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A Few Minutes with Francois Girard

by Sean Axmaker
Posted 18 Junel 1999

Quebecois filmmaker turned auteur without borders Francois Girard has only made three features, and most of the world doesn’t even have the chance to see his first film, a French language feature that, like many of the French Canadian films, never received distribution outside it’s borders. That’s starting to change for Canadian filmmakers, who in the past few years have flex their creative muscle on the independent circuit. David Cronenberg has effectively kept his filmmaking base in Toronto and utilized Canadian talent at least behind the scenes while using Hollywood for stars and distribution, and the past decade Atom Egoyan, Bruce MacDonald, Patricia Rozema, Denys Arcand and others have carved out a small but vital filmmaking presence while remaining in their own country. Girard is one of Canada’s genuine success stories, creating a stir with his quasi-experimental art-house hit 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993) and this year receiving critical accolades for his ambitious, international musical epic The Red Violin, a film that travels time and borders with equal ease. The winner of 8 Genie awards in Canada, including Best Picture and Best Director, and one of Canada’s biggest homegrown hits of all time it’s finally making it’s American debut.

I talked with Mr. Girard while he appeared with his film at the Seattle International Film Festival, where his screenwriting collaborator Don McKellar (who also appears in both 32 Short Films and The Red Violin) was presenting his directorial debut Last Night (which will see an American release in the Fall). Girard is a young looking man, enthusiastic and excited to talk about his films. He spent over 5 years making The Red Violin and we talked about the genesis of that and 32 Short Films, about films without borders, and the problems of making films in his own Quebec culture.

Sean Axmaker: I’ve only seen two of your films, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin. Can you tell me about your career before those features?

Francois Girard: I did a number of things. 32 Short Films was my second feature film, my first film was Cargo (1990), shot in French in Quebec and it couldn’t get distribution here. I started as a video artist and I did all sorts of things after that. I founded a company that eventually became my film school where I would work with experimental stuff like architectural films and dance films, short dramas and eventually it drifted into the feature film side. But my main efforts for the past 10 years went to developing and shooting feature films.

SA: The features I’ve seen show a different kind of narrative background. They aren’t exactly what one might expect when they walk into a theater to see a biographical drama.

FG: I’m a firm believer that film can be so many things. The film language is very powerful and still hasn’t delivered. There are so many things to explore. As a filmgoer I’m really easy. I’m seeing very conventional stuff, I can enjoy almost anything as long as it’s good, but as a filmmaker I’m really tough on myself. I’m really trying to make films that I haven’t seen, for myself first. It’s not a presumptuous thing where I think I can contribute in a very special way to the film world, it’s just me, I automatically turn down every project that feels like something I’ve seen before. I’m really asking myself "Is it worth giving up three years of your life to repeat something that was made before?" We have a lot of that in the film industry. Repetition is a big threat to creativity and I really like to challenge myself with forms or ideas that would bring me into an area that is not saturated with 20 treatments or films that already exist.

SA: How did the idea of shooting Glenn Gould’s life as 32 separate short films come about to begin with?

FG: Well bio-pics, you know, this is something you realize and rationalize in writing and shooting those films, but I came to the conclusion that one of the toughest things with bio-pics is to condense one’s life into an hour and a half or two hours. It’s a very tough thing and I think the worst thing is the idea of trying to show everything, and if you look at bio-pics in general, like Amadeus by Milos Forman, is maybe of the best examples of a good bio-pic an it takes a very specific angle on Mozart and it’s not trying to show everything but it’s looking at a very narrow moment in Mozart’s life which is his final years and confrontation with Saliari, but from that you can understand and it resonates beyond that and you can actually access the whole. So in 32 Short Films I had to solve that problem and also the most important piece in his recording career was like the Goldberg variation, that was his first recording also almost his last, the day of his death they put on the market the second version, so it’s sort of framing perfectly well his entire recording career and working life and life, almost. So that became the trigger for a fragmented angle and when you allow yourself to look at details, the game really became: What are the 32 most essential fragments? Throw those fragments onscreen and it becomes those dots that the audience is linking by a line and eventually you get an image, a larger image. I think if I didn’t have that I would have been, like… Glenn Gould’s life and work is so complex and so layered that as soon as you start to picture the whole thing I think you’re cooked. I don’t see how you can do that.

SA: In the early process of developing The Red Violin did you have more stories?

FG: No, that came quite early. The structure in five episodes came quite early. The beginning of The Red Violin was: We’re going to tell the life of the violin and no one ever survived 300 years. We knew that the film had to cover three centuries therefor the first indication of that was that we had to deal with a number of owners so I guess you go instinctively for an odd number. Three is not enough, seven is too much, you end up using five. It’s really a natural answer, it’s almost organic answer to the problem. And then from there you work for years writing the script trying and to make those five episodes feel like one. It was actually the opposite process of 32 Short Films, where it was one film pretending to be 32. In this case it’s five pretending to be one. It’s going the other way around but still dealing with a fragmented style. I think every film is fragmented, it’s the nature of cinema to fragment time and space. But I guess I’m interested in exposing those problems in the structure of my films.

SA: Where did you get the idea of suturing the stories together with the fortune teller of the first episode and the auction of the last episode? It’s like it’s bookended by these two events, one which predicts what’s going to happen and one which draws back the history from what already happened and ties it all together.

FG: That came very early and in response to that problem that I just told you about. I guess that the most difficult challenge, the biggest challenge of The Red Violin is to give life to an inanimate object, and I would say that the other big challenge is to turn those five stories into one, make them feel like one story, so almost every structural idea, including the double narrator idea, is totally responding to that problem. We are with two narrators bridging the whole thing and tying things together and then you have the convergence at the auction at the end where all the stories are represented and you have the progression through age, like the whole film is based on the lifetime progression thematically. You have the unborn child and then the child and the young adult and then maturity and then eventually you back to the age of the master so all those things are there in an effort to tie things together and build one story, the life of the violin, and escape from the five episodes as much as you can.

SA: On the one hand it’s a very international production and on the other it’s a Canadian production, if I’m not mistaken. It’s a Canadian production company and primarily Canadian money, isn’t it?

FG: Actually no, not for the most part. It is like Canadian in the sense that the filmmakers are Canadian. I was asked that question at home, at home there was a lot of discussion, like in Quebec, in Montreal, people would say "Yeah, great, but is this a Quebec film or what? It doesn’t look like a Quebec film." I think this is one aspect of the film I like very much, it’s actually challenging people’s sometimes limited definition of cultural identity and stuff like that. This is a game we’re very much caught in up in Canada. The way it works, the film is in total continuity with the filmmaking traditions in Canada, Toronto or Montreal, because we are from that tradition. This is where we grew up and we learned with the people who learned with the people who funded those tradition 40 years ago, but at the same time the story goes beyond our borders so therefore the collaborators came from all over the place and the money also. Technically it’s an Italy-Canada co-production, and then Film Four (Britain) came in for a substantial part of the budget, and all that together was half of the budget, and then New Line International paid the other half, so the financial structure looks a little like the script.

SA: That the way a lot of European films are being made. You’ve got French films with German and Italian money. There seems to be an internationalization of filmmaking.

FG: Even American films are financed internationally more and more. Money’s moving around and I think it’s good, I like this notion that things are tied up in complex ways. It’s quite fluid, it makes the film industry more fluid and it’s more interesting for artists.

SA: It’s also nice to see that Canadian films are breaking down a lot of American borders. Ten years ago, except for David Cronenberg’s movies, you didn’t see Canadian films in American cinemas. Then 32 Short Films came out, Atom Egoyan’s films came out, Bruce MacDonald’s film, Patricia Rozema, Denys Arcand.

FG: So you know your Canadian cinema pretty well.

SA: I know my Canadian cinema somewhat. I still have a real kinship to it. I grew up in Canada watching the National Film Board of Canada shorts, so when The Grey Fox came out I realized I’d seen one of Phillip Borsos’ films when I was in the 4th grade.

FG: In Quebec we’ve been making our own films for 40 years and it was often made with nothing and it forced a highly imaginative, creative way of making film and our artists developed into a system that was not providing a lot of resources in the first place but then eventually developed because the public is actually more and more connected with the Quebec films and eventually those guys worked with big European co-productions and American films coming in, so the artists I’ve worked with, the set designer Francois Seguin, the costume designer Renee April, the DP (director of photography) Alain Dostie, we’re talking about guys who know not only how to run a small big show, but also remember how to run it in a small way. The Red Violin is absolutely about that. Those guys allowed me to work big when it was necessary but work small when we didn’t need 50 trucks at the door, and so the film would breath like that and allow us to make it for a smaller budget than most people would think of and eventually that gave me more freedom because the smaller the budget is, the more independent and free you are.

SA: There’s an amazing lushness to that film. Every national sequence has a different look to it. The Italian sequence looks like Renaissance paintings the way the candlelight seems to cast a warm glow over everything. The China scenes are the opposite, they look almost chalky. How did you plan each look?

FG: I think those sequences look different because those locations were different, and in the same way I was telling you earlier that in the writing process we tried to tie things together as much as we could, in this when it came time to discuss with my DP and my designers the whole film, what I was asking them to do was to not change their way of working. We basically looked at the world with the same eye, stylistically we try to be constant and not underline those differences, but of course the greens of Oxford are creating a different look than the dust of Shanghai or the bricks of Crimona. And that was welcomed, that the different places would eventually look different and of course the tone, the language, the texture, the feel of the actors would eventually create a number of differences, but the way we looked at them was as constant as possible in the sense of filming. I didn’t try to film a different way each time, I just told tell my story with basically the same visual language all over. There’s a small drift in tones, the beginning of the film is a bit warmer and it goes a bit colder toward the end, but it’s really subtle and Alain tried to be as constant as possible in the film look.

SA: I think the change in colors don’t just separate place they separate period, they kind of make you feel like you’re traveling through time.

FG: Yeah, there’s no doubt that eventually traveling through 300 years and five countries becomes like a huge aesthetic element, it expresses itself in the visual. I remember at one point that some people thought I should be writing onscreen that we are in Austria in 1793 and to me it was always clear. But I though who could miss that? Centuries have passed and we’ve traveled around, and even if you don’t know exactly where you are, it’s impossible to miss the fact that you’ve been around the world in 200 or 300 years. You don’t want to write a history book on those characters, but convey to the audience the journey around the world.

SA: The costume, the language, I thought it was pretty obvious. I didn’t know the actual history or what city we were in, but I had the general area. I think Austria was actually mentioned at one point.

FG: The cities end up being named but in a small way. The auctioneer would talk about Crimona: "The last violin of Nicolo Bussotti of Crimona," and then Poussin would say that Vienna is awaiting him, and you always have those signs for precise dates. Poussin talks about the recent death of Mozart and of course I don’t expect everybody to really get the 1792 date to come bold in their mind, but if you’re really looking for an answer you have clues, it’s there. But really you don’t want to draw the audience too much into the mechanics: "Listen, we’ve been moving from here to here and the date has moved a hundred years." You want to travel, you want to move and moving doesn’t imply that you have to know exactly where you are and when you are at all points. Moving is moving, it’s going from one point to another and those things eventually become quite clear in the film.

SA: I know this is a fictional film but was it inspired by a real life legend?

FG: I’m much more interested in this notion that fiction and reality are very artificial notions and the border between the two is blurred and confused and I like that, it’s where we can, I think, explore a lot. While Glenn Gould was a bio-pic telling the life of somebody who existed, the game in that film was actually to create facts that would tell the higher truth of his life. A number of scenes in Glenn Gould were invented from scratch. There was no document that said this happened in this way. A number of things were just invented to be truer to his life and his work. The Red Violin was quite the opposite, where technically we are dealing with fictitious characters, none of them existed, but in fact to create Nicolo Bussotti you have to study the three other masters living in the same town at the same time: Stradivari, Amati and Guarnieri. And then Nicolo Bussotti only exists because you know the three other masters, you start there and build your fictitious character, but is he really fictitious? And is that violin really fictitious? Yes it is, we built it from scratch and it’s a story we invented, but are we really inventing things? We’re redigesting things that are there in time and in space. For instance when I’m asked "Why did you go to China?,: I’ve been asked that a lot of times, and the real answer is we went to China because the violin was there. It’s like the whole thing ended up being a little bit like digging, like archeologists, digging into clues and finding the path of that instrument. You think it can go to India so you start brainstorming it on something in India, but you feel that you’re not on the path of your violin and it ends up being the violin bringing you back to where it is, where it should be, instead of it going where your fantasies go. It’s an organic process where you start with an idea and the implications of that idea will unfold before your eyes out of your own will and wish. You follow your own idea after a while so the notions of fiction and reality can be quite artificial.

SA: That sounds like a moment in the film Camille Claudel, where a little kid is watching her carve a statue out of a rock and he asks her "How did you find that in the rock?"

FG: And she says "It was there."

SA: It’s just a matter of figuring out where it is.

FG: The comparison to the sculptor is very much… the sculptor’s only freedom is to choose a piece of stone or of wood and eventually the nature of that thing will express itself through his talent, maybe, but the notion of the artist as the creator of things, the free will of the artist, I think are totally foolish. I don’t believe in that. I believe that we submit ourselves to ideas and we eventually enslave ourselves and the only freedom we have is to say "I’m going to tell the life of Glenn Gould." That day you’re free, when you decide to do it, and then when you start doing it it’s a subject that expresses itself through you, you’re not creating in the sense that most people talk about it. The notion of creation is sort of misleading.

SA: John Corigliano did the score for your film, only his third score. He wrote the score for Altered States and then he wrote Revolution and I understand he had a bad experience with that.

FG: Yes sir. After that he decided he would never again deal with soundtracks for the film guys.

SA: How did you wind up getting him, and why?

FG: I have to give credit to Joshua Bell (the violin soloist) and Niv Fichman, my producer. He was introduced to me by Joshua and I went to see him and at first it was a bit tense because John was really scared of not having a good ---- for us, or that we would not understand his process and he didn’t want to submit himself to it. It’s tough for composers because they are used to creating worlds that are self sufficient. John Corigliano, when he writes a symphony, the nature of it is the symphony itself and it grows on it’s own. Making music for a film, he has to submit his music and his writing to the film idea, as we all do. I had to submit myself too, my life eventually. We all contribute from different angles to that idea that we out in the center of our process. But it ended up being a very interesting collaboration and I had a great time working with John, and the mutual trust built through the years. John worked for two years on this and it was very far from the feeling of "Here’s a film director hiring a composer to lay a track of music on his film." John and Joshua, both of them, became part of our writing. We were not finished with the script, which they were reading with every draft, that they were composing music for the boy or Frederick Pope so they were actually defining those characters with music as we were defining them with words and both processes were tied together. The ideas would bounce from one side to the other and we would react to their music in the writing somehow. It was an interesting process.

SA: How did you wind up choosing Corigliano?

FG: If you look at John’s career and what The Red Violin meant to a composer it’s really hard to think of anyone else. He has an immense range in his writing, he has a very solid signature, a very solid identity as a composer. John Corigliano is very recognizable and when you listen to The Red Violin the music is Corigliano. At the same time we needed to travel in time and we needed to compose in the manner of Tellerman and the manner of Inyavksy and the manner of Bach and take from the different periods the music manners, and I don’t know if you’ve heard of "The Ghouls of Versailles." John had composed an opera that is doing exactly that, it has a very contemporary signature but at the same time is pastiching different music periods in a very specific manner. So John has that capacity of developing a very strong identity but at the same time also connecting with distant references in time and space and cultures and I think he was the most appropriate composer for this film for that very reason.

SA: When I was watching the film I didn’t think of it as a separate soundtrack because so much of the music is organic to the scenes. It’s not overlayed as a piece of dramatic music from without, it grows from within.

FG: We often say that The Red Violin is a film in five languages but the truth is it’s in six languages, the first one being the music. The music is very much connected with the narrative progression. This tune that Anna is humming in Italy in the first phase that is transported through the violin and grows through the underscore to the end is a constant reminder of the film premise. So the music becomes really active narratively, it points at characters and it points at the origin at the whole thing and it reminds the audience of the number of places of that beginning, of the origin of the violin’s life, and also it builds characters and it shapes the travel in time and space so it was really part of the writing process. It’s not only a post production process, it’s rooted very deeply in the writing of the film.

SA: Your first film was a French language film and you followed it up with an English language film. Was that a response to get it to a wider audience or because Glenn Gould was an English speaker?

FG: It does have an impact in the distribution of films, whether you shoot in French or English, there’s no question about that, but I never started by saying "I’m going to do a film in French" or "I’m going to do a film in English." You make a film about Glenn Gould and Glenn Gould is a man who lived in English all his life, never spoke another language, or barely, he spoke a bit of this and that, but he spoke English, that was his life. And the film has to be English, there was no question about that. After Glenn Gould and still today I’m often asked, as you know it’s national obsession in Quebec to deal with that duality, the language duality, and as an artist I’m always asked "Are you going to shoot your next film in French or are you going to shoot it in English." In a way I didn’t mean it exactly that way in the beginning but The Red Violin is really a statement about that, it’s not going to be in English, it’s not going to be in French, and we should start thinking that the world is not simply speaking French and English, it’s more complex than that. That was in a way, maybe a subconscious way, a way to escape from that very limiting and threatening notion of national identities being defined through languages. That was my response to it. I believe it’s all connected. Of course when you think about it shooting in French is something that’s very important to me and I will do it again because I grew up in French and my family and my communities speak French and I could only return to them and shoot for them, but at the same time we’re in a very tough situation where Quebec films are cut from their main market, which is France, like it’s really not happening with the Quebec films. It’s much easier for me to enter in Paris with an English than with a French film. This is post-colonial remnants, it’s not happening. It’s a sad thing for Quebec filmmakers and so I’m constantly dealing with those tensions, but again I think no matter how much you are involved or you are thinking about those things, I think that a film should never start by you saying "I will do a film in French." Your heart brings you to a subject matter and that subject matter will tell you what language it should be.

Be sure to read Jery White's review.

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