The Page Turner
One thing I have learned: When an actor plays a musician,
the first shot must show the hands. It must be a master shot—an
uninterrupted sequence with no cuts. Then the audience will think: “It
really is him playing! And all the notes!” If you don’t
get that out of the way right at the start, the audience will spend
the rest of the film wanting to see the hands instead of looking at
That’s why I always arrange for the actor to play the first piece
of music for real. Most of them have never played an instrument before,
of course. But that doesn’t matter. With time and training, anyone
can stumble through a piece of music, whether it’s for piano,
the violin or the cello. The actor may make a hash of it, but that doesn’t
matter. On the actual soundtrack, it will be a real musician playing.
But at least the audience can see that the actor is actually performing.
I know they’re all thinking: “Show me the hands!”
Ninety percent of my initial rehearsal time with the actor is spent
on this first piece of music. Since I’m a professor at a conservatory
and a concert violist myself, I know how to teach a piece that someone
is seeing for the first time. I also know what kind of music will look
more difficult than it really is. If I’ve cast someone who actually
knows how to play or turns out to have some natural talent, I make sure
to pick music that is a little too difficult, so that the actor will
always be slightly uneasy, no matter how much rehearsal there is. When
I say “action,” the actor must feel a frisson of stage fright,
just like a real musician does.
The funny thing is, most actors become obsessed with playing the music,
and end up wanting to do everything for real. That’s what happened
with Catherine Frot, who plays a famous concert pianist in The Page
Turner. Catherine, a very well-known and popular star in France,
had to work quite hard to learn the music that the composer wrote specifically
for her first scene. She managed that, though, and then she insisted
on trying to learn all the notes in the rest of the music in the film,
which ran from Schubert to Shostakovich. I had planned to cheat with
these pieces, hiding her hands most of the time with careful cuts and
camera angles. But in the end, I didn’t have to. The audience
could see her entire performance—just as long as they didn’t
What’s great about working on a piece of music with an actor for
a long time far in advance of shooting is that you can help the actor
prepare without ever talking about the story or the performance itself.
With really good actors, it’s better not to try to explain too
much, or to analyze the psychology of the character. They have to come
to that on their own. Instead, we concentrate on the position of the
back, on the arms and on the face. The character develops a posture,
and the personality emerges on its own.
The music itself can help convey the rhythms of the storyline, as well.
Music contains the same alternation of tension and relaxation, the same
changes of pace, the same pauses and climaxes that you find in a well-crafted
novel. Classical music uses the succession of chords to create moments
of tension that are resolved into relaxation. But in late 19th and 20th
century music, chords sometimes never release their tension completely.
In the terminology of music, one says that the chords don’t resolve
but remain in suspension. Some of the best modern films create their
own suspense with storylines that never completely resolve.
I’ve always liked to make films about musicians, and it’s
through the music that I find my approach to direction. Present the
exposition of your themes with elegance and clarity. Develop them with
energy but keep the pacing varied. Build to climaxes with a relentless
inner logic, then give the audience a brief chance to rest before another
theme enters to create new complications. And end with a resounding
As for the actors, give them enough room to bend their elbows—and
just show them the hands.