St. Louis Jewish Light: Features - Israeli-American director Yaron Zilberman discusses ‘A Late Quartet’

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Israeli-American director Yaron Zilberman discusses ‘A Late Quartet’

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Posted: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 11:21 am | Updated: 11:28 am, Wed Nov 21, 2012.

“A Late Quartet” brings together a sterling cast — Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener and Israeli star Mark Ivanir — in an affecting drama about an acclaimed string quartet facing a crisis on the verge of its 25th anniversary. The film is getting a lot of praise on the festival circuit and awards buzz for its performances and its affectionate look inside the serious music world in New York.

The Jewish Light spoke with Israeli-American Yaron Zilberman, who co-wrote and directed the film, his first feature, when he was here last week to introduce “A Late Quartet” at the St. Louis International Film Festival.

I understand you were born and grew up in Israel. What brought you to the United States to pursue filmmaking?

I served in the (Israeli) army and then my parents moved to New York, for business, and I arrived to study here as well. I studied physics at M.I.T. and got my master’s, then I went through a whole series of explorations in terms of a career. I always wanted to do art but I was not able to find exactly what it was  . . . until a friend (asked) me to help him with a documentary he was working on. And I realized that’s what I really want to do, filmmaking.

Are you observant?

I’m a secular Jew. Most Israelis are secular, and I am also, which mean it’s the tradition.

How did you come to choose this subject and the screenplay?

It was a combination of wanting to write a film about family dynamics and at the same time, do it from a fresh perspective, to set it inside a world that would be unique to this movie. String quartets are something I have loved for several decades now. Then I selected a particular piece, which is Opus 131 for String Quartet in C-sharp minor by Beethoven. These three elements together was the basis for the script.  Then I started to write -- you start with characters, who are the people, because film is about characters leading you into situations in life.

How did you come to assemble this terrific cast?

It’s just like when you write a script, it’s a journey. You look for the characters in a way, you see what the actors want to do, how they interact among themselves. But it’s independent film casting, it’s not like you go to Hollywood and offer $20 million dollars to an actor. It’s really about finding the person that is also a superb actor that is perfect for the role, and that falls in love with the role. The subject matter has to appeal, the emotions are high, so the stakes are high.

We were lucky enough to find Philip Seymour Hoffman. I saw him at Carnegie Hall with a string quartet called the Takacs Quartet, and they played a piece and he read an excerpt from a Philip Roth book called “Everyman.” So approaching him was natural because he is one of he best actors working today.

Christopher Walken is not someone you would think of for Peter Mitchell (the cellist in the film) -- he’s not an august father figure with a warm heart. But at the same time, he was looking for a project where he could play what he calls “a normal person.” After his agent read the script, he really liked it and he thought it would be perfect for him. (Walken) read it, we had a meeting, he read his role and he was perfect for it.

Catherine Keener was the first to join, she was the first that I knew would be perfect for the role.  Mark Ivanir played in “Schindler’s List.” He’s an accomplished actor, perfect with his no-compromise approach and toughness as first violinist. I called him in Israel, he picked up the phone and 15minutes later, we’re best friends. He read the script and in 48 hours, he said “I’m in.”

How did you get into the internal dynamics of a string quartet? Do you know musicians who are in string quartets?

I know people who are in active string quartets, who have been playing for more than a decade. And I know there are many problems - you are bound to have problems, and its part of what this story is about. Going out of tune is not a weird thing, you tune an instrument and over time, it just goes out of tune. And relationships are exactly the same. You start with the same vision, and then time goes by and each goes in a certain direction and eventually the distance becomes wide. And either you are able to bring it back continuously or else the relationships come apart. I know of many string quartets that have had personnel challenges and I used several in making the movie.

Are you yourself a musician?

No, I played the cello for a while and other instruments but I can’t call myself a musician. But I am really immersed in the world of music.

How do you feel your film reflects Jewish values?

It’s not a topic in the film, however, I think that when you see four musicians arguing about every musical phrase, to find the better interpretation, over and over again for decades, for me the music in their repertoire is very, very Orthodox. It’s Talmudic in a way. Because the Bible is the Bible and we start at the beginning and go to the end, and start again.

(Quartets play) this repertoire - it’s not like hundreds and hundreds of pieces, it’s quite confined. Year after year they play this repertoire and it’s all about refining the interpretation.

I find it to be the same as the Talmudic scholars sitting together. It’s true that the Bible is better than Mozart and Hayden and the movie is secular in that sense, but there is a God of music here and they work in that spirit. For me, that is very Jewish. Also, there is the Jewish tradition about learning, studying, love of music - it’s just natural.

  • Discuss

Welcome to the discussion.

‘Kosher Soul’ plays on stereotypes — amusing some, angering others

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — In the first episode of “Kosher Soul,” O’Neal McKnight, a Southern-raised African-American man about to marry a white Jewish woman from Seattle, has an epiphany about his upcoming marriage — it’s like a black-and-white cookie.

“It’s all about the whole cookie,” he explains to his fiancee, Miriam Sternoff.

That’s about as far as the insight goes, which is to say, it isn’t much of an insight.

But as a metaphor for “Kosher Soul,” a reality show that premiered Feb. 25 on Lifetime, the black-and-white cookie actually fits pretty well. It’s junk food — sweet, pleasant, easy to understand. It isn’t nutritious, but as an occasional guilty pleasure, it’s kinda fun.

Which is not to say it hasn’t ruffled some feathers. The Alliance of Black Jews, a group that describes itself as “people of African descent who embrace Halachic Judaism,” sent a letter to Lifetime expressing disappointment in its “offensive stereotypes,” and on Be’chol Lashon‘s Jewish& blog (hosted by JTA’s partner site MyJewishLearning), the Alliance’s founding president, Robin Washington, wrote: “To a person, those in my circle of African American Jews who’ve heard of the show have questioned its portrayal of the match as a freak show oddity.” Several black Jews tweeted in protest Wednesday night using the hashtag #ourkoshersoul. Among them:

“Kosher Soul” examines what it describes as a culture clash between Miriam and O’Neal in, ahem, black and white, without too many intervening shades of gray. It doesn’t just embrace stereotypes; it gleefully chases after them at top speed. Thus, all the big issues come up — food, circumcision, the disapproving Jewish mother-in-law, dental grills, black people being afraid of the water, and more.

It helps that the couple at the center of the show are fairly outrageous people. (They live in Los Angeles, which is a good start.) O’Neal, who is converting to Judaism in order to please Miriam, is a stand-up comic who seems to live somewhere on the boundary between nonstop performer and man-child — he makes faces at the camera, is afraid to go in the ocean, and frequently sports a black baseball cap saying “Kosher”.

Miriam, a celebrity stylist, is the more grounded of the two, playing the straight man to O’Neal’s absurd behavior, alternately reining him in and going along for his absurd schemes — such as when he wants her to get a gold grill for her teeth — with a tolerance that sometimes approaches Buddha-like levels.

Miriam Sternoff, her mother Nancy Sternoff, and O'Neal McKnight in an episode of the Lifetime show

Miriam Sternoff, her mother Nancy Sternoff, and O’Neal McKnight in an episode of the Lifetime show “Kosher Soul.” (Richard Knapp/Lifetime)

The show is, in some ways, as stagey as a sitcom. In the first episode, Miriam attempts to satisfy O’Neal’s craving for soul food by buying and frying him a catfish, despite the fact that it is, as her mother puts it, “Treif. Total treif.” It’s not a success — O’Neal ends up spitting the results back onto his plate. Still, he decides to sample Jewish cuisine by going to Los Angeles’ Canter’s Deli and ordering chopped liver, which he doesn’t like either.  Meanwhile, Miriam is trying to make up their wedding reception seating chart, and they’re fighting over the proper mix of black and white guests at each table, until O’Neal finally has his black-and-white cookie insight and … well, you get the point.

Still, at its best, the show works. While the setups feel scripted, the relationship is obviously genuine and affectionate. Miriam enjoys O’Neal’s antics, and he appreciates her stability, not mention that she’s a good audience. And the show is also at its strongest when it’s exploring black-Jewish relations in its own absurd fashion. O’Neal is one of the show’s producers, and he knows how to work his material, such as when he asks a rabbi, “Why are Jews so good with money?” — or when he tells Miriam, “You know what’s hard work? My grandmother’s water breaking when she’s picking cotton.”

Plus, the show features an appearance by Russell Simmons, a longtime friend of O’Neal’s. That’s obviously a must for any show on black-Jewish relations since Simmons, who is black, is a longtime leader of the Foundation for Inter-Ethnic Understanding and, in 2007, co-starred with rapper Jay-Z in a public service announcement denouncing anti-Semitism.

“Kosher Soul” runs into trouble, on the other hand, when the culture clashes aren’t so pointed and the tensions are more generic — she’s trying to have a baby, he wants to buy a Porsche, and the like. So, the buildup to the wedding provides plenty of material — but unfortunately, the wedding takes place in Episode 3, and Episode 4 is notably slower. O’Neal has a bris coming up for his conversion, which should be entertaining, but unless they either have that baby or can mine some more nuggets about black-Jewish culture, the latter part of the season may be slow going.

Still, it’s all in good fun, and the show is worth a watch if only for O’Neal’s hats — perhaps the best one is a Star of David flanked by hashtags — and Miriam’s deadpan eye rolls.

Just don’t overdo it. After all, it’s a cookie, not a meal.

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