Sophomore director Francois Girard stayed atune to blending symphony, cinema for 'Red Violin'
Francois Girard looks a lot like one of those coffee shop guys who sit around sipping $4 lattes, chain smoking and reading philosophy books with very large type on the cover so everyone in the cafe takes note of how smart they must be.
His tousled, neck-length hair and black-on-black wardrobe reinforce the stereotype, and after introducing himself, his takes a tousled position -- much like his hair -- in a leather board room chair at San Francisco's Prescott Hotel, reinforcing my first impression by asking "Do you mind if I have a cigarette?"
"No problem. Go right ahead," I reply, and he lights up then cradles a newly poured cup of coffee in front of him.
But if Girard is a coffee shop wanna-be philosopher, he's going to have to work on being more aloof. While he definitely comes off as serious and pensive, the young, music-minded director of the piano-centric 1993 festival circuit hit "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould" is just too impassioned about his new film, "The Red Violin," to succeed as an apathetic, corner-lurking caffeine hound.
In town promoting this sensual symphony of music and masterful movie-making, Girard seems genuinely excited -- if a little reserved -- about the enthusiastic (and deserved) reception his picture has been receiving.
The biography of a finely crafted musical instrument and its globetrotting passage through centuries of owners -- including a 19th Century orphan prodigy in France, a rakish, aristocratic virtuoso in England and a Chinese musician torn between Communism and her penchant for Western orchestrations -- "The Red Violin" is a film overflowing with fervent movements of pathos. Its seductive tempos of passion and tragic refrains of sorrow are tied together in a riveting, recurring modern day linchpin story about an expert strings appraiser (Samuel L. Jackson), working for a Montreal auction house, who is trying to substantiate his suspicion that the flawless fiddle is in fact a legendary and long-lost instrument called the Red Violin, created by a 17th Century master.
Girard resourcefully framed the story of the violin set adrift in time by setting the modern story in his home town of Montreal, where the tattered yet magnificent instrument is being sold at auction, with emotional bids ardently exchanged by several interested parties with ties to the each of the film's historical vignettes.
Once he was comfortably nicotined and caffeinated, we started our conversation talking about the movie's central character -- the Red Violin.
SPLICEDwire: Tell me about the violins that you used in the film. I know you used six violins. Were you going for a prop with a certain visual quality or were you going for a genuine instrument?
Francois GIRARD: It was a little bit of both, but of course the visual characteristics were the main target. But it was quite an extensive process. I was introduced by Yo-Yo Ma to Charles Beare and his son Peter because they are the top experts in ancient instruments and they take care of Yo-Yo's cellos. I ended up in their office in London, telling them the story, and they eventually became script consultants and my teachers for a number of things. Eventually they created the Red Violin from six different violins that were created especially for the film.
SPLICED: Did you use any of the playing from the shoot, or was everything dubbed over in post?
GIRARD: I think the only time you hear violin that was not recorded by (famous violinist) Joshua Bell is when Ruselsky (one of the auction's bidders) is trying the Strat (i.e. Stradivarius, the most famous string craftsman in history). He's not trying the Red Violin, that's the main reason we kept the location sound. Otherwise the voice of the Red Violin is Joshua Bell. The boy in France could have been able to play those pieces. He's not as mature as Josh as a virtuoso, but he's certainly an incredible prodigy and he was able to play those pieces. But we gave him an instrument that was not necessarily fitting his knowledge.
SPLICED: He probably plays a child's violin in real life.
GIRARD: Exactly. The violin was too big and what you see in the film are gut strings, and the boy had never played on gut strings before. He could get the sound out of it. The sync sound was sometimes quite awful.
SPLICED: Well, it synced up very well in post. That's why I asked the question. I wasn't even sure.
GIRARD: It's always very difficult. In "Red Violin" we have four people playing the violin. Two of them are real violinists, that's the boy and Ruselsky at the end.
SPLICED: Bell had to essentially play four characters in the movie. Did try to do different personalities for the characters in his playing?
GIRARD: Both (composer John Coriglano) and Josh had to define the characters. They had to help me give them a personality. So it starts with John composing music that would be suitable for Pope and for the boy. For whatever music is performed on screen, John tried to be true to the period and the place, but also true to the character, which is more important. It's like putting a costume on a character, but at the same time defining the character is more important.
SPLICED: Are you a musician?
GIRARD: Well, I have too much respect for what we call musicians to call myself a musician. I just bought a very good piano and I get my steam out on the keyboard. It has a real place in my life, but I'm not a trained musician.
SPLICED: You play for your own enjoyment.
GIRARD: And for my dog (smiles slyly).
SPLICED: Tell me about the conception of the story. How did the idea come to you, the life of a violin?
GIRARD: Well, the short answer is an anecdote about when I was in London with a friend and we were talking about objects traveling through time, and this was at a time when Don McKellar and Niv Fichman -- the co-writer and producer of my last film -- we were all looking for a new story to tell. I remember it very vividly -- I even remember the park by which we were driving -- and I remember thinking we could tell the life of an instrument (and I felt) the emotional potential of it and how it can connect to important themes.
SPLICED: You're aware you're going to be known now as a director of films with musical themes.
GIRARD: (Laughing) That's not what I was trying to do! After "Glenn Gould" it was in my nature to resist that. But when you come to an idea (like this), all that goes away. You feel the need to tell it, and that's the most important thing. (Besides) making films is making music. You just can't escape that. The musical nature of cinema is unavoidable. But you don't start by saying, "I'm gonna make a music film." You start with an idea that has life in it and it unfolds before you.
SPLICED: How long did it take you to write the script?
GIRARD: The original idea was just before the Berlin (film) festival in '94. We took a couple years to come close to a shooting script....
SPLICED: You were researching for a couple years, weren't you?
GIRARD: Yes. Those were parallel things. The writing is not all about connecting with the research. But we needed to research a number of things. Just to collect violin stories was a very extensive process. I had a researcher working for me almost full time for two year, and he was going all over the place for the questions we needed to answer.
I love research because my work provides the opportunities to learn. Every time you start a new film you have something to understand and discover. I drive producers crazy with research costs. But once that is done, you really have to put it aside and get the characters and the script right, which most of the time means cheating and playing with historical things to maybe access a higher truth. But at least if you cheat, you know from what you're cheating.
SPLICED: Were you going for a parallel to stages in a human life in the life of the violin? It seemed to me, for example, that the Frederick Pope section was kind of a sexual awakening.
GIRARD: You're absolutely right. That's a very smart read. Actually, it was very focused on that, but it was never meant to be noticed necessarily. I think you might be the second one to point that out. This was one way to give the film its unity. We had to deal with a number of owners, therefore a fragmented episodic structure and you're trying to find all the possible ways to tie them together. So we have the story first with the unborn child, then of the child, then of the young adult, then the story of political awakening and social consciousness and maturity, and then we go back to the age of the master again, which loops back to the creator again. So in the writing, that was a constant guide, focusing on that theme progression.
SPLICED: The gypsies would then be part of the childhood, the carefree, playful days? There's that wonderful shot of the violin strapped to the camera with a succession of gypsies playing the violin, and they are motionless while the background is dancing all over. How did you do that?
GIRARD: We're talking low-tech technology. We created a rig suspended on bungies and moved around by poles and stuff. This whole thing is like built in a garage. Eventually the high-tech part of it was...that we gave it to the computer graphic guys to erase the bar (holding the violin to the camera), so it's not in the frame any more.
SPLICED: It's amazing how that technology started out as a way to do special effects and now it's being used in just the simplest ways -- to be able to do something like erase the equipment from a shot.
GIRARD: I like the use of high technology in low tech situations. Especially in a film like "The Red Violin" because the last thing you want to do is to make it noticeable. But there were quite a large number of shots that were treated digitally and composite images. Like when the carriage comes into Vienna, that whole city was constructed in computer graphics. But you don't want that to be noticed.
SPLICED: Talking about the lifetime of the violin, did each part of the story feel like a separate movie? I mean, different locations, different actors, probably different crews. Did it feel like you were making four or five movies?
GIRARD: Sometimes it was a strange feeling because sometimes we were shooting with actors for a limited period of time. Like at the end of a two week shoot is about the time when, like, the crew really connects with the actors. But we had to move on. But the good part was that we had five wrap parties!
But about 20 people -- designers, producers, script, sound, assistants -- they were all the same in all the places. We designed and planned the film all from Montreal together and then we all did a number of trips to pick the actors, choose a crew, scout the locations and all that stuff. So once it came time to shoot the movie, everybody was making one film.
SPLICED: Samuel L. Jackson's passion about the violin really ties it all together.
GIRARD: It's great what Sam brings to the film. He brings a real edge. It was a difficult character. It was never as clear for Charles Morritz as it was for the other characters. When I'm asked what was the most difficult shoot -- we're talking story and character -- Montreal was the toughest.
SPLICED: Well, there's a piece of each story in the auction, with people bidding on the violin. There's people from the orphanage, from the Pope Institute, and that brings it all together, so I can see how that would be.
GIRARD: And Montreal had to be the story of Charles Morritz, it had to be self-resolved, and yet at the same time it had to be the resolution of all the others, so it was the toughest one to write. We were always caught between those two tasks. And it was the hardest one to shoot, and by far the hardest one to cut (because of all the stories represented at the auction).
SPLICED: Well, the tension building worked beautifully. By the time you get to the scene that's just the auction, where it's not being interrupted anymore, I was just riveted.
GIRARD: That scene, we edited it for about 16 to 20 weeks.
GIRARD: The film is 135 minutes, and those four minutes took a third of all the editing time.
SPLICED: Well, everything else is relatively linear, but you have to get that just right.
GIRARD: It was by far the most complex scene I've ever cut. We had two plots, twelve characters we had to keep alive, plus that build-up was a real editing challenge.