Israeli-American film-maker Yaron Zilberman there were plenty of moments in the creation of Performance that were markedly different from his only previous feature, a documentary called Watermarks. That film was about a Jewish women’s swim team in Vienna in the 1930s.
Performance, set in present-day Manhattan, is fiction. It’s a drama about a string quartet that, after many years together, is forced to change when its founder is diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Dramas about a string quartet are rare. But what also makes Performance stand out is the A-list cast Zilberman got.
The quartet’s founder, cellist Peter Mitchell, is played by Christopher Walken. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a violinist and his wife, played by Catherine Keener, is the violist. Israeli-Ukrainian actor Mark Ivanir is first violinist.
But there was one moment in particular for Zilberman, who also co-wrote the screenplay, that stood out as a reminder that making Performance was on a whole new level. It was even before the cameras rolled.
An important scene in the film takes place in a concert hall off The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. One day, Zilberman and Walken quietly walked into the museum during opening hours so the director could explain what he had envisaged.
“I wanted him to feel if it would be the right space. We walked in quite naively – or at least I was naive about it – but the moment we got in everyone was in awe: ‘Christopher Walken is in the museum’.
“There was like this murmur all over: ‘Christopher Walken. Christopher Walken’. Immediately I realised that I had to become his bodyguard right there because, if I don’t, there’s going to be a mess. And that’s what I did. I moved fast in front of him and created a path so we could walk quickly to the concert hall.”
He admits that having a big-name cast for his first drama was initially “a little bit intimidating”.
“It’s in the sense that you know what’s at stake and they are so great. You’ve got to be a director on par with their quality and to challenge them.
“On the other hand, it is very comforting that you know that you have such great actors on set and they are going to do brilliant things. It gives you a level of confidence in what’s going to happen. It’s that combination. In retrospect, it was a rewarding and exceptional experience.”
Zilberman does have some direct experience of being a classical musician.
He played the cello for a year “but I can’t call myself a musician. I know how to approach the instrument”.
It was as much about loving quartets.
When he was a teenager he was given a mix tape of jazz music, including John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and played it while driving. When the tape automatically switched to side two, instead of jazz, Zilberman heard a classical piano trio. “The music was so beautiful, and the way the instruments interacted. It was mind-blowing for me.
“From that I started a whole journey of listening to chamber music for trios to quartets. Once I listened to a quartet I realised for me it was important emotionally and intellectually.”
For people who follow string quartets, there’s plenty to enjoy in Performance and it clearly shows how important each musician is in relation to each other and the music they play. One of the driving forces to the story is the belief of Seymour Hoffman’s character that it’s time he played first violin rather than continue to be, literally, second fiddle.
But Zilberman was conscious from the start that the story had to appeal to people who didn’t follow classical music or string quartets. “I tried to tell a family story in a fresh way. First and foremost I had to tell a story about family. It’s like first violin and second violin is older brother, younger brother. There’s the husband and wife and [Walken as] the father figure and what happens when you have illness in the family. There’s a King Lear dynamic where he’s dividing the kingdom. It’s like a family business, so to speak.”
The film also includes young British actress Imogen Poots as Seymour Hoffman and Keener’s daughter. She’s an aspiring musician, but believes her parents were more focused on the quartet than raising her.
Zilberman says one reason for that aspect was to show the sacrifices classical musicians make for their careers and the impact it can have on families. “I wanted to look at it from a fresh perspective.”
But how did Zilberman land such big names The film-maker credits agents, his producers and his casting director – who had worked often for director Paul Thomas Anderson, who had cast Seymour Hoffman recently in The Master. Some of it was luck. Seymour Hoffman was keen but had to pull out due to other film commitments and was replaced by Ethan Hawke. Then Hawke had other commitments, but Seymour Hoffman was again available.
Zilberman says one reason Walken was keen to play a cellist was because it was so unlike the larger-than-life and often off-kilter roles most people are familiar with him in movies.
“We had a great meeting. We listened to [Beethoven’s] Opus 131 together and commented on the music and the drama relative to the music and it started to emerge. That’s how it came about.
“He was looking at the time to play a role of what he called ‘a normal person’, as opposed to one with a gun.”
Performance is screening now.