Truly Playing the Part

Ken Smith is a New York-based music writer

Director Francois Girard has a favorite scene in his new film, “The Red Violin.” He calls it the Octopus, though few casual moviegoers could ever figure out why. On screen, a fictional 19th century English violinist named Frederick Pope is seducing his audience with a flamboyant flourish worthy of Paganini.

Just outside range of the camera, however, the scene looked much different. Actor Jason Flemyng had the violin tucked under his chin, but his arms were extended at his sides. Standing to one side and the left was violinist Joshua Bell, his left arm crossing Flemyng’s, his hand curled around the violin’s neck, his fingers moving on the fingerboard. On Flemyng’s right, a British violinist reached across to bow the strings. The players’ arms were tied to Flemyng’s at the elbows, so that when either of them moved, the actor’s body responded.

“The last thing you want in a situation like this, of course, is to focus on the trick,” says Girard with a touch of glee. “You want the audience to connect with the characters, and in this case to connect to a story over great stretches of time and space. A shot like this is not going to make or break a film, but you have to get it right.”


The story of “The Red Violin” unfolds over 300 years and five centuries, tracing a 17th century violin from its creation in Cremona, Italy, through the hands of its players, owners and admirers to a present-day auction house in Montreal. The story is more concerned with the violin itself than any of its transient caretakers, and Girard’s challenge was to make his audiences care deeply for an inanimate piece of wood. At each stop along its journey, he wanted the violin to be played--believably and for the most part beautifully.

When the Canadian director tackled a musical subject in his previous movie, “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould,” he had avoided the performance issue with actor Colm Feore by not having him touch the piano himself.

With “The Red Violin,” Girard says, “I had to show people playing music.” And the success of the film would in part depend on how convincing they were.


Like any other character, the Red Violin required dialogue and a voice--music to play and someone to play it. Girard turned to composer John Corigliano for an original score, and to musician Bell, who would provide not just his arm and fingers for the Octopus scene, but other body-double work and virtually all the solo violin playing on the soundtrack.

Girard started with Bell, about two years before filming was set to begin. Initially, the director wanted to use music from the eras depicted in the film, and he went to Bell for advice on what pieces would be appropriate. “We hit it off instantly,” the violinist recalls and he found himself drawn further into the project because of its potential.

“A film like this is good for classical music, just like ‘Amadeus’ was good for classical music,” he says. “Maybe some people who don’t think they can be moved by classical music will respond.”

Soon it became obvious to both men that the best way to realize Girard’s vision would be to hire a composer to write a single unified score that adapted many styles. Corigliano, whose opera “The Ghosts of Versailles” was a similar pastiche, dragging Rossini and Mozart into the present, was a likely choice, but the composer was a hard sell.

Although not new to film--his score for “Altered States” was nominated for an Academy Award in 1981--he was still suffering from a bad experience with “Revolution,” a 1985 British film whose soundtrack was never commercially released.

“After ‘Revolution,’ I wasn’t interested in doing another film, because the composer never has enough control,” says Corigliano, who was finally lured into “The Red Violin” by Sony Classical head Peter Gelb. “But this was a project where the music really holds the story together.”

To match the story, in which a fictional instrument builder creates a masterpiece in honor of his wife and soon-to-be-born child, Corigliano composed a theme that he imagined the violin maker’s wife could hum. That evolved into the Chaconne for Violin, a concert piece for full orchestra commissioned by Sony, Bell and the Boston and San Francisco symphony orchestras.

Then Corigliano rescored the Chaconne for the film, infusing his theme with influences from Vivaldi to Paganini to Gypsy music, and asking Bell for input along the way.

“John writes very well for the violin,” Bell says. “His father [former New York Philharmonic concertmaster John Corigliano Sr.] was a great violinist, so anything he gave me was already very playable. I just got to spice it up a bit. “

Corigliano, Bell and Girard came together in the studio to record the music, after which the composer retreated to his studio to begin the film’s underscoring. Bell took to hanging around the set on occasion, helping to make sure the visual performance from the actors matched his own, as recorded.

“Josh and John were really part of the writing team,” Girard says. “They read every draft of the script and offered smart comment right from the start. As [we] were defining characters with words, John was defining them with notes.”


Girard’s next problem was getting credible violin playing on screen.

The film is filled with characters--major and minor--fiddling: An orphan prodigy races through his exercises at breakneck speed; wild-hearted Gypsies make music around campfires; a Chinese Communist Party cadre scratches out a tune in secret while the Red Guards march; a modern-day virtuoso tests the blue-chip trophy at the auction house; and there’s the Paganini-like Pope, who performs on stage as well as in bed.

Bringing those scenes to film could take one of three time-honored approaches. Girard could cast a musician, as Bertrand Tavernier did with saxophonist Dexter Gordon in “Round Midnight.” Or he could train an established actor to mimic the motions, as Spike Lee did with Denzel Washington in “Mo’ Better Blues,” and Anand Tucker did with Emily Watson in “Hilary and Jackie.”

Or he could rely on more Octopus scenes, body doubles or smoke-and-mirror trickery such as in Jean Negulesco’s “Humoresque,” where the 22-year-old Isaac Stern reaches around John Garfield’s body to finger his violin.

As it turned out, Girard would need all three approaches.

The first virtuoso in the story is the child prodigy, Kaspar Weiss. At the time of Mozart’s death, the violin is in the hands of monks running an orphanage near Vienna. The brothers teach their charges music, and the best among them gets to play the Red Violin. Girard needed a downtrodden-looking 6-year-old for the role.

“You’re not going to find a 6-year-old professional actor who can learn to play the violin, so we went with a nonactor and trained him to act,” says Girard about Christoph Koncz, at that point a 10-year-old student at the Academy of Music in Vienna.

At the on-location audition, after watching dozens of young musicians, Girard wasn’t impressed. "[Christoph] didn’t even look like my character--there was too much health and Germanic strength about him. But he started to play and I had goose bumps after five seconds. He was so skilled at getting his emotions out that even though another boy looked sadder and sicker, I thought Christoph had the stronger capacity to move me.”

It took Koncz about two days to transfer his performing skills to acting, Girard says. And the boy’s ability to play pays off in a series of scenes in which he faces the camera and squares off against a metronome in a dizzying display of bowing and fingering. Despite Koncz’s skills, what the filmgoer hears is Bell, dubbed in the studio.

Another of the real musicians in the film is Ireneusz Bogajewicz, who plays an arrogant, modern-day violinist bidding fiercely at the Montreal auction house for the now-legendary Red Violin. Bogajewicz, a retired member of the Montreal Symphony, also turned out to be a decent actor, finding a way to portray an entirely different character from himself.

“Iren is exactly the opposite of what you see on screen,” Girard says of the violinist, whose life history includes losing the hearing in one ear in a Nazi camp. “He is a lovely old man with an amazing story, and everybody in the cast fell in love with him.”

Bogajewicz also has the only bit of on-screen solo playing that was not dubbed by Bell. That performance, though, comes during a moment where his character is testing a Stradivarius, not playing the Red Violin.

Coming from the other direction, the Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang, had little musical experience and only four months to learn enough to mimic the skills of her character. “Sylvia was playing the daughter of a virtuoso, not a virtuoso herself, so I didn’t really care how well she played at the end,” Girard says.

Chang’s performance scene has shades of Holly Hunter in “The Piano"--emotion-packed delivery trickling though limited technique. Unlike Hunter, though, Chang’s technical imperfections were dubbed by Bell.

“The hardest scene [for Bell] was definitely Sylvia’s,” Girard says. “Her playing was [supposed to be] filled with weird noises and bad fingerings--it couldn’t be bad enough. [That was] the only thing that was tough for Josh--playing badly.”

For Bell, it wasn’t about playing badly as much as it was about finding a character through a sound. “Francois wanted to convey that she didn’t play well, but the playing still had to be heartfelt, not like some kid scraping away,” he says. “I was playing different characters musically, but at the same time trying to convince the listener that the violin had its own personality. That way it was OK if all these violinists sounded a little similar.

The Pope situation was another matter entirely. Girard had fashioned a figure filled with Byronic excess and virtuosic abandon. His first choice for the role could only manage the first part. “Jason Flemyng had never played music before, and wasn’t necessarily musical,” the director admits, “but at that point my only choice was to go for the best actor and face the musical problems later.”

After four months of lessons, Flemyng could hold both his body and his violin, but he was still less than convincing as a virtuoso.

“When I got there he wasn’t looking very good,” says Bell, who dropped in on the set in Oxford, England, and became enlisted as an on-screen coach. “Jason was very authoritative right up until he had to make those awkward bowing motions. It was like watching someone trying to play golf who’s never swung a club before. It just looked ridiculous. After a while, we had him just stick to acting, because in that realm he was very convincing.”

Because he was about the same size as Flemyng, Bell found himself hauled off to the costume department and outfitted in Pope’s garb, as well as a wig to match Flemyng’s long hair. Every scene in which Fleming initiates a bow stroke was filmed from another angle with Bell.

Close-ups, however, remained a problem, and here Flemyng needed help to make his fingers at least appear to know their way around a fingerboard.

In “Shine,” director Scott Hicks had an easy out. Actor Geoffrey Rush sat at a Yamaha Disclavier--a digital player piano--and painstakingly followed the fingering produced by the instrument. Later, film editors cleaned up the “performance” digitally.

But there is no such thing as a player violin, which is why the Octopus scene was necessary.

“I have nothing against either computer graphics or composite images,” Girard says. “I’ve used them lots of times, but in this case it just wasn’t a choice I considered. We had come up with a low-tech solution that worked, so there was no point in pursuing more technical matters.”


The word both violinist Bell and composer Corigliano use to describe Girard is “musical,” although the director shies away from the label himself. “I’ve always had a piano around, but I have too much respect for musicians to call myself one,” he says. “But music itself remains a language I understand better than I speak.”

“Francois was pretty scrupulous about getting everything right on a musicological level,” says Bell. “He’d have questions like, Would players have bowed the instrument the same way they do today? Would a 19th century virtuoso have used a shoulder rest? When would the audience clap? I had to answer as best as I could.”

That search for authenticity led Girard to commission six versions of the Red Violin from the London violin maker Charles Beare, with different necks and fingerboards to match each era.

Such musical detail was crucial to the story of “The Red Violin,” says Girard, who finds a musical resonance in all his filmmaking.

“Even if my next film has nothing to do with music, it will still probably be musical,” the director says. “For me, making movies is making music. The cinema spoke music long before it spoke words, and for me, anything I do is merely returning to that original relationship between the two.