While Fantastic Fest does favor films of the horror or science-fiction variety, it does celebrate films of all genres. For example, in the market for high-concept thriller with the look and feel of a Hitchcock film? Fantastic Fest is happy to oblige.
This year, Fantastic Fest saw the world premiere of Grand Piano, an intense and riveting feature from Spanish director Eugenio Mira, who is also a film composer. Grand Piano stars Elijah Wood as a famous concert pianist returning for a final performance, only to discover a threat from a faceless sniper (John Cusack) in the concert hall communicating via an earpiece that he will shoot him and his wife if he misses a single note.
“[I wanted a project] where there’s praise around it but nobody has the balls to do," says director Mira.
For director Eugenio Mira, interest in the project began right after the first read. “My producers were deliberately looking for a script that’s kind of on the ‘black list,’” Mira tells CultureMap. “[I wanted a project] where there’s praise around it but nobody has the balls to do. They found this one and they wanted to work with me and I wanted to work with them.
Written by Damien Chazelle, the script appealed to Mira because it was the “craziest.” It also provided the biggest challenge for Mira. While directing the intricate thriller, he would also have to design it around the music, a part so integral to film, it is practically its own character. “ I designed, starting from scratch, [creating] this kind of hip-hop/Frankenstein music. Everything that it was based on is from piano and orchestra, and I felt that this was a great way to start,” says Mira.
But the music wasn't the only intricate aspect of the film. “It felt like we were working on three movies at once during the shooting, too,” says Wood. “We shot all of John Cusack’s scenes in the first week of production. That felt like an entirely different movie. It was action and very physical. And then we got into the music, which was an entirely different film.”
Musical training was perhaps the most daunting task for actors stepping into the roles of an accomplished conductor or concert pianist. Wood started training in Los Angeles before heading to film's Barcelona set. “The learning curve there was so intense having not played since I was a child. So it was frustrating and scary, because there were days where I felt like I had a handle on it and days I didn’t at all because the music was so intense and very dense and very fast.”
"There were days where I felt like I had a handle on [the music] and days I didn’t at all because the music was so intense and very dense and very fast," says Wood
Once shooting began, Wood says he started to lighten up when he worked with Hector, his double who continued to train him. “The stress was still there, but I was able to go, okay, I don’t have to play this note for note. I couldn’t have done it without Hector, honestly. But it was a lot of the geography [of the keys] and timing.”
For actor Don McManus, who plays the conductor in the film, it was a similar crash course in learning to act lead a concert. While still in the states, McManus remembers first talking with Mira. "I said ‘You know I don’t know how to do any of this, right?’ And he was like, ‘Oh, it’ll be fine. We’ll bring you in a week earlier.’ I said, ‘A week?’”
The music of Grand Piano contains the feel of a wholly organic creation with a history behind it, but it’s not the only component that sticks out in the film. The visual design feels like a direct homage to legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, with sweeping, extended shots and precise timing used to build tension. It’s a design choice that Mira very much had in mind for the film.
For Mira, Grand Piano was a chance to tell a story through vision and sound that only film can allow. “I want to tell stories that cinema allows you to do in a specific way. With cinema, we will tell this story in a particular way. And it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.”