Eugenio Mira's GRAND PIANO is the happiest surprises of 2014 thus far: an elegantly orchestrated thriller that combines the classical suspense-building technique of Alfred Hitchcock with the florid stylistic excesses of Brian De Palma. It's a clever variation on a type of cinema that we don't see too often nowadays: Mira uses long takes, split screens and dizzyingly absurd angles to keep the viewer on their toes for seventy-eight minutes. It's pure visual storytelling from a filmmaker who knows where to put the camera, when to move it and when to cut. It's sad that this skill is held at a premium nowadays, but in the age of coverage, it's rare to see someone with a complete vision.
Mira has shown flashes of this ability since his 2004 debut THE BIRTHDAY, but this is the first film where all of the pieces have snapped into place. It's a great B movie premise: an anxiety-ridden classical pianist (Elijah Wood) makes his return to the stage and learns early in his performance that a gunman (John Cusack) will kill him and his wife if he strikes so much as one wrong note. It's a preposterously exciting scenario: Mira delights in testing the audience's suspension of disbelief, and he gets away with everything because the craft is every bit as ingenious as the hook. He's also careful not to overstay his welcome; the tight runtime is a reminder that the best B movies thrived on efficacy (e.g. Richard Fleischer's 1952 masterpiece THE NARROW MARGIN clocks in at a razor-sharp seventy-two minutes).
GRAND PIANO has been available via VOD for a month now, but it's now making its way to the big screen, which is where something this gleefully cinematic demands to be seen. I briefly chatted with Mira this week about the film, and somehow kept the interview from turning into a Brian De Palma geek fest. Mira is a filmmaker who should be making big crowd-pleasing thrillers for the studios, but I'm not sure they're in the market for a guy with his skill set. Their loss. For now, Mira is content to hang out in his native Spain and crank out wickedly entertaining flicks like GRAND PIANO. I'll take filmmaking of this caliber any way I can get it.
Q: I think we both speak fluent De Palma.
Eugenio Mira: Totally.
Q: It's interesting making a film in that style today. Everything is so much about coverage now.
Mira: And cutting.
Q: This is definitely a more modern film, but you are hearkening back to that style of filmmaking. Does that make things difficult for you?
Mira: Me being a kid born in Spain and being completely affected by American pop culture in the '80s, Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante, then going into David Cronenberg, David Lynch, the Coen Brothers... from the very beginning, I always loved directing as a performance. It's true that could've been a problem had I moved to Hollywood at nineteen years old, but staying in a country like Spain, the good news is that movies were made not because a producer wanted to do it. It's because there was a possibility, a chance... some people went for subsidies and stuff and they didn't give a fuck about what movie was going to happen, but a whole generation of directors, Nacho Vigalondo included, nobody had the balls to tell us how to do our [movies].
Yes, I know I'm in trouble when it comes to a world that is completely opposite to what I am defending and what I am crafting. On the other hand, after three movies, it's true that maybe there is some momentum. Maybe you can anticipate what problems you are going to have. What I've learned is that rather than have a hidden agenda, it's better to show your plans from the very beginning. Every single director is an asset before you start shooting, and if what you're shooting feeds what your selling - the storyboards and animatics - producers are like "Oh, he's doing it as planned. He's not behind schedule." The problems come with the editing. But if you do it properly, you are going to have just two or three major fights - compared to shooting a lot of coverage and losing control of the whole movie.
Q: When you got the script, how quickly did you figure out how you were visually going to tell this story?
Mira: I'm trying to capture the first impression that I have. If I'm on page thirteen, and there's something that the writer implied... I think my brain works very similarly to what Spielberg describes, it's like having this library of movies. I'm a musician, too, and we have notes. But notes are nothing if there's not a context. So I think that the same thing happens with cinema. Everyone thinks that everything is etherial, and you start from scratch every time. No. You know a shot from Tony Scott from one used by his brother, Ridley. Sometimes they are similar, but sometimes they are different. Alan Parker is different from Adrian Lyne. But those little nuances, some people don't give a damn, but to me I acknowledged those differences. So if I'm seeing a scene of a car parking in front of a diner, and someone steps out, I'm going to know if it's just an establishing shot, or if it's a dolly shot of a guy stepping out of the car and if we're going to go beyond the door or if we're going to be inside seeing the whole thing. It's what directors that I've been raised by do all the time. To answer your question, I wrote down every single thing. Damien Chazelle's script is an open love letter to Hitchcock and De Palma. So what I try to do is instead of just following that realm, I wanted to analyze where these mesmerizing effects came from, and that is silent films. Silent films are the pure sequential art. All you have is the size of the shot, the length and the semantics of the cutting. The semantics in cutting nowadays are two completely different things. Cut means shit nowadays. I can't stand it.
Q: I had the pleasure of interviewing De Palma last year, and I asked if he feels any pressure to shoot coverage nowadays. He said, "Coverage is a bad word."
Mira: I hate it. It's not in my vocabulary.
Q: But it's expected. And it weakens a director's position. They can easily take the film away from you because you've given them all of the options.
Mira: Totally. That's not directing. I will never do this if my work was confined to talking to the actors, going out to dinner and reminding them what we read in the script. The moment I don't have control of what you're seeing when you're seeing it and what level of attention, how am I going to sign [the film]? Coverage is for pussies.
Q: When you're in a confined situation like this, and you're trying to figure out every place you can put a camera, do you enjoy working with those limitations?
Mira: I was saying before that any single artistic endeavor, when you go from one point to another it's through limitations. If you have a wide shot and you're a writer, when do you start saying, "Okay, this is about a girl who works in the mall, and some day there is a guy who walks in with a suitcase, he leaves it there, she takes it home but she doesn't want to open it, she calls her ex-boyfriend and thinks they're going to get something, but that's not going to happen." Everything I'm saying is shutting down the rest of the universe. A girl in the mall is not a period piece. It's not set on Mars. To me, restrictions are the way I start to find my place. And the more I find that comes in the script, the more I enjoy finding my way. In this particular case, it was not about defying the logic or the lack of logic of the script - and believe me, there was a lot of room to explore. As you can see in the movie, you can see it several times and enjoy different nuances here and there. But the movie is what it is. To me, that's the biggest compliment I can receive. People see it, and I did my thing and it's not against the movie. I can live with that.
Q: You feel like a filmmaker who could work on a bigger canvas. De Palma and Hitchcock made great big movies! You obviously like the widescreen. I think you could handle a big movie. But I read an interview where you said JURASSIC PARK 4 would just be about talking to the actors. The vision wouldn't be yours.
Mira: I'm glad you mentioned that. I felt a little bit... in terms of being political, it was a little controversial that I said that. But I'm disappointed. For Spielberg, coming from a filmmaker that I've always admired, I know there's a property, and I know there's a lot of stuff going on and different interests, but something tells me that when it comes to the big scenes of that movie, they were designed three years ago. They already have them. And they got a guy to go out to dinner. I love SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, and I don't want to throw shit at it. I admire what [Colin Trevorrow] did, but if somebody tells me that they are going to hire for JURASSIC WORLD the director of THE SPECTACULAR NOW, I would also be saying "What the fuck?" I don't get it. What about the kids who were raised with Joe Dante or Brian De Palma or Robert Zemeckis: people who really know how to craft movies.
Q: Those guys designed the whole world.
Mira: That's what I'm saying. You see a movie like BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES... you can like it more or less, but that movie directs you into a world. You can talk about the movie, but as a vehicle of expression for Mr. De Palma, I don't see better or worse movies, I see more fortunate or more unfortunate vehicles for Mr. De Palma. That's the way I see it.
Q: Do you think it makes more sense for you to stay in Spain? Can you see an opportunity to raise enough money to play on that big canvas. It seems like it would be frustrating to have your visual imagination and be limited to midrange movies.
Mira: I have to be honest. There are two different realms: one is profession, and the other is expression. When it comes to expression, thank god I am a musician who can write down movies that I'm not going to be able to render. I can get it out of my system, like masturbation - writing it down on paper and knowing it's going to be there, then I move to the next thing. But I am interested in filmmaking that is generating every aspect from scratch. Being friends with Nacho [Vigalondo]... his way of expression is semantics. How he's playing with your brain, the sequence of events and everything is extremely plot driven. He's like this superfit guy with no fat. In my case, I like cinematic expression, and cinematic expression has nothing to do with writing a good song. A good song is a good song, great music is great music. If you want to make a good song, there's probably not going to be room for great music. That's one of the thing that I have to solve.
Most probably, yes, staying in Spain is easier to have control, but maybe not anymore. I feel like the corporate world is intoxicating. But GRAND PIANO was made in Spain. It would be impossible to do here. Everybody would be asking questions. To me, the only way to make GRAND PIANO as something that would be interesting to me is to do it the way we did it: shot-by-shot like a silent movie.
Q: You worked with Corey Feldman on THE BIRTHDAY. He's a Hollywood kid who understands the ins and outs of film acting. We all know about the offscreen nonsense, but it just seems to me that if you got him to believe in your movie, and earned his trust as a director - which must be difficult given who he's worked with - you could still get something special out of him.
Mira: I'm going to try to get back with him. I invited him to the screening tomorrow. I don't know if he's going to show up because I don't know if he's in town. Elijah's a huge fan of THE BIRTHDAY. And there's a connection between Corey and Elijah in that they've been working since they were kids. They've been trained by Donner, Spielberg, Peter Jackson... so to me it was a great privilege. To work with somebody who is a part of that thing, but at that same time has the same respect and fascination as you and me. That's priceless. You have this lexicon that you can share. I can't wait to work with Corey again. It's all about the project. We are fantasizing about things, but it's complicated because of a lot of stuff.
GRAND PIANO is currently in limited theatrical release. It is also available via VOD, but go see it on the big screen if it's screening in your town.