Interview: François Girard on Bringing Out the Grace Notes in “The Song of Names”

After François Girard had cast Luke Doyle to play the youngest incarnation of Dovidl, the pivotal character in his latest film “The Song of Names,” he knew that relating to the prepubescent violin prodigy who had no prior acting experience as he would with anyone else on set might not be the most effective approach. So Girard, who has moved gracefully between directing all kinds of musical-based productions from Cirque du Soleil’s “Zarkana” to the New York Metropolitan Opera’s revival of “Parsifal” since breaking through as a filmmaker with “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould,” realized that it would be better to work with Doyle as if he were a conductor rather than a director, telling the young man to think of his performance in the same terms for the screen as he would for the stage, concentrating on the rhythm and tempo of a scene rather than the words that need to be said. One wouldn’t know Doyle was an acting novice from the resulting film, appearing as if he was cast as much for his thespian chops as his music prowess, though when it’s suggested that the same could be said for Girard being perfectly suited for a film that traverses both worlds, he resists the implication.

“No, if anything, it’d actually be the opposite,” says Girard, who took his time before committing to “The Song of Names.” “The fact we are dealing with the violin and so on, that’s a reason not to do it and I considered that.”

Thankfully, he saw how he could do something different with an adaptation of Norman Lebrecht’s novel about Dovidl, who threatens to puts his gift with the strings aside to pursue a greater commitment to his Hasidic faith in the wake of losing all of his known relatives during the Holocaust. His adoptive family loses touch with him as well after he disappears on the evening that he was primed to show off his talent to the world as a much-hyped teen virtuoso at a concert they invested their savings into, leaving their biological son Martin to wonder where Dovidl went and how he could abandon them when so much was on the line.

It’s a question that spans three eras in “The Song of Names,” with Dovidl and Martin portrayed by three different actors as young boys (Doyle and Misha Handley), teenagers (Jonah Hauer-King and Gerran Howell) and ultimately adults (Clive Owen and Tim Roth) and as with other Girard films such as “The Red Violin” and “Boychoir,” the director employs music as the engine of an elusive mystery as well as a revelator of ineffable truths. While it begins following Martin in middle age attempting to learn what could possess Dovidl to so readily give up a celebrated career in the arts, it grows into a compelling tale of obsession as Martin’s wife (Catherine McCormack) starts to ask what he’s been ignoring in favor of pursuing this quest to find Dovidl and how each of the men can’t let the past go, even when one of them has made such a clear break from it.

With the film arriving in theaters on Christmas following its world premiere earlier this year at the Toronto Film Fest, Girard spoke about how he worked with his actors to build two cohesive characters from six separate performances, coming up with an original composition with composer Howard Shore for the film’s climatic scene that gives the film its title, and filming at the hallowed grounds of Treblinka, the village that once housed Nazi gas chambers and has now become a memorial for the lives lost in the Holocaust.

How did this come about?

The project existed for a while and there was a first attempt by other producers to put it together and Robert [Lantos, the producer] took it back and got the script to me, [which] I read, and then the book. I committed to directing it, and this is the second time I’m not doing my own script. It’s a position I enjoy actually where you’re not so defensive about it, so you have a certain distance with the material and I think sometimes that makes us a better director.

I’ve never been really good at career rationale — and I’ve probably been suicidal at times — but to me, it’s a matter of responding to the material. When you pick a script, you pick your life. If you tell the story of a storm, you’re going to get wet. If you tell the story of a violin that goes around the world, you’re going to spend five years on airplanes. So it’s a careful choice. It’s a life choice. And above everything in this case, we all joined the project for the same reason, which is to keep the memory of World War II alive. It is fading out and the new generation has no knowledge [of it], so I think we felt a responsibility towards that and that’s probably why I accepted to direct it.

One of the things you’ve been great at is creating a mystery – was that part of the attraction as well?

Actually, it’s a fairly thick book, but between the moment Martin has a clue [of the whereabouts of] Dovidl and the moment he finds him, there’s six pages [left]. Jeffrey Caine, the screenwriter, took those six pages and turned them into a movie, so “Looking for Dovidl” could’ve been the title. The script is very faithful in essence, but very different in structure and if I didn’t agree with that choice, I probably would’ve turned it down, but it gives [the film] a proper narrative force and then it makes Tim Roth the driving lead, so we’re following him in his quest to find Dovidl. It was the right thing to do and Jeffrey Caine did a great job.

When it’s a film that cuts across generations, is it difficult to keep that fluid – bringing a number of performances into one cohesive character?

“Red Violin” was easier that way because the prerogative of film is to travel in time — it’s a wonderful time-traveling machine, and I love to do that, [move between] the future and past. And here the span is such that we had to use three actors to do the same part. “Red Violin,” the span is so big that basically in each chapter, you keep killing your characters and move onto the next ones, but here I can have three characters play each of the two parts and that makes like a core of six actors to depict the [two] leads. On the page, it jumped [out] from the very beginning that was going to be the main directorial challenge, and it was good to see it right from the top because I didn’t waste any time looking elsewhere. I tackled that nonstop like an obsessive, until the end of the [sound] mix – even in ADR, I was trying to polish the lineage of Dovidl and Martin.Then there were efforts in costume and design and with dyed hair, and the syntax of certain scenes are designed to connect characters. The train station scene with the big fog was to give an entrance of the new pair [in their teens], so there was an effort to support that flow.

Was finding the youngest actors a challenge?

When they’re that age, you don’t expect to find [accomplished] actors. I was lucky because Misha Handley [who plays the young Martin] is from a theater family, so he’s already really quite advanced in his understanding of what it means to act and I would treat him like a professional actor. Luke [Doyle, who plays the young Dovidl] is a different case. He is a prodigy — not only a violin prodigy, but he’s a completely young, precocious mind. I often felt I was auditioning [for him]. Sitting at a table, he has the elocution of someone thirty years old in the body of 12. That’s why I cast him, but he had never seen a camera before, so there was a steep learning curve. But it’s very interesting. There are moments where I remember Luke explaining to Clive Owen his vision for the part, and it was the same with Misha and Tim, [where] the boys would take their place. I’ve worked with kids a number of times and when you sit down, we all have a presumption that knowledge is limited, but the imagination of a kid is unbelievable. If you sit down and say, “Okay, what is the part about?” You actually learn about your own movie.

What was it like figuring out the adult parts?

I actually think the two most difficult parts were for the adult actors. Tim’s character [Martin] is well served by his energy because the guy on the page could have been either sentimental or a little flat or a little boring and Tim brings an edge to it that keeps the film alive. Then with Clive’s character [Dovidl], there was a risk of being anti-sympathetic because he’s in his closed world and what he did is highly difficult to defend, so I needed a very charismatic actor and who is more charismatic than Clive Owen? You tell me. Casting is so important because we work for years on these films, but actually half of our impact as directors is decided over a few seconds when we’re making those decisions, so it’s a really stressful process. There’s no room for error or mistakes. And I’ve made a great number of mistakes.

One of my favorite sequences in the film is when the families are taken to the bunker and Martin and Dovidl engage in a violin duel. How did you develop that scene?

It was pretty straightforward, and it was written was a duel, so it’s two kids grabbing a captive audience in the basement of London in a bomb shelter, but I remember finding it a little delicate in the sense [because] the edit of that music was done six months before prepping even, so we came with that edit of Paganini [violin solos] back and forth, timed it properly and then it didn’t change after that.

At what point in the process were you putting together the music? Not only the score, but the performance pieces.

Howard [Shore, the composer] came a little after me in the process and then by the time he joined the band, I already had a number of things to propose to him, and we made those decisions together. One very interesting case is the music we played before “The Song of Names,” by inversion in the concert at the end. Now, it’s the Bruch Concerto, but we examined seven different concertos because one one hand you don’t want to upstage “The Song of Names,” which some of my choices, like the Sibilius [is] probably too soulful and too emotional. At the same time, you want to keep driving [the momentum]. So Howard and I played ping-pong with that until we found the Bruch that satisfied both of us. And this is what happened with Howard all along. Whenever we had a different view on something, it would result in a great resolution that was better than both of our [individual] ideas, so it was a remarkable experience. I cherish it.

It’s crazy when you’ve got to create an original composition that has to follow a number of certified masterpieces.

That was the fun part, especially the very difficult aspect of writing “The Song of Names.” The title piece was in the hands of the best possible composer. And I gave him space. He took a long time before he presented something to me. We talked a lot about it and there were no worries.

Another challenge I imagine was actually filming in the Treblinka memorial. What was it like being there?

Yeah, in our preparation, there were a number of times where myself and Francois Seguin, the production designer, would skip that discussion because we didn’t really know what we were talking about. There’s a point during prep where we had planned to go there together to live it and the scene was written a certain way — it was a very talkative scene between [Martin and Anna] and then Francois and I were guided there by Magdalena [Cielecka], the actress that plays Anna, who knew the place really well. She drove us there. And the three of us spent three hours there and we didn’t exchange one word. There’s nothing to say. You shut up. [From] the intensity of that, we came back and I said, “Look, there’s no way around that. We need to go there and we rewrote the scene with no dialogue because the characters had to be silent.

Something I’ve always wondered about you – you move a lot between different mediums. Is it constantly informing one another?

The work is not so different. You grab a text, you dive into a text, you sit around it, like you conceive a vision, you have designers with you, so whether we’re discussing a film or a play or an opera or Cirque du Soleil, it’s fairly similar process. Like what is it about? What do we want to communicate? And how are we going to do this and come up with the expression of it on screen or on stage? So for me, moving from one to the other, the principal difficulty is the public aspect of it. The film world is all about film and the opera world is all about opera — the opera critics don’t necessarily see that many movies [and vice versa]. So managing of the public aspect, people get a little lost, but honestly, I’m working for a thousand people sitting in the dark, whether I present prerecorded images or live performances. It doesn’t make that much of a difference.

“The Song of Names” opens on December 25th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and New York at the Angelika Film Center and the Landmark at 57 West. To find more cities and dates, click here.

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