Spain might be in the throes of severe economic problems, but you wouldn't necessarily know it from the current state of its film industry. With Juan Antonio Bayona's The Impossible
breaking box office records and Pablo Berger's Blancanieves
the official Spanish selection for the foreign language Oscar, Spanish film, especially of the more fantastic variety, seems to be heading full steam ahead. I recently had the chance to visit the set of Grand Piano
, currently wrapping up production in Barcelona. Directed by Eugenio Mira (The Birthday
), produced by Rodrigo Cortés and Adrián Guerra (Buried
, Red Lights
), and starring Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Alex Winter and Kerry Bishé, the film is a tense, intimate thriller, with a complex plot and somewhat high-concept scenario that provides just the sort of meat that genre fans love to bury their teeth in.Forced into early retirement because of crippling stage fright, Wood plays Tom, a piano virtuoso who returns to the stage, only to have the recital turn deadly. He is forced to literally play and incredibly complicated piece, or lose his life.
The script, written by Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench
, The Last Exorcism 2
), grabbed Mira's attention because of its technical challenge, as much of the film is just one guy playing the piano in one location (a 3000 seat theatre in Chicago.) He said, "I instantly fell in love with the idea of the double audience: the one in the theatre where the film is set, and the one in the cinema. I also loved that it wasn't based on suspense; the audience is stuck to Tom's perspective, they don't know any more than he does." Wood had the same impression: "[The script] wasn't like anything I'd read before, having shades of Hitchcock, but being so original. It works really well, playing in real time, and the irony of someone who has stage fright being forced to play at gunpoint wasn't lost on me." Both agree that the concept will require a fair amount of suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, but the construct of the script is so strong that the audience will no doubt take pleasure in its puzzle.
Mira showed me some of the dailies from an early scene in the film, when Tom first begins to understand the danger that he's in. The trick for Mira was to create the sense of tension, using a variety of shots (never the same one twice) while focusing on the character, and the feeling of entrapment within such a large space. I was very impressed by how the tension was achieved, and also by Mira's use of the objects within in the mise-en-scene to aid: for example, using the reflective surface of the piano as a mirror, and slow, close pans across the sheet music (and as anyone who can read music will be able to see, the complexity of the piece tightens the grip on Tom.) Mira says he wanted to think as an actor as much as a director, breaking
down each shot as to find the different sides of the character. The scene being shot during my visit was one of the final ones, on location in a street in the El Born neighbourhood, with signs for cerveza and tapas juxtaposed against extras in Chicago police uniforms and English-language ambulances, with multiple characters and an overhead crane shot. (So yes, I now know the beginning and end of the film; but it's the journey that matters, and I won't spoil it.) This was my first time seeing such a complicated scene being shot, and it was fascinating first to stand to the side and watch a rehearsal, and then see it on the monitors, when it was shown in 48-frame slow motion, and see how well both actors and crew worked together. Javier Alvariño, the film's production designer, says that the approach to the film was immediately clear from the start: "We wanted it to feel huge, glorious, bigger than life," and this is very evident both from the dailies I saw, which even with mainly close-ups felt huge, and the complicated scene I witnessed.
Mira and Wood met at Fantastic Fest two years ago, and for Mira, Wood's long-time work in genre film and his connection to music made him a natural fit for the main role. Wood took piano lessons as a child, but he said that, like many children, he didn't like to practice and gave it up. He spent nearly a month in intensive piano training before coming to Spain, so that in many scenes, you will know it is actually him playing. By a lucky coincidence, his stand-in for the film is also a piano teacher, and coaches Wood on set, as well as providing feedback on Wood's playing scenes. "Hector is my eyes for every take, and I look to see to see if it passes the test of believability." We've all seen films where actors have to fake a skill, and it's great to know that Wood is putting in the effort to play as much as he can, as well as he can.
When I asked Cortés why he wanted Mira to direct, he said that when he first watched The BIrthday
, he saw a genius at work. "His films are so well directed. As an film fan, I want to see his movies, and that's the kind of director you want when you're a producer." As Cortés is also a director, he knew he and Mira could speak the same language of film. Mira frequently collaborates with the same people, and this adds to the quality and consistency of his work. He, Alvariño and cinematographer Unax Mendía have worked on all three of Mira's features together, and these three elements can make or break a film, regardless of script. One of the scenes I watched involves just Tom and his wife Emma (Kerry Biché)
; over several takes, Mira would either watch on the camera monitor, or watch the actors directly. He shows an intimacy both with his performers, and how the performance translates to the screen.
Indeed, while much of the crew are old friends, the cast also spoke of the family atmosphere of the film. Biché observed that "there's no difference between when we're hanging out on the weekends and when we're at work, it's all this crazy sheen of passionate, intellectual, philosophical productivity. It's easy and light, but also hard, and that feeling when you come to work, that's a unique experience." Wood chimed in that "every day on this film is extraordinary, working with Eugenio has been an absolute gift, and the accomplishments we make on a daily basis are incredibly exciting and gratifying, the connectivity between us all is amazing."
As stated, the setting of the film has been an incredible challenge for the crew. When he first started working with the script, Mira would break down every few pages into various components of set pieces, music, dialogue and action, then thread them all together, almost in a mathematical way. For Alvariño, the opportunity to design a set based on an American art deco theatre was too good to pass up, and one of the most challenging sets he's worked on. "Because a really big part of the film takes place [in the theatre], and because we were also building just a relatively small piece (the rest being CGI), it was difficult to determine where the real set was going to end and where the CGI part would begin." They spent two months on the set design to make it perfect.
But arguably the most difficult part of the film is the music. Chazelle included various musical emphasis in certain scenes, with certain instruments or varying crescendos, etc. Mira was surprised to find that Chazelle did not have a particular piece of music in mind when he wrote the script, so one had to be composed specifically for this film, one that would be as complex as the character (considered the best pianist in the world) would be able to play, and one that would, at the same time, suit the needs of the story. Mira said that "the music follows the events as portrayed in the script, it's composed so as to make the audience believe it goes together naturally. Sometimes it goes together, sometimes it's meant to be against the action, and at times you're not really listening to it. There's a lot of dynamics." While naturally original scores are written to match the script of a film, the work in this film will be something quite different, considering that music is central to the plot. Wood recalls that one of his most difficult scenes involved a scene where he had to play part of the piece, at the same time as listening to prerecorded audio from his character's nemesis, answering his nemesis, and listening for his music cues. He said that "the amazing thing is that my character is in an incredibly stressful situation, and I didn't have to fake it at all, because I was completely stressed."
There's a growing trend among Spanish filmmakers, particularly ones who work in genre film, to make films in English. There are many contributing factors, but one definite one is that Hollywood has taken notice of filmmaker such as Mira, Cortés, Bayona and Nacho Vigalondo, and rather than transporting them to the US, allowing them to work in English in their native country, knowing that the strength of their work comes greatly from their close working relationships with friends, and a great deal of creative control over their films.
As the sun began to peak over the tops of the buildings at the end of the shooting night, as tired as I was, I wish I had been around to visit the set when in studio. Between the dailies and the evening I'd just witnessed, I have no doubt that this is going to be a tremendous film.