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Fernando Trueba & They Shot the Piano Player

Fernando Trueba & They Shot the Piano Player

Courtesy Elena Claverol


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Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba has long been a jazz fan, and has made several films with a jazz focus. Calle 54 (2000) is still a notable documentary on Latin jazz. The film primarily consists of studio performances by a wide array of Latin Jazz musicians. Artists featured include Chucho Valdes, Bebo Valdes, Cachao, Eliane Elias, Gato Barbieri, Tito Puente, Paquito D'Rivera, Chano Dominguez, Jerry Gonzalez, Dave Valentin, Aquíles Báez, and Michel Camilo. The film takes its name from Sony Music Studios, where much of the film was shot, which are located on 54th Street in New York City. Chico and Rita (2010) is an earlier animated film with a musical theme. The story of is set against the backdrops of Havana, New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Paris in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Chico is a young pianist with big dreams, and Rita is a beautiful singer with an extraordinary voice. Their romance takes a twisting, heartbreaking path.

In a distinguished career Trueba has won numerous awards: the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film with Belle Époque in 1994, the Goya Award (Spain's main national annual film awards) as Best Director three times, and a Silver Bear for Year of Enlightment at the 37th Berlin International Film Festival. Miracle of Candeal won the Goya for Best Documentary, and Chico and Rita won the Goya for Best Feature Animation. In 2011 he won the Award of the Hungarian National Student Jury for Chico and Rita at the 7th Festival of European Animated Feature Films and TV Specials. They Shot the Piano Player uses animation to tell a true story about the disappearance of the promising Brazilian pianist Francisco Tenório Júnior.

All About Jazz: As I understand it your path to Francisco Tenório Júnior pretty much parallels what you have the journalist do in the movie.

Fernando Trueba: Yeah, that's it. The story starts, like 20 years ago, when I was doing [the documentary] El milagro de Candeal (2004) in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. At that time, you know, all these instrumental Brazilian music, and many bossa nova records, were out of print for several decades, since the '60s and '70s. And you couldn't find all these wonderful records, which are starting to be reprinted now. So I was doing my movie. And every time I had some free time I was running to the two or three best record shops in Salvador and buying these records that were incredibly good. One day, I bought this record that we can see and hear in the movie called All l Pay. Now, it was an instrumental record where some of my favorite musicians powerboat around the salsa. I bought it, and that's the first time that I listened to Tenório's piano, and his name was unknown to me. Then I start searching for other records. I remember that I read about his only record as a leader, but it was not available at the time. And I found one CD in Japan, the Japanese edition, through eBay, and I bought it. They send it to Madrid, that was 2005, maybe. So in these years, I started getting interested in his music, and also when I discovered what happened to him in his life, and his death. And so I started to search for people in Brazil, in Argentina, and also in the United States. And I did like 150 interviews. In the screenplay of the movie, I use small fragments of maybe 30 to 33 of these interviews, because it was impossible to use all that material. He was a very, very good friend with Clare Fischer. They wrote each other, and they sent charts. But when I met Clare Fisher, he had problems. He couldn't remember, it was very sad. His son was trying to help him. He had this relationship with Bud Shank. That we can see in the movie but with other musicians too, with Bill Evans. They met every time Evans was in Rio. And Evans was always asking for charts of Brazilian music.

AAJ: Was there a triggering event that finally got you to write the screenplay?

FT: Yeah, because when I did all these interviews, I didn't know at the beginning, how I should proceed with all these materials, right? I was overwhelmed. It was a mountain of hours and hours of video interviews. It was too much material, I needed to take some distance when I did it. I was not thinking about animation. I felt that with this material I could do a documentary or I could make a book also, sometimes I thought that maybe a book was more logical. I was making another movie: Chico and Rita (2010) was for me the discovery of the possibilities of animation. Now Chico and Rita was a fictional story. But I also included real musicians and real characters like Ben Webster and Charlie Parker. And it worked very well: the audience loved to have real musicians in this fiction story. So I discovered that when you see a biopic with actors, doesn't matter how good they are, you are always watching an actor work. Now, you're not saying Picasso or Charlie Parker doesn't matter how good the actor is. Now, you're saying, Oh, he's doing a great job doing this, but you don't believe it. But if you see a drawing an animation of Thelonious Monk you say, "Hey, this is Thelonious Monk." So if we used animation, I could recreate the memories of all the people who spoke to me about the scene and about that period. And we recreated not only Tenório's life, but also that period of Brazilian music, all these bars in Rio, and jazz clubs with bossa nova. With animation, you can make people, and make things alive again, now. So I had to write a screenplay. I say, Okay, I'm working with reality. But I want to use the strategies of fiction, the ways of a fiction movie even if I'm not changing reality. And the way that you edit, to tell the story is like a fiction movie, even if it's real, a real story. That was my idea of what I tried to do.

AAJ: I'm curious about Jeff Goldblum voicing the narrator. How did you arrive at that?

FT: When I was writing the screenplay, at this table [in the Zoom call] where I thought, Hey, Jeff. I made a movie with Jeff 30 years ago, in Paris and Madrid called The Mad Monkey (aka Twisted Obsession, 1989). And we've been friends all this time, whenever I was in LA or he was in Spain or, or he was doing theater in New York, we like to meet and talk and visit with each other, and I love that man. I love his voice. I think he has an incredibly unique original voice. And the way he uses his voice is just very jazzistic. With other actors, even very good ones, you can imagine the project in your mind. He's gonna say this line this way. With Jeff, it's always unexpected, like he's soloing When he speaks. And so when I was writing the screenplay here, I say, I'm gonna call the character Jeff. Like, and I cross my fingers that Jeff would like the screenplay, and we'll be able to do it. I was not sure. No, you never know if it will be possible or not. But he liked the script. And he says, I'll do it. So for me, that was for the movie a great thing. And the fact that he's a pianist himself. It adds a lot. I remember when we did that movie many years ago. The only thing Jeff asked, you know, the actors are always asked things. No, I want this and that and that to the production. No. The only thing he said was, please, I would like to have a keyboard in my dressing room. So when I'm in the hours of waiting, during the shooting, I will play music and I never will be bored. So I remember always going to his dressing room or wherever. And he was always playing Thelonious Monk, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin. It was a pleasure to hear.

AAJ: So you had a history with him being a pianist, too?

FT: Yeah. He's very open and sensitive to animation because his sister Pamela is a very good painter. So he, he was like the ideal person for this.

AAJ: You mentioned the 150 interviews. Was there anyone that you wanted to talk to who declined or you were unable to get together with?

FT: Well, yeah, a couple of them declined. And there is one that I couldn't find and maybe interview, but one day I'm gonna meet him, maybe in Barcelona. Hermeto Pascoal was a very close friend of Tenório when they were young, and after Tenório married, they were in Sao Paulo. So this is the only thing that I personally missed. The idea of what he could tell me. No one remembers Tenório like him, because Hermeto is such an original character.

AAJ: One other thing. It's sort of a technical question, I guess, as I was looking at the credits, I was expecting to find a musical director or something like that. And all I found was a legal adviser. So were all the musical decisions yours?

FT: Yeah. Exactly. I wrote this screenplay with music. The music was central from the very beginning. Music is not something that you add at the end, as you do in a normal movie. Now, music, for me is part of the story. For example, at the beginning of this movie, we have Jeff in his apartment in Brooklyn, and he's listening to a record and there is this solo piano, that he's where he gets interested in Tenório. So this is like, do you get incidental music? No, real music. So I'm using the music to flow from one scene to another and changing the character during the moments in the movie. So I love to do that. That means that this is when I'm writing here, the screenplay. This music is with me. And I'm using it in the storytelling as part of it.

AAJ: Speaking of the visuals, though, I was curious about how you chose Javier Mariscal to do the visuals. I know he's associated with comics, among other things.

FT: He's a great designer and a great illustrator. He's done comics when possible. He's done logos. He's even designed a hotel in Bilbao. He's very well known in Japan. I always loved his work, even before we met for the first time. We met when I asked him to do the poster for [the documentary] Calle 54 (2000) and then we became friends. So it's curious that music has been central in our friendship since the beginning. I'm always giving him records. I'm always, you have to listen to this. And mostly jazz records, because it's what I usually listen to.



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