A LATE QUARTET directed by Yaron Zilberman, written by Zilberman and Seth Grossman, with Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. 105 minutes. A Mongrel release. Opens Friday (November 30). See listing. Read the review.
Don't cross Catherine Keener. The queen of indie pics has heard me grumbling about having to wait for our round table while she preps her coffee.
When a reporter tells Keener how much she loved A Late Quartet, the queen of indie pics replies huskily, "Are you serious or are you fucking with me right now because I was putting sugar in my coffee?"
She's happy to hear the raves for her pic, though, and softens, leaning over to co-star Christopher Walken, who's sitting beside her. "Are you happy now?"
Keener seems almost protective of the iconic Walken during the session, coaxing and cajoling him to open up a little more during the interviews. He's lost a step, literally - his gait's slowed considerably - but when it comes to his craft, the near-70-year-old Walken is right on top of it.
He plays Peter, the cellist and leader of a famous string quartet, whose illness threatens to break up the ensemble. There's no quirk in this performance, no moment when you think he'll break out a request for more cowbell.
"This was a stretch," he says, almost cradled under Keener's outstretched arm. "I'm a show business kid. Song and dance, a little bit of pizzazz. I was raised by comics and have been in show business since I was five years old.
"So to play a cellist in a renowned string quartet - and learning how to simulate playing the cello - was scary."
Director Yaron Silberman developed a complicated strategy to get the actors to look like they were playing. He got musicians to teach them a few phrases from Beethoven's Quartet No. 14, Opus 131 - the film's musical centrepiece - and then had them play the phrases when the camera was on them. He cut away during the harder sections.
The actors roll their eyes when they recall what they sounded like during filming. But Walken looks like he can actually play his instrument. That might be because he was so aware of playing a believable character.
"This is a different kind of part for me. Usually it's somebody a bit cartoonish."
"Someone else would have taken that part and played it cartoonishly because it's a larger-than-life part," interjects Keener, who plays the quartet's violinist and wife of the second violinist, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. "But you created complete normalcy and made him stunning and heartbreaking."
Though both are considered among the best at what they do, neither Keener nor Walken assumes that every movie they shoot will hit the big screen.
"It happens all the time," Walken says wearily of films that sink like stones.
"At first it's a disappointment," Keener allows. "It feels like I've made about 3,000 movies."
But she's philosophical about the fact that some never get seen.
"A lot of things happen in life. You're doing great work and there's no camera. You have to get off on that and not care about the other stuff."
"Or get off on getting paid," interjects Walken.
"Or not," Keener shoots back. "But fuck it, who cares?"