Remembering the names

Robert Lantos on The Song Of Names and filming at Treblinka

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The Song Of Names producer Robert Lantos on introducing composer Howard Shore to François Girard: “I had worked with Howard a few times before. Three David Cronenberg films. Crash, eXistenZ and Eastern Promises.”
The Song Of Names producer Robert Lantos on introducing composer Howard Shore to François Girard: “I had worked with Howard a few times before. Three David Cronenberg films. Crash, eXistenZ and Eastern Promises.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

François Girard’s The Song Of Names, based on the novel by Norman Lebrecht, screenplay by Jefferey Caine with a score by Howard Shore (two-time Oscar-winner for Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring and one for The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King) is produced by Robert Lantos, Lyse Lafontaine and Nick Hirschkorn, and stars Tim Roth and Clive Owen with Catherine McCormack, Jonah Hauer-King (Prince Eric in Rob Marshall’s upcoming The Little Mermaid), Luke Doyle, Gerran Howell, Misha Handley, Daniel Multu and Eddie Izzard.

Atom Egoyan and Robert Lantos with Anne-Katrin Titze at the Museum of Tolerance in New York for Remember
Atom Egoyan and Robert Lantos with Anne-Katrin Titze at the Museum of Tolerance in New York for Remember

The last time I spoke with Robert Lantos was when we did a post-screening conversation with Atom Egoyan for Remember at the Museum of Tolerance in New York. Robert had also produced Atom’s The Sweet Hereafter (Cannes FIPRESCI, Grand Prix winner, Oscar Best Director, Screenplay nominations), Exotica (Cannes FIPRESCI), Where The Truth Lies, Adoration and Ararat. Atom Egoyan’s Guest Of Honour, starring David Thewlis and Laysla De Oliveira, will open Canada Now at the IFC Center on Thursday, February 13, 2020.

In my conversation with Robert Lantos at Sony in New York, he told me that the “emotional core” of The Song Of Names is the “journey that is illustrated through a piece of music.”

Anne-Katrin Titze: Last time we met was when we did a post-screening discussion at the Museum of Tolerance with Atom Egoyan about Remember.

Robert Lantos: In LA or here?

AKT: Here. The museum in New York doesn't exist anymore.

Jonah Hauer-King as Dovidl Rapoport
Jonah Hauer-King as Dovidl Rapoport Photo: Sabrina Lantos

RL: There is one in LA.

AKT: I know.

RL: I remember now.

AKT: I have never seen the monument at Treblinka on film. I have heard that this is actually the first time …

RL: … that allowed a feature film [The Song Of Names], yeah. If I had to summarise my motivation for desperately wanting to make this film, it would come down to two words. Those words are “Never again.”

And at Treblinka at the central monument, those are the two words. In many languages. It was important to go there. I wasn't sure they would let us. In fact, for a while we thought we'd have to create a replica, based on photographs.

AKT: Oh my!

RL: But finally they did allow us.

Robert Lantos on François Girard: “He lives as much in the world of music as he does in the world of cinema or theatre or opera.”
Robert Lantos on François Girard: “He lives as much in the world of music as he does in the world of cinema or theatre or opera.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I'm not sure how that would have worked. The atmosphere is so strong and it's so clear in the film that this is the real place.

RL: You're right. I don't know what we would have done. But it was a prayer that they would let us. There was no assurance. They wanted to read the script. Which they did - the Polish authorities.

AKT: Many films go very wrong in their attempt to reconstruct the past. The Song Of Names doesn't show the camps in flashback. I was very grateful and very touched that this is how you were going about this central trope of the Holocaust.

RL: It's the way that Jefferey Caine adapted the novel [by Norman Lebrecht]. And frankly, both my parents are Holocaust survivors, but I wouldn't have wanted to make another film about living skeletons and about the horrors of everything that took place.

The reason why I thought this film needed to be made and could shed fresh light and could actually appeal to a contemporary audience is because it touches on all of that. It touches on things that we must never forget so that they never repeat themselves. But it uses music.

The emotional core of this film is not horrifying images. Rather it's a journey that is illustrated through a piece of music. The magic is that this piece of music had to be created because in the book, in the screenplay, it's just referred to as The Song Of Names. But it didn't actually exist. That's where Howard Shore pulled off what I think is kind of a miracle, because he had to invent it.

AKT: It is very impressive what he did.

Robert Lantos on Luke Doyle: “He walked into an audition in London with a violin with an incredibly self-confident attitude, almost arrogant for a twelve-year-old.”
Robert Lantos on Luke Doyle: “He walked into an audition in London with a violin with an incredibly self-confident attitude, almost arrogant for a twelve-year-old.” Photo: Sabrina Lantos

RL: When I first read the book and then the script, which had already been adapted, I thought of François Girard. I had never worked with him but I know his work and he lives as much in the world of music as he does in the world of cinema or theatre or opera.

AKT: Which was absolutely necessary for this film.

RL: If you don't live and breathe classical music, you couldn't have done this. No matter how good a director you are. So I went to François and then I introduced François to Howard [Shore].

AKT: They did not know each other before?

RL: No, but I had worked with Howard a few times before.

AKT: On which films?

RL: Three David Cronenberg films. Crash, eXistenZ and Eastern Promises.

AKT: Oh, very very different subject matters.

Martin Simmonds (Gerran Howell) with Helen (Marina Hambro)
Martin Simmonds (Gerran Howell) with Helen (Marina Hambro) Photo: Sabrina Lantos

RL: Absolutely. However, very different for Howard as well. Lord Of The Rings, as you know, Howard Shore's Oscars. But this story touched him pretty much the same way it touched me. He spent, as I'm sure he is going to tell you, almost two years working on this music.

He knew that The Song Of Names itself had to be based on Jewish liturgy in terms of its melody, its rhythm. That's a world that Howard knows well from his childhood and his family. It gave him an opportunity to revisit through music a world that he hadn't really been involved with in decades.

AKT: The cantor who sings the song the first time we hear it is unbelievable.

RL: Howard Shore found him. He [Daniel Mutlu] is not an actor, he's a cantor. In fact, he's the chief cantor at the Central Synagogue in New York.

AKT: The way he sings and the song itself makes people think "Why don't I know this?"

RL: I know. I've had that reaction a lot.

Dovidl Rapoport (Jonah Hauer-King) in The Song of Names
Dovidl Rapoport (Jonah Hauer-King) in The Song of Names Photo: Sabrina Lantos

AKT: "How could I have missed this and have such a big gap in history?" That's the greatest compliment you can get.

RL: Howard found Cantor Mutlu and he performed it live on camera. He transformed into an actor on the spot.

AKT: Same with the boy who plays Dovidl?

RL: Luke Doyle, yeah.

AKT: He is remarkable as an actor. The way he holds his head!

RL: He had never seen a camera before. He walked into an audition in London with a violin with an incredibly self-confident attitude, almost arrogant for a twelve-year-old.

AKT: Some of that arrogance made it into the film.

RL: It did!

AKT: Both kids! At times I thought, what kind of parents are these? That part gives the story away a bit as a fantasy, I thought.

Dovidl Rapoport (Luke Doyle) with Martin Simmonds (Misha Handley)
Dovidl Rapoport (Luke Doyle) with Martin Simmonds (Misha Handley) Photo: Sabrina Lantos

RL: Well, Misha Handley, who plays the young Tim Roth, he's twelve but he's a professional actor. And we went with the prodigy [Doyle]. He's a genuine violin prodigy. We thought that would be impossible to learn, for the acting he had about six months.

AKT: Is he acting again?

RL: He's back in musical school, so not yet. He also had to learn a Polish accent, this is an English boy, and he mastered it.

AKT: Names are of heightened importance. How much of The Song Of Names was actually composed?

RL: There's a scene in the film, I'm sure you remember, where Tim Roth asks Clive Owen “How long does it take to perform the whole thing?” And he says "Five days." This is a work of fiction, look, you're right, in Jewish tradition remembering the names is fundamental.

On Yom Kippur we say we remember them. Remembering the martyrs is fundamental to Judaism. So the song is based on a concept that's very real. Have you been to Treblinka?

AKT: No, not yet.

RL: I don't recommend it but if you do ever go … We couldn't shoot this because the camera couldn't have picked it up. All around this extermination facility - I don't know why you call it concentration camps because camp implies a fun place - but all around it in the forest, there is a ribbon that goes from tree to tree to tree and on and on.

And on it are the names. Thousands and thousands and tens of thousands of names. There in that place where 800,000 were murdered, the names are on this ribbon that runs through the entire forest.

The Song Of Names poster
The Song Of Names poster

AKT: I was also reminded of Fahrenheit 451, the 'book people' who memorise entire novels. Oscar Werner and Julie Christie pacing up and down in the forest. There was no connection to the Truffaut film in preparation?

RL: No. But you asked me about the names - it's fiction. All there is is what's in the film.

AKT: By the strangest of coincidences - David Rappaport is the name of my former dentist. Of all the names in the world! [spelled Rapoport in the film]

RL: My regards to your dentist!

AKT: He is no longer my dentist. That was in another city. I have a different dentist now.

Read what Howard Shore had to say on François Girard, Judith Clurman, Daniel Multu, Paganini, Ray Chen, and recording the score for The Song Of Names.

Read what François Girard had to say on the energy and soul of the actors, starting with Clive Owen and Howard Shore’s score for The Song Of Names.

Read what Howard Shore had to say on researching history for The Aviator, A Dangerous Method and The Song Of Names.

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