Last year Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood spent five months filming in Spain. It was not to star in a Hollywood superproduction in search of good technicians with low salaries and tax breaks in the Canary Islands — he was working on movies that were 100-percent Spanish: Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano, which opened the 46th edition of the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival last week and is released in Spain on October 25, and Timecrimes director Nacho Vigalondo’s Open Windows.
Wood has a curious career behind him. He’s a child actor who managed to avoid the Culkinian curse and sniff out some good indie film roles. Now at the age of 32 — in person, sporting a bit of a beard, it’s impossible to tell how old he is — he has already learned how to navigate the diverse currents of cinema, jumping from animations such as Happy Feet to immersing himself in small-scale dramas such as Everything Is Illuminated, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Bobby, or appearing in box office hits such as Sin City. And, of course, he will always have Middle Earth.
These days, though, Spain is more to hand. “In the last five, 10 years I’ve seen quite a lot of Spanish films that I loved by interesting directors, such as, for example, Nacho Vigalondo. What’s more I met Nacho and Eugenio Mira in Austin [Texas], at one of its film festivals. My current connection started there, even though I had an introduction with Alex de la Iglesia, when I made The Oxford Murders in 2008. Maybe Alex sowed the seed. He is a force of nature and he has an overwhelming personality.”
But that shoot was in London — though Wood remembers the Spanish technical crew with admiration. The encounter in Austin was, for him, his real Spanish cinema epiphany. “That contact was the one that allowed me to do Grand Piano, that allowed Eugenio to think of me. It’s often very refreshing to film outside your country. As an American, I love to travel, to spend a lot of time here and there, working with very different people. And I know it will sound like a typical promotional line, but I stress: Grand Piano has been one of the best film experiences of my life.”
In tough times, art is the last thing you should cut, because it’s cathartic”
In Mira’s third feature — which is coproduced by Buried creators Rodrigo Cortés and Adrián Guerra — Wood plays Tom, the world’s greatest pianist, who returns to the stage in Chicago five years after retiring following a bad experience at his last concert. But one music fan threatens to kill his wife and Tom — who the criminal, played by John Cusack, has provided with an earpiece — has to give in to the blackmail and play perfectly while also trying to save his wife’s life before the performance finishes.
You might say it’s Buried in a concert hall. More accurately, it is an outstanding visual feast with a whiff of Hitchcock about it. “It was a difficult shoot. It was as much a technical challenge — because 80 percent of the film happens in real time — as a personal one, because I had to look the part of a pianist. I have the basics, I even have a small back catalogue and gave classes when I was small, so I know the landscape; the instrument isn’t strange to me. It’s a matter of rhythm, choreography and timing.”
It seems nothing annoys him. “It’s true, sat at the piano you can’t play much with the movements. But sometimes limitations have something liberating about them. I found freedom in that constraint.”
Wood talks passionately about how his character mixes artistic anxiety with personal desperation. “What’s more you’re also forgetting that you’re hearing a voice in your head, which gives you a lot to play with as an actor: is there really someone at the other end of the earpiece? In reality, there is an interior journey of the character that doesn’t just consist of beating the piano, but rather in surpassing himself, in growing.”
Now he has worked in Spain, and returned in the week that Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro became the villain of the Spanish film industry with comments questioning the quality of the country’s cinematic output, what does he think about the government’s cuts to film funding? “I know how difficult it is to make films here. I know people are looking for the opportunities so that they can go on filming and I am aware of the bad economic situation. Today, shooting a film is a privilege, so you have to involve yourself in your movie as if it were the last. Nobody guarantees you a future. But it amazes me how a government can mess up Spanish film — an art form that has come a long way, has spread around the rest of the world in the last decade, exploiting a moment of globalized cultural appetites. It’s messing up years of work. And art defines the identity of a nation. In difficult times, art is the last thing you ought to cut, because it allows people to express themselves, it’s cathartic, and creates self-confidence. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
A stint in the director’s chair awaits Wood in the future. For now he has his own small production company. “It’s difficult because my name alone doesn’t raise financing for a film, and I am a bit of an egotist: we are making films of the kind I like to watch, I hope that the audience also appreciates them,” he says. And after that? “It’s strange. I’m thinking about it unconsciously, but I should get myself in shape. Yes, there you go.”