Benjamin Millepied calls Carmen the opera of his childhood. Growing up in Bordeaux, France, he remembers Prosper Mérimée's novella being taught to him as a schoolboy, and seeing a film version of Georges Bizet's opera at the age of 7 (and later, director Carlos Saura's flamenco riff on the story in 1983's Carmen). "It's definitely my first experience with opera," Millepied says. "I was fond of the story and felt like it was something that was an interesting, classical tragedy to create my first film."
Millepied first sparked to the idea of adapting Carmen during his time as a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet in the mid '90s; specifically, while dancing the West Side Story Suites under the direction of Oscar winner Jerome Robbins. He began discussing in earnest directing the movie in 2014, upon meeting composer Nicholas Britell, who would write all of the original music for the film. Still, it would be another decade after that before Carmen arrived on screen. "Because I wasn't in a rush," Millepied tells A.frame. "It was a journey."
Millepied's Carmen is only loosely inspired by Bizet's opera 1875 about a soldier seduced by an impetuous gypsy woman — so loosely, in fact, that Millepied doesn't think of it as an adaptation at all. The broad strokes are there — high drama, tortured characters, a tragic love story — but in this reimagining, the story unfolds on the Mexico-U.S. border and Carmen is an undocumented immigrant fleeing the cartel.
"Dance is very instinctive. There's a subconscious quality. You work with these dancers, they inspire you, you create images. And in film, it's like, 'Why is this me? Why do I need to tell this story?'" Millepied considers. With Carmen, he connected to the relationship between Carmen and her mother — both the character and the director learned dance from their mothers — and her desire for freedom. "As someone who grew up in France and lived in Senegal and moved to the U.S. at 15 with this will to go places, that's a story that resonated with me."
Perhaps because he felt so personally attached to his prima donna, the director and co-writer knew that he needed to reinvent her on-screen. The Carmen of the opera is a fantasy of what a woman could be. "She's this object of desire, but she really can't love or be loved," he explains. "She's not a real human being, and I wanted to have a Carmen who was a real human being."
Millepied found his Carmen in Melissa Barrera. It was one of her first auditions after moving from Mexico to Los Angeles — before Vida, before In the Heights, and long before she would become the face of the Scream franchise. She sent in a tape of herself singing "No Puedo Estar Sin Ti," a ballad by the Spanish singer Rosana that Barrera had also used to audition for Latin American Idol when she was 14. Millepied was impressed, and even more so when he watched videos of her competing on Dancing With the Stars in Mexico.
"I had never had a meeting with a director before at that point. That was a new thing for me. I was like, 'Does that mean that I got it?!' And they were like, 'No. I think he's probably meeting more actresses.' It turns out that he wasn't meeting anyone else. It was just me," Barrera says. "He saw the character in me somehow, even though I didn't see the character in myself at all."
Carmen's love interest in the movie is Paul Mescal's Aidan. Whereas the Don José of Bizet's opera turns his back on his military career to pursue Carmen, Aidan, a Marine suffering from PTSD, and Carmen go on the run together after he saves her from a deadly standoff at the border. It was Millepied's wife, Natalie Portman, who recommended Mescal for the role after seeing him in Normal People. "I wanted an actor who could be a man and not be a pretty boy, and not necessarily be graceful, and not really be a dancer."
Barrera remembers the first time she danced with Mescal. With one of the world's most accomplished choreographers at the helm, Carmen unfolds largely through dance — flamenco, and krumping, and every flavor of modern dance imaginable. The actors arrived in Australia ahead of filming and went straight into rehearsals. Barrera, who signed onto the early in development, had already been working with her director on and off over the years.
"So, I go in with a little bit more confidence," she recounts. "Paul was a nervous wreck. He was looking at his feet and very self-conscious, so it was more me trying to make him feel comfortable and safe. Like, 'I'm not a dancer either! We're in this together! We're going to trust each other!' It's such an important part of the movie — the chemistry that they have in the dance — and it's going to feed everything else, so I think we were both very aware of that. And we laughed a lot because we felt like idiots on that first day."
She remembers their final dance just as vividly.
"It felt like I was carrying a gigantic rock on my back, and every time that we did one of the dance sequences, someone came with a pick and took a chunk out of it," Barrera says. "When we did the last one — which was the desert dance at the end, the duet — I mean, we were both nervous. But by that point, it was so late in the shoot, and it was such a beautiful place that we were at, in the middle of nowhere, at sunset, with maybe 10 crew people there. It felt very spiritual. And I think in that one, we were just having fun, Paul and I, and trying not to eat flies. Because the flies, let me tell you — they will fly into your mouth, into your ears, and into your eyes. It was insane. But we were just having the best time."
Last fall, Millepied choreographed a contemporary take on Romeo and Juliet that debuted at La Seine Musicale, outside of Paris. "We had 50,000 people over three weeks," he says of the production, which was performed by his L.A. Dance Project. "It was amazing." That same month, Carmen premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"Dance is so ephemeral. It's of the moment. You can't ever really recreate things the same way — certainly after you're dead," Millepied chuckles. "But film has that there-to-stay quality."
He's currently working on a script for his second feature, which he says is completely different from Carmen and has "very, very little" dance in it. "But music will play a big part in it."
"What's really beautiful with film is, I think of all the old films that I watch, that I really love, that really enriched my life," Millepied says. "There's something about knowing that maybe 10 years from now, 20 years from now, someone will go watch it, and find something in it that serves them, that gives them some kind of experience, that brings something to their life. I think that is really, really special."
By John Boone