Thirty-two short films about Glenn Gould

1979: Rhombus Media is formed in Toronto specifically to make a film about famed classical pianist Glenn Gould.

Niv Fichman recalls that he and fellow Rhombus founders Barbara Willis Sweete and Larry Weinstein had earlier met as students at York University in Toronto. After class, Sweete worked part-time behind the bar at Glenn Gould’s Toronto hotel, The Hampton Court. There she hovered whenever possible around the Canadian-born pianist, often with Fichman and Weinstein in tow.

Fichman recalls the three aimed at knowing more about Gould and filmmaking. ‘He was our greatest hero. So we thought we would have to make a few short films before we approached Gould to make one about him.’

But suddenly, in 1982, Gould died at the age of 50, forcing Rhombus to shelve its project.

December 1990: Fichman and Quebec director Francois Girard pick up prizes for their recent work Le Dortoir, and consider another collaboration. Girard, self-taught on the piano, began his career in music videos. He ventures that Gould might make a fine biographical subject. That sets Fichman’s head swirling with memories. Both agree that a Gould project would be perfect for television.

February-July 1991: With Rhombus funding his research in-house, Girard listens to and watches everything by and about Gould.

July to December 1991: Researcher Chantal Neveau helps Girard continue wading through 110 hours of music that Gould recorded, books and articles written by or about him, and dozens of hours of video and film.

The duo also spent time at the National Library in Ottawa poring over 6,000 letters that Gould had written during his lifetime to friends and associates. In addition, his private papers, considered classified, are for the first time laid open for view.

The Quebec director decides at this time to model his script on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, among Gould’s most famous piano interpretations. This would entail 32 vignettes offering variations on the musician’s life from age four until his death.

He will aim at showing Gould the genius as enigmatic, but not strangely eccentric as popular lore often holds. ‘That side of him was overexposed,’ Girard argues. ‘I wanted to show him more as a powerful intellectual musician, who also possessed a simple sense of humor.’

The film would, in essence, offer little films and invite viewers to connect the dots, and not simply tell all. ‘We never pretended to draw a single picture of the artist and show that to viewers, and say this is what you have to know about Gould and understand about him. The big challenge was not being reductive. We wanted to give a range of Glenn Gould’s talents, and the way to do that was to present 32 fragments of his life.’

December 1991-February 1992: Fichman pitches the television project, with an anticipated $1.8 million budget, to European co-production partners. He secures partial funding from NOS Television (Holland), RTP Portugal, and OY Yleisradio AB (Finland). Later, funding will come from the bbc (Britain) and arte, a joint French-German broadcaster.

Fichman is also able to bring cbc and Radio-Canada on board, but only after much prompting. The rub is, he can not be assured of money from Telefilm Canada.

This leads Fichman and Girard to consider making a feature film that might later be broadcast on television.

With that adjustment made, they are able to secure ‘significant’ funding from Telefilm and the Ontario Film Development Corporation. Montreal-based Max Films then agrees to distribute the film theatrically worldwide, while Rhombus International retains television rights.

March 1992: The National Film Board joins up as production partner, promising edit suites and labs for later use in Toronto and Montreal.

April 1992: Fichman suggests Girard work with Don McKellar on the film’s script. Girard had made fresh discoveries about Gould, but he writes primarily in French. McKellar writes in English and can inject the script with much-needed humor. This skill shone when McKellar wrote and starred in Highway 61 and Roadkill. But he had also been a serious classical music student and a fan of Gould.

McKellar agrees to take on the project. He and Girard work open-endedly on the script, making constant revisions and insertions and finishing it only when the film is ultimately mixed.

June 1992: The search begins for a performer to play Gould. Dedrie Bowes, casting director, recommends Colm Feore, along with 20 other actors. Fichman, Girard and Bowes visit Feore at Stratford, where he is playing Mercutio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

‘When I saw Colm jump up on stage, I knew he was right,’ says Girard. After his stage death at the end of Act I, Feore sheds his costume and makeup and joins Girard and Bowes for dinner where they discuss the Gould part.

A month later, after Feore wins the lead role, he and Girard visit Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music and lie on the floor under a grand piano for an hour to examine the instrument and learn more about Gould’s world.

August 1992: Preproduction begins for six weeks. Gould’s original piano, a Steinway Grand, is shipped to a makeshift studio in an old Toronto church from the National Archives in Ottawa.

In the middle of this period, Girard flies to Europe to shoot establishing shots in Hamburg. He interviews violinists Yehudi Menuhin and Bruno Monsaingeon in Paris and Oslo. Contact is also made with Gould’s Canadian friends and acquaintances so those agreeing might appear in the film.

Oct. 15-Nov. 30: Cameras begin churning on location in and around Toronto and Montreal. All the while, Feore is acting in three plays, six days a week in Stratford. Girard makes frequent two-hour return trips from Toronto to rehearse with Feore in Stratford, who in turn drives by day to Toronto to appear on camera. Alain Dostie serves as dop.

December 1992: Optical photography is shot at the nfb in Montreal. Girard and production crew also travel with Feore to Quebec’s Lac Pierre where the lake’s snow-swirling, frozen waters feature in the film’s opening scene in which Gould walks slowly and serenely in Canada’s north.

January-March 1993: Editing in Montreal is completed by Gaetan Huot. Meanwhile, Stuart French completes audio in Toronto.

September 1993: Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould receives its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, followed by its North American premiere during a gala presentation at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals.

Then, in the autumn, it will go to general theatrical release in Toronto and Montreal, and possibly Vancouver.