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.