Elijah Wood has been a staple of Fantastic Fest every year I’ve been there, whether he’s had a movie to show there or served on a film jury. This year, Grand Piano premiered at Fantastic Fest. Wood plays a concert pianist held hostage by a sniper (John Cusack) who insists he play a notorious composition flawlessly. Director Eugenio Mira is also a Fantastic Fest veteran. His previous films, Agnosia and The Birthday played previous years. I sat down with both Wood and Mira, and if I do say so myself, they really responded to my questions. I was the last interview of the day, but Mira particularly revved up as I hit on certain topics.
CraveOnline: Did Elijah have to not only learn how to play the piano, but learn to play with dialogue?
Elijah Wood: Yes, sort of. I learned a lot. I don’t think I could actually play those pieces in their entirety but it was an incredible, incredible challenge. I worked with a teacher about three weeks prior to going to Barcelona and there were days where I literally thought that it would be impossible. I’d just be making progress and then it’d feel like it was going to be an impossible task. It was incredibly technical and there were lots of moments where it was jumping from where I’d play, listen to a click, listen to music, have to be in the right space and the right time and hear dialogue and repeat dialogue. It felt like each one was like running a little mini-marathon. It was just so physically and mentally taxing.
Eugenio Mira: Keep in mind the amount of beats that he had to hit. It’s him, the dialogue, the camera movement, the position, when we see what, when we see it, when he’s playing, when the music was through the earpiece, all the other actors and dialogue.
Did the dialogue become part of the music?
Elijah Wood: I suppose because everything is adhering to a very specific time structure and signature, those things are being slotted in in a similar rhythmic fashion, so it does exist on some rhythmic plane, a line of dialogue and a response, because it is all married to this click and this series of music and dialogue. So yeah, that was kind of rhythmic. It would even get to the point where movement, not only of my hands but also of looks and turns of the hands would become rhythmic. We talk about a lot of physical ADR.
There was a credit for a hand double. Was that just for close-up shots?
Eugenio Mira: His coach was there all the time to make sure that right before we shot, he was really on the day, in the moment to make sure that we had it. He looked like him and we dressed him like him, so it was more like a stand-in. Then sometimes [for playing] but less than you would imagine. If I made a reel of the shots where the hands are not him, it’s probably 43 seconds in the whole movie.
Elijah Wood: What?
Eugenio Mira: I’m talking about close-ups of the hands. Wide shots, it could be you, it could be him or it could be me. When it comes to hands, it’s like little scraps here and there.
I definitely noticed you would go to Elijah’s face down to his hands and back, and you would see his reflection in the piano. Was the reflection real?
Eugenio Mira: Totally. Thanks for mentioning, because the average member of the audience is not going to notice a cut or the difference between a tilt, but of course the message that I’m sending there into the back of the head, even if you weren’t paying attention to that, is that’s going on there. It’s not based on editing. It’s not based on hiding stuff.
It’s funny, I didn’t mention before in any of the interviews, but I was deliberately designing the four pieces that you’re playing in a way that if you see the movie, you say, “Okay, so they are showing me this guy playing. They show me other things so I can deal with this,” in the first piece. The second one, you see more of him. It’s more intimate. It relies less on showing other things. The third one is even more and then the fourth is playing the so-called unplayable piece by himself. No head replacement, no hand replacement. I’m happy to do that. I think that helps to make sure there’s no doubt that he’s doing what he’s doing.
This may be weird to ask about a movie where you’re playing a concert pianist, but is this the most action hero type of role you’ve gotten to play, even more than Lord of the Rings?
Elijah Wood: Ha! Probably, yeah. There’s the physicality of the playing in and of itself which felt like there were times where I felt like I was running a marathon in a single shot because of the physical difficulty of it. But then all the stuff with John at the end too, it was probably the most action hero-y.
Did you have John Cusack in your ear or was that ADR?
Elijah Wood: John, actually. John recorded before he left. He was with us for two weeks. We shot with him for the first week and then before he left he recorded, he read through the script. That wasn’t added.
Eugenio Mira: We cut it, we edited, we had the real time. Then we went for ADR with him again to make sure it was [perfect]. “Okay, we need a little more.” It’s been a whole process because before we started shooting, it was intricately designed. We figured out a lot of things while we were shooting and we tried to to minimize as much as we could for post-production. That’s, I think, the reason why it works and it doesn’t look like it’s trickery.
Is John at a place where he wants to play all these psycho killer roles?
Eugenio Mira: I had the chance to hang out with him, dinner, cigars and drinking and talking about career things and stuff. Something tells me there is definitely something in there about that. It’s like the fifth time.
Elijah Wood: I think he’s also moved by filmmakers too. I think he was really intrigued by what was happening in Spain.
Eugenio Mira: Clearly when he said, “I’m going to do this,” he thought it was a special movie. It was an interesting combination of mainstream that we don’t see anymore and a really bizarre premise that’s like: what the hell is this? He told me very openly that that’s what got his attention, that it was mainstream but special.
How did you compose an unplayable piece and original compositions that sound like they could be famous pieces in the classical music world?
Eugenio Mira: For example, to me, the challenge if I had to direct a western would be stay away from any reference of any western. Definitely no Sergio Leone and definitely no John Ford, Howard Hawks. I would be like, “Okay, how could this be?” When it comes to the music, it was all the opposite. We had to play with all the conventions because the average member of the audience has never heard this. The music wasn’t difficult when it comes to that. We could do anything we wanted as long as it sounded like a big piano concert. Every single person that really knows about music knows that that’s just a fabricated melody that is not as good as real classical music, but it sounds fantastic and it works.