Unable to provide its usual concerts this season, Müpa Budapest has created a video of hope disguised as a public service announcement. Directed by Attila Szász, it tells about the relationship that develops between a young girl and a grand piano who meet underneath the main stage, where all the pianos had to be stored when the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall had to be closed. The film, which follows the magical transformation of a beginner picking out a tune with one finger into an accomplished pianist, ends as the girl at the piano rises onto the main stage where the workers are preparing for a live Christmas concert. 

“We wanted to capture the idea that music will always be there,”  Szász told me the week before Christmas. “We wanted to say that when we get through the nightmare, music will be there, kept alive by the spirit of music lovers, and ready to be played again.” In the meantime, Müpa is keeping music alive with free nightly online concerts because, Szász said, “we cannot leave anyone without art or without music.”  

Müpa Budapest comprises the Festival Theatre, the Ludwig Museum of contemporary art and the Bartók National Concert Hall where, among others, the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer play and record. Once the venue reopens, there is a bistro, a café and one of the world's great performing arts bookstores. Outside, along the Danube, stretches one of the world's great promenades for families, lovers and even solitary journalists. At night everything glitters, the bridges and the trolley cars are strung with lights, rekindling the city's romantic dreams. 

Film director Attila Szász © Vilmos Skuta
Film director Attila Szász
© Vilmos Skuta

When Szász sent the producers what he called a “love letter” detailing his ideas for the script, “they liked my ideas and thought they would contribute to what they already had in mind.” Although he worried that his treatment of what was originally intended to be a two-minute message was too long, when the answer came back, it was: “We don't care how long it is – as long as it works.” The result is a feature film about a little girl and a piano only four and a half minutes long. And it works.

As told by Szász, it's a simple boy meets girl, or rather girl meets piano, story. “We have an instrument who wants to be played and is eager for an audience. The piano misses the audience, not just the other way around. When someone comes who's never played the piano, the piano's thing is to teach. As the little girl learns to play, they become friends.” And in fact, the film captures unforgettable suggestions of how they might have spent their afternoons together in dialogues of music, silent looks and gestures as the little girl learns to play the piano and grows up. 

The evocative score, which Szász says “evolved simultaneously with the images during post production,” began as the arrangement of a short excerpt for beginners from Liszt's Christmas Tree Suite. It was subsequently put together, as composer Róbert Erdész says in an accompanying behind-the-scenes video, “differently from how Liszt originally imagined them.” 

In order to achieve the authenticity of detail that helped the narrative flow so seamlessly and absorbingly, Szász cast two girls in the starring role. Míra was an 11-year old actress who had been playing the piano for many years, Tünde was a 7-year old actress with more advanced technique and photogenic hands. To accommodate the small size of both girls' hands, composer Erdész even reduced the stretches in some of the writing. "The older girl's piano teacher helped her look like she was playing the right keys and was looking in the right directions,” he explained. “We never showed her hands except when she was playing the first couple of notes. The biggest question was whether we would be able to believe that she's playing the piano, and I think she did a great job.”

Szász spoke with great admiration for his stars. “Míra was very easy to work with, absolutely on top of her game throughout, and I think it was a magical experience for her as well. I cast her because she was so very withdrawn, and I felt I would be more interested in making her express intense emotions. She was very reserved at first, with big blue eyes and too shy even to smile. But after a few hours she started to smile and showed this radiant elf-like personality that matched the story. She was very special, someone who wouldn't be too surprised to see a piano play itself. Maybe I was looking for someone who's not ordinary, someone who might be a little bit lonely. And I could see the whole story was in her eyes.”

Szász said that Tünde had “a completely different personality – but was a very good pianist and that's all we needed.” Even though she didn't act in the conventional sense, Szász said that she supplied key moments as an actress “with her hands,” as at the end of the piece when she lets her hands slide down and puts them in her lap. “She did it with such naturalness,” Szász said. “It was a very tender moment which we used in the final cut.”

Szász told me that the original idea was to use only the first movement of Liszt's Christmas Tree cycle “because that's what she starts to play. I felt differently, that the piece didn't really have a finale and wasn't really emotional. I found that number four, the “Adeste, Fideles” movement, was much more emotional and that its ending had a sort of finale feel to it. They said fine, it's a good idea. It always feels good,” Szász admitted with a smile, “when music experts with an exact concept of what they want are open to suggestions from a director whose only skill is making images.”

Teamwork and logistics were the keys to working on a schedule so tight that the producers couldn't even have three consecutive days to shoot because the Müpa stages were always busy. And since they weren't shooting in the real under-the-stage area, they had to build extra walls and pay special attention to the lighting. “We wanted to give the feeling that it was the home of a piano.” 

In reality, pianos are stored in very tight spaces but Szász wanted a design for a room that a piano would have. “On the wall there are pictures of the piano itself with different performers, lots of chairs, stacks of scores and music stands complete with individual stand lights. It was a very creative and collaborative experience, and the shooting went very smoothly.”

For further behind the scenes details, Müpa is also streaming a six-minute video about the making of the film including interviews with Szász, Erdész, CEO Csaba Káel, head of marketing and Deputy CEO Gábor Kosztolánczy and scriptwriter Gábor Récsán .

This article was sponsored by Wavemaker Hungary.