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Francois Girard made the century- and continent-spanning The Red Violin for $9 million, a pittance by the standard of Hollywood epics, but he doesn’t seem cocky about it. Indeed, as he chain-smokes Marlboro Lights and discusses his movie the morning after its Filmfest D.C. premiere, it becomes clear how he did it. A native of Quebec—a representative of an easily discounted part of an easily discounted country—Girard is a natural diplomat.

Perhaps because he’s a French-speaker who makes films that are mostly in English, Girard understands the frustrations of those who exist outside the dominant media axis. Take, for example, the government of mainland China, whose officials almost prevented Girard from filming one episode of his film in Shanghai.

“It ended up being a wonderful collaboration,” says the mop-topped filmmaker earnestly. “The bottom line is that we ended up shooting the script exactly as we wrote it,” with the film’s titular violin threatened by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. “It was a very delicate issue. I do understand why it is an issue for them.”

He notes that he had scheduled the shooting of a scene depicting a Cultural Revolution rally for the day before the handover of Hong Kong. “There were thousands of Western journalists in Shanghai. [Chinese officials] were afraid that a Cultural Revolution photo would end up in USA Today. Of course, I understood that. If I was a Chinese official dealing with that, I would have been really concerned myself.”

If that remark seems overly deferential to the repressive Chinese government, Girard’s primary obeisance is to the material itself. “There’s an inner will in your subject,” he insists. “A film grows on its own. If you say, ‘I’m going to tell the life of a violin,’ in that very sentence is a DNA code. Later, you’re going to discover what that means. You become the slave of your own subject.”

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The Red Violin begins in Cremona, Italy, in 1681, during what the director calls the golden age of violin making. “That’s sort of a given. To tell a story of a violin, you know it’s going to start in Cremona, and you know it’s going to end in the present time. And home is also a natural destination”—which is why the final sequence takes place in Montreal.

In between Cremona and Shanghai, the violin visits 18th-century Vienna and 19th-century England. “We explored a number of paths,” notes Girard. “We thought it could go to France, it could go to Ethiopia, it could go to India. The answer to the question ‘Why did you go to China?’ is: because the violin was in China and we went to film the violin. There is a natural path that the violin developed on its own. You don’t start like that.”

In the script, he explains, “The distances increase as you go along, and this corresponds to an evolution of transportation technology. You’re not necessarily aware of it, but it speaks true in your work. The time is the opposite. The gap between each period is decreasing, because that corresponds to the acceleration of history.

“You don’t start [by saying], ‘OK, we’re going to cross those two curves,’” he cautions. “It’s not a scientific process. You’re writing in India, and the story is good, but there’s something wrong. You have a sense that you’re not on the path of your violin. So you come back with another route that seems natural. What we’re talking about here is the reality of fiction.”

Girard previously investigated reality and fiction with his semibiographical 1993 meta-movie, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Like his latest effort, that film was co-written by actor-director Don McKellar (originally recruited merely to render Girard’s words into English) and immersed in music.

“It turns out that the last two films explore classical music,” Girard says. “But I doubt that there’s one filmmaker in the world right now who’ll tell you that he doesn’t care about music. Music and cinema is the oldest marriage. Cinema spoke music before it spoke words. Making a film is making music, whether or not you’re musical. You are structuring things in time; you are manipulating emotions; you are creating colors. I draw attention to this in my last two films, so now I’m Mr. Music. But I don’t think I’m special in that sense. I’m one of the thousands of filmmakers [who are] dealing with music.

“To me,” he adds, “this not a musical film in the sense that Glenn Gould is. It has musical implications, but it’s about life and death, survival—immortality even.”

Although its structure is less experimental than Glenn Gould’s, Girard’s new film also plays with storytelling form, fragmenting the story with flashbacks and flash-forwards. “I like to expose the structure very much,” he agrees. “In 1999, the audience that sits to see a movie like The Red Violin, I assume that all those guys are film experts. They’ve seen 5,000 films, 20,000 hours of television. Everybody’s an expert on editing; everybody has a sense of structure. To pretend that there’s no editing, that this is a continuous flow, like this life of screen—to me this is so boring. Why don’t we expose the structure? And invite the audience to be part of that? The audience is filmmakers. They’re the ones who finish the films. A film will always be an incomplete piece until they finish the work. I try to push that to the extreme. I hate the false pretense that there’s no editing and there’s no structure. Because it’s not using the intelligence of the audience.”

This, he notes, is more his interest than McKellar’s. “I’m more of a structural writer. I proposed to Don the shape of the narrative, and we took it from there. The closer you get to the dialogue, the closer you are to Don.”

Ironically, Girard’s violin never did take itself to France, where it could have spoken the filmmaker’s first language. In fact, during the financing process it was proposed that the film be entirely in English—a suggestion the director addresses with characteristic equanimity. “I think it’s a fair question to raise,” he says. “The distributor would always have an easier time distributing a film that’s all in English. At the same time, I think everyone came to the same conclusion. Here we are, following a violin through time and space, and time and space mean different cultures. If everyone is speaking the same language, you’re sort of not respecting the idea itself. I think everybody understood that clearly. Even at the marketing level. You can’t make a good movie if you don’t respect your own idea.”

Actually, Girard supposes, the film might play well without any of its dialogue, as long as the music were retained. “The Red Violin is not driven by dialogue. The dialogue is very economical. It turns out that the English sections are more talky, and that did make it more accessible. But I think the film’s first language is music. I would be very curious to see what’s missing if you don’t get the dialogue.”

The importance of music to the film is such that one of the first collaborators the director recruited was violinist Joshua Bell, who plays the difficult passage later written by composer John Corigliano (and mimed by actor Jason Flemyng). “I felt the need to work with a violinist first, before I worked with a composer,” Girard explains. “At some point, you need a violin soul around.”

Remembering bad experiences on previous films, Corigliano resisted composing the score, the director reports. Eventually, though, “John answered the call of the violin”—just as Girard and McKellar already had, and such cast members as Flemyng, Samuel L. Jackson, Greta Scacchi, and Sylvia Chang were soon to do.

“They all generously supported this thing where the lead actor is a violin,” Girard marvels. After all, he says, “Accepting to play a part in this script meant to come and support a piece of wood.”—Mark Jenkins