Francois girard Interview

07 January 2009

Sophomore director Francois Girard stayed atune to blending symphony, cinema for 'Red Violin'

Sophomore director Francois Girard stayed atune to blending symphony, cinema for 'Red Violin'

Francois Girard looks a lot like one of those coffee shopguys who sit around sipping $4 lattes, chain smoking and reading philosophybooks with very large type on the cover so everyone in the cafe takes noteof how smart they must be.

His tousled, neck-length hair and black-on-black wardrobereinforce the stereotype, and after introducing himself, his takes a tousledposition -- much like his hair -- in a leather board room chair at SanFrancisco's Prescott Hotel, reinforcing my first impression by asking "Doyou mind if I have a cigarette?"

"No problem. Go right ahead," I reply, and helights up then cradles a newly poured cup of coffee in front of him.

But if Girard is a coffee shop wanna-be philosopher, he'sgoing to have to work on being more aloof. While he definitely comes offas serious and pensive, the young, music-minded director of the piano-centric1993 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 masterfulmovie-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 andits globetrotting passage through centuries of owners -- including a 19thCentury orphan prodigy in France, a rakish, aristocratic virtuoso in Englandand a Chinese musician torn between Communism and her penchant for Westernorchestrations -- "The Red Violin" is a film overflowing withfervent movements of pathos. Its seductive tempos of passion and tragicrefrains of sorrow are tied together in a riveting, recurring modern daylinchpin story about an expert strings appraiser (Samuel L. Jackson), workingfor a Montreal auction house, who is trying to substantiate his suspicionthat the flawless fiddle is in fact a legendary and long-lost instrumentcalled the Red Violin, created by a 17th Century master.

Girard resourcefully framed the story of the violin setadrift 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 withties to the each of the film's historical vignettes.

Once he was comfortably nicotined and caffeinated, we startedour conversation talking about the movie's central character -- the RedViolin. Tell me about the violinsthat you used in the film. I know you used six violins. Were you goingfor a prop with a certain visual quality or were you going for a genuineinstrument?

Francois GIRARD: It was a little bit of both, butof course the visual characteristics were the main target. But it was quitean extensive process. I was introduced by Yo-Yo Ma to Charles Beare andhis son Peter because they are the top experts in ancient instruments andthey 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 andmy teachers for a number of things. Eventually they created the Red Violinfrom six different violins that were created especially for the film. Did you use any of the playingfrom the shoot, or was everything dubbed over in post?

GIRARD: I think the only time you hear violin thatwas not recorded by (famous violinist) Joshua Bell is when Ruselsky (oneof the auction's bidders) is trying the Strat (i.e. Stradivarius, the mostfamous string craftsman in history). He's not trying the Red Violin, that'sthe main reason we kept the location sound. Otherwise the voice of theRed Violin is Joshua Bell. The boy in France could have been able to playthose pieces. He's not as mature as Josh as a virtuoso, but he's certainlyan incredible prodigy and he was able to play those pieces. But we gavehim an instrument that was not necessarily fitting his knowledge. He probably plays a child's violinin real life.

GIRARD: Exactly. The violin was too big and whatyou see in the film are gut strings, and the boy had never played on gutstrings before. He could get the sound out of it. The sync sound was sometimesquite awful. Well, it synced up very wellin post. That's why I asked the question. I wasn't even sure.

GIRARD: It's always very difficult. In "RedViolin" we have four people playing the violin. Two of them are realviolinists, that's the boy and Ruselsky at the end. Bell had to essentially playfour characters in the movie. Did try to do different personalities forthe characters in his playing?

GIRARD: Both (composer John Coriglano) and Joshhad 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 Popeand for the boy. For whatever music is performed on screen, John triedto 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, butat the same time defining the character is more important. Are you a musician?

GIRARD: Well, I have too much respect for what wecall musicians to call myself a musician. I just bought a very good pianoand I get my steam out on the keyboard. It has a real place in my life,but I'm not a trained musician. You play for your own enjoyment.

GIRARD: And for my dog (smiles slyly). Tell me about the conceptionof the story. How did the idea come to you, the life of a violin?

GIRARD: Well, the short answer is an anecdote aboutwhen I was in London with a friend and we were talking about objects travelingthrough time, and this was at a time when DonMcKellar and Niv Fichman -- the co-writer andproducer 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 weredriving -- 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 importantthemes. You're aware you're going tobe known now as a director of films with musical themes.

GIRARD: (Laughing) That's not what I wastrying to do! After "Glenn Gould" it was in my nature to resistthat. But when you come to an idea (like this), all that goes away. Youfeel 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 musicalnature of cinema is unavoidable. But you don't start by saying, "I'mgonna make a music film." You start with an idea that has life init and it unfolds before you. How long did it take you to writethe script?

GIRARD: The original idea was just before the Berlin(film) festival in '94. We took a couple years to come close to a shootingscript.... You were researching for a coupleyears, weren't you?

GIRARD: Yes. Those were parallel things. The writingis not all about connecting with the research. But we needed to researcha number of things. Just to collect violin stories was a very extensiveprocess. 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 opportunitiesto learn. Every time you start a new film you have something to understandand discover. I drive producers crazy with research costs. But once thatis done, you really have to put it aside and get the characters and thescript right, which most of the time means cheating and playing with historicalthings to maybe access a higher truth. But at least if you cheat, you knowfrom what you're cheating. Were you going for a parallelto stages in a human life in the life of the violin? It seemed to me, forexample, that the Frederick Pope section was kind of a sexual awakening.

GIRARD: You're absolutely right. That's a very smartread. Actually, it was very focused on that, but it was never meant tobe noticed necessarily. I think you might be the second one to point thatout. This was one way to give the film its unity. We had to deal with anumber of owners, therefore a fragmented episodic structure and you'retrying to find all the possible ways to tie them together. So we have thestory first with the unborn child, then of the child, then of the youngadult, then the story of political awakening and social consciousness andmaturity, and then we go back to the age of the master again, which loopsback to the creator again. So in the writing, that was a constant guide,focusing on that theme progression. The gypsies would then be partof the childhood, the carefree, playful days? There's that wonderful shotof the violin strapped to the camera with a succession of gypsies playingthe violin, and they are motionless while the background is dancing allover. How did you do that?

GIRARD: We're talking low-tech technology. We createda rig suspended on bungies and moved around by poles and stuff. This wholething is like built in a garage. Eventually the high-tech part of it was...thatwe gave it to the computer graphic guys to erase the bar (holding the violinto the camera), so it's not in the frame any more. It's amazing how that technologystarted out as a way to do special effects and now it's being used in justthe simplest ways -- to be able to do something like erase the equipmentfrom a shot.

GIRARD: I like the use of high technology in lowtech situations. Especially in a film like "The Red Violin" becausethe last thing you want to do is to make it noticeable. But there werequite a large number of shots that were treated digitally and compositeimages. Like when the carriage comes into Vienna, that whole city was constructedin computer graphics. But you don't want that to be noticed. Talking about the lifetime ofthe violin, did each part of the story feel like a separate movie? I mean,different locations, different actors, probably different crews. Did itfeel like you were making four or five movies?

GIRARD: Sometimes it was a strange feeling becausesometimes we were shooting with actors for a limited period of time. Likeat the end of a two week shoot is about the time when, like, the crew reallyconnects with the actors. But we had to move on. But the good part wasthat 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 andplanned the film all from Montreal together and then we all did a numberof trips to pick the actors, choose a crew, scout the locations and allthat stuff. So once it came time to shoot the movie, everybody was makingone film. Samuel L. Jackson's passion aboutthe 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 clearfor Charles Morritz as it was for the other characters. When I'm askedwhat was the most difficult shoot -- we're talking story and character-- Montreal was the toughest. Well, there's a piece of eachstory in the auction, with people bidding on the violin. There's peoplefrom 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 CharlesMorritz, it had to be self-resolved, and yet at the same time it had tobe 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 oneto shoot, and by far the hardest one to cut (because of all the storiesrepresented at the auction). Well, the tension building workedbeautifully. 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 to20 weeks. Wow.

GIRARD: The film is 135 minutes, and those fourminutes took a third of all the editing time. Well, everything else is relativelylinear, but you have to get that just right.

GIRARD: It was by far the most complex scene I'veever cut. We had two plots, twelve characters we had to keep alive, plusthat build-up was a real editing challenge.


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