QUARTET directed by Dustin Hoffman, written by Ronald Harwood from his play, with Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins. An Alliance Films release. 98 minutes. Opens Friday (January 18). For venues and times, see listings. See review.
Two-time Oscar-winning actor Dustin Hoffman is making his directorial debut in his mid-70s, but it's not like he hasn't been behind the camera before. He just always gave up.
"Imagine a file with the heading ‘Personal demons,' and in there are examples of all the times I tried to direct," says Hoffman, a bundle of nervous energy during the Toronto Film Festival, where his film Quartet is about to premiere.
"I started to direct in my 30s, then fired myself from it. I've worked on material for years, then bailed at the last minute. It's like a relationship. Not only do you have to meet the right person, but you have to meet the right person at the right time. Both of you need to be ready to settle down."
So what made him decide to settle down with Quartet, Ronald Harwood's adaptation of his play about four aging opera singers?
"I read the screenplay and it made me cry," he says. "I understood performing, acting. I lived with opera singers in my 20s because [my roommate] Bob Duvall's brother was an opera singer. They're a fascinating breed: sensual, sexual, they love dirty jokes. They're athletes. They're not human."
That's the great thing about talking to an acting legend: you get anecdotes like this.
Hoffman's connection to music, it turns out, goes pretty deep. His parents wanted him to become a classical pianist, and he loved it until discovering jazz in junior high.
"It's been 60 years since then, but if any day in the interim God had reached down, touched me and said, ‘You could be a really good jazz piano player for the rest of your life, but you can't act any more,' I'd have done it."
It's hard to imagine life without Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock, Ratso and double role in Tootsie, to name just a few of his iconic parts. He's worked with some of the best directors around, but - without naming names - says many of them were "seduced by the wrong things in making movies.
"They'd give all the liberty to the guy lighting the movie or the cinematographer, letting them spend an hour lighting a scene, trying things out. Then the actors would come in and be expected to deliver, without the luxury of failure. I wanted to correct that."
On the set of Quartet, he encouraged his actors - among them some of the best UK thesps - to improvise.
"If a scene wasn't working I'd ask them, ‘How would you say it in your own words?' You have to make certain points in a narrative, but how you get there is different.
"Five writers would write five different ways, and five directors would all make different decisions. Maybe they'd all be successful. So why not find the right way for an actor to do a scene on a given day?"