Ripe for Reinvention: Benjamin Millepied Reimagines CARMEN as a Big-Screen Spectacle

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The tragic yet gripping story of Carmen, first written as a novella in 1845, has been reimagined by countless artists in many mediums, including opera, ballet, and orchestral suite. Its most famous version, Georges Bizet’s Carmen (1875), remains one of the most popular and widely performed in the opera canon. Now, ballet choreographer Benjamin Millepied is the latest to adapt the work, moving the story from Spain to the modern-day U.S.-Mexico border in a highly stylized and bold new vision meant to appeal to contemporary audiences. Millepied’s Carmen, his directorial feature-film debut, brings rising stars like Melissa Barrera (In the Heights, Scream) and Paul Mescal (Aftersun) together in one of the most intriguing movies to be released this year. Boxoffice Pro spoke to Millepied about his creative process and how his collaboration with composer Nicholas Britell (Moonlight, “Succession”) resulted in the latest reimagining of the classic story.

What about Carmen made you want to pursue adapting it as a feature film?

[Bizet’s opera] Carmen has resonated with me for years. It’s a piece I grew up with, that I saw different iterations of as a child. I remember seeing Carlos Saura’s [1983 film] version as a 10-year-old, remember going to see it at the opera over the years, and, of course, hearing the music whenever I could. I’ve always had Carmen in the back of my mind, and it became clear to me why I’ve been so attracted to the work now that I’ve made my own version of it. It was just one of those projects I felt was ripe for reinvention with a new story. There is something about this woman’s journey that I was interested in confronting.

You’ve mentioned in interviews that you believe dance is the language of dreams. This film has a very liminal quality to it—the U.S.-Mexico border feels like a dreamscape. That tone, which you create with a fluid camera and flourishes of surrealism, pervades the entire film; it helps prepare the viewer for your method of storytelling through dance. What drew you to this visual approach for the film?

I like to feel a film before I can intellectualize it. My favorite filmmakers are those who can create their own worlds. They speak to elements of mystery, elements you may find in dreams, and that’s something that speaks to me directly because of the language of dance. Particularly, having danced [the choreography of] George Balanchine for so many years, where there’s always such interesting, symbolic imagery in his ballets. That’s the beauty of working in dance—you can explore the spaces between narrative, symbolism, and the abstract. I was lucky that my producers gave me the freedom to make this film in the way I work in dance. There’s a pretty clear connection between the character of Zilah, Carmen’s mother, who passes away at the beginning of the story but is somehow present in this journey with her daughter. There is a connection between these women across life and death. These were interesting themes to me that we were able to explore and expand on as we put the movie together, bringing them together with the musical elements. It gives the film a sense of connection between the languages of film, music, and movement and how those elements interact with each other. They’re meant to be enjoyed in harmony as a single experience. When they all come together, it gives the work a unique dimension.

You collaborated with composer Nicholas Britell for the music in this film. How did your partnership come about?

At first, [Nicholas and I] just wanted to make a movie that incorporated music and dance. As we discussed the project in greater detail, delineating the type of film that we didn’t want it to be and emphasizing the things we wanted to aim for, we found a common vision for what the film should be—and how dance, movement, and narration could exist in that space. We shared a common vision from the start. It was very fun for us to talk about the musical influences we could bring into the film. Those conversations eventually led to an initial version of the score that was created before we began shooting the film. It was pretty inspiring to be on set with the music, choreographing dances to those songs. It wasn’t until we got into the studio that it felt that the score for the film really came together. I remember us sitting together, trying to figure out the film’s opening sequence, when the score all came together at once. It was really fascinating to see something like that come together as a result of all our conversations. It wasn’t like we had just discovered it at the moment; it was a product of all our conversations—of all the time we spent ruminating about it and going through it in our heads. It was a blast to make this movie with him, and I really feel the score is outstanding, unique, and bold. I couldn’t be happier with it.

You’re going into pre-production having to choreograph based on a score that is 60 to 70 percent complete—how much of a runway did you have, in terms of rehearsal time, to work on that very intricate choreography before you had to start shooting?

It was actually a lot of fun to put the choreography together. It was a quick turnaround; I choreographed while we were in pre-production. I knew how I wanted to shoot Melissa [Barrera] and that I wanted to have these long sequences where the audience could feel like they were dancing with her. She rose to the occasion beautifully, and it was one of the most fun parts of the process.

When we talk about choreography in the film, it’s not just in the dancing but also in your direction. You don’t rely on fixed cameras, static long shots of your ensemble, or rapid editing to accentuate specific moves. You use a very fluid, dynamic camera to shoot the dance sequences in this film. The camera moves with your dancers.

I wanted to bring the audience in with us as part of the choreography, having the camera float throughout the scenery and among the dancers. There’s no better way to do that than a beautifully choreographed sequence shot on a Steadicam. We could get in the middle of the dance, so it would feel like the camera enhances the dancing. It gives the dance a sweeping element that’s further heightened by the camera’s movement, which I really love. I wouldn’t shoot every dance film this way, but I felt that this was the way to shoot this one.

It felt like we were forging our own path with the way we shot the dance sequences in this film. I wasn’t thinking of doing things a certain way because I had seen it done elsewhere. That’s what attracts me to making movies, a chance to control the camera in my own way, give each scene its own life, and figure out how to move people inside the frame. It’s thrilling having the ability to make these choices.

Melissa Barrera and Paul Mescal do a fantastic job, and it was great to see Rossy de Palma in the film as well. How difficult was it to cast the film? These are physically demanding roles. In big studio action tentpoles, you hear about the principals having to go through a fitness bootcamp ahead of shooting—what was the preparation process for your actors?

Paul arrived ready. He has a background in boxing and was able to figure out everything pretty quickly. He did an outstanding job in the film—boxing, playing guitar, and singing. Melissa worked a lot on the dance aspect of her performance. We rehearsed way before pre-production. She was attached to the film quite early on and was the best Carmen I could have dreamed of. And then, of course, Rossy was an obvious choice for her role. She’s outstanding in the film. They all brought their own creativity to their roles. I was fortunate as a first-time director to work with all of them.

AT THE MOVIES

There is really something magical about going to the movies. There’s a nostalgia to it for me, as well. It’s where I’ve seen most of the films that have really impacted me throughout my life. I think of two films that my parents took me to when I was a kid. One was Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room, and the other was They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Two very different films that I got to see in a movie theater. For me, the movie theater is forever grounded in this nostalgia for powerful experiences that stayed with me for a lifetime. When I was young, for example, I remember Jerome Robbins taking me to the Ziegfeld in New York for the opening night of the theatrical rerelease of Vertigo [the famed choreographer and director was Millepied’s mentor]. It was an unbelievable experience. Certainly, I was familiar with Hitchcock from my time in France, where he is a very revered filmmaker—even more so than in the United States. I’m very attached to the moviegoing experience. I think there will always be a need for a calm, seated, and focused experience that can last longer than 15 seconds. I live in Paris and it’s still the capital for cinemas. There are so many different films playing every night in movie theaters across the city.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
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