Poland’s Jakub Piątek returns to Sundance with his new doc, “Pianoforte,” taking on the cutthroat Chopin Piano Competition. Held every five years since 1927 — and famous for discovering new pianists trying to qualify for its prestigious finale — it can make or break a promising career. Film premieres Jan. 20.
“It’s like ‘Game of Thrones’: everyone has one goal,” he tells Variety. “Every few days, half of them go home. It’s brutal, but great for a film.”
Piątek’s feature fiction debut, “Prime Time,” starring “Corpus Christi” breakout Bartosz Bielenia, premiered at Sundance in 2021. Now, he is hoping that the festival’s stamp of approval will help him reach more people than just music aficionados.
“It’s not like I used to listen to classical music either. I am a bit of a barbarian in this world, but this ‘civilian’ perspective can be helpful. I can ask the most basic questions,” he says. “Also, during the actual competition, even cab drivers in Warsaw are making their bets. They talk about it like it’s a football tournament.”
The event, and its high stakes, has already been tackled in the likes of 1971’s “The First. The Sixth” and 2011 short “The Contest,” but Piątek decided to focus on less-glamorous moments.
“When we were watching archival footage with my editor, it seemed the cameras always appear at the beginning and then again when they are crowning the winners. But that’s already included in the price of the ticket!,” the director says. “There are many, many people who obsessively follow the competition. It crossed my mind I was taking on something sacred, but I wanted to go beyond polished album covers. To me, the most interesting things happen before and after they play.”
Shot during the pandemic, the film follows the likes of competitors Alexander Gadjiev and Eva Gevorgyan, as well as “underdog” Hao Rao. But Piątek — also behind Netflix’s new offering “Dead End,” co-directed with Grzegorz Jaroszuk — wasn’t trying to focus on the favorites, like Canada’s Bruce Liu.
“We asked 160 people to make a self-tape. I was interested in their story, not in whether they can actually win,” he notes.
“Some refused. One person said: ‘I will do it, but only if it will be a film about me.’ The thing is, we didn’t set out to produce somebody’s showreel. We wanted to tell a coming-of-age story, because for many of them, it’s their first ‘adult’ competition. It’s also the last time you can see them being so raw and so honest.”
His crew would visit them in their homes in China, Italy or Russia, talk to their parents and teachers.
“We were the crazies who were interested in everything,” jokes Piątek, underlining that while they were cheering them on, they also had to stay vigilant.
“I couldn’t imagine that someone from our team would infect someone [with COVID] and exclude them from the competition. Also, the first rule was that when they are on stage, we don’t interfere.”
But backstage, emotions ran high.
“In the film, you can see us hugging someone who is going back home. Sometimes, we were the only people they knew in Warsaw! Finding out who was going to make it to the next stage was stressful for everyone,” he says.
With its slew of young pianists, isolated from the rest of the world, “Pianoforte” echoes the claustrophobia of Piątek’s hostage drama “Prime Time,” centered around a man who takes over a TV studio on New Year’s Eve.
“I guess I am just interested in that kind of confinement,” he notes, admitting there might be another ensemble film in his future.
“I keep thinking of making something else about a group of musicians. Like Fellini’s ‘Orchestra Rehearsal’!”
Produced by Telemark, “Pianoforte” was co-funded by the Polish Film Institute and co-produced by HBO Max with BBC Storyville acquiring U.K. rights. Sales are handled by Submarine.