by GREG KING
“I like music better than words when it comes to communicating emotions and depicting emotional landscapes. Music is a very powerful language in the hands of any filmmaker,” says Canadian filmmaker Francois Girard, who is best known for his 1998 drama The Red Violin.
His latest film is Boychoir, a fabulous feel good drama about the battle of wills between a troubled young boy and a music teacher. Boychoir centres around Stet (newcomer Garrett Wareing), a troubled and angry 11 year old who is sent to the American Boychoir Academy, where the tough and demanding choir master Carvell (Dustin Hoffman) recognises something special in Stet and slowly encourages him, despite some reservations from other staff members.
It is more in the vein of Mr Holland’s Opus than last year’s Whiplash. It also has overtones of Dead Poet’s Society about it. The film focuses on that relationship between the master and the apprentice with the lessons in music, but more importantly with the lessons in life that are being taught to save Stet from a dark future.
Girard’s films are often centred around music and musicians, from his documentaries on Glenn Gould and violinist Yo Yo Ma to his live concert film featuring Peter Gabriel. “I would say I share that passion with most filmmakers,” Girard explains. “It’s just that in my case the subjects were musical. I have an interest in music, I’ve grown up with music, and I’m a closet musician. I don’t play publicly but I always play music. I think I like music better than words when it comes to communicating emotions and depicting emotional landscapes. Music is a very powerful language in the hands of any filmmaker. Music has never betrayed me, it’s stayed faithful, and it’s accurate, and it travels beyond borders. So there’s a lot of things that make me love music. And as a filmmaker I have music playing all the time.”
The film was written by Ben Ripley, who is better known for his science fiction themed films like Species II and Source Code. Ripley actually wrote the script for Boychoir nearly fifteen years ago as a literature graduate. The first script he wrote coming out of school was Boychoir, inspired by some of his own experiences. But later on, when it came time for bidding on the script by producers it seemed that no-one wanted to produce the film. Ripley ended up taking on Source Code purely as an assignment, and because of the success of that film he became known as a sci-fi thriller writer.
Girard admits having been emotionally moved by the script when he first read it. The powerful themes and story about redemption appealed to Girard. “I was touched by the turn in that relationship, it got me to choke and it made me very emotional, which doesn’t happen to me very often when I read a script,” he recalls.
Hoffman brings gravitas and real sense of integrity and compassion to his role as Carvell. When Girard first read the script he immediately thought of Hoffman for the role. He had previously wanted to work with the Oscar winning actor, but was unable to get those projects off the ground.
“Carvell is a very harsh character,” continues the director. “He comes out on the page like he’s very cold and tough on the kid, and it takes about an hour into the movie before you realise that this harsh behaviour is hiding something much warmer, hiding love. If you don’t have a lovable actor like Dustin Hoffman you might be in trouble because the audience might just lose interest in Carvell. Because of his harsh behaviour you might just think that he is a terrible guy, but in the case of Dustin I think you keep feeling the question of why is he behaving like that? That is the driving tension of the movie. And eventually you get a sense of that, which is the very point that made me choke when I read the script, when you realise why he is acting like that with the kid. You have to make it that far, and very few actors would be able to carry the part and make that emotional connection with the audience. And I think that is what Dustin contributed to the part and to the movie.”
Another integral casting decision is that of newcomer Garrett Wareing in the important role of the troubled Stet, who finds release and purpose through music. Was Girard looking for a singer who could act, or an actor who could sing? “That’s a good question,” he reflects after a brief pause. “I started in my first film The Red Violin with a young actor, and he was a real violinist. I found the best violinist in Vienna and presuming that if he could play the music that well he would also be able to act. And I was right. This time I tried to apply the same recipe and I failed miserably!
“We looked and went through every potential singer in America, in England, and everywhere and we were open to all territories. We auditioned all the top singers, those who would have the voice of the character but I never found the actor I needed. And eventually I had to accept my failure and turn around and start looking among the acting community, at all the young actors, and manufacture the musician within him. We found Garret very late in the process. The casting team had seen about 1000 auditions and I’d seen like about 250.
“It’s not that difficult to work with those young actors, it’s very difficult to find them, especially if you’re asking that much of them. But Garrett carried the movie with Dustin. He has very few lines so he’s not a character with a lot of words which makes it even more difficult as he has to carry all of that music. In the end we were very lucky to find him, but at that point we were looking for an actor.
“We brought Dustin and Garret into a room and we felt the chemistry and we were guided by the energy between the two actors and the two characters. Then we went scene by scene and tried to capture the truth of whatever moment we are trying to capture. In that process Dustin was extremely generous to both Garrett and me and to the movie, very supportive of Garret and every other player, especially the young ones. And I think that was the key to what we see in the movie.”
Boychoir is the first feature film from the Canadian born filmmaker in almost a decade. But Girard has not exactly been idle in that time. “One of my problems is that I’m interested in too many things,” he confesses with a laugh. Right after Silk, he was offered an opportunity to direct a Cirque du Soleil show, in the end directing both Zed and Zarkana. He also directed two plays including Yasushi Inoue’s Hunting Gun, a Japanese play he presented in Japan. He also helmed a version of Parsifal with the Metropolitan Opera, which was highly acclaimed.
“I ended up doing seven years of theatre,” Girard says, “and then I woke up one morning and realised that I had deserted my first love. So now I’m running back to film which is my most natural medium and I’m now trying to stick to it as much as I can, and developing new projects and reading new scripts and I hope to make more films in a shorter period of time.”