The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Carmen.
Did you find it helpful to engage with the previous iterations of the story when you were preparing for this film?
Nicholas Britell: Well, what was interesting, actually, was that when Benjamin first told me that he had this inspiration to to do Carmen, my first instinct was that I actually didn’t want to adapt or rearrange Bizet at all. And I was obviously familiar with the opera. Benjamin and I talked extensively about things like the Pushkin epic poem and and the inspirations for libretto. But I also thought it was really important to follow Benjamin’s instinct for this; you know, there have been so many incredible adaptations of Carmen over the years in so many different guises, and that I felt strongly that if Benjamin is going to do this musically, I wanted it to be something completely different.
Melissa Barrera: I would say the same for myself. I didn’t want to… There’s just been so many iterations of this story that I didn’t want to subconsciously copy it, if I watched other things. So I stayed away from everything. I was familiar with the opera, but not enough. Like, I didn’t know anything other than I think Habanera, and I don’t… like, I don’t think I knew the music of the opera very well; I’d never seen it. But… it has such a big presence in Latin America. In Mexico, where I grew up, there was a commercial for soap, like cleaning soap, that used the Habanera song and changed the lyrics for that, for the soap. So it’s just been present for me, for a long time. I know that it’s huge and I know the the Carmen character, the essence of it. So I just wanted her to be mine.
talking about the film and the process makes me want to get back on set as soon as possible.
Can you describe the process you went through to prepare these dances?
MB: Yeah, it was getting comfortable with the dances enough that I didn’t have to think about the steps when I was in there, so that I could focus on the storytelling and what she’s feeling as she’s dancing, more than like, “Oh, did I do the right step? Did I turn the right way?” So it was just like drilling it well.
Benjamin Millepied: Yeah, I think it’s so impressive, particularly in the in the dance with all the other women, because you see Melissa dancing with all these professional dancers. And yet I find that your dancing is freer, you know, than all of them, which was really incredible, you know? Yeah. Really amazing sequence, considering she doesn’t take dance classes at all!
MB: Well, I have a funny story about that! I was mortified at one point, because Benjamin went out to Australia and started sending me videos that he was choreographing with these professional dancers, with the Sydney Dance Company dancers, the best dancers in all of Sydney. And he would send me videos and I’d be freaking out because I was like, “I’m not going to be able to do that. How do you expect me to do that?” If you’re choreographing with professional dancers and I get there and there’s this dance in the desert where I’m dancing with five of those girls and I’m in the middle… and I was like, “How am I going to look better than these girls?” So that was the dance that I think had me the most worried. We were shooting that and it was raining that day and we kept having to stop because our lights, you know, there was thunder, and for safety. And so I was just losing my mind in the trailer because I just wanted to get it over with, and finally it stopped raining. And I was like, “I’m going to slip because the floor is wet… I’m going to slip and fall.” And it was a oner as you can see. I don’t know if you noticed, but the the camera in that sequence doesn’t cut. It’s like one continuous take where you you can’t hide in a oner. It’s kind of… and when you cut, you can cut if someone made a mistake, you cut out of that scene and you use one where you didn’t. But for this it was… I knew it was going to be a oner and I was so nervous about that. We did a take, and then we did another one, and and Benjamin cuts, and he comes to me and he’s like, “How did you do that?” And I said, “What do you mean?” He’s like, “How did you… how did you do that? That was so good. You were flying.” I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” I kind of just had an out-of-body experience. I’m glad you liked it because I don’t know what happened! And so it was kind of like one of those magical moments where everything kind of just… it was the pressure of like, we don’t have much time. It’s about to be sunrise. We have to get this done. It doesn’t stop raining. And I think it all kind of worked out for the best.
The movie looks great, but it also sounds incredible. One of the most remarkable thing about the dance sequences is how much in the foreground the shuffling of feet and the breathing of the actors is. How early on was that part of your idea? Did you compose with that in mind?
NB: I mean, and I can say a lot about the sound. We had an incredible sound team, led by Niv Adiri, who’s a genius, and and actually one of the first people that I remember recommending to Benjamin was Niv, because I felt… for something that was really intended to be a, you know, a visual and aural experience, I wanted to make sure that the sound and the sound mix was really, really special. But, you know, as far as the the dances and the music, the on-camera music, that was something that Benjamin and I started talking about literally, you know, I mean, it might have been like ten years ago! Actually, I found an email from Benjamin from ten years ago that said, “I want I want to make Carmen.” Yeah, but it was, you know, it was a long process actually, to figure out all the on camera music. It started with just us talking about things and feeling… trying different experiments, I would say. And then we brought on these incredible collaborators: Julieta Venegas and Taura Stinson and The D.O.C., and that’s really when the songs kind of took their their shape, I think. And I was really curious myself, like, how they were going to look. Because I remember… Benjamin is so trusting and supportive as a director, of his crew. And I remember in particular with The D.O.C., that final huge, you know, rapping fight match that that happens. I remember saying to myself, “you know, I wonder if Benjamin’s going to want a lot of changes in it?” Because this is such a complex choreography. Like I can’t imagine. And and when he listen to it, he just said, “This is great. We’re there.” And I was like, okay, great. And I remember doing it and he shot it. And it’s what we wrote beforehand, you know, and I think that’s such a fascinating testament to Benjamin that he was able to, you know, he worked with this piece and crafted this whole sequence in a film right around that. And it’s true to the film and it’s true to the song. And I remember thinking to myself, that was really kind of remarkable that he were able to take this song and turn it into a whole scene.
This is an incredible challenge to take on, for your directorial debut.
BM: You know, I have to say in hindsight, like I just loved the process of the day-to-day. Like every day on set something goes wrong, and every day you show up, you’ve got to be pragmatic and actually embrace these issues. They’re there. They’re just issues that push you to be more creative. And frankly, I don’t mind it at all. I enjoyed it. I really… talking about the film and the process makes me want to get back on set as soon as possible. No, it’s… it’s really… you have to solve things every day, every day stuff for different reasons. And you have to find solutions. And if you surround yourself really well, you’ll have other people who will find good solutions for you. And what it forces you to do is try to go to the essential and actually strip away what you don’t need. But what is the essential stuff? And how can you figure that out, and do it with less and less time and less, you know? So it’s a fantastic process. I mean, I think maybe I particularly thrive on, like, restraint and how to be creative with restraint. So I just really loved it.
MB: We were… I just want to tell this story because we were you know, always running against the clock — as you usually are in movies, unless you’re like, you know, a big director that has all the time and money in the world to make a movie. But but for the most part, you’re rushing and trying to get things in with the light that you have, or so that you don’t have to do a forced call or whatever. So you’re always kind of tense. And Ben always would release that tension, because every time that we would be in between setups, he’d play awesome music over the speakers. So there was always music playing, and everyone was so relaxed because of it. But then also, when we were shooting the dance in the desert — the final sequence in the sunset — we had like a thirty or forty minute window to shoot that sequence, because the light was just right for that amount of time. And and we were in a red sand desert where the camera needed to see in 360. There was a limited crew because we had like a tiny little tent because the camera had to see all the way around. Base camp was thirty minutes away so that the camera could see the entire, you know, desert. And we had to dance, and then clean the dirt so that you didn’t see the footsteps of the previous take. And so it would be like a whole reset of that. You know, the crew would be sweeping, and Ben would grab a broom and sort of sweep and dance in between setups. And that is just like the definition of who Ben is as a director, just like… Joy and teamwork. And generosity and all the best things. It was such an amazing experience.