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The Red Violin was a learning experience for director Girard

If making a movie is akin to getting an education, Francois Girard ought to have a PhD by now.

The Montreal writer-director became something of an expert in geography, history and musical instruments while making his newest film, The Red Violin (opening tomorrow).

Co-written with Girard's friend and collaborator Don McKellar, The Red Violin traces the incredible history of a fictional instrument, from its creation by a grieving violin maker in 17th-century Italy to its sale at a present-day auction in Montreal.

Along the way, the violin touches the lives of aristocrats and gypsies, monks and revolutionaries, modern-day collectors and grave-robbers from centuries past.

With the film tracing the violin's journey through Italy, Austria, England, China and Canada, the research load was demanding. What was the history of each place and time? How are violins really made, and how does an auction work? What did Vienna look like in 1792?

"Research can always be a trap," Girard says on the phone from his home in Montreal, where The Red Violin was recently awarded the best Canadian film prize and the public prize at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema. "I'm a research fan, I always like to dig and learn. Making a movie is an opportunity to learn about everything," he says.

"At the same time, you can be caught in the details of research ... you can get all the details right and still make a very boring movie. I try to keep my main focus on important things, like the story and the characters."

In the case of The Red Violin, being true to the story and the characters ultimately meant being true to their locations and languages.

Girard rejected the notion of filming the entire film in English. He also eventually decided to film in the real cities represented in the script - Cremona, Vienna, Oxford and Shanghai - as well as having actors speaking Italian, French, German and Mandarin where applicable.

"If you root yourself into the place at that level, where you work with actors and crew members from that place, you have a better chance to come out of it with a true picture," Girard says.

"The Austrian audience will notice the streets of Vienna. In that sense it's quite important."

But this education for the already academic Girard also included tutelage in finance. While "five countries for $14 million dollars" might sound like a tour package reserved for people profiled on those rich-and-famous shows on TV, it's a shockingly low budget for a globe-trotting film.

"We were confident that we could make it happen for that amount of money," Girard says.

"Others would not believe it. The Americans thought we needed twice the money. They would need $30 million.

"But that's their problem. We've learned here how to do things big and small at the same time."

Girard has already won many accolades (including four Genie awards for 1993's Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, also co-written with McKellar), but he admits The Red Violin might be his most accessible movie to date.

It also has some marquee clout in the form of Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the part of American violin expert Charles Morritz.

Jackson was given the script by his agent, liked it and signed on to the project.

"There was no complicated story around that, it was a very simple, straightforward mutual wish," Girard says.

The mutual admiration helped too, though, with Jackson being a fan of Girard's work and vice-versa.

"If you haven't done anything before, it's always harder to convince people with bright eyes and sharp smiles."

By STEVE TILLEY - Edmonton Sun

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