Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut, Quartet is a North East blockbuster

PUBLISHED: 21:49 28 December 2012 | UPDATED: 22:34 20 February 2013

Behind the scenes of Quartet

Behind the scenes of Quartet

The best British actors and international stars top the bill but the new film Quartet has its roots in the North East, as Paul Mackenzie reports

Some of the biggest names in British acting take the leading roles in a new film out this month. But while Tom Courtney, Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly top the bill, and although the film marks the directorial debut of Hollywood superstar Dustin Hoffman, the real stars are two men from Hexham.

Without Stewart McKinnon and Adrian Gifford Quartet would not have been made at all.

The film tells the story of four opera singers spending their twilight years in a care home together and is a touching tale of working relationships, competitiveness and friendship.

It was made by Headline Pictures, a company launched seven years ago by Stewart, Adrian and Mark Shivas which is now routinely working with some of the most famous names in the business.

Stewart said: We are a small, regional company trying to make films which say something about the world we live in. We are working with big names to make films for the international market that we are proud of and that are world class.

We are proving that it is possible to create films for the world market from the north of England. For years London has exerted this pull on talented people and there is a view that anything for the world market has to come out of London. It doesnt.

Quartet took three years from the original idea to its premier at the Toronto Film Festival late last year a relatively short time, according to Stewart. It is based on a play by Ronald Harwood and owes much to a series of friendships and chance conversations.

Mark Shivas, who has since died, was friendly with Ronnie and he asked if there was any chance of adapting it, Stewart said. Its a simple story and we thought it would be fun to make and it says something profound about working relationships and the importance they are given but how as you get older you begin to see that it is secondary to friendships.

Tom Courtenay is also a close friend of Ronnie and he had read the play and called him to say that it seemed as though it were written about their group of friends. Another of their friends, Albert Finney, was going to be in the film, but as it transpired he was too ill at the time and Billy Connolly took the role and was brilliant.

To have such and august director was a piece of serendipitous luck. He has a house in London and was having dinner with a friend of his, a cameraman who happened to have a copy of the script. He read it and approached us to be a part of the project.

Dustin Hoffman is known for researching his roles thoroughly and really getting to know his character and he did exactly the same with this film. One of the difficulties of a story like this is knowing how to manage such an experienced cast and he had that ability. He also managed to retain the humour of what could be seen as a rather maudlin story without losing sight of that pathos.

And Stewart added: He is an extraordinary man of huge energy.
Actors tend to turn up on set, get well looked after, do what they need to do and go again, but he has had to do months of preparation, a lot of travelling, meeting actors, appointing the team, finding the locations it really is unrelenting.

And then theres the months of editing, working on the music, the sound theres so much to the role, its a massive commitment.

The film is released in the UK this month but had its premier, to a rapturous reception, at the Toronto Film Festival late last year. But theres no time for Stewart and Adrian to rest on their laurels, filming starts on their next two feature films very soon.

The Invisible Woman, which is scheduled to have its premier this autumn, will be Ralph Fiennes debut as a director and will tell the story of Charles Dickens affair with Nellie Ternan. And Stewart and Adrian are also working with Ridley Scott on Reykjavik, a film which tells the story of the end of the end of the Cold War which will star Michael Douglas as Ronald Reagan.

And Adrian, a lawyer in Newcastle for 30 years before he helped launch Headline, added: When we started we wanted to build a company which would have a long future and would make films we would be proud to say we were involved with work of the highest quality.

And that is what we have done. This has all come out of the North East and we are very proud of that.

* Quartet will be released across the country on January 4.

View the official trailer

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