After stints on a variety of projects as camera operator, assistant director, writer, composer, producer and director, Eugenio Mira’s third feature, “Grand Piano,” utilizes all of his skills simultaneously. The story of a concert pianist played by Elijah Wood who becomes the target of a deadly assassin – during his comeback performance, no less – Mira’s film expertly blends great performances, sweeping storytelling, operatic music and gymnastic cinematography to create a riveting cat and mouse game that unfolds like the best movie Brian De Palma never made. The film premiered stateside at the 2013 Fantastic Fest, and drew raves from critics and audiences alike, announcing the arrival of a talent whose ability to connect with audiences is as impressive as his versatility behind the scenes.
Indiewire sat down with Mira and his star, Elijah Wood, on one of the final days of Fantastic Fest, where the director’s enthusiasm was undiminished by boozy days, sleepless nights and the endless discussions about film that came in between. The two of them talked about the unique journey that Wood’s character went on, and the process of structuring it according to how much the director liked him from beginning to end. They also touched on Mira’s next steps as a director and the appeal of working outside of the studio system.
Elijah, this is a character who starts off in an extraordinarily anxious place. By trying to redeem himself professionally, he becomes sort of personally empowered. How much of that was in the script and how much did you bring to it to make sure that he went on a real journey?
ELIJAH WOOD: I think it was there. It was there in the script.
EUGENIO MIRA: It was subtle but it was there.
EW: It was subtle. I think it was important for us to pull that out. There were a lot of things that we talked about, you know, as actors outside of the context of the technical work that we were doing, you know, the relationship between, for instance, Tom and his wife Emma.
EM: Oh, we talked a lot about that.
EW: And what was actually happening behind the surface that isn’t necessarily present in terms of articulation, but it’s there. So that was really important. Understanding that Tom is effectively being controlled by all these people and he doesn’t have a sense of his own autonomy. Out of the seeming goodness out of her heart, for instance, Emma has organized this whole thing because he would want this. Well, she probably never really considered his feelings about it. He probably doesn’t want to be here. And then ultimately, like you said, his own sense of empowerment, where at the very beginning of the story he saying, “I’m a fuck up, I can’t play this piano, this genius who taught me wouldn’t want me to play this piano because of the fact that I fuck up notes.” And then this idea that Reisseinger says, “Well, no, they won’t understand that. It’s not about the notes that you’re fucking up; it’s about when you play it – and he actually owns that at the end of the story as well.
So there is a real journey with the character. And then he is effectively stuck in a position of fear, but there’s also activity within that. So aside from him just playing and being this puppet that he’s being forced to be, he’s trying to be as active as possible to get himself out of this situation. So therein lies the sort of sense of dynamics and the conversation that he ultimately has where he’s trying to get the upper hand as well. There’s actually a lot to play with when thinking about it. So much of my job was technical. It really was. But there was a lot of play and a lot of room to play within the context of the very regimented structures that had been created by Eugenio.
Most actors would have an easier time dealing with a more fantastical element, the physical threat as opposed to the idea of just his concert performance, since it’s more immediately relatable.
EW: That’s interesting. I think I could relate to his lack of confidence in himself and a sense of fear. I think we can all relate to that. I don’t think I can relate to stage fright because I think stage fright is a very specific level of fear that’s pretty debilitating. But I can relate to that and that lack of confidence. I think it’s a pretty human thing. I mean the hardest thing for me was really the playing. The technical aspects of the character were the hardest. I think when you’re working with other actors, like working with Kerry or working with Don, the dynamics of they’re such extraordinary actors and the dynamics created by those interactions are a joy and so much comes out of that. It was actually funny because a lot of that we didn’t do until we after we’d shot all of the musical pieces. So in a way it was like making three movies in one. Because we’d shot all of John Cusack’s physical on-camera stuff prior to that, in the first week. And then we got into the musical performance in sequence. So we were in that concert hall for three weeks, three and half weeks?
EW: And then the last week and a half was everything else. So it was such a strange thing. We worked for so long on executing the technical aspects, and really the core of the movie. 70 percent of the movie, 80 percent of the movie is in that hall, and that was very, very technical. Getting out of that it felt like suddenly we were doing scenes with semi-traditional coverage and character work and it was a real joy for us as actors to have accomplished this thing that was so unbelievably challenging.
I wonder how much your experience playing the character mirrored his journey in the film in that as he begins to develop more confidence with the actual playing of the music, then all these other things start to become more intuitive and easier for him.
EW: That’s funny actually. There is something to that.
EM: There’s something to that, definitely. And I think that it started not in the shoot but in the moment he landed in Barcelona. Because we talked a lot, and I never had this previous kind of contact with an actor who has to hit so many beats. It’s always before we started shooting. And it’s amazing. I have to say because of this experience, I totally understand something I perceived as a luxury and something like not necessary: When Francis Ford Coppola invited to the cast of “Dracula” to Napa Valley. And they played and they danced and they went to dress in costumes and doing that, on my God, that’s priceless. And I can tell that that pays off so well.
EW: One of the of the things I also love that we had the opportunity to do in this — you talk about this idea of communicating things, but not necessarily communicating with words and being able to use the language of cinema to communicate, and there’s a lot of that in this movie. Understanding that there are all these layers that are being communicated but not being communicated in a typical fashion.
One of my favorite moments in that regard, and it was a shot that I don’t even know that we’d attached that kind of like it that much subtext to. But at the very end of the film, he goes into a van where there’s a broken piano and he goes to play the unplayable piece because he’s got to. I had to play it right. It says so much about his own internal journey as well. And that shot, which basically doesn’t break from the last moment until the end until he walks out, says so much. And it was the sense of having really accomplished something where there are like five things being communicated in one piece and you didn’t have to use too much to articulate it. It was really gratifying. It was one of my favorite moments in the movie.
Eugenio, now that you’ve made a crowdpleaser, what are your next steps?
EM: That’s a fascinating subject. And I have to tell you because I’m very open, meaning that I love this kid [Elijah], and I hope to work together. It’s not only something that I have to think about, it’s something I want to think about with him. Even if he’s not in the movie acting, it’s just about the future. It’s part of my therapy. Because I’ve been very, very fortunate, compared to the people in my generation in Spain like J.A. Bayona — “The Orphanage” had great success, and then after that he made “The Impossible,” and it was like three times that. But I’m doing my thing. I love to direct stuff that other people make, and I love to write stuff for other directors and producers. There’s multiple things that I’m interested in and I don’t close any door. But when it comes to me, I’m starting to feel like, because of the great reception — that the first step is that I’m starting to think about things that I can do just because of this that maybe are not the things I want to do. So I’m very keen on reevaluating myself all the time and let’s see what happens. I think it would be, in my opinion, a total mistake being like five years out of this going to something to match “Grand Piano” in the same rules – [people would say] I don’t give a damn.
EW: Well, you’ve done this.
EM: Maybe if I made like two more like this before I die, but it’s not like I don’t feel the urge to match expectations at all because I had zero expectation with this movie.
EW: Part of it was making it [outside the studios] to a certain degree. We made this movie in Spain, so there were no outside expectations on the film; therefore, all we had was our own personal expectations of being able to accomplish what we were trying to do.
EM: And that’s the kind of production that I feel comfortable with, and that I’m starting to get involved now and being an active producer. That’s like saying, “OK, forget about my wages, I’m going to write this from scratch on the spec.” If you like it we go for it. You’re going to have this salary, I’m gonna have this salary. What I feel comfortable with and I will sign, it’s not making movies with iPhones, but it’s not necessarily making movies like “Grand Piano.” Like $6 million or $7 million with stars. When I say stars, I mean the John Cusack thing, like you need a name to [open a film]. I’m very fortunate, don’t get me wrong — but if I can make movies from Europe, internationally speaking, gathering money from little territories here and there, we can make a movie in a way that we are not going to be judged by the money we make, but by the money we’re not losing.
I was talking to a friend about how happy I was when this guy from New Zealand was produced by Robert Zemeckis, the director that I loved that was there because Spielberg trusts him to make something like “The Frighteners,” that super complicated mainstream movie.
EW: If he’s tried to make that movie today…
EM: That’s impossible. You’re not gonna make it with that money…
EM: Not that budget. No way. A Universal studio picture?
EM: Yeah, it super misdirected of the demographic. I mean, it was like an “An American Werewolf in London,” too scary to be a family movie and too funny to be scary, but in a very interesting way. I love that movie because of that. Even people say it’s a mess. I love the movie.
EW: Nowadays it’s an anomaly, but I think that movie’s incredible.
EM: Anomaly is a word that I embrace.
EW: Yeah, I love it.
EM: So getting back to that, yes I will be seduced by people like – the last time that I felt like, “Oh my God, I so much would like to do that,” is when Spielberg and Zemeckis produced…
EM: No, Gil Kenan, and he made “Monster House” for that because it was like a post-Amblin Entertainment movie with 50 percent Amblin and 50 percent a different thing. And I felt like, “Yes, I want to sell ‘Grand Piano’ to this master and say I’m the kid you want to hire to make something. But we live in a different world. As I said from “Jurassic Park 4,” they’re not looking for a director like me. They’re looking for a guy who made “Safety Not Guaranteed.” Somebody that talks to the actors because they got everything designed.
EW: Part of the problem is I don’t know that at the studio level for those kinds of films they’re actually looking for directors at all. I think that they’re looking for people to facilitate.
EM: To be on the set and something like that.
EW: But with someone like a genuine artistic vision, it’s a very small percentile at that level.
EM: But that’s the thing — I mean, Kathleen Kennedy did a great job.
EW: Not to take away from any of those people doing that because there’s servicing and making good films.
EM: I’d like to be like Rian Johnson, because Rian Johnson is already fighting his ass off for it. I love his work, he belongs to my generation. I saw “Brick” and I loved it…
EW: Rian Johnson’s really doing it, too.
EM: He’s doing it, but it’s not like he’s stepping into to a place because that place does not exist anymore. If Rian Johnson were working 20 years he would be Peter Jackson, he would be Robert Zemeckis. Then of course you’ve got David Lynch, the Coen brothers, and Cronenberg, of course. But you cannot do “Lost Highway” with a video camera. So I’m not very seduceable, but I will be eventually, and only if it comes from the right people.