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CULTURAL PERSPECTIVES
Grand Piano

By SHERIF AWAD

Eugenio Mira belongs to the new generation of Spanish filmmakers who are starting to get international recognition at a relatively young age. Mira who was born in 1977 in the Spanish city of Castalia belongs to an artistic family. After taking piano lessons during his childhood, he enrolled in art studies only to become a composer, a comic book illustrator, a set designer, and then a filmmaker.  

In the year 2000, Mira made his directorial debut with the short narrative Fade that he also wrote. Shot in English, the film centered on a peculiar salesman who offers people a machine that helps to bring back some of their memories. Fade showed the direction Mira wanted to explore with film: the psychological thrillers infused with touches of horrors targeting the international audience. The short would in time start to make noise and gain notice across the festivals’ circuits until it ended up in the hands of Guillermo del Toro, the acclaimed Mexican filmmaker who has expertise in sci-fi and horror films. Del Torobecomes instrumental in gaining greater recognition for Mira’s vision. Two years later, Mira joined a group of twelve Spanish directors who co-directed twelve short films, one minute each. Each film composition created by one of the twelve directors. The compilation of the 12 works were each designated placement under one title, Diminutos del calvario (Tiny Calvary).

Mira’s contribution was a one-minute black-and-white segment called Rancor in which actor Enric Cervera played a crippled doctor sitting in a wheelchair listening to his gramophone. After having fallen asleep, sounds of a door opening and wind howling are heard. The wind somehow caused the wheelchair to move under the chandeliers in the room; he is apparently being visited by an invisible entity. The picture suddenly cuts to black at the point when the chandeliers are about to fall on his head…

The Birthday, Mira’s first feature as writer-director, came about in 2004. The screenplay was supported by a Spanish producer; most of the principal photography took place in a hotel. Mira also cast the American actor Corey Feldman, once a teen sensation, when he co-starred in films like The Goonies, Gremlins, and Stand by Me in the 1980s. In The Birthday thriller that starts slow, then rises to violent and complicated cliffhangers, Feldman played the naive Norman.As Norman, he is invited by his girlfriend to come to her father's birthday party. Once there, he comes to discover that it is a ceremony for a demonic cult. “It is like Blake Edwards’ The Party being directed by Roman Polanski to mutate into Rosemary’s Baby”, as Mira described it to me when I met him last July in Karlovy Vary Festival. Again, del Toro was very much enthusiastic about Mira’s Birthday to the point that he helped the young director find a Hollywood agent. 

Mira’s follow-up was another psychological thriller called Agnosia; it came to be ralized in 2010. It had Hitchcockian elements with the main protagonist named Joana who suffers from agnosia, a strange neuropsychological illness that affects her perception. Although her eyes and ears are in perfect condition, her brain cannot interpret the stimuli she receives through them. Being the only one who knows the industrial secret left behind by her father, Joana become the target of a sinister plot to get the information out of her mind. The story of Agnosia took place in Spain during the last year of the19th Century so the main protagonists were Spanish… and making it Mira’s first costume thriller. The film also employed Mediterranean gothica elements as it paid homage to Luchino Visconti and Bernardo Bertolucci’s early Italian classics.

Since 2013, Mira’s latest film Grand Piano achieved many releases in the US and internationally. Like The Birthday, Agnosia and many of Hitchcock’s classics, the story revolved around a vulnerable character who is suffering from psychological problems and yet he is put in extraordinary situations. Moreover, like he did for his two previous features, Mira composed the soundtrack for Grand Piano and also set it almost in real time. Yet the music in this particular story was also a live character because the main protagonist was a pianist. In the thrilling film, Elijah Wood played Tom Selznick who happens to be the most talented pianist of his generation. After stopping to perform in public because of his stage fright and a catastrophic performance, Tom reappears in a long awaited concert in a packed Chicago theater and he is about to play an impossible piece. However, in front of the expectant audience, Tom finds a message written on the score he should perform: “Play one wrong note and you die”. Without leaving the piano, Tom must discover the motives of a sniper, played by John Cusack, who is hiding somewhere in the backstage pointing a rifle at him.

The movie was shot in Spain because it had better tax incentives than the US. All the exteriors were shot in Chicago. A small unit traveled from Spain and the rest of the crew was made up of American technicians. Likewise, a large number of the supporting actors are American or British, some of whom are particularly charismatic and have been part of recent cinema history:  Dee Wallace (the lovely mother in Spielberg’s E.T.), for example, plays the radio presenter who interviews Elijah Wood at the start of the film, while Alex Winter, Keanu Reeves’ companion in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, plays Wood’s assistant. Mira wrapped Grand Piano on time and ten times cheaper than many American directors.

“I must say it had to be George Lucas and Steven Spielberg who influenced me to become a director of thrillers and sci-fi”, Mira told me. “Also, we owe Álex de la Iglesia, the Spanish director of the sci-fi and horror genres who pioneered starting with Acción mutante in 1993. There are also influence elements of the Anglo-Saxon pop culture and the films that Terence Fisher directed for Hammer Studios in the UK during the 1960s and 1970s. I used to enjoy American films with special effects like Superman and Ghostbusters but I also wanted to learn how they have realized the visual tricks”.

Hollywood and other studios should give more opportunities to non-US filmmakers like Eugenio Mira to work in the US in order to inject new blood to mainstream films rather that the reboots and the remakes we are seeing over and over again.

 

Born in Cairo, Egypt, Sherif Awad is a film / video critic and film festival curator. He is the film editor of Egypt Today Magazine (www.EgyptToday.com ), and the artistic director for both the Alexandria Film Festival, in Egypt, and the Arab Rotterdam Festival, in The Netherlands. He also contributes to Variety, in the United States, and is the film critic of Variety Arabia                              (http://varietyarabia.com/), in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Al-Masry Al-Youm Website                                                                 (http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/198132 ) and The Westchester Guardian (www.WestchesterGuardian.com).

 

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