The Design of QUARTET
As QUARTET's pre-production phase ramped up, director of photography John de Borman travelled to Los Angeles to collaborate with Hoffman on the look of the film. De Borman is well known for preferring to shoot handheld, but Hoffman's instinct was that the film be more classical and considered. "They watched a lot of movies together and talked about it being quite classical," remembers Dwyer.
"We focused more on the storytelling than the visuals," de Borman remembers. "We looked at the documentary TOSCA'S KISS very carefully. There was an element of it that we felt strongly we'd like to have in the film."
"TOSCA'S KISS really made me feel like I could do this," says Hoffman. "I understood it in my gut. These singers played La Scala and now, 30 or 40 years later, they're in a nursing home. The retired opera singers in the film are everything I wanted QUARTET to be."
For the creative team, this meant ensuring that the home felt like a world as opposed to a backdrop. "We didn't want it to be just four people, and then the others just happened to be in the background," explains de Borman. "That human touch was primary. It resulted in a gentleness of the photography, using the natural landscape and light and making it slightly autumnal."
Hoffman's experience as an actor meant his confidence in directing the cast came naturally. But Dwyer thinks his confidence with other aspects of the job strengthened quickly as the shoot progressed. "Dustin's taken to directing like a duck to water," she says. "He wants to work with his actors before he really knows how a scene will play - and John always has an idea about how to approach it - but as time has gone on Dustin has been inputting more and more into those other aspects."
"The first image of the film is a depiction of beauty in old age," relates de Borman. "It's a piano player, sitting there silently and slightly shakily, but she's absolutely beautiful with her lines and her age. I think once he saw that - and what we could create visually - and as we started to work together, he got more and more confident very quickly."
From the very beginning of their discussion, Hoffman and Dwyer were keen that QUARTET would focus on creating an aspirational retirement home. "We wanted everything to look beautiful," says Dwyer, "and for them to look great in their old age. So in the design, even though the house has financial burdens, we didn't want it to be falling down."
Production designer Andrew McAlpine and his team scouted locations near London, where many of the principal cast and crew live. They paused briefly on Addington Palace, in Croydon, but ultimately sought somewhere with more expansive grounds.
The production settled on Hedsor House in the village of Taplow, which offered the range of environments the production was seeking. "I'd thought Beecham House was going to be more lyrical; more feminine," shares McAlpine. "This is a very masculine, block house. But it's ideal in the sense that it tells you that it is what it is."
McAlpine and his crew built a summerhouse in the grounds to add architecture to the external environment, and focussed on autumnal colours that would reflect the characters' continued lives; winter is not here yet. The house and its contents were shaped by a desire to give its residents all their home comforts.
"They've had an incredible array of life," McAlpine explains, "and these are people who have
been at the height of acknowledgement of who they are. I wanted to give them this style between the elegance of their expectation of the environments and their natural need in older age to keep warm; so you see there are blankets on the chairs and all the comforts you'd expect them to have."
But even though most of the shoot took place at the House, its popularity as a wedding venue meant the crew were forced to deal with some tricky logistics. "We had to pull every piece of kit out of the house on Friday night, and have it all back in to be ready to shoot at 8 o'clock Monday morning," laughs Dwyer. "It's huge for the art department, but you have to look at it as a film with several different locations, and every Friday we have to pack up and go somewhere new."
And the benefits of being on location are enormous. Dwyer continues: "It gives us much more flexibility. We can flip from exterior to interior and get the depth through into the exterior, which adds real screen value."
She adds: "Though there are days when we think shooting in a studio might be nice!"
For the residents' costumes, designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux took her cue from Hoffman's insistence that Beecham House be an aspirational retirement home. "It was the sense that life can go on," she says, "and that companionship in a home like this can be very beautiful." The colours, Dicks-Mireaux explains, came from the characters. "Cissie was definitely going to be brighter colours, and everything low-cut. You start to think of people you know that might inspire that, and Finola suggested [textiles designer] Celia Birtwell. And with Jean, Maggie's character, it was very much Jean Muir; that kind of restrained sophistication."
For the male half of the quartet, Dicks-Mireaux's choices were similarly dictated by their characters' personalities. "Reggie was very much looking like a lot of the conductors of his age," she explains. He had to look handsome, so the knitted polo shirts came out of that. Wilf was a little bit different because we had to be careful not to take away from who he was. By using softer colors on him made him look more vulnerable, so he's got these soft greys and soft corduroys. To make it believable we had to dress Billy older than he is."
With the wider cast, Hoffman's casting sensibility - that he was looking for the essence of a person above all - filtered through to their costumes. "We used a lot of people's own clothes and added bits," explains Dicks-Mireaux. "He didn't want to impose a look on them. It was definitely a very organic process. You have to go and listen a lot and try and feel, but at the same time remember he's looking for the vulnerability and the charm."
Crafting the musical world of Beecham House was all-important, and something that came together especially well as Hoffman sat down with editor Barney Pilling. "What is extraordinary about Barney Pilling," enthuses Hoffman, "is that he's still young enough to be very hungry as an editor, because I think there's only a certain mount of years that you can do it. But he has a musical and rhythmic sense that is extremely unusual. And that's in the film. It's in how he's edited this film very musically and rhythmically in terms of the cuts. A lot of it we're not aware of consciously, which is the way it should be."
QUARTET builds to a gala sequence finale - the film's grand crescendo - in which the main hallway of the house is transformed into a stage evoking La Scala. Bringing in a stage, chairs, instruments and lighting added to the weekend workload of McAlpine's crew, but the impressive set blurs the lines between stage and retirement home even further.
"It needed to transform from the world of cards and croquet, and all the confusions of relationships," explains McAlpine. As the residents rally to save Beecham House, and rediscover the joys of performing for an audience, they're united in their art. "It needed to come right down and be utterly focused underneath that light on the stage, with Sir Thomas Beecham overlooking it all."
It is in this final act that the familiar accoutrements of these performers' long careers are rediscovered. "The backstage in this space is full of all the fervent of getting ready," says McAlpine, "and the excitement and the nerves. The light bulbs and everything are nearly circus land. A whole lot of wonderful things occur; things come off in their personality, they lose inhibitions and they talk about things they've wanted to talk about for a thousand years. I wanted to bring them from all of the circus backstage through the bronze curtain, into a gold curtain and they come onstage and they've finally arrived in this honeycombed world of warmth."
As the one night of the year the residents of Beecham House dress to impress, costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux was keen to ensure the characters looked their best. "We thought they should all be in evening dress," she explains. "Originally, in the play, they're in costumes for the RIGOLETTO, but I thought the comic-ness of the hump and codpiece would take away from the actual, moving moment of them all achieving this singing. It could have been a fantastic, hilarious ending, but I think Dustin wanted something more moving, where the love story of Reggie and Jean pans out."
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