Benjamin Millepied on Reaching Across Borders with “Carmen”

In order to use the breathtaking skies that nature provides as a backdrop for the elaborately choreographed dance sequences that his cast and crew on “Carmen” had to pull off, Benjamin Millepied often found himself racing against the clock.

“You always have, time pressure and you realize that you’re [filming] in one direction and you want to shoot the other and the light’s gone. “It’s always tricky. You have to pay attention to everything as the director, and you have to really think on your feet.”

Thankfully, nobody has ever done that better than Millepied, the innovative choreographer who is best known to cinephiles for the dazzling dances he created for “Black Swan” yet has taken ballet to new heights with residencies around the world, including stops at the Paris Opera Ballet where he became the company’s director in 2013 and his ongoing work with the L.A. Dance Project that he co-founded in Los Angeles with Charles Fabius. He can be seen testing his own limits in “Carmen,” his debut feature where Prosper Mérimée’s time-honored tale of a soldier who becomes enamored with a mysterious woman he feels obliged to protect at all costs gives way to letting the artist’s imagination run wild when no longer constrained to a stage but the expanse of the big screen.

With the smoldering Paul Mescal and Melissa Barrera as the couple in question, as well as Almodovar scene-stealer Rossy de Palma as the club owner that takes them in when the two find themselves on the run from Border Patrol, the film is impossible to take your eyes off of, which makes what Millepied is able to do with “Pina” cinematographer Jörg Widmer so extraordinary as the camera becomes a dance partner for one sensational sequence after another, thrusting audiences into the middle of the action and all the passion summoned by the actors and Nicholas Britell’s vigorous score. It isn’t only the technical adventurousness that’s refreshing, but in relocating the story from its original setting of Spain to Mexico (by way of Australia – more on that later), Millepied finds a story as dynamic as the fancy footwork on display, exemplifying the silliness of borders when the film would seem to have none itself yet casting Barrera as an undocumented immigrant who makes it across to the U.S. thanks to a judgment call by Mescal’s former Marine that puts them both in jeopardy illuminates the connection between them that disregards any markers of identity besides their common humanity and to that end, the film blends the artistry of various cultures, including a show-stopping krumping sequence, into something that hasn’t been seen before.

After premiering last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, “Carmen” begins blazing into theaters across the U.S. this week and Millepied gracious took the time to talk about how he personally connected to the classic story and could make it his own, making the best out of filming in the Australian outback when the pandemic forced a company move and embracing surprises on the set.

You’ve said in the past that usually you’re inspired by a piece of music, and there’s obviously inspiration in Bizet’s Carmen, but what’s it like to build something from the ground up?

There was inspiration from working with the composer. Nicholas Britell, and we sat together at the piano and he wrote the first tune for the film, just built from conversations that we had about scores we loved and about the film, and the intentions and the direction we wanted. That really influenced the story and I would ask him to write some score as well, besides the songs and dances, because I wanted it for some of the darker scenes. For me, music gives me a tone, an atmosphere, and a mood and there’s always a narrative within, so it was very connected to what the film became.

I understand this evolved quite a bit during the writing process. Was there something you could hold onto throughout?

Yeah, this idea that I was born in France and moved to Senegal and then New York and L.A., and just [had] this will and this desire to dance and to make it a career. Obviously, I didn’t have any of the drama that a woman on the Mexican border experiences, but there was some form of connection and the expression of that freedom for me. And living in Los Angeles for 10 years, the love for the landscapes and the immigration issues being part of the environment, everything made sense that I should really tell the story, and put Carmen’s narrative on the Mexican-U.S. border.

Is it true that you had planned to shoot in Mexico, but had to relocate to Australia because of the pandemic?

Yeah, I scouted Mexico, which was really useful and at that point, the story had more of the Roma-Mexican community in the film — there’s a Roma community that immigrated to Mexico in the 20th century and still is present there and travels by trucks and does performances. It’s a really fascinating community and they were going to be part of the movie. But when COVID hit, we started to look at shooting in Australia and there was a good tax break and that’s where I ended up and that inspiration [from scouting Mexico] was still in there, but there’s things that I had to let go off because to try and recreate that authenticity in Australia would have been impossible. It was already tricky enough to really gather the Mexican community and find the actors and keep this authenticity, but I knew I had a film that was so heavily in this dreamscape that it could actually play to the movie’s advantage. That’s what was wonderful, and in the end, I just had such a great experience making the movie there and so much talent associated with it.

Was working with the actors an interesting experience? It seems like some may build their character through movement, but I imagine this might’ve been different approaching a performance for all of you.

That was a complete learning experience to have this kind of input that was so exciting, the actor owning what the story was and what the character was trying to convey and to really use that in the film on a daily basis. We improvised too, just constantly trying to play and I would try to tell them little ideas to create more tension underneath the dialogue. That was a really exciting intellectual part of the process that I loved.

What’s challenging about film on set is that every day you have new unexpected issues to deal with, right? It’s very rare that the day goes as planned, so you constantly have to rethink what you want to do. You had something in mind and it doesn’t work, so it forces you to be creative at all times. And I really enjoyed this sense of really being pragmatic because you also have the economy of it and think everything you do is costing money. You’re working against the clock and you’re surrounding yourself with like creative people who are there to support making smart decisions. There was nothing about the experience that I didn’t like, [though] obviously, there are things that I really had to learn that will carry me to my next film.

There’s a real sense of liberation from designing something for the stage when you’ve got these wide open locations. Was that an exciting part of this?

Yeah, it’s liberating because you can add more movement to the dancing. You choose where the camera wants to go and what it wants to emphasize, and it really makes the audience dance with the dancers. You really are in movement with them, and you’re going up and down and it’s making you pay attention to very specific things. That’s liberating — to not work with the proscenium, but to be able to make choices to be close or far. That’s what I love so much about working with film.

From the credits, it seemed like the “Pelada” sequence at the end — the fight scene reimagined as krumping — was a production unto itself with four additional choreographers and it’s built around that rousing Tracy “The Doc” Curry rap track. How did that come together?

Yeah, originally I wanted to shoot this scene in L.A., so I could really convey the brutality in the faces of the real people who live on the street and I was working with real krumpers here who have created this language out of their emotional experience, which I find so powerful and so beautiful and so creative because not a single Krumper dances like the other. It’s such a personal, unique expression and luckily, because of the documentary “Rize,” which [came out a while back] there’s a krumping community in Sydney, so I was able to gather people who were into that style and practiced it [there]. It was very much the idea was to surround the boxing [at the end] with something that felt brutal and realistic enough and Paul worked so hard to make those sequences realistic. He did an absolutely fantastic job.

It’s just extraordinary, and something that becomes beautiful is this melding of different cultures, all of which are inherent to the story you’re telling – for instance, I understand the French choir was a late addition to the soundtrack, but obviously touches on your heritage. Was that something you were open to throughout?

Very much. I remember playing this Costa Rican soundtrack to Loïc [Barrere. My co-writer] as a soundtrack that really impacted me from a film called “Le Temps des Gitans — Time of the Gypsies,” and playing him Eastern European choirs. Those were sort of the things that were the sort of things that were in our psyche throughout the years, and I love choirs and I love organ. For me, it’s a feast for the ears and I’m crazy about the score. I think it’s just outstanding.

This seems like a dream realized on so many fronts. What’s it like to have under your belt?

It’s the difference with film is they there to stay and I learned a lot, and I think that I will go into my next film with experience that will really count. But this is really gratifying and I’m just excited to have the opportunity to make another.

“Carmen” opens on April 21st in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and New York at the Angelika Film Center and the New Plaza Cinema. It will expand across the country in the weeks to come – a full list of theaters and dates is here.

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