The Violin Maker
In his own words, 32-year-old Danny Houck is “a nobody.” He’s an eccentric recluse living in a ramshackle farmhouse in the backwater town of Laurelville, Ohio. He has no job, no money, and no prospects. But he does have an obsession: violins. Specifically, he’s obsessed with the two most acclaimed violin-makers in history: Stradivari, and Guarneri del Gesu. Danny’s enthusiasm is absolute, but his talent is not. He’s never had any training in violin-making, so his “technique” is one part pictures on the internet, one part trial and error, and one part mania.
Razvan Stoica is one of the greatest violinists of the present. Already widely known in Europe, he is considered by many to be the next big “super-star” violinist.
Very active in social-media, Danny found Razvan on Facebook and it is there that he convinced Razvan that he could make a perfect copy of the ‘Il Cannone’, one of the most famous and valuable violins in the world.
Mary Houck is Danny’s mother
David Campbell is Danny’s cousin and best friend.
The Violin Mentor
Rodger Stearns is a fine violin maker and restorer. He is also an extremely kind man and gives Danny time and advice on his violin-making endeavors.
He is the closest thing that Danny has to a mentor.
The Film Maker
Stefan Avalos is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Having started his life as a classically trained violinist and knowing the obsessions that are part of the violin-world, he became intrigued with the story of Daniel Houck, while working on a broader documentary about New vs old violins. While this movie is still in process, “Strad Style” emerged as a story that became HIS obsession.
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“Strad Style” (USA) World Premiere
Director: Stefan Avalos
A rural Ohio eccentric with an obsession for ‘Stradivari’ convinces a famous European concert violinist that he can make a copy of one of the most famous and valuable violins in the world. Fighting time, poverty, and most of all – himself – Danny Houck puts everything on the line for one shot at glory.
Cast: Daniel Houck, Razvan Stoica, David Campbell, Rodger Stearns, Mary Houck
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Stefan Avalos’ documentary follows 32-year-old Danny Houck, a self-professed “nobody” who has exactly one interest: violins. The Ohio eccentric channels all of his energy into the instruments, and soon hits upon an idea that will take pretty much everything he has, perhaps even literally. After convincing a well-known European concert violinist that he can build a replica of the most famous and valuable violin in history, he goes whole hog on what might be his biggest success, or his greatest failure. You won’t believe what happens next. -KE
He started playing at age 2½ and had his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra when he was 10. So when film director Stefan Avalos says “I’ve never not known the violin,” he is not being hyperbolic.
But even Avalos had never met anyone like Danny Houck, the violin-obsessed subject of his irresistible, way-stranger-than-fiction documentary “Strad Style,” which screened this week at Sundance’s cross-town rival, Slamdance.
An eccentric loner living on next to no money in a rundown farmhouse in little-known Laurelville, Ohio, Houck lives and breathes the violin. “His knowledge is encyclopedic, he will tell you things you never knew,” reports Avalos. “He is absolutely obsessed and immersed in the thing.”
More than that, Houck somehow contrives to build violins as well. And when he agreed to make an exact copy of Guarneri’s Il Cannone (the great Paganini’s instrument and one of the most famous violins ever made) for a rising European star, a personal and professional journey that almost defies belief began.
Avalos, who eventually transferred allegiance from music to movies, was contemplating something else entirely when Houck crossed his path. “I had been working for two years on a wide-ranging documentary about the obsession people had with the great violins, about the makers, the players, the collectors and the thieves,” he says.
“I heard through the grapevine, from a player at the Columbus Symphony,” Avalos continues, “about a guy who lived in the middle of nowhere and was really obsessed with making violins. I thought he would make an amusing five-minute bit in my film.”
But once the director met Houck, who has a tattoo of great violinist Yasha Heifitz on one of his arms and the great violin maker Stradivari on his calf, everything changed.
“Within half an hour I had a whole different movie in mind,” Avalos says. “For a documentary filmmaker, Danny was a dream subject. He was quirky, intelligent, great on camera, the whole works.”
Avalos set aside two years of interview footage and decided on another, more observational tack here. “I really tried to channel Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles brothers, to provide a slice of life.”
Houck, who is bipolar, had played the violin as a child and had decided to make them because it was the only way he could afford to own one. “He used the Internet, read books before that,” Avalos says. “He had raw, untrained talent, a real gift, but he was completely self-taught.”
Soon after Avalos had made the decision to change the focus of his film, Houck told him that, via Facebook, he’d made friends with a rising European violin star named Razvan Stoica. Says Avalos, “Razvan was obsessed with Paganini and told Danny, ‘My dream violin would be Il Cannone.’ When Danny told me he had offered to make Razvan a copy, that’s when bells went off.”
Plans and diagrams of Il Cannone exist, but Houck had never seen the actual violin. “That was pretty audacious, like saying you can make a NASCAR racing car without having seen an engine block.”
Plus Houck’s work spaces, which sometimes included spreading out on the floor of his unheated house, were not exactly pristine, “so it was like trying to discover a new element in your kitchen.”
Even more unnerving, when Los Angeles-based Avalos decided to devote himself to this project, coming out to Ohio a week or two at a time over a nine-month period, he’d never had a chance to hear how one of Houck’s earlier instruments actually sounded.
“I’d call my girlfriend and she’d say, ‘Have you played one yet?’” the filmmaker remembers. “Finally I got the chance and the tone was just gorgeous. I called and told her, ‘I played one, it’s good!’ I didn’t know whether he was delusional or not. It was a big relief.”
But could Houck pull off Il Cannone in time for the European concert Stoica needed it for? That was an entirely different question, with the answer in doubt even within the last 24 hours of the deadline.
Not in doubt, Avalos reports, was the audience response at the first Slamdance screening on Saturday. “It was beyond anything I could have expected,” he says. “They applauded all through the end credits and then gave it a standing ovation.”
As for the director himself, “I’ve watched it about 150 times and I still have an emotional reaction. That’s not supposed to happen, a magician is not supposed to be wowed by his own tricks. It has absolutely exceeded my expectations.”