Opening night of the 25th anniversary of the Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) will launch with Alison Chernick’s documentary Itzhak, which chronicles the extraordinary life and music of Itzhak Perlman, who is widely considered one of the world’s greatest living violinists.
We recently caught up with Chernick about the film, Itzhak Perlman, who will be in attendance at the Guild Hall screening, and more.
Prior to filming, how much about Itzhak’s life did you know?
AC: I knew a lot. Maybe I didn’t know the intricacies or nuances, but I certainly was very well abreast of his music and who he was, but I certainly got to know him better in this process.
How long did you follow the Perlmans?
AC: The first shoot was the Medal of Freedom shoot in November of 2015 and I followed him through last summer and we started editing in the fall. So, about a year in the life of. At one point the film was going to be called Four Seasons and it was going to cover him in different seasons.
Why did you feel that this was a film that needed to be made?
AC: It was his 70th year so it was sort of a perfect year and great timing and as his wife Toby said: “We’re not young, we’re not old.” So it was right in terms of their energy level and he’s a different person than he was in his late 30s when there was another film made about him, so there was really not a doc made about him in any time recent. As his artistry grew and his confidence grew, it’s great to capture him at that moment in time.
What was your reaction when you learned the film had been selected as Hamptons International Film Festival’s Opening Night film?
AC: We were super excited for a documentary, especially one on a classical musician, to be opening night. I think in most of the cases they show narrative, so we felt sort of extra rewarded that they were supporting a documentary, being an advocate, that ours was chosen. Its Itzhak’s home away from home, so it really felt like the perfect fit. We’re very excited.
This will also mark the film’s world premiere.
AC: We just finished it too. So it’s hot off the presses – Friday night at 9 p.m. we delivered it. We were in sound mix all week, so the timing is perfect.
It seemed like Itzhak was an open book about his life. Was there anything he was hesitant to talk about?
AC: No. He was pretty open. I think with Toby there we were able to go a bit deeper emotionally. We created a conversation between the two of them and that really helped bring out some of the deeper emotional levels. He’s open with politics, but we didn’t go so deep into that. We were filming right around Hillary and Trump and we sort of avoided that. He wasn’t so hesitant to do anything – we stayed away from hardcore politics because we felt like it would sidetrack the film and divert the attention away from what I was trying to show.
Since Itzhak is so prolific, was it a struggle to find a balance to make classic music more relatable to the audience?
AC: I think that when you’re really exploring and dissecting the artist behind the music, you’re opening up a new window or lens into the music itself and the musical world that they inhabit. If anything, it made it more relatable by getting to know the person creating it – the man behind this beautiful sound. Through the process of being with him and unpacking how he thinks about the world I think we gained more access into his music and I think his music really comes from his heart and his soul. There’s an abundance of humanity that he has and it’s through that humanity that he plays every note. President Obama said: “You can hear his soul when he plays the violin.”
Speaking of President Obama, there’s quite a few cameos from notable names like Billy Joel and Alan Alda. With all the archival footage you had, how did you decide what to include?
AC: The story kind of ends up telling itself in many ways and it dictates what the scene needs. For example, the Billy Joel scene for us was a way to showcase his collaborative personality and his confidence – I think he asserts his own ideas in that scene. It is also Billy Joel, so it’s not exactly his milieu of what he’s used to playing and it shows his range and diversity. Alan Alda and Itzhak are old friends and they were able to get into a conversation about polio, so you get some of the history in and some of his physical challenges, and they talk about technique and their expertise and their craft. So, you have a parallel in another field. The award, especially at a time where the world has changed so much since the beginning of the film, it just felt imperative to include Barack Obama, who we’re all fans of and hearing his words is so great after the president that we have now who can barely string a sentence together.
After seeing the film, is there anything you hope the audience takes away?
AC: That brilliant and complicated people can also be quite normal, really getting to know this genius musician and that he’s just like all of us. Really, I think that for that level of musician, Itzhak talks about how you really have to have this sound in your head and he from a very early age had this sound in his head that he was able to develop from hearing it. That was an interesting comment on art and artistry and music – that it really comes from within. You have the sound and you follow the sound.
What’s next for you?
AC: I have a couple of projects. I have a narrative project I’m working on, I have a contemporary art project that I’m working on. So, those two things are keeping me busy.
Itzhak will screen at Guild Hall (158 Main Street, East Hampton) on Thursday, October 5 at 7 p.m., East Hampton UA1 (30 Main Street, East Hampton) on Thursday, October 5 at 7:30 p.m. and at Bay Street (1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor) on Saturday, October 7 at 10 a.m.
The 25th annual Hamptons International Film Festival will be held Thursday, October 5 through Monday, October 9. Founders Passes and tickets are currently available for purchase.
For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.