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Stewart Mackinnon talks Quartet to Newcastle's Journal

The world premiere of a film made by a Newcastle production company was the toast of the Toronto Film Festival where it provoked a rousing ovation.

Quartet, which tells a moving and funny story set in a residential home for retired opera singers, not only stars a foursome of thespian heavyweights Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins, but also marks the directorial debut of legendary actor Dustin Hoffman.

The screenplay was penned by Oscar-winning writer, Ronald Harwood.

The film’s producer, Stewart Mackinnon, of Newcastle-based Headline Pictures which made the film, said he was unsure how the film would be received.

“You’re never sure,” he said yesterday before boarding a flight from the Canadian city to Boston. “We knew the film had worked, but until you show it to an audience... it really was an extraordinary evening though.

“The response was amazing. I’ve never been in a cinema like it – there were maybe a thousand people in there. And the film is getting really great reviews, so we’re very happy.”

As well as burgeoning collection of critical acclaim, the film, which is scheduled for a gala premiere in Leicester Square in December and a nationwide UK release in January, is also fuelling the some early awards season buzz.

But Scotsman Stewart, who has made the North East his home for 30 years, is keen not to get swept up in any plaudit prediction excitement. “The reaction the film is getting is fantastic, but we’re on to the next movie, so I’m not thinking about that.”

Shot on location just outside London, Quartet centres on a trio of retired opera singers enjoying their sunset years in Beecham House – a care home for aging musicians – until the arrival of a former singing partner (and ex-wife to one) breaks the peace.

The film is based on Harwood’s play of the same name, which in turn was inspired by Daniel Schmid’s 1984 film, Il Bacio di Tosca (Tosca’s Kiss).

That documentary offered a moving account of life in the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti of Milan, the world’s first nursing home for retired opera singers, founded by composer Giuseppe Verdi in 1896.

“It was a beautiful film,” said Stewart, who set up Headline Pictures in 2005 with the late former head of BBC Drama and BBC Film, Mark Shivas.

“Ronnie (Harwood) is friendly with Tom Courtenay, who for me is just one of the great iconic actors of my generation,” he continued. Tom suggested it was a story which could have been about them – they spent all their lives competing with friends for success, but as they grew older, they realised friendship was more important than competition.

“They approached us with the idea – Mark knew Ronnie. I thought it was such a lovely story and I just loved the core of it. The metaphor in the film is the music itself. You can sing together in competition but when you sing together as friends, the music has a different meaning.”

Stewart, who will be enjoying a well-earned couple of days off at his Newcastle home this weekend, said having such an acclaimed cast and director made for a happy atmosphere.

“It wasn’t an easy film to make. The actors that we cast – albeit they were of world class standing – were all hugely respectful of Dustin. The combination of his age and expertise made it a very nice, enjoyable set.

“I think he (Dustin) found it exciting and daunting. You can imagine a man who has been on more film sets than films we’ve all seen. It’s never easy to shoot these films, but when Dustin agreed to direct, it then all fell into place.”

Read article in The Journal

October 3, 2012

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