Agnieszka Holland has long been known for translating classical/historical material into pop-culture matter (in “Total Eclipse,” for instance, she cast Leonardo di Caprio as a punkish Arthur Rimbaud) and her latest, “Copying Beethoven,” is a fictional biopic of the famed composer during the last years of his life.
“I’ve always tried to reach a wide audience,” said Holland in an interview during the Tokyo International Film Festival. “And I wanted this film to appeal to people who had never heard of Beethoven, much less the Ninth Symphony.”
As director who works with both European and Hollywood actors, Holland says the name Ed Harris flashed into her mind the minute the project was under way.
“Ed is an amazing and gifted actor. His level of commitment to whatever role he’s doing has always impressed me, and I knew that for the role of Beethoven I needed someone who could really portray the artistic temperament.”
How did U.S. and European audiences react to the film?
They reacted very strongly. Even I was surprised. . . . I wanted to make this credible and attractive for people who may or may not be musical, but can receive the message of the story. This isn’t an intellectual film but an emotional one, and I made it to have that kind of appeal. That the audiences reacted strongly made me think that I was successful in doing so.
What drew you to Beethoven in the first place?
The awakening, as it were, came when I was 17 or 18. Before that I didn’t listen to classical music and couldn’t understand Beethoven at all. But by chance, I listened to his late string quartets and they really opened my ears to classical music. I have loved his music ever since. I also became fascinated by the artist — he was unhappy, full of contradictions and difficult to comprehend. He was probably the first Romantic artist in the sense that his goal was not to produce pleasant music acceptable to his clients and the public, but to express his soul. What he had to produce/create came from within, and that is a very romantic but difficult mission. Until the end, Beethoven remained faithful to his journey.
How did you come to pick Ed Harris for the role?
I had worked twice with Ed and knew what he was capable of. I needed someone soulful for the part and he had the potential, the complexity. I knew he could express genius and that he would be preparing very hard. He took seven years to prepare for “Pollock,” after all. For Beethoven, he devoted nine months to learning the piano and violin and everything about the life of the composer. He familiarized himself with the music to the point that he could actually conduct an orchestra. When we did the first take, everyone was shocked. It was magical. Now I’m curious if he would be able to keep this skill.
Are you happy with the structure of the film?
Yes, I think it works in that all the good stuff and the happiness . . . happens in the middle of the story. The happy ending comes in the middle, but Beethoven didn’t remain there, he went on to more dangerous territory. And that’s what journeys are all about.