It has been a long and winding road for Yaron Zilberman, an Israeli, New York City-based film director.
Zilberman, whose first feature film, A Late Quartet, opens here on Nov. 23 after its première at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, was a financial analyst before turning to his first love, filmmaking.
“All my life I wanted to do something in the world of art,” said Zilberman, who was born in Haifa, the scion of sabras whose ancestors arrived in Israel from eastern Europe several generations ago. “The trouble was, I could not find a pathway into it.”
Now 46, he achieved his ambition when he made his first movie, Watermarks, released in 2004.
Watermarks – a documentary about the legendary Jewish sports club Hakoah Vienna – was co-produced by two major players, HBO and Arte, enjoyed successful theatrical releases in North America and elsewhere and won a slew of industry awards. Yet Zilberman still could not make a go of it as a filmmaker.
A veteran of the Israel Defence Forces and a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who earned academic degrees in physics and operations research, he finished his studies in the mid-1990s.
For almost two years, he was employed as an analyst by a Wall Street investment bank. “It was fascinating, an amazing and incredible experience, but it was not for me. I was handsomely compensated, but it was not what I was looking for in life. Mentally, I had reached a dead end, and had to move on.”
So he worked as a real estate developer, constructing two residential buildings in Tel Aviv, and as an Internet startup specialist in Israel.
It was then that he realized that he had to turn his life around completely. And so, in 2002, he started working on Watermarks, which tells the story of a group of female swimmers at Hakoah Vienna, which dominated national competitions in Austria for a generation until the club was closed by the Nazis in 1938.
Zilberman found these women, now in their 80s living on three continents, and convinced them to attend a reunion in Vienna. In the film, they share memories and swim together once more in the pool they once shared.
“They impressed me,” he recalled. “They were smart and funny. I was intrigued by them.”
Watermarks, he observed, was a homage to these remarkable women and Hakoah’s athletes down through the decades. “In the face of open bigotry, they defiantly set out to be the best. They excelled because they were dedicated and united.”
In making A Late Quartet, a film about a famed New York City string quartet struggling to survive after its founder announces his impending resignation, Zilberman used the same techniques that served him so well in Watermarks.
“What I learned at university about being focused, mastering the fundamentals and taking a serious approach to research was incredibly useful.”
Nonetheless, the transition he made from documentary filmmaker in Watermarks to feature film director in A Late Quartet was substantial. “It was a big jump,” he said. “I had to re-learn the craft from A to Z.”
Raising funds for A Late Quartet, produced by his wife, Tamar Sela, the mother of his two children, was a time-consuming process.
But investors liked the script, based on a story by Zilberman, and the concept of structuring a film around the magical tones of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C minor, Opus 131, which unfolds in seven movements played without a break, was a selling point, too.
And they were thrilled by the cast, which stars Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Imogen Poots and Mark Ivanir, an Israeli actor.
By conventional Hollywood standards, A Late Quartet is an unusual film. At once serious-minded and seething, with uncontrollable passions, it is esthetically and artistically satisfying. The New York Times praised it as a “deeply felt, musically savvy film.”
When the earnest founder of the string quartet (Walken) receives a life-changing medical diagnosis, he informs his colleagues of his intention to step down. With this out-of-the-blue announcement, competing egos and suppressed emotions are released.
“It was a challenge creating this world,” said Zilberman, who plays the cello, appreciates chamber music and loves Beethoven.
A Late Quartet, he acknowledged, will not appeal to movie-goers who revel in violence, mayhem and sex, the standard ingredients of hackneyed Hollywood movies. “It’s more for an intelligent, sophisticated viewer who’s interested in the relationship between music and drama, though I wouldn’t mind a young, teenage audience.”