘Well, I was just thinking about it.’ ‘Yeah, go on.’ He says, ‘I was your waiter.’ And he was. And he elaborated on that at the Kennedy Center. He said the first thing I ever said to him was: ‘How’s the flounder?’

“Not to demean in any way the President of the United States and the First Lady, because I had supported them and I did go to see the inauguration on the coldest day in Washington, DC, but as impressive as it is to sit next to them, if I were to tell the truth, I would say the most powerful moment was Robert talking about his feelings. I called him later, because he had come in from Atlanta where he was making a movie. I started telling him what an incredible thing it was for him to say yes to this. I said, ‘I never told you this, Bob, but you have so much soul. What a heartfelt thing to do.’ And he started crying on the phone. We’ve always felt a kind of bond that we can’t explain, aside from acting. We’ve always connected in a very personal way. That was for me the ballgame.”

For all the treasured moments Hoffman has given moviegoers over the past four-and-a-half decades, he avoids revisiting his classic films. “I don’t watch them,” he confides. “They surprise you, they invade you when you’re searching on TV to see what’s on. Suddenly, ooohh, that’s me! You’ve already passed yourself and you go back. And without fail—and I’ve talked to other actors and they all agree—the first thing your brain does is remember the day and what went wrong, and the thing you wish you had done in that particular scene that you didn’t do. And you kind of just scrutinize and say, ‘God, I’d love to be able to do that again.’ Sometimes I’ll see a scene and think, ‘Gee, I was so critical of that, but it’s not bad.’ Then I’ll move on. You don't want to dwell on them, you want to keep moving, you want to focus on today and tomorrow. If you allow yourself to focus on them, you have this superstitious feeling that you have nothing new to offer.”

Can’t he just watch his films for pure pleasure? “No, because there is no pleasure, if the truth be known. There’s pleasure shooting if a take goes right, but overall there’s no real pleasure because you're in such a treacherous reality. You don't know if it’s going to work! It's like the definition of an airplane: It’s something that almost doesn't get off the ground. And I think to go into a movie with any other feeling is suicidal. Because most movies don’t work. It’s kind of like baseball: They get up five times and if they get one hit, it’s celebratory. Two out of five is great. And if you’re batting 300, which is a great percentage, that’s 300 out of a thousand.

“So if you're joyous, it’s usually for a day that’s gone well with the crew and the other actors. There’s momentary pleasure while you're working. But on a larger basis, there’s pleasure when the movie’s opened. And I’ve been experiencing that on Quartet. It’s one of the great thrills to slip into the back of a theatre and feel the audience watch the film and feel when they’re moved or particularly attentive. There’s no better feeling. And once that’s over and it’s the past, you move on.

“Having said that…I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Fellini. I was promoting Tootsie—it had just opened in Rome and he liked it very much. And someone said he’d like to have dinner with you. And my God, he’s my favorite director, if I could name one. He was shooting at Cinecittà and my wife and I had dinner with him. He spoke good English, and one of the first things he said—this was back in ’82—he was decrying how the whole atmosphere of film had changed so radically. He said, ‘I don't want to make movies anymore. I work so hard to make the film and then I go to see how it’s looking in the theatre and it's in a mall. And the screen is small, and people come in on rollerblades. It has no sanctity.’ If he was saying that in ’82, now you’ve got iPhones, DVDs. The idea that they send DVDs out to people in the business to watch… When you’re making a movie, you’re not thinking in those terms. You’re thinking of an audience, a group of strangers bonding together and feeling the same thing. And that seems to be evaporating.”