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Dustin Hoffman can finally add directing to his opus

Dustin Hoffman, 75, is making his directorial debutwith "Quartet."
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

It’s lunchtime at Punch Productions, Dustin Hoffman’s company, and the Brentwood office is a hive of activity. As young female assistants scurry around offering up salads and beverages, Hoffman — in a blue button-down shirt, gray cords, running shoes and a pedometer — putters around, explaining his company’s logo (it’s based on the large-nosed Italian commedia dell’arte character Punchinello) and joking with a photographer (“You know why I look so good: extraordinary plastic surgery and a penile reduction.”)

The staff members pepper Hoffman with questions. “Django Unchained” or “Beasts of the Southern Wild”? Apple Pan burgers or eating at home? Friday night’s plans need firming up and his wife, Lisa — who runs a beauty-product business out of the same space — is about to be in a meeting for the next few hours. She needs a response from the Academy Award winner, pronto.

“It’s always dinner and a movie, there’s no alternative,” Hoffman says with a deep sigh. “What about salsa dancing?”

CAREER IN PICTURES: Dustin Hoffman

Few 75-year-olds would consider athletic activity a viable choice for date night. But few men are Hoffman, an insatiably curious individual on a constant quest to move forward, unwilling to rest on his accolades or let age squander his spirit.

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Even though the Los Angeles native has racked up two Oscars, seven nominations and myriad other awards, including a 2012 Kennedy Center Honor, Hoffman long felt stymied by his failure to direct a feature film.

Until now. Hoffman’s directorial debut, “Quartet,” starring Maggie Smith and Billy Connolly as opera singers living in a retirement home in the English countryside, opens in theaters Friday (following a one-week awards qualifying run in December). The film marks the culmination of a 35-year quest to direct, one that began when Hoffman fired himself off the 1978 film “Straight Time” because he lost confidence.

“I said the reason was they didn’t have playback,” says the actor, referring to the modern technology that allows directors to immediately watch what’s just been filmed, a tool that would have been of particular use since Hoffman was also starring in the movie. “That was my excuse, but it didn’t stop others from doing it. Yet, it traumatized me enough that I directed plays but I didn’t direct a movie for years and years.”

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It was finally with the help of cinematographer John de Borman that the actor was able to realize his lifelong quest. The cinematographer, who previously worked with Hoffman on 2008’s “Last Chance Harvey,” passed Ron Harwood’s script for “Quartet” to Hoffman with a hunch that the very human story about growing old would spark something in the septuagenarian.

“I got him to read the script on the plane from London to Los Angeles. By the time he landed, he said he cried the whole way through and he loved it … and the rest is history,” said De Borman.

Harwood’s screenplay centers on opera diva Jean Horton (Smith), who arrives disgruntled at the retirement home and is asked to relive her career by singing with her former stage partners (Connolly, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins) at an annual fundraising concert. The movie’s themes about pursuing life — and art — despite the unrelenting march of time spoke directly to Hoffman.

“The aging process in a human being compromises you: You’re not as flexible as you used to be. You can’t run as fast. You don’t sing the same. Yet, the thing that runs parallel to that is one’s spirit. It can either shrink or widen. And that is an extraordinary thing to me,” says Hoffman.

“What this group of people have in common is the refusal of giving up, the refusal of retiring, the refusal of living in a more limited fashion spiritually. I think that’s a worthwhile thing to make a movie about.”

On the set, Hoffman found his rhythm, describing the experience as more exhilarating — and exhausting — than he imagined. “You are holding the paintbrush,” he says.

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The $11-million production shot in Buckinghamshire, an hour outside London, with De Borman serving as cinematographer. Hoffman, he found, had “massive energy. He may be 75 but he acts like he’s 20.”

And though Hoffman was surprised to realize how much directors keep from actors on a film shoot — primarily all the things that go wrong in a day — he says he tried not to repeat many of the mistakes he felt directors made with him.

“I always think actors are not unlike the Victorian women who were told by their husbands to stay home, raise the children, do the dishes and I’ll make you look pretty. I’ll bring you jewelry but don’t get involved in the decisions. Know your place,” says Hoffman. “I’ve never understood why they don’t want to show an actor playback. It’s a collaborative thing. It’s not an officer and a private.”

Connolly described Hoffman as “a jolly character” with refreshing honesty. “He would say, ‘I don’t know what to do with this scene at all,’ and he would tear pages out of the script and say, ‘We’ve said this already.’ Only an American would do that. A Brit would just soldier on.”

Early response to the film, which had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, has been strong. Smith was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance, and Hoffman is hopeful the box office will reflect the early enthusiasm — because he wants to direct again, and he knows that if the film doesn’t make money, Hollywood won’t call for an encore.

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“I just want the audience to give it flight. Because the reaction has been so extraordinary it would be extremely disappointing if somehow it didn’t translate into people going to see the movie,” he said. “Maybe we should have had somebody shoot somebody or included a nude scene or something.”

Hoffman still leaps out of bed in the morning. “I’m a popper-upper,” he said. He appreciates welcoming each new day: making coffee, taking out the dogs, feeding his four new chickens. Yet, it’s his lifelong work in the movies that infuses him with passion.

“What’s unreal is that I’ve been able to do what I love for such a long period of time. I know that I’m part of the 0.0001%,” he said, admitting that such longevity is very hard to come by — “unless,” he adds, “you’re funny-looking to begin with. Then you’ve got a better shot. Physically, you have nowhere to go but up.”

nicole.sperling@latimes.com

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