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Stepping Behind the Camera

With a career spanning more than five decades in front of the camera, Dustin Hoffman is one of the world's most accomplished and highly regarded actors. Though despite long harboring a desire to direct - and having done so on stage - it was not until he read Ronald Harwood's script for QUARTET that Hoffman was able to make his first feature as a director.

"Dustin has wanted to direct for many years, and he's gotten close many times - probably more times than I was initially aware of," says producer Finola Dwyer. "Directing is such a different beast to acting, I wanted him to be really sure that he was up for the challenge."

As Hoffman puts it, "I told Finola that I was interested in it, and she did not give me the job right away. She said, in her New Zealand accent, 'Let me think about it.'"

But from their earliest meetings, it was clear to Dwyer that Hoffman saw the project as he did.

"We were in sync from the start," she says. "Dustin brought his own unique perspective, but we were always on the same path."

She adds: "I think he was at that time in his life when he was ready to take it on, and once he committed it was about finding a great group of collaborators who could work with him to give him the confidence and support on all the stuff he doesn't know. He's the first to put his hand up when it comes to that."

"The first thing Dustin said to me was that he wasn't visual and wanted help in that aspect," remembers de Borman. "He knew how to act every single part in the film, and brought great instinct. But once the technical aspects of things like coverage came across, he took to it straight away."

Reflecting on the process of directing the project, Hoffman admits it gave him a different perspective on cinema. "I think the thing I learnt was how naive I was for 45 years in front of the camera," he says. "I had no idea of the machinery that takes place on the other side of the producer and the director, that has nothing to do with what you're going to see on the screen. Everything is a train wreck, constantly! What I learnt was what they go through. And they have to pretend every day that everything's great, because they don't want to taint you. You don't finish your movie; it finishes you. I don't think I really understood the guts of that until I was in this position."

"It's new territory for him and I think he's still trying to find his direction," says Maggie Smith. "But it's a delight for us because I've never, in my life, had a director for a film who has actually been a movie actor. He knows exactly the other side of it. He knows the longueurs of waiting to go on, and when you do finally get to a scene you've lost the thread of it; or the will to live, even. He's very well aware of that, so he gives you time to rehearse it a bit and maybe run into it. You can break and go back to a scene and have no connection with it, and that's only understood, really, by somebody who has been there and done that and got several t-shirts."

"With Dustin, every day is a masterclass," enthuses Connolly. "He's a brilliant director because he's such a brilliant actor, so he directs like an actor. He knows your weaknesses, he knows your fears, and he doesn't leave you dangling. The biggest fear most of us have is to be left looking stupid; saying something you don't really believe. You don't think it suits the character. He spots it before you, because he thinks like an actor and he behaves like an actor, and it's such a privilege."

"He's wild," laughs Collins. "He'd go on all night if we were willing. That's the joy of working with him. He's different because he knows how to poke and poke and find the little hole to get through to us as actors."

"Dustin's got more energy than all of us put together," says Dwyer. "He's unstoppable; he's like a hurricane."

Courtenay agrees. "Most directors who've been to Oxford or Cambridge perhaps take a more intellectual view of it, but Dustin's more hands-on. He's very specific in his notes, and he's very good at film acting; taking it down, and making it real."

For Connolly especially, Hoffman's discipline gave the noted comedian both the freedom to improvise and the guidance to streamline his comedy. "My stuff grows," says Connolly. "I'm famous for it: every night it changes and gets longer. And I've never had to cut it. The worst thing that can happen to a comedian who's acting is that the crew stop laughing after the first take. The temptation is to try hard and get them to laugh again, and you must avoid it. So it was great when Dustin came to me after every take and would say, 'shorter and faster, quicker and quicker.' And then you get the rhythm going."

Gambon has embraced the freedom Hoffman has given him. "He's more relaxed than most directors," he explains. "He doesn't fuss a lot. There's a lot of freedom and he encourages it. But he's always talking; he never stops. I always pretend I'm listening!"

Summarises Dwyer: "Dustin makes everybody raise their game. He works so hard and he's so thorough; he's about detail, and he knows exactly what he wants. He's onto everything, so everybody has to keep up. It's been a privilege to spend that time with him. It's tough, sometimes; but it's invigorating."

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