Roger Durling with Director Dustin Hoffman
Durling: You’re one of the greatest actors out there. Why did it take so long to take on a directing role?
Hoffman: There are personal reasons that prevented me from directing, I mean we all have those demons. I originally started studying acting by accident. I was such a bad student in school. I studied at Santa Monica City College, which is where you go when you don’t have the grades to get into a University. I was failing the first year so a friend of mine told me to take acting. I asked him why, and he said “It’s three credits, plus its like gym. Nobody fails acting”. So I took it and passed it. It was the first time that I could rehearse, and the hours flew by and it is where I could focus. Somehow or other during my acting class I wind up directing some of the other students, and they were always going on about how I should be a director. I then went to New York to study but couldn’t find work anywhere, so I went to equity buildings and found out about the Fargo Community Theater on a bulletin board. I went over there to North Dakota and directed two productions. There was another thing in New Jersey with Community Theater and I directed Death of A Salesman. I also directed a play at the Boys Club in downtown New York. I never thought that I would become a director for some reason and at that point I kind of just committed myself to acting; and if I switched I would have to admit that I failed at acting. One thing led to another and I set myself up to direct in my 30s, about Ben Affleck’s age. I cast a crew and actors and worked on the script with the writer of the novel called Straight Time. I think it is one of the better things that I have done, and I started shooting about an ex-con which we filmed at Folsom State Prison and we were improvising. There was no playback machines back then so I had to wait until the next day to see the rushes, and the cinematographer would say ‘that was a good take’, but the editor would say ‘no it’s not a good take’. They kept going back and forth, so I just fired myself. It was traumatic enough for me that I waited another 30 years to decide to direct again.
Durling: This is my second time watching it. The film has so much optimism regarding getting old and is shown through the choices you made in directing. For example, the home is beautiful even though they are going through financial problems. I was wondering if you could talk about that.
Hoffman: Ron Harwood wrote the play and the screenplay. He got the idea from a documentary that he had seen a year before. It is called Caska’s Kiss. It is a remarkable documentary which is about 40 minutes long and you can get it online. It is about a very wealthy man who, towards the end of his life, built a mansion for himself to live in. He stipulated in the will that when he died he wanted to have Opera singers and musicians to live there, because as it is demonstrated here you can have high days and 20 years later you can’t pay the rent. So that is what this home was for. It is in the documentary and you see these people limited physically and yet have this passion and desire to sing. When I saw that documentary, I said yes if I can get on this on a screen, and I had the cinematographer see it with me, that this is the type of movie I want to direct. We have to inherit that. After seeing it, I said to the producer – who was still not sure if she wanted to try her luck on me, seeing how a couple directors had already fallen through the couple years it had been going back and forth – that I can’t seeing doing this without real retired opera singers and musicians in the roles aside from the leads. She said “I don’t know if we can do that, I am not sure what the union would say because they are not actors”. I said “I can help them with that”, and so she agreed. It was one of those single most important decisions made regarding the film. When we went out, particularly Lucy, Beth, and the casting director, and scoured the countryside and world to find these people. None of them had been working for 20-30 years and suddenly here they are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, coming to work at 6am working 12-14 hour days with such passion and dedication. They were the film; on a day-to-day basis, the optimism that injected itself into the film. They told us the movie that we were making. The trumpet player who is 84 years old, who has been playing since he was 5 years and still has his chops. For some mysterious reason, the coacher makes us, a certain moment in time, invisible.
Durling: So you read the play and the script. What was it about the subject matter that you said ‘yes this is the one thing that I want to direct’?
Hoffman: I cried at the end of it, even in its early draft form. It reminded me of where I was in my life. It was Dill Thomas’s due, not to go gentle into that good night. It’s no different than the Special Olympics, if you saw any of it, where people have lost their legs and are on artificial legs and are climbing Mt. Everest. You cannot stop a human being, no matter what their limitations are or what they have to do. You cannot stop the spirit or the soul. I think that is what got me. Even so, there were times where I tried to back out and my wife and agent kept pushing me to do it. A week before I signed on, the sentence that was directed at the producer was ‘we are still in uncharted waters’, because I kept putting off my decision. I finally committed and see whatever happens with the film. It was extremely important decision in my life. I think we all have had similar circumstances where we get to the point where we question “what if” or “I should have done that”. You want to somehow be able to tackle one of those things.
Durling: Was there a particular aspect in the film that deemed challenging for your first time directing?
Hoffman: I was surprised about the ease I had with the actors, they were British actors, but good acting is good acting. It doesn’t matter what so called method that you use; in fact I have said to students “Acting didn’t start with method”. Take a look at Charles Latten with Witness for the Prosecution or Marlene Dietrich with The Blue Angel. Both aren’t just good actors, but very naturalistic. You can find some of that kind of acting in silent film, which was the pure form of film. What I didn’t anticipate, because it was an indie film and only had a budget of 11 million, which isn’t a lot of money, how overly humbled I was by the experience. As an actor, whether a star or just an actor that has a job, the common thread is that you both come to work every day. You both have the same problems with ‘how am I going to do this scene today’, ‘am I making the right decision?’. I realized while doing this the amount of acting the directors have to do on a day-to-day basis. They have to greet you ‘hey how are you doing’, even though they just lost a location or an actor, or they didn’t get certain money that they thought they were going to get. It is the amount of damage that is done to a film on a daily basis, like when you prepare for a war and the war starts and nothing goes according to plan. I actually remember one of the first times it happened to me in the first week. If a studio is doing a film they will put a lot of money in, but here the money doesn’t exist. I remember thinking of an interview with – I wish I could her name, or anyone’s name for that matter. She was a famous water colorist and years ago I saw an interview with her on television and she said the reason she prefers water coloring is because it doesn’t follow any rules. It disobeys the rules and it runs, which is what water coloring is, and you have to at that moment create something out of the runniness. That was exciting even though it was so challenging. You have to create something out of the thing that didn’t happen that was supposed to be there that day, and that was the hardest part. The acting – I knew what I wanted and didn’t want as a director. There are directors that will act all the parts and show/tell the actors who they are when they come on set for the first take. And if he is mouthing all the lines for the actors in the scene, you know you’re in trouble. He has already shot the scene, whether he knows it or not, in his head and he tries to put a square peg into a round hole. There are other directors who know you as an actor are bringing your own essence to a part, and those things are going to join in the best way possible and create something individual. Five other directors could have directed this movie and could have made great film, even a better film than I made, but they would all be different. There is an old documentary film called Visions of Eight and it was eight famous directors and they took a sport in the Olympics and they each did a short film about their sport. I think my favorite one was weightlifting. It was done by a director that had previously been an actress. She in the interview, she was asked ‘what she knew about weightlifting?’ and she said ‘well I don’t know anything about weightlifting but I know something about passion’. I remember thinking about this when I was deciding to take on the film, because I didn’t know anything about opera either. There are directors that want to be surprised by the actor that acknowledges to a certain point, as with writers that at a certain point will say that good day is when the script writes itself. It tells you, and sometimes the director will tell you, that you know more about the character than any of us now. It inhabits you in a certain way. There is a woman painter that said to me, who lives in Santa Monica, at a certain point you are inside the painting.
Durling: How did the casting process come about, especially with such talents as Maggie Smith and Tom Courtenay?
Hoffman: There is a very good movie that I saw before I started this film. It was written by Ron Hardwood and it is called The Dresser. It held up amazingly and it was Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney that were in it. Afterwards Tom went to Ron and asked him to write something for him and Albert, and that is when he came up with Quartet. They were casted before I even came into it, but Albert became ill and couldn’t do it. Maggie Smith knew the director on the theater version for 50 years and he wanted her to do it. So the only two leading members that I cast were Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly. I cannot take credit for Pauline Collins. There are few directors that will ask an actor who they think is good for this part, but I never understood that, because actors know actors better than anybody. I called Maggie Smith from Los Angeles, whom I did not know and I said do you have any thoughts on who could play Cissy. And without missing a beat she said Pauline Collins. I didn’t know Pauline but I then went to look at Shirley Valentine which is quite wonderful, and a small part where she played a psychic in a Woody Allen film. I had the casting director, who I liked very much, interview Pauline. I liked her sending interviews because I didn’t care about seeing auditions, because you either know your craft or you don’t. Auditions bring out the worst in actors; they are rather unfair things because you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. Bob Duvall, who is an ex-roommate, said to me, because we always got rejected and never got called back for the second call, that ‘you know who gets the jobs…the ones who give you the result’. And if you’re a good actor you don’t know who that character is yet, and the ones who get the job are what he calls the ‘what you see is what you get’. Many directors and producers want the derivative to feel secure. ‘He looks like a doctor…He looks like a lawyer’ and they get cast, which is why I don’t get that much from auditions. Mel Brooks – I was told when casts he asks the actor to tell him a joke that they think is funny, and you learn so much from not only the joke they pick but from the way that they told it. I cast Sheridan, who played Dr. Lucy Cogan and I have seen her on the west end, and do a play, and I thought she was magnificent. She then got the Olivier Award and is now doing Eddie Gaper in London where she does an amazing portrayal. I cast the some others, but Lucy Bentham casted many of them as well. Michael Gambon, who I was working on Luck with, the ill fated series that was shut down, at lunch actually, and Gambon then asked “well now what are you doing to do now?” I said “well there is this movie I am thinking of doing” and I asked him if he would want to be in it, and he said “yes”. Gambon, with the last 40-50 years of being an actor, I think he can get away with a lot. He passes me up and leaves me at the starting gate because he can just get inside the character. At a lunch we were at, he asked ‘is my character gay or what is it?’, and I told him not to think of it that way. I told him to play what he knows about him, his intelligence, shrewdness, his perceptiveness and his passion about this place not closing down. I told him to let it take him for a ride and he did a really good job with that.
Durling: We talked briefly about the love story between Tom Courtenay and Maggie Smith. When I saw it I thought that this could really be a love story for somebody young in their 30s. It doesn’t matter how old you are when it comes to a love relationship.
Hoffman: You hit it right on the head. When I read it that is the feeling that I had, and you have to go with your own feelings because it is the richest place you can mine from. You are unique in the world of creative and you have to pay attention to that and not over analyze that and just say they were feelings. A feeling that I had was that I don’t feel 75. The number doesn’t bother me. I think Billy Connolly said it’s like a street number. I told the actors to be themselves and not be characters. Maggie, whom is reaching into 80 years of age and has been doing this for 50 years. I read all the Google stuff I could on the actors. I said to Maggie, “you gave an interview at London Times a few years ago where you talked freely about quitting acting because you were ill and were needing radiation treatment and you didn’t have the energy nor desire to keep going. You said ‘things that I want to use in the film in the interview’ is when you said that you still have a future”. Tom Courtenay would call me and say he just thought of a line when he woke up. When you encourage actors to bring themselves forth, it is a gift they are giving you. When he says ‘why do we have to grow old’, she says ‘because that is what people do’. They were adhering to what I asked of them – that we are all in the same third act, and we are hoping it is a Shakespearean play and it lasts for five acts. The richest thing we can do here, to be as close to what that feels like and allow an audience to see that. Maggie, who two years later, started working and has never stopped. That is the duality that you want to put on that screen, that fierceness of aesthetics. I think that was not an accident. There is something behind it and I feel that. There is more than just the gift of life. It is coupled with the irony that we start breaking down fairly early. We are three percent different from anything that is not human, and that three percent is the gift and what we do with it. Every day is a challenge for everyone. We don’t feel any differently than we did when we were younger. There is nothing different in us in terms of aging and our emotions. Particularly I think in a love story like this, the trauma has not been worked through. Traumas that are not worked through remain traumas. Reggie says that he never got married again. He has been in love with this woman from the very first moment he met her; that is the love story. That trauma has remained unresolved as well as all that pain. I told the actors, especially Maggie, that I think the same is true for your character in that you ran from the intimacy and that is why you cheated. You couldn’t bare that your lover was your work and you didn’t want that invaded on. You didn’t feel like you could do both and for those next husbands down the line, I think you made sure on some subconscious level that you weren’t in love with them. That is why you married them. And some of us know what that is, when you know that a mistake is made. There is a day of reckoning that we cannot get away from. I was at an airport going around to festivals to promote this movie about retired Opera singers. Maggie and all the other actors are working and I was the only one available. I was in N.Y recently and I was going to get on the plane. I start to take my belt off, my watch off and my change out of my pocket, and then I start to take off my shoes the gal says “sir, you don’t have to take of your shoes off”. I said “why?”, because I had taken them off 20 times before that. She pointed to a sign, so help me god, that said if you’re 75 or older your don’t have to remove your shoes. After I realized that was me, the thought I had because I am an actor, is if there is even a line where the terrorists are no longer right for the part.
Durling: The scene where Tom (Reggie) shows to the young people the relevance of Opera and shows it should still be seen as current and alive. I would love for you to talk about that scene.
Hoffman: Thank you for mentioning that. It was not in the earlier versions that the writer wrote but at a certain point I said somehow this has to include kids. My son assaulted me with rap since he was 7 and he is now 31. I would take him to school every morning that I wasn’t working, and he would play the same CD by Snoop Dog every morning. I remember having an argument with him, and it getting fairly emotional more than it should have. I bet him that rap was a fad and a phase that would never last. He said “no Dad, you’re wrong. It’s going to be just like the Beatles”. I said “no”. My son said “well that is what they said about the Beatles” (that they would be just a fad). It hit me, what if there was a scene where he is teaching and that way you are breaking through reaching a new audience. What would happen? It started from that idea, and then Tom had some thoughts about it. I started then interviewing kids in London at the time, and there was this kid who was a rapper and still in school and is an extraordinary talent. You may not understand his music or like it but they are making their raps up on-the-spot. In fact my son Jake had a friend years ago, deviating for a change, whom was at the Roxy on Sunset Blvd. The Roxy had rap contests many years ago where kids would compete. Eminem, for those of you who know him, I first heard of him I thought he was just candy. When he was 17 he took a bus from Detroit and my son’s friend was there that night, and had taped the competition and Eminem was one of the participants. Eminem didn’t win, and you see this shot of him on the tape of him just sitting there with his head in his hands, thinking about how he has to go back to Detroit now; it’s an image that I won’t forget. He was in 8 Mile, which talks about how he and other rappers are constantly thinking and writing lyrics that come to them. I asked Tom to write a rap and when he performed it, I felt that it wasn’t quite right. I told him that I would rather like him incorporate thoughts of opera being hijacked by the wealthy, in the sense that Shakespeare was. Shakespeare was a place that people ran to get away from the plague, and they would come and throw garbage if they didn’t like it. In other words it was for the people and somehow it gets divorced from its essence. And so he put those elements in it and I asked Joey, the kid I was auditioning in London, “can you just rap something on-the-spot?” I told him to just start rapping and you see that is him at that moment in time. When he goes “ahhh” and runs out, that isn’t him acting. That is not preconceived. He did that naturally and I think that is an extraordinary ability. I believe that it is unfortunate that the SATs, which god knows didn’t do me well, don’t take in other types of intellect.
Durling: The last scene is so gorgeous because it blurs the line between performance and real life. How did you go about directing that scene?
Hoffman: I get the feeling that you liked the film. Thank you. He is a theater nut which we were talking about before, that goes to New York four times a year just to see the theater so it is a huge part of him. I think it was Henry Miller who was credited with saying when someone asked him “how do you do these sculptures?”, and he said “it’s not all that difficult, you just keep chipping away what isn’t an elephant”. And this was an accident. We just kept chipping the parts that didn’t work. They took lessons, they learned the words for the Quartet and we shot them singing it because I didn’t want to dub in Pavarotti and Southerland, who are the ones singing the Quartet at the end. I was told that I could enhance their voices somehow and use other people so at least it is a part of them, but ended up deciding that it didn’t work. I was in the cutting room because we had to stop shooting it at a certain point with a dilemma, and I realize that we are screwed if we start seeing them sing. It doesn’t work. And you are going by yourself and you’re playing around chipping away what isn’t an elephant. I said “now that you have seen it, the literal aspect is that those bows that they took after they actually shot the singing part of it, that what if we reverse it and try to have the audience accept the fact that they had not been together for so many years; and they were being applauded for that alone.” As you start to think of what to do and you get the plusses and minuses for it, I started to think and say to Maggie that there is no character here. The diva thing you don’t need to worry about because that will figure itself out. It’s all in the words. Don’t play that, play the person that you are or if you are going to play a diva play what a diva is—an exceptional artist. I looked it up in the dictionary. Maggie is diva-ish because she will say about a scene, “I don’t know what the fuck this scene is about”! I was warned about her, because in fact in that same interview she called herself the Acid Queen, and I said “fine, what don’t you know?”. And she would say it. I had learned from years and years with directors to let the actors lead you because if they aren’t comfortable then it looks like acting. And you instead find another way to hit the flag posts or whatever the scene needs in terms of narrative and emotions. There are different ways to achieve it, let’s just find what works for you and that is what we did all the time. Maggie, with all her illnesses, eye operations which she had to have after the film ended because couldn’t look at the lights before a take, because it hurt her eyes. I mean what a solider she was. She never complained and she had to use a cane for her hip, and she would not leave that set until she had left her blood. Romney says a line that just stays with me that I thought was a lovely speech, no matter who you supported; where he said “we left it all on the playing field”. I believe that he had that extraordinary discipline and belief and she is like that. She didn’t leave despite all those other aspects. By the way when she was hired, I said “what did you think of the script?”, she says “well the end is bullocks”. I asked her why and she said “this woman hasn’t sung in so many years and suddenly she is just going to say yes after she says no?”. I told her, “you have to see her rehearsing and say certain things”, which is what we tried to do with the montage. She was rehearsing it and saying that she wouldn’t hit the top notes, and Toni Bennett cannot do any more and who cares. He is actually in his early 80s and still touring! Jane Gwenth Jones, who is in her late 70s is stilling touring and there are certain high notes where she is such a fortress. I mean that is the main myth here that needs debunking. The ability to sustain the inglorious injuries that life gives you as you grow older and still maintain and get through while holding so much of the pain inside and not bestow it on others. It is remarkable. Not only is it not for sissies but it is for heroes and there are heroes on that screen.