Benjamin Millepied: 'I wanted to give this woman a chance to be a real person'

In interview with Ynet, French choreographer discusses creating his debut film Carmen, a contemporary spin on the classic, set amid U.S. immigration challenges with some helpful tips from his wife Natalie Portman, and reminisces about his cherished visits to Tel Aviv
Amir Bogen, Toronto|
Around five minutes into our conversation at a Toronto hotel, Benjamin Millepied suddenly burst into the room, searching intently for the Israeli journalist he'd just spoken to. Seeing me in the corridor, he quickly approached me with his phone in hand. I braced myself, thinking I'd somehow upset him. However, instead of annoyance, he seemed more disheartened that I wasn't familiar with Oscar Niemeyer. "See this," he pointed to an article displayed on his phone about the architect, "he designed Tel Aviv. It's your city. You ought to know this."
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Niemeyer, unbeknownst to some (including myself), was a renowned Brazilian architect who worked on multiple projects in Israel during the 1960s, notably in Tel Aviv where he had a hand in the preliminary design of Hamedina Square. On a similar note, Benjamin Millepied is a prominent French choreographer. He spent several months in Tel Aviv in 2014 alongside his wife and famed movie star Natalie Portman and their son. The couple surprisingly announced on Monday that they will be parting ways after 11 years of marriage.
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בנז'מין מילפייה
בנז'מין מילפייה
Benjamin Millepied
Speaking about his movie Carmen during its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Millepied fondly reminisced about his time in Israel, expressing his desire to relive that experience many times over. His directorial debut was also showcased at the Jerusalem Festival last month. Although did not attend, his mark on the film was vivid and cogent. This drama is not just a treat for dance enthusiasts and fans of star Paul Maskell, but also delights the auditory senses with a score by American composer Nicholas Britell.
Millepied explains that music and dance serve as a potent medium to explore his emotions, acting as a therapeutic outlet. Music has been a constant in his life. However, his journey into dance began during challenging times at home. As he honed his skills, he became deeply engrossed in the immersive experience of dance. Wanting to depart from his home environment, dance offered him an opportunity to pursue studies at the age of 13.
From his early days in Bordeaux, France, Millepied has risen to prominence as a global choreography leader, holding esteemed roles at institutions like the New York City Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet. In recent times, with inspiration and encouragement from his renowned actress wife, he has ventured into the realm of filmmaking.
Thus, it's fitting that his directorial debut is a modern adaptation of Prosper Merimee's classic novella Carmen. It's a story Millepied is deeply familiar with from his younger years, and he aimed to infuse it with contemporary themes.
Growing up with Carmen, Millepied recalls being deeply influenced by the opera he watched live. The music left a lasting impact on him, which explains his connection to the classic that has seen numerous renditions on stage and screen.
Trailer for Carmen
"I remember hearing it had a kind of quality in this passion that resonated with me. And as I started to think about it more and adapt it, I realized that I was really interested in this for this same reason," he says.
"When creating a dance, I sometimes have in my drawer music that sometimes takes me forever, 10 years, five years, until the time eventually comes to make it. And I think it was the same with this film idea. I remember in my 20s when I was dancing in New York I and I started playing with the camera and making short films. I was thinking about what the subject of the film would be." But when the opportunity to work on Carmen emerged, it felt like a natural progression for him.
The novella Carmen by Prosper Mérimée follows the story of a soldier named Don José, who falls in love with a fiery and independent woman named Carmen. Despite their initial attraction to each other, their relationship eventually becomes strained due to Carmen's seductive nature and her desire for freedom.
Along the way, Don José becomes increasingly jealous and possessive, and their relationship turns violent. In the end, Carmen's brazen behavior leads to her tragic demise, and Don José is left to suffer the consequences of his actions. The novella explores themes of love, passion, jealousy and freedom, and is set against the backdrop of a vibrant and colorful Spain.
Millepied, however, reimagined Carmen (played by Melissa Barrera) as a Mexican refugee escaping her homeland. Once she crosses into the U.S., Aiden (portrayed by Maskell), a former soldier still haunted by past traumas, intervenes in a sudden attack on immigrants, committing murder to protect her. They then embark on a quest for refuge in Los Angeles, navigating numerous challenges while on the run from authorities. This film captivates with its striking desert landscapes, inventive sequences, rich musical scores and dazzling dance scenes.
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בנז'מין מילפייה
בנז'מין מילפייה
A 'privileged immigrant', Millepied
(Photo: Christopher Smith, AP)
"We early on decided it was very important now too, because what’s the point? I think that because we’re telling a contemporary story, we wanted to reinvent it all the way and let all our lived experiences influence it," he tells about the early work process of the film.
"I was really drawn to it because of this very strong female character. And it really had to do with my family, like my mother’s path, and her own relationship with my father and men after, and how really in a sense, it was the desire to have this protagonist and kind of rewrite my mother's story as commentary because once I started to dive into the story, it really felt like it was not an interesting story and it was filled with stereotypes. She is a woman who was supposed to have this freedom and sexual freedom, but you don't believe her love story. She can't love. And she gets punished for her sins, she dies at the end.
So it was men’s idea of women in the 19th century and I wanted to give this woman a chance to be loved and be a real person with real emotions and still be driven by this magical quality and character and strength."
In addition to Millepied's updated gender perspectives in the script, there's a discernible political stance on U.S. immigration policy, a hot-button issue in American discourse.
I began writing it a year and a half before Trump even got into the subject and the current situation isn't much better now. It's really awful,” he says. “I thought about different places to set the story in but I have been living in America for 30 years now.”
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בנז'מין מילפייה
בנז'מין מילפייה
“I'm myself an immigrant, obviously completely privileged, but these are stories in society really do affect your psyche. I live in Los Angeles and I do work with kids in underprivileged neighborhoods with dance and I am confronted with the reality of the situation I visited the border.
It doesn't make any sense in a country as large as America that registration is so awful with these poor people coming across ending up in private prisons for months and months at a time, the treatment is completely inhumane and it was even more atrocious obviously with Trump.”
And after you completed the writing, you went to shoot as a director. But you have no experience, where does the courage come from? “Choreography is an art that's very complex and it's a craft that I’ve been practicing for 20 years, and I know I always have something to learn. But I've done it long enough that I know that I have like, some mastery in that craft,” he says.
“When I decided to make the film, there was something in me that said, ‘I can’t make this film unless I have some level of understanding of the craft’. I would have to take the time to understand how to make movies, really make movies, because all my short films were very instinctual, all of them.
From the moment that Carmen was going to happen, I went back and watched all these films and I studied them. I studied and I still have so much to learn, but when I arrived on set, I understood the craft on a level where I felt comfortable doing what I was doing and making these decisions.”
His choreographic background played a pivotal role, allowing him to visualize and coordinate scenes involving numerous participants. Observing intricate film scenes, like those in Martin Scorsese's movies, he believed he could emulate such complexities. However, the reality of working with unseasoned extras revealed that achieving such intricate scenes can be more challenging than anticipated.
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בנז'מין מילפייה עם נטלי פורטמן
בנז'מין מילפייה עם נטלי פורטמן
Looking at their finest
(Photo: Evan Agostini, AP)
Millepied shares that his most significant challenge as a director was guiding actors, but he had the advantage of learning from Portman's experience. Over their decade-long relationship, he listened to her speak highly of some directors while expressing concerns about others. These insights were invaluable. He understood from her that actors have varying needs and appreciate fresh perspectives.
For instance, he took inspiration from her anecdotes about a director who would offer unexpected feedback, realizing the importance of providing original insights to actors.
"I understood how important that was for the actor to be inspired, but there was also all the things that I have from choreography, like being attentive to what happens and being able to make changes at a moment’s notice," he explains.
Rumors have been floating for a while, suggesting that there's tension between Millepied and Portman, spurred by allegations of a brief relationship between Millepied and Camille Etienne, a young French climate change and social justice advocate who is nearly two decades his junior. While sources indicate that the couple has mended their relationship, the speculation has thrust them back into the limelight, drawing increased attention from paparazzi until they ultimately announced their break up.
Millepied is no stranger to media scrutiny, having faced it during his time with Portman in various places around the world like Los Angeles, New York, Paris and Tel Aviv. The latter is where they resided during the production of A Tale of Love and Darkness, Portman's directorial venture based on the renowned novel by Amos Oz.
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בנז'מין מילפייה עם נטלי פורטמן
בנז'מין מילפייה עם נטלי פורטמן
Millepied and Portman
(Photo: Scott Garfitt, AP)
During his time in Israel, the locals embraced Millepied as one of their own, with Israeli media frequently reporting on his adventures in Tel Aviv. However, Millepied's memories focus more on personal experiences with his young son.
He recalls exploring galleries and antique shops, seeking out the best hummus places, and immersing himself in the art scene. He particularly appreciated attending performances by choreographer Ohad Naharin and observing his work.
Millepied admires Israel for producing some of the world's most renowned choreographers. "I think that's really incredible about Israel. It's literally produced like the largest wave of great choreographers in the world," he says.
"Part of it is the kind of movement that Ohad had launched, but also because the country, the people have such a visceral, emotional life in response to war and society like that. They're very, very much alive and dance is a natural expression of all these things."
When asked if he misses the Holy Land, Millepied says Israel holds fond memories for him, and he's eager to return, possibly in the near future. "Israel is a really, really fun memory. I keep asking to go back. So we're going to be back at some point. I had this amazing experience at the time. My son was four months old or something like that and it was the best way to get to know Tel Aviv," he says.
"I got an electric bike and I rode everywhere. I've been everywhere with him, we visited every neighborhood and what attracted me the most was the architecture. I found the city very appealing visually."
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