INTERVIEW: From 32 Shorts to 1 Epic, François Girard Travels with "The Red Violin"
by Anthony Kaufman
5 countries, 60 shooting days, 85 speaking parts, 5 and a half years-in-the-making and $10 million — the numbers add up to Quebecois director François Girard’s second film “The Red Violin.” The gala opener at Toronto’s film festival last year — where Lions Gate Releasing bought the film for U.S. release — “The Red Violin” is both intimate and epic, a cross-continental, cross-historical tour of one very special violin as it passes through the hands of its Italian maker, its Austrian founder, its British virtuoso, its Chinese protector, and finally, its New York owner.
Girard, a 36-year-old filmmaker and video artist, is most known for his “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould,” a smartly conceived glimpse into the complex mind of Canada’s foremost composer. For “The Red Violin,” Girard returned to similar concerns of music and structure. Co-written by Canadian actor, Don McKellar (who also wrote “32 Short Films”), the movie brought Girard to the ends of the earth, and then some. “Writing a film is a little bit like writing your own life,” comments Girard. “Whatever you put on the page will happen to you. If you talk about an instrument that travels around the world, this is what you’ll be doing for years.” Girard speaks to indieWIRE about $10 million independence, international co-financing, and a worldwide shooting schedule — among other challenges, checking into 21 hotels in 24 days.
indieWIRE: On your budget, how did you capture this epic scope of a movie?
François Girard: We built strategies, even at the writing stage. In each of the 5 stories, you have one big scene, and if you take those 5 or 6 or 7 big scenes out of the film, what’s left is mostly 2 or 3 characters in one room, so that was a writing strategy. And to handle that scope efficiently, you have to have the right people with you. I have my theory on Quebec cinema — all those designers I brought with me are the product, as I am, of a quite old tradition – like 40 years – of auteur cinema made with nothing. It’s miracles made out of 2 dollars. We’ve developed crews, and artisans in our industry that are absolutely imaginative and creative — and can do a lot with not much. At the same time, these same designers have worked on a number of huge productions, so they’ve learned the big way of making movies. So I had a crew who could work the big way and the small way at the same time — and this is how you get this look of “The Red Violin.” Most people, most American producers, don’t believe that we made it for ten [million]. And, technically, it’s still an independent movie. We all know that to reach $10 million is a big budget for an independent movie.
iW: That came from Canadian TV and foreign sales?
Girard: First of all, we refused the studio way. Because at first we had some interest in our script and were offered money to write it. But we wanted to keep control of our stuff, and we preferred to write it with very little money and then go out, when the script was ready, and finance it. We knew how much money we could get out of Canada, between distribution rights, TV rights, and government money, about 2-3 million. And then we had a co-producer in Italy, who came first with some money, too, the distributor of “32 Short Films about Glenn Gould.” Then Channel 4 came in, the British film unit of the broadcaster, and that was very important. That was about half of the budget. And then New Line came in for the other half against the international rights, all the other territories but Italy, England and Canada.
iW: From the story, because it’s so international, it makes sense that you would get financing in pieces from those different places. Did you think of that before?
Girard: Well, of course, the film was calling for that. In Canada, we have a number of co-production treaties that triggered scripts where you feel sometimes that the casting is artificial or you feel it looks like a co-production — for example, this actor is there because the other part of the co-production needed points. In this cast, it was a much happier experience, where I truly believe the money follows organically the script.
iW: What kind of shooting schedule did you have in each of these different places? Was it completely consecutive?
Girard: First, there was a very long pre-production, starting with my producer Niv Fichman and my co-writer Don McKellar traveling with me around the world. We made a first trip, going everywhere, trying to understand the locations better, but also studying the alternatives. For instance, for Vienna, which is known as a very expensive city to shoot in, we also saw Prague, and Bratislava. And for Shanghai, where we were expecting problems with permission, we saw Taipei, Hong Kong, Macao, and eventually at the end of that trip, we found a number of connections. We had writers who helped us adapt the script into different language, we had connected with production units, including the Shanghai Film Studios, and a number of actors and locations. . . .
[Finally,] we decided to shoot Vienna for Vienna and Shanghai for Shanghai, because, of course, the obvious reason is Vienna looks like Vienna. But more importantly, in a film like “The Red Violin” where you really try to build an identity in a very short time for each of those places, it has more to do with the people. Of course, you can always fly in one actor from one place to another. But for me, it was important that the actors came from the place, so you have the proper Austrian accent and the proper Shanghai accent. That was the main reason. If you work with the actors from the place, the crew from the place and the artists from the place, eventually, the feeling of the place with express itself.
Then I went back to all those places with my keys, designers, line producer and my assistant, 8 months later and then we had a very long prep in Montreal to gather all the information and design the film. And then we started shooting in Montreal, then we stopped, and went to Europe and finished prepping the three European countries, and shot Vienna, Italian Alps, Cremona and Oxford in one stretch.
iW: Wasn’t that exhausting?
Girard: Yes, it was exhausting. Yes and no. It was as exhausting as any shoot is. And then we stopped again and went to China and we had two weeks prep there to finalize the cast, the text, the sets and costumes. And then we shot. So the schedule was about 60 shooting days over a period of 5 months.
iW: 5 months is a pretty, long commitment. . .
Girard: I was with it for 5 and a half years. My first conversation I had with Niv and Don was 5 and a half years ago and I’ve been talking about “The Red Violin” since then.
iW: How does it feel to be with a project for so long?
Girard: I guess I like it. It’s really compatible with me. I like the long stretches. I have good endurance. Nothing happened overnight with “The Red Violin.” There’s not one thing. The music was an unusually long process. And finding the locations, I think I’ve driven 20,000 kilometers. I’ve collected a great number of frequent flyer points. Like the casting, we have 85 speaking parts and they come from 15 different cities, just to find them. We go to Rome and see a number of actors, but we leave and there’s three missing parts, so we go back 4 times to get it right. I remember there was one stretch where I checked into 21 hotels in 24 days. But you find your energy in that, you find your methods.
iW: How does this all compare to “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould,” a much smaller film?
Girard: I understand from the outside that you’d come to the conclusion that this is a very different project in scope and everything, but from inside, I’ll tell you I made both films the exact same way. The most important moment where you get your actor in front a rolling camera, whether you have 400 extras in the background or no one, it doesn’t make much of a difference — you have to get this guy breathing, you have to get him alive onscreen and carrying what ever he needs to. There is no small project. Sometimes we trick ourselves, and say “oh, I’m going to do this thing and it’s going to be fun. After ‘Red Violin,’ it’s going to be relaxing,” but there’s no small project. And I followed exactly the same route that I followed for “32 Short Films.” You have an idea, you submit yourself to it, you write forever, and when you’re satisfied with that, you go out, find the money and find the actors. I think there were 35 speaking parts in “Glenn Gould” and there are no small parts, either. It was shorter in time, and there were fewer trucks at the door, but that doesn’t matter ultimately. It was lighter in appearance, but really, when you direct a movie, that’s secondary. The real stuff is filming a scene and that’s always a delicate operation, a fragile thing before your eyes and you have to protect it and you have to go with it. And it’s always easy and it’s always the same. Big or small, the budget factor or the size factor, to a large extent is absolutely irrelevant to me creatively.
iW: These two films are very much about music? Are you a musician?
Girard: Not really, no. I play piano, but not seriously. I am a filmmaker.
iW: What is the similarity for you?
Girard: Comparing cinema and music is implying that they are different objects. To me, they are absolutely linked and together. It’s impossible for me to a draw a line between both. Every filmmaker will tell you that music is important in his work, for the very good reason that cinema is also music. Making a film is making music, no matter what. Even in Bresson’s films when you don’t have one note played, it’s still about music. It’s about emotional structured in time, it’s about rhythm, it’s about energy, it’s about colors, it’s about ambiance — putting a film together is a musical act.