PARIS — Benjamin Millepied probably didn’t need to take on any new life challenges. A former principal dancer with New York City Ballet, the French-born Millepied has been an established, sought-after choreographer for almost two decades, has directed the Paris Opera Ballet, and runs the L.A. Dance Project, which he founded in 2012. And he recently moved back to Paris with his wife, the actress Natalie Portman, and their two young children.
Now, Millepied, 45, has also directed his first feature film, “Carmen,” starring Paul Mescal, Melissa Barrera and Rossy de Palma, with an original score by Nicholas Britell (“Moonlight,” “Succession”). The movie is a hard-to-categorize blend of drama, dance and music that draws loosely on the narrative of Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera, setting much of the action on the Mexico-U.S. border, with Mescal as a traumatized war veteran who saves Barrera’s Carmen, a Mexican immigrant fleeing from danger.
Millepied had long been a keen amateur photographer and a cinephile, and had made a number of short dance films, when, through Portman, he met Britell. “We began to talk about movies and about collaborating,” Millepied said. “‘Carmen’ was the idea that stuck.”
In a telephone conversation, Britell mentioned that he had recently found an email exchange with Millepied from more than 10 years ago in which they had discussed “Carmen” as “a touchstone for imagining an experimental dream world.” Britell added that although neither man was entirely sure what that meant at the time, “the wonderful thing about working with Ben is that he is open to following his instincts and to experimentation. He had such a strong sense of what he was looking for, but also left me to make my own discoveries about how the music would work.”
The hybrid, idiosyncratic nature of the film was a draw for Mescal (“Normal People,” “Aftersun”). “It was so unconventional, outside of any genre I could firmly put my finger on, which was a challenge that really appealed to me,” he said.
Part of that challenge, he added, was the dancing. “I am not a dancer, but Benjamin knows how people’s bodies work,” he said. “He knew what I could do, which was essentially to support Melissa.” Barrera (“In the Heights,” “Scream VI”) added that the experience of making the film had been “different from anything else I’ve done.”
“I am a very rational actor, always overthinking things, wanting clarity,” she said. “Benjamin would say, ‘Trust me: Everything is communicated with body language and eyes.’”
After the movie showed at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, critics were divided. For IndieWire, David Ehrlich wrote: “‘Carmen’ is stretched across a few too many borders to ever feel like it’s standing on solid ground. And yet, it’s undeniably exhilarating.” Other reviewers were less sure. “It’s an unsteady composition, a frenzied combination of willowy movement pieces, an ecstatic score and a too-loose narrative,” Lovia Gyarkye wrote in The Hollywood Reporter.
Over coffee, Millepied discussed the critical reaction to the film, the allure of “Carmen” and working with actors. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Why did you want to direct a film?
I always had a personal hobby of taking photos, a need to really look at what I was interested in visually. And I have always loved film; I remember watching “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and Satyajit Ray’s “The Music Room,” when I was around 9 years old. When I was at the School of American Ballet in my teens, I went to movies all the time. I always had this dream at the back of my head about directing a film.
What was the pull of “Carmen”?
Early on, when I was starting to think about the story, I had dinner with [the director] Peter Sellars and mentioned I wanted to make a “Carmen” film. He got kind of passionate, and said, “You have to reinvent it, it’s a terrible story.” I thought he was right. It’s a 19th-century tale, where the woman gets punished for her sins by getting murdered, and can’t love or be loved. I was interested in her essence — her freedom, her fire.
I wanted to tell this woman’s story. It definitely had something to do with my relationship with my mother, to a connection to family history and emotions.
Did you think of your version as a musical?
I was interested in how to tell a modern story, and use music and dance in a way that doesn’t pause the narrative, isn’t decorative but integral. In the end, the movie tells a lot of the story through movement.
The collaboration with Nicholas was huge, and the part of making the film that was closest for me to making a ballet. We would sit at the piano and I would describe the scenes I had in mind, and he would write music and send it to me. It really influenced the mood and aesthetic — gave me visual ideas just as if I was creating a dance.
What kind of preparation did you do?
I have too much respect for the craft, effort and practice it takes to choreograph something not to be equally conscientious about directing. I watched and analyzed hundreds of films, read film histories and found amazing resources online. I fell in love with so many directors that I felt were choreographers, who moved people and the camera with such imagination and complexity. Elia Kazan, Kurosawa, Bresson, Antonioni, Sally Potter, Kubrick: I watched, I watched, I watched, and I learned.
I also made a short narrative film, a “Romeo and Juliet,” with Margaret Qualley, which I never showed but was very helpful in showing me the process.
Talking about the way you worked, Rossy de Palma said, “The camera becomes another dancer and dances with you.” Did your experience as a choreographer help as a film director?
I think it helped with the physicality of the acting. We shot some of the movie in Australia, and while the actors were quarantining, I had them do Gaga classes, a technique for exploring every part of your body. It’s a great thing to do to make sure your expressiveness is not just cerebral. And it definitely helped with staging complex scenes. I think also, because of my background, I was unafraid of letting bodies speak: using physicality to tell the story.
How did you approach directing actors?
I had the benefit of listening to Natalie talk about her experiences and collaborations. It was daunting, definitely, and I had to rely on my instincts about what felt true to the story. Obviously you need to know the back story of your characters inside out, but you also have to let them surprise you. I was lucky to have great actors. We were playful, we were free with the dialogue, and we always tried to see if there were interesting places to go.
The film had mixed reviews at Toronto, some quite negative. How did you feel about that?
I have too much experience of being reviewed to think about that too much. When George Balanchine premiered Liebeslieder Walzer, a masterpiece of 20th-century ballet, someone said to him, “Look how many people are leaving.” He said, “Look how many people are staying.”
I make my work with as much discipline as I can, and I am very lucky to be able to do that; it’s a great honor. The financial stakes for movies are very different to making a ballet. But, you know, if I can’t make films freely, I’ll make furniture. There are always ways to be creative.