Dustin Hoffman: What ‘The Graduate’ Taught Me About Directing

Dustin Hoffman's "Quartet," the actor's first feature as a director, goes nationwide this weekend — after having scored a Golden Globe for star Maggie Smith

Three decades after Dustin Hoffman fired himself from his first directing job, the Oscar winner has finally made his first movie, an intimate tale of four retired musicians in a home filled with wise-cracking septuagenarians.

“Quartet,” which stars revered British actors Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon, is an ode to both exuberance and old age, to pursuing your passion no matter your physical or mental state.

One moment you see Maggie Smith struggling to stand up, the next moment you hear jokes about Apricot Jam and “rumpy fumpy.”

The film has already made $11 million at the box office in the United Kingdom, where it first opened, and rolls out nationwide in the U.S. this weekend.

It has put together two strong weekends at the domestic box office in limited release — and earned Smith (left, with Hoffman) a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a musical or comedy.

For Hoffman, it was a revelation, a new experience in film for an actor who already has two Academy Awards and been nominated five other times. He is openly disdainful of “retirement,” that being something for people who don’t like their jobs.

TheWrap talked with Hoffman about the challenges of directing, how Hollywood mistreats actors and why he welcomes failure.

What brought you to this project?
It had something that resonated with me, something I knew about — not opera, but spending a lifetime performing. Unlike acting, opera singers have a limited shelf life. To still have the passion and the desire to do it, which I do about acting when I get good parts, but be forced to live in a retirement home. These people refuse to retire and that was enough to get me in there.

For the first time in three decades. You almost directed "Straight Time" in the late 1970s.
And I made the mistake of firing myself. I cast it, crewed it, took some months and started shooting in Folsom Prison. There was great pressure from the person at the studio I was doing it under. A friend of mine (Ulu Grosbad) wanted to take over, and I do think it’s one of the better films I’ve made. 

And then you never directed again. Why not?
I went on to develop more material. If you want to do what you want to do rather than just waiting for an angel to drop a script at your front doorstep … that’s why Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and other people of my generation developed things. 

I developed two or three and I’d get to a point where frustration set in. I’ve always been bored hearing stories of projects that took an interminably long time. Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” took him 17 years. I’d put a project aside when a part came along, but that’s six months out of your life even as an actor. The years kind of flew by. Whatever other demons were delaying my re-entry, suddenly I was able to get a grip on it. My wife and agent have collaborated to push me over the edge.

Would you go back to one of those ideas you were developing it?
I’m taking a look at a couple of things I had put aside as we speak. I’m obviously quite proud of this film, and I’m trying to figure out how to direct something after I die. I don’t know if Shirley MacLaine has a corner on that market or not, but that’s how passionate I am.

This movie flitters in between moments of absurdist comedy and solemnity. How do you balance those two moods?
When I was a young actor, it was amazing how many times people asked, ‘So what do you do, tragedy or comedy?’ Arthur Miller told me people don’t realize “Death of a Salesman” is a comedy. If you do it right, the character is so contradictory the audience laughs all the way through it. If you took the laughs out of “Rain Man,” it’s not “Rain Man.” Mel Brooks said it best: If you see someone slip on a banana it’s funny and you laugh. If you’re the one that slips on a banana it’s a tragedy.

You came into this with a few actors already attached, but how did you find all of the other people in the retirement home?
I knew I had to hire real actual retired opera singers and musicians and was finally able to do with an extraordinary casting session. We scoured the U.K., Ireland, Scotland, and the answer to your question is that what none of us expected. These are real actual human beings whose phone had not rung for 30, 40 years until we gave them a job to be in this film. The wild card is that when we started shooting, they arrived at 6 a.m. and worked long, low-budget hours every single day on location. They worked with such passion and dedication that it enveloped all of us.

There's a woman who opens the movie, Patricia Loveland (left), who did not start acting until she was 60 and ended up in this. There had to be a lot of stories like that.
One out of the 50 people or so who were moved by this experience, Ronnie Hughes, is a trumpet player. Someone had seen him play at some small gig in some obscure fuck part of England and thought he was extraordinary. The movie was all live singing and the trumpet too. He has not lost his chops as they say.

How did those musicians influence your approach to the subject matter? Their lives in some ways resemble your story.
I said to the main actors that we’re all in our 70s here and we are all going to be working with people in their 70s, 80s and 90s. These are not actors. I’ve aked them to not "act," and I will guide them as best as I can. We have to fit in with that. We know more than anyone or as much as anyone in our generation what it feels like to be at this stage of our career and life. 

How did your acting experiences influence you as a director?
We all get labeled something because it’s a lazy approach to defining someone. I was the difficult one, Warren was the ladies man, Nicholson was the recreational drug user. All of it to some degree was distorted. In my generation I guess what people never printed was that when I started making movies it was “The Graduate.” I was almost 30 playing someone 21, and I didn’t know how movies were done.

And Mike Nichols (left with Hoffman) taught you how movies were made.
He did something I didn’t know was out of the ordinary – a one-month rehearsal on a soundstage at Paramount. He worked with us as principals as you would on a play. You don’t present the character on the first day as many actors have to do to get the job. We slowly started to build the characters and define scenes from that.

It’s the very thing you’re not allowed to do because studios feel it cost so much to make the movie that way. They’re wrong. It’s worth it rather than forcing the scenes on a day to day basis; the verities of filmmaking demand it.

I was guided by Nichols. God knows he wasn’t criticized for being a perfectionist, but everyone behind the camera is a perfectionist or they lose their job.

How did Nichols compare to some of the other directors you worked with?
My second director was John Schlesinger, who did the same thing in a different way. We were in a room when he directed [Jon] Voight and I and other principals and Waldo Salt sat in the corner with a tape recorder. He had us improvise every single scene for three weeks at least and Waldo would take the recording home, transcribe it and incorporate it into something that was written. I believed this was the way movies were done. It was a shock to my system when I realized those were aberrations.

Were you able to adopt some of that rehearsal and and improvisation for your movie?
We improvised all throughout the film. There were obstacles; there will always be obstacles, but we’re not tied to the script word for word. Consequently some of great moments and dialogue just came out. When Maggie and Tom are in the church in this one scene. She says, "Why do we have to get old?" Tom paused and after a few he said, "Because that’s what people do.” That’s one of the great lines in the film, and it came right out of this guy.

Maggie was the first actor attached to the project, right? She's had something of a late career renaissance.
Maggie personifies the soul of this movie. I read a London Times interview she had given years ago in her early 70s and she made it no secret she was in the midst of chemo and radiation. It had just floored her. Someone who had spent her lifetime at her craft said, "I don’t want to do it; I have no passion for it. That’s it, I’m giving up." A few years later she took a job and she has never stopped working since.

Do you see any irony in an iconic American actor making his first movie with a British production company and an all British cast?
I hadn't really thought of that. Actors aren’t labeled by ethnicity. There’s good acting and there’s acting that isn’t good. British actors had a training we didn’t have with classics and Shakespeare, whereas American actors learned from Eugene O’Neill and Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller. A bridge was put between us that doesn’t really exist today.

What I think is funny seems to be funny on both sides of the Atlantic. It is an American who directed it and British audiences are apparently filling up those theaters and continue to applaud at the end.

You mentioned it's found an audience in England and Australia. How nervous are you about its financial performance in the United States?
I’m on a side of camera I haven’t been before and it’s embarrassing for me to have gone 40 years not knowing certain things.

Steven Spielberg told me years ago when I asked him about nerves that every film he start he pulls over on the first day and throws up. Greg Louganis won all these medals and I think his last dive was a basic dive and he smacked his forehead on the diving board. It was an extraordinary moment, and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s a 10th of an inch whether you fail when you put yourself out there or succeed with a high number.

And Boston Celtics center Bill Russell famously vomited before games.
I was watching the Alabama-Notre Dame came on Monday. Alabama was up four touchdowns and its coach got into a huge argument with one of the referees. He was furious. After the game, they asked him, "Can you celebrate now?" He says, "Yeah, but in two days we start working for next year."

You’re not doing it to suddenly get a crown and sit on the throne. You do it because there’s no other way you choose to survive.

I don’t understand retirement. The only way I can understand it is if you spend a lifetime doing what you would not call your work but just a job. I had that those first 12 years where I would keep looking at my watch wondering when I could take a cigarette break. If you are one of the few of us who really love your work, there is no idea of retiring.