The highly-anticipated film The Song of Names captures a decades-long story of friendship, betrayal, and triumph following the atrocities of World War II.
The Sony Pictures Classics film starring Tim Roth and Clive Owen has already made its way through the festival circuit–including a stop at the Hamptons Film Festival–leading up to its Christmas Day release.
Director François Girard and producer Robert Lantos sit down with The Knockturnal to discuss the historical accuracy of the film, crafting the music behind the haunting literal “Song of Names,” and the relevancy of this story today.
The Knockturnal: How did this partnership between you two come to be?
Robert Lantos: This is story is based on a novel. When I read it, it called to me– more than anything else because part of it to me can be summarized in 2 words. It’s the same two words inscribed on the monument in Treblinka in the extermination facility there: “never again.” And today, we’re living in a time where things threaten to repeat themselves if we don’t learn a lesson from history. That was sort of the calling for me to make this film. But really I’ve been doing this all my life so I also know it would be brutally difficult to get something this ambitious on this kind of canvas, with this level of complexity, to get off the ground in the independent world. I don’t anybody else would have made the film, so it was like if I don’t do it, it won’t get made. So I took it on. Then the question comes, who’s going to direct this? There’s only one person I know who is equally familiar with and equally at ease with the language of cinema and the language of classical music, and has shown extraordinary skillful way of blending the two. We knew each other but never worked with each other. It was crystal clear who I had to ask and hope that he would feel as I did.
The Knockturnal: François, you’ve directed multiple films that focus on music. What was it about The Song of Names that spoke to you?
François Girard: It was not the music actually that drew me to The Song of Names. If anything, the music was probably a reason not to do it. It felt a little close to [my previous film] Red Violin but looking at it closely, I think it’s the intimacy between the characters and the evocation of an important page of history. I think on this movie we’re all on the mission to remember the things that get forgotten. Fifty percent of the population under 30 don’t even know what the word Holocaust means, and then for those who know what the words mean, what do they know? Especially with today and with everything we see happening in Europe in particular with the far right, I think it’s important to remember. I think that’s one function the film serves, and I was very drawn to the brotherhood of Martin (Tim Roth) and Dovidl (Clive Owen) so I just decided to do it.
The Knockturnal: How frequently did you go back to the original source of the book during the process?
Robert Lantos: I read the novel first, then I discovered that a script had been written by Jeffrey Caine and then I tracked it down.
François Girard: I didn’t know that!
Robert Lantos: I got ahold of that script and then sent it to François.
François Girard: I think that the script is true to the book in substance and in spirit but the structure is very different. In the book, between the first clue of Martin finding Dovidl and when he finds him, there are 6 pages, so Jeffrey [Caine] took those 6 pages and extended them. We worked on the script quite a bit with a number of versions with Jeffrey [Caine] but I would often go back to the book because the book obviously provides more character details. The author, Norman Lebrecht, is both a music scholar and a Jewish scholar, and he is very knowledgable. So we were not only going back to the book but also going back to Norman: discussing points, discussing questions. I kept him in the loop of what I was doing because I thought he was a very valuable source of information. We also did a great amount of research, especially with the Jewish aspect of the time. We spent time to learn what was needed to be learned as you do on any movie, but this one was particularly rich.
Robert Lantos: I think François is not taking enough credit for what he did to the script. The script that I originally sent to him and the final screenplay are substantially different. A tremendous amount of work had gone into it and it was rewritten many times. Once the director gets involved in any film, it’s part of what he should do. It makes it his and it makes it better. The script in itself in many ways is different from the book but the final product was the film.
The Knockturnal: You have some amazing performances in the film. Tell me a little about the casting process. Did you originally see Tim Roth in the role of Martin?
François Girard: When the idea of Tim came, I was very excited because I think Tim is a great antidote to what could have been syrupy or sentimental. Tim’s got a sharp edge and he’s serving the character really well. His character, Martin, is also a bit of a sleeper; you need somebody who has a sharpness. I think Tim is a perfect casting, and for different reasons Clive [Owen] was also perfect casting. His character, Dovidl, needed a very charismatic actor because it’s not the most sympathetic guy. You meet him and he’s very rigid. I think Clive brought the charisma so in the end, the film was really well-served by these two actors. And then for the casting process as a whole, once you’ve committed to these two then you need to bring the 4 others because each character is played by 3 actors for different ages and that was a puzzle. You start from these two, then you need to go vertically and make all these pairs work.
The Knockturnal: Just the physicality of the characters to make them look similar must have been extensive.
François Girard: The physicality, the energy, the spirit, the voice. We worked quite a bit on that because everybody of course will make visual connections but i think one other level is the voice. I wanted a blind person to be able to connect the characters. We did pretty extensive dialect coaching, especially with actors portraying Dovidl, who has a transforming Polish accent. Right from the top when I read the script, I knew this was a directorial challenge. We’ve done all the rest of the work but that was very focused and it took a lot of time. Our casting efforts was really driven by that. Up until the last breath, it was a battle to get the 6 working.
The Knockturnal: The score was such an important part of the film too, both in the story as well as setting the tone of the period. How was it working with composer Howard Shore?
François Girard: Howard was part of the scriptwriting process. The DNA of the whole adventure is in a song and that song needed to be true to Jewish liturgy. Howard took an incredible amount of time to research and go really deep to find the DNA, and as he was doing that, we had many discussions about everything else– the form of the performers and many other ideas that were brought into the script. In a way we can consider Howard as a great contributor to the script because of the nature of the film. It was a two-year discussion that I cherished. It’s interesting how it happened because over two years, most of it was just to find the song that was sang in the synagogue and then write the violin version of it. Everything came after that, everything that’s performed in the film and on the score. The 5% that you hear around the song took 95% of the time.