Benjamin Millepied, who choreographed and co-starred in 2010 Oscar-nominated “Black Swan”, had wanted to bring his role in the classic opera “Carmen” to the big screen for more than six years. The score will be one of the most important components of Millepide, who was directing a solo feature film for the first time, and turned to composer Nicholas Brittle (“Don’t Look For”, “If Bill Street Speak”) help carry out his vision. It would not be wrong to say that their collaboration made the choir sing.
The opera Georges Bizet, bowed in Paris in 1875, was erected in southern Spain. The movie Millepied, debuted on September 11th at the Toronto International. The pre-release film festival kicks off in the fall via Sony Pictures Classics, in Mexico with a stunning flamenco figure featuring Marina Tamayo as Carmen’s mother on the family home grounds. Some men arrive in search of Carmen, and a tense confrontation ends with her mother’s brutal murder. “In the Heights” actress Melissa Barrera plays Carmen, who is trying to flee the country but is stopped by Border Patrol agent Aidan (Paul Mescal). When Aidan can’t bring himself to arrest Carmen, the two flee to Los Angeles.
To give the film a multicultural feel, Millepied combined touches from his early childhood in Senegal as well as motifs from Eastern European and West African music. “We wanted the world to be unique and include different influences,” he explains.
Brittle took an experimental approach to music, linking song and movement into the narrative framework. We didn’t know where we were going. “We didn’t know what the outcome would be,” Brittle says. But adapting to the development and momentum of the story was an approach that was familiar to him through his collaborations with Barry Jenkins on films including “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Talk.”
Millepied also relied on Brittle to write the original songs for the film; The composer has worked with songwriters Taura Stinson (“Mudbound”) and Grammy Award winner Julieta Venegas. When the score came together, so did the songs.
In the result, The Brettle Road blended the moods of the characters with the roots of the story. “I felt it would be something of a classic nature,” he says. “We wanted it to have a level of vocal aggressiveness. There are synthesizers, acoustic experiences, and string orchestras.”
Millepied adds, “While the music paints choreography in my head, it also brings in deep images and ambiance.”
But the real discovery came when Brittle was watching a scene involving Aidan and Carmen in a hotel room. The two have been close to each other since fleeing Mexico while hiding above a nightclub belonging to the friend of her deceased mother’s mother, Masilda (Rossi de Palma). “I remember saying to Benjamin, ‘What if there was a choir who was singing while they were at the hotel? Brittle says, adding that the idea “felt crazy for me.”
But Melpid gave him the freedom to experiment, so the choir acts as a kind of Greek choir, providing commentary on what is happening. Millepied and Britel chose words from the original text of Henri Melak and Ludovic Halévy to Bizet’s opera, and Brittel arranged them in the score. The choir singing the French lyrics provides a bridge from the opening of the opera to the re-imagining of Millepied screen.
Millepied was also inspired by his team. As with Britell, he found them inspiring to work with and remained open to their suggestions. He says, “We had an open and playful process, which was spontaneous and lively.”
The movie is full of long scenes. One scene in particular is seven minutes long. She was between Macilda and Carmen at the club when Macilda discovers that Carmen is dancing alone. This was de Palma’s first scene, but the director praised his star Barrera who Melissa did an amazing job with dancing and singing.
He notes that Parreira never attended ballet lessons but was normal. His goal all along was to immerse the viewer in dance. He says, “I was going to block out all these camera sequences and model them with DP and focus on the upper body.” He adds, “Bodies are always alive, they are the most important and the most expressive. This scene was about how they interact with each other. I wanted to go in and go through the club, but the camera movement was really about instinct.”
Millepied adds, “Needless to say, Melissa did a great job dancing and singing, she worked hard, she’s not a professional dancer, she doesn’t take lessons. She always came alive with the dance when the camera rolled. It all ties together for her, her character, her story and in The end of the dance.”
He compares the experience to film school because it combined everything he loves: dance, music, and choreography. The film is an audio-visual experience.
Acute listeners will notice how the prominence of the male or female choral sounds indicates the direction of the story. “I was driven by where and how that came together and what was happening,” Brittle explains. At the beginning of the film, where violence reigns, the choir of men presents a dark setting. In turn, the women’s choir offers the heart of the recording.”