Grand Piano director Eugenio Mira and star Elijah Wood at Film Society last week. Photo by Julie Cunnah.
In the years since playing Frodo Baggins in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Elijah Wood has ventured on to parts in films as varied as Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, Emilio Estevez's Bobby, and the romantic omnibus Paris je t'aime. He also played a serial killer in Franck Khalfoun's Maniac and lent his voice to a penguin in the animated blockbuster Happy Feet. Wood has crossed studio fare with indies and has appeared on television as well. His latest film is Grand Piano, directed by Spanish-born director Eugenio Mira.
In the stylish thriller written by Damien Chazelle, Wood stars as Tom Selznick, a brilliant pianist who stopped playing publicly after a disastrous performance. Years later, he returns to the stage for a long-anticipated concert in Chicago. The theater is packed and Tom is already feeling his heightened nerves before his arrival. The evening takes an unexpected and frightening turn when he finds a message written on his sheet music: "Play one wrong note and you die." As he performs the complex piece onstage, Tom must also discover the anonymous sniper's motives and find a way to defuse the situation without the audience noticing.
"There's a growing sense of dread as he approaches the instrument itself and that grows when he opens up his score and sees there are notes from someone who claims to have a gun aimed at him and his wife and, if he misses a note, he'll be killed," said Wood, who spoke at one of Film Society's ongoing Free Talks along with director Eugenio Mira last week. "So, what a night to have stage fright…"
During the nearly hour-long conversation, Wood and Mira were playful, often throwing the other into bouts of laughter—a contrast from the sober high-stakes tension that builds in Grand Piano. Wood's character Tom is squarely the focus of the film, 80 percent of which takes place amid the grand setting of a concert hall with a full orchestra. In his earpiece he hears the haunting voice of his nemesis, the mysterious would-be assassin (played by John Cusack) who is threatening to end his life if he doesn't perfectly pull off "La Cinquette," commonly considered "the impossible piece."
Wood took piano lessons as a child and though he doesn't consider himself proficient, he said he knows his way around the keys. He also worked with a piano teacher to perfect the parts of the concert clearly visible on screen. Wood wanted his character to be fully engaged with the music. "It was important to me to make this as accurate as possible," he explained. "The character is meant to be a genius piano player and the music is very complicated, so it was important to make that as realistic as possible. I had about three weeks in L.A. with a piano teacher before going to Barcelona. She taught me from a perspective that allowed the learning curve [to be extraordinary]."
As the film's director looks to Grand Piano's U.S. release this week, he views his film, in part, as a tribute to an era of thrillers that are hard to come by today. "The irony of this movie is that 20 years ago it would have been mainstream," said Mira at the beginning of the discussion last week. "People like Richard Donner and the late John Frankenheimer are directors that I grew up with and I loved and for some reason Hollywood has failed to deliver."