We caught up with the cast of QUARTET at the London press conference

Dustin Hoffman has been acting for over 40 years, so it is difficult to believe that QUARTET is his first time behind the camera. Movies.ie were present at the London press conference for the film – which stars Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins – to find out why it took so long for Hoffman to make his directorial debut.

Where did the project start?
Tom Courtenay: I have to keep reminding Dustin [Hoffman] that this whole thing was my idea. It’s not that he is resentful of me; he’s just forgetful. Years ago I asked Ron Harwood if he fancied the idea of writing the screenplay of his play Quartet, which I had seen some years before, and I just remembered how moving it was at the end. Anyway, he was very excited and wrote his screenplay, but nothing happened until Dustin came along.

The film is also inspired by a documentary, is that right?
Dustin Hoffman: It’s a wonderful documentary called Tosca’s Kiss, which was made about in 1983 and Verdi; rich and successful toward the end of his life, decided to build a mansion for himself in Milan, where he lived. He stipulated, when he died that Opera singers and musicians – because there were so many of them who were no longer playing in La Scala, and some of them were quite poor – could live there. Find the movie, it’s called Tosca’s Kiss and it is all about these retired Opera singers and musicians living in the Verdi house, which still exists.

Did you ask your cast to watch Tosca’s Kiss before you started work on Quartet?
DH: I told them all to see it and they all ignored me [laughs]
Pauline Collins: We didn’t!
Maggie Smith: I saw it, it was wonderful to see it because it gave you an inkling of what was ahead of you. The moment I saw it I thought ‘this is terrific, because if Dustin’s on this wavelength, we should be safe’

Tom, did the film evolve in the way you thought it would when you started on the project?
TC: No it moved on. Dustin asked Ron if he could make some changes. In the play, they had fallen out because Reggie was impotent and Dustin didn’t like that, so he changed it. That was a big change for me, and it was fun. It was fun being the juvenile lead, actually. I never ever had so much make-up and Dustin was most particular, he was determined that I look as handsome as possible, and I am very grateful to him.
[All laugh]

Was there a culture clash with so many actors from England and Scotland working with an American director?
PC: Well, first of all, Dustin is a dynamo and a darling, and both of those things help – I think – to make the atmosphere of this film. He is one of the most inspiring and kindest directors; he understands how actors work because he is one! I found him really, really easy to get on with, but we had heard stories that he gives directors a hard time. Is that true, sir?
DH: Yes.
PC: …So maybe now he knows what it feels like [laughs], but the culture thing… I would say to Dustin, you didn’t really understand what we were talking about, did you?
DH: No.
PC: …And he said ‘tell me, tell me, tell me what you mean’, so I love the lack of hubris in him. There is one thing that maybe he didn’t understand; I said that mostly my career, unlike Maggie, I am always downstairs, and I said ‘I am always below stairs’ to Dustin…
DH: …On the phone, before we met
PC: I tried to talk myself out of the job [laughs] and he said ‘After this film, you won’t be’. He didn’t understand, he thought that I was below the title – which indeed I have been many times – but I think we have begun to understand each other now.
Billy Connolly: He was a nightmare! [There were] tantrums, long silences, inappropriate touching… You know the type! …He was excellent. I don’t crave praise; I have had plenty of praise in my life, but sometimes it is kind of nice to be told that you are doing OK and he is very good at that.

Sheridan, what was it like for you to with someone like Dustin Hoffman?
Sheridan Smith: Just to be part of the film was an absolute honour for me, I have to say. Being on set every day with these amazing people, I felt like I should curtsey to them; it was so overwhelming! It was just an incredible experience; I tried to be like a sponge and take it all in.

What do you feel you went away with?
SS: So much, it was so special. All the cast were actually retired Opera singers or retired musicians, and between scenes they would be jamming; this great pianist would get on the piano… It was just such a special shoot. Then, obviously, working alongside these guys, the stories they would tell, and I had to keep pinching myself.

Dustin, what made you want to work behind the camera?
DH: I decided a long time ago, but sometimes it takes you 40 years to get around to doing something. That’s the truthful answer.

Dustin, what was it like to transition from actor to director? Did you learn anything from the directors you had worked with in the past?
DH: All of us pile up things that we like about directors and things we don’t like about directors. They kind of break down into categories; directors who like to be surprised, and directors who abhor being surprised. As far as directing; we all direct when we are acting in movies, every single one of us.

Billy, are you looking forward to a stage in old age, where you can get away with saying whatever you want?
BC: I am there! [laughs]

Have you ever thought that you went slightly too far, in terms of being inappropriate?
BC: Are you kidding me? I have been accused of being inappropriate since day one. I think it is one of the joys of getting older; you can say exactly as you please. I have pretty much said exactly as I pleased my whole life, and it has done me no harm at all. I think if more people spoke their minds we’d be in a lot better shape. I wasn’t just pretending to be old.

Dustin, you once said that filmmaking was like some kind of magic, did you feel the same being the director?
DH: This is the first time I directed and I don’t know if I will feel this again, the way we all felt on this movie. You never know when you are making a movie; no one was saying that Casablanca was going to be a classic – lead actors were turning it down – so you are always in a tunnel and you can’t see the end of it. Something took place on this movie, which I don’t think we expected, was that once we decided that the whole cast would be real retired Opera singers and real retired musicians, these people, the phone hadn’t rung for them for 20, 30 or 40 years even though they can deliver. The trumpet player – Ron Hughes – has got his chops today, but for some strange reason, the culture doesn’t call him. He is 83 years old, and these people in their 70s, 80s and 90s came with such verve every day – and we were shooting 10-12 hour days – and that, in itself made this an extraordinarily special occasion for all of us. It wasn’t a job for the crew.

Was there much ad-libbing of the jokes?
PC: There is lot of improvisation on the dialogue, which I absolutely love, and Dustin gave us free reign on that. It’s interesting, I have learned so much doing this – I came very late to the film – I have learned so much from this man, and the main thing is that what you start with, the script – and not every script writer will want to hear this – is a basis, it’s not the end. Sometimes things happen during the process, which take you down a more exciting avenue, and he always let us do that.
BC: It was good, it was openly encouraged, and it was a very good idea, but they took one of my best ad-libs out…
DH: Let us set it up for you; Reggie is upset because he has just found out, while doing his rap thing with the kids, that Jean is there, and he leaves. Wilf finds him out in the wilderness, and he is just standing there. In the script it says that he was staring at a doe – we tried to do it, but we didn’t have the budget [laughs] – so we scrubbed it, but when we had it, Wilf comes to join Reggie and says…
BC: …Do you think it knows it’s delicious?
[All laugh]
DH: It’s a great line.

How did you cast the film?
DH: When I came onto the film Albert Finney, Tom [Courtenay] and Maggie were in the cast, but then Albert wasn’t up for it and he had to withdraw. It turns out the stars, the only ones I cast, were Billy and Pauline. I was in LA working and a lot of this took place on the telephone. I only met Maggie once and I had come backstage, which I am usually loath to do because as an actor, you don’t want people coming backstage, you want to get home. We talked mostly on the phone, we introduced ourselves to each other and I said ‘Who do you think should be in the film? And without missing a beat, Maggie said ‘Pauline Collins’. I didn’t know Pauline, I hadn’t seen Shirley Valentine, but then I saw this thing she did with Woody Allen – You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger – and she was wonderful as the psychic in that. That’s how I came into it. I lucked out, as they say in America.

Maggie Smith, you have been playing older women since quite early in your career, did you ever feel resentful of that?
MS: I’m just glad to get any role; the fact that they’re all 90 doesn’t matter [laughs]. Actually, it was Hook that started it all. I think it was Peggy Ashcroft that wouldn’t do the part and someone asked how old was I, to see if I would be suitable to play the part. The person who was asked replied ‘92’ very quickly, so I have been stuck in it ever since [laughs] I am actually very grateful.
DH: I would like to throw in, that it’s not true; Maggie is very modest. She has been offered quite a few younger parts. She just turned down, last year, a film called My Week With Marilyn!

Michael Haneke’s Amour won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was well received and now this… Do you feel these are paving the way for a new genre about older people’s experiences?
MS: I think it’s because a lot of grown-ups would like films for grown-ups and about grown-ups. It seems to me that this is the sort of change in what audiences want to see. I don’t think films about elderly people have been made very much, they always seem to be fairly successful, so it is a bit baffling as to why everyone has to be treated as though they were five years old.

Words: Brogen Hayes

QUARTET is in Irish cinemas now