ARTS & CULTURE
01/25/2013 01:07 pm ET

'Quartet' Screenwriter Ronald Harwood On Dustin Hoffman, Writing, And Why Movies About Old People Don't Get Made

In "Quartet," a group of retired classical musicians in England try to raise funds for their stately but financially troubled nursing home by putting on a concert -- and are often distracted from the task by their own rowdiness. It's a familiar enough plot arc, but "Quartet" subverts the classic rom-com script via its unusual first-time director (Dustin Hoffman), and its silver-headed cast of veterans (Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins) sifted in with real-life retired musicians.

Although the movie opens in theaters today, it nearly didn't get the chance to be made. The Huffington Post rang Oscar-winning screenwriter and playwright Ronald Harwood -- who adapted "Quartet" from his 1999 play, starring only four people -- at his home in England. He gave us the lowdown on the challenges of pitching a movie about seniors to studios, why marketing people don't really know anything, and Dustin Hoffman's appeal.

The Huffington Post: The movie is about people in their third act, creative people who still have the ability and desire to do what they’ve always done. Do you view writing as the same sort of pursuit?

Ronald Harwood: Precisely the same. I once said to a famous English playwright, J. B. Priestley, “Are you going to retire?” And he snapped at me, “Writers don’t retire.” The fortunate thing about writing is you can go on as long as your mind is intact. But singers and ballet dancers have a physical limit on their lives. I think it must be dreadful to be famous and applauded and acclaimed and not to be able to practice your art.

HP: What were the challenges of adapting the play to screen?

RH: In the play -- it’s called “Quartet” -- there are only four people in it. The challenge [in adapting it to the screen] was to invent all the other characters. That was what I did, and I thought Dustin casted beautifully with old players and singers.

HP: I knew Dustin Hoffman directed the film before I went, but as I watched it, that fact kept surprising me! Mostly it’s that the film feels so British, and Dustin Hoffman is so quintessentially American. Did you think he was a natural fit for the script?

RH: I was equally surprised! I had director approval, and they brought lots of people to see me, and I didn’t approve of any of them. Finally I met Dustin and I thought, ‘This is really a delightful idea.’ Firstly, he was so enthusiastic -- he’s very difficult to resist -- and he loves actors, and he loves performers, and that’s what it was about. And he has no need to show off like some directors, where they point the camera and say, ‘Look mummy, I’m a director.’ So it’s beautifully told in terms of the cinematography and it’s wonderfully restrained.

We had marvelous actors -- Tom Courtenay and Maggie Smith and Pauline Collins are at the height of their powers. And of course Billy [Connolly] is very fine, but his is in a way the easiest of the parts. Tom and Maggie together are so beautiful, romantic and loving. It’s a film about feeling, you know, about emotion, and that’s very unfashionable.

HP: And a difficult sell, according to your experience.

RH: It took a long long time. Tom called me after he saw the play in 1999 to say he liked it very much. He said, ‘One day, I’d like to play the tenor Reggie.’ Four years later, he phoned me and said, ‘Why don’t we try to make the film?’ A very nice man, unfortunately now dead -- Mark Shivers -- and I wrote the screenplay. And he liked it and championed it and then he died. It lay fallow for quite a long time and finally this very extraordinary woman Finola Dwyer came on, and she raised the money. What year are we in now -- 2013? Twenty twelve we made it. I think it lay fallow for three or four years before that. Everybody turned it down.

HP: Do you have a preference between writing plays or screenplays?

RH: I love writing plays. Plays are about language, which is what I came from. I love writing movies too now. I used to not, but now I do.

HP: What changed?

RH: Winning an Oscar, I suppose. [Roman] Polanski helped me an awful lot [during the writing of “The Pianist,” for which Harwood won Best Screenplay]. He was terrific, encouraging. I was 68 when I won the Oscar. That’s a long time really. It gives encouragement to young people, doesn’t it?

HP: Yes it does! But just because that’s when you won doesn’t mean you weren’t writing at that level before.

RH: I’ve written all my life. It’s all I can do -- it’s a terrible thing. I get up in the morning and that’s what I do, and I love it. One’s supposed to say how painful it is, but for me it’s pure pleasure. Of course I get stuck and unhappy but that’s part of the pleasure. It’s part of the masochism.

HP: Do you think older screenwriters owe it to older actors to write fine scripts that they can act in?

RH: No, I don’t feel that way. I don’t at all. I have written a wide variety -- “The Diving Bell And The Butterfly” was sort of middle-aged, 30s, 40s. It never occurred to me that it would be different to make a film about older actors.

HP: In this case, you were really writing for your peers.

RH: We’ve all grown up together. Maggie Smith and I are the same age -- or, she’s a month younger than me. She’d like me to say that. Tom is a couple of years younger. I don’t know how old Paul is, and Bill is just 69 I think. Michael Gambon, I don’t know how old he is. Must be in his late seventies. But Tom and I go back fifty years, and Maggie and I go back -- she did a play of mine in 1986 -- a quarter of a century.

Michael Gambon is a young man! He’s age 72. I’ve just looked him up. He’s a child! And let’s see how old Pauline is...[typing noises ensued, but we never did find out].

But yes, it’s lovely that we’re all working together. I suppose the older are mostly portrayed either as having Alzheimer’s or vicious to the young. But these are just people. We’re all getting on. I’ve now become one of the great experts on old age. You know how imaginative people are. The BBC phones me and asks to talk whenever there’s a story on the elderly.

HP: Do you think Hollywood is biased toward the young, as popular opinion goes?

RH: I don’t believe it to be true. I think it’s marketing dysfunction. The moment you believe your marketing people, you’re dead, because all your instincts are gone. What you want to do is blunted. If you have a good story and it happens to be about old people and it’s fun or interesting or whatever, you should do it. But the studios do what they’re told by marketers though it’s not accurate at all. I don’t know why they persist with it, but they go on and on in that way.

HP: Do the marketers skew young?

RH: No, they’re just marketing people. They don’t have instincts of what ought to be made or what can be made. All they have instincts for is reading the reports, and certainly not taking chances, because their jobs depend on it. I have a certain sympathy for that, but it’s not a way to make terrific movies.

HP: And yet, your movie about an elderly home saw the light of day.

RH: It’s amazing it was made. That’s the loveliest thing about it.

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