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L.A. Phil's Ben Hong on coaching Jamie Foxx for 'The Soloist'

April 23, 2009 |  1:20 pm

Ben-Hong-and-Jamie-Foxx-in- 

Two summers ago, the makers of "The Soloist" were looking for someone to teach Jamie Foxx the cello in preparation for his role as Nathaniel Ayers, a former music prodigy living on skid row.

Luckily, the Los Angeles-based production team didn't have to search far for the ideal candidate.

Ben Hong, the assistant principal cellist of the L.A. Philharmonic, had never worked on a motion picture before. But his pairing with Foxx proved to be a harmonious collaboration that produced some impressive on-screen illusions.

On Sunday, Hong will discuss his work on the movie, based on the book and news reports by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, part of a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA. The talk will begin at 12:30 p.m. at the Ackerman Grand Ballroom. ("The Soloist" opens nationwide Friday.)

Culture Monster sat down with Hong last fall when the movie was originally scheduled to open, before the distributor pushed back the release date by several months. 

Keep reading to learn more about Hong's work on "The Soloist"...

Jamie-Foxx-and-Ben-Hong-reh Hong and the Oscar-winning actor began their four-month crash course on the cello in early September 2007. For 10 hours a week, they practiced the movements needed to make Foxx look like he's actually playing the mostly Beethoven repertoire that includes passages from the Cello Sonata No. 4 and the second movement of the Triple Concerto.

Hong developed a simplified notation so Foxx could learn the left-hand fingerings. He also taught the actor the bowing techniques. (They applied soap to the bow in order to muffle the sound during practice.)

During production, Hong was literally everywhere. He served as technical advisor for all scenes involving music; he coached actor Tom Hollander, who plays the L.A. Philharmonic's principal cellist; he recorded all of the playback tracks (whenever we see Foxx play the cello, the sound is performed by Hong); and he even plays himself in a few brief glimpses.

For the playback tracks, Hong had to play deliberately out of tune to suggest Ayers' state of mind. He worked with the film's composer, Dario Marianelli, in order to perfect the imperfect sound.

"Dario would come out of the control booth and say that 'it's too pretty or the intonation was too good, you have to make it worse,' " recalled Hong. "That was actually a lot of fun."

The musician was hired for the film because he had already met Ayers through Lopez, whose articles inspired the movie. Most of the filming took place at a warehouse in Culver City, as well as a few days at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Ben-Hong-on-his-bike Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Hong has lived most of his life in the U.S. (He moved to this country in 1982 at age 13.) He trained at Juilliard and USC before being hired by the L.A. Philharmonic at age 24. 

Known by his colleagues for his love of motorcycles, Hong can be seen commuting from his home in Culver City with his cello strapped to his back. In fact, he and Foxx took bike rides together during breaks in the practice schedule.

"Jamie had a motorcycle in his garage and went around the road a bit. During the breaks we would ride around the hills around his house," he said. "It's that break, forgetting part of it and reinforcing it that makes you remember things."

-- David Ng

Top photo: L.A. Philharmonic cellist Ben Hong and Jaime Foxx on the set of "The Soloist." Credit: Francois Duhamel / Dreamworks. Middle photo: Foxx gets tips from Hong. Credit: Francois Duhamel / Dreamworks. Bottom photo: Hong enjoys his other passion, motorcycles. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

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