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Q&A: Benjamin Millepied on directing a reimagined ‘Carmen’

When Benjamin Millepied was a teenager starting dance training in New York, he and fellow students got into ballet performances for free, but opera was another story: They had to be creative. They’d sneak into the Metropolitan Opera House during intermission, or talk their way backstage, relying on a sympathetic usher for seats.

“We did these totally naughty things,” he says with a laugh.

It helped Millepied, who was born and raised in France and Senegal before coming to the United States, keep his love for opera alive while climbing the ranks at New York City Ballet to principal dancer. He also maintained his passion for cinema, sparked during a childhood of watching classic films with his mother.

Millepied would go on to make a number of short films, and then in 2010, he choreographed and acted in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” alongside future wife Natalie Portman. Now, he’s achieving a long-held dream by making his directorial debut with “Carmen,” starring Melissa Barrera and Paul Mescal, which opened Friday. He also cowrote the script and created numerous dance sequences — including for Barrera and Mescal, neither of whom is a trained dancer.

But this “Carmen” has little to do with the story many know from Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera set in Spain, about a mysterious woman who is ultimately killed by a jealous lover. Millepied explains that he has neither adapted nor updated “Carmen,” so much as made a whole new work of art. His Carmen is a young Mexican woman who escapes death and makes it across the U.S. border with the help of a Marine who is emotionally damaged from war. The two fall in love, but tragedy finds them.

Millepied, 45, who spent two and a half years as director of the Paris Opera Ballet and for more than a decade has directed the L.A. Dance Project in Los Angeles, sat down with The Associated Press to discuss how he came to “Carmen,” how he chose his cast and what he tried to accomplish.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

AP: You grew up in the world of dance. What brought you to filmmaking, and “Carmen”?

MILLEPIED: It was really in the back of my mind since I started at New York City Ballet. I had a real love for cinema (growing up in France), and saw so much American film on French TV. I had kind of a dream. I started to make short films and I was into photography. So all the ingredients were there. My interest in Carmen, part of that is personal, my close relationship with my mother. I wanted to kind of embody this woman.

AP: The story we know best from the 1875 opera now feels dated — how did you deal with that?

MILLEPIED: I had dinner with (opera and theater director) Peter Sellars in LA and told him I wanted to make “Carmen” and he almost got angry. He said to me, “If you’re really going to do it, you have to completely reinvent it.” For him, it was really a 19th century story written by men who knew nothing about women. It gave me the freedom at that point to say, “Well, why am I interested in it, and what do I want to do with it?” Ultimately, it was to portray the freedom in this woman. And the almost magical qualities she has.

AP: What was the biggest challenge?

MILLEPIED: The experience of writing was maybe the most foreign thing to me. Everything else in a way has to do with theater performance. And photography and lights and moving people on the screen, and knowing when to move the camera and not. I stripped (plot) away and found ways to tell the story without a lot of dialogue.

AP: You gave your Carmen a completely new story, as a young woman fleeing Mexico for the United States after the murder of her mother. The film is set to an original score by Nicholas Britell. What did you save, then, from the older versions?

MILLEPIED: What’s interesting is this woman’s capacity to express herself. And this freedom, this larger-than-life quality and her fearlessness. I wanted her to be a woman who could love and be loved, and not just be objectified or or be a fantasy. In the (older) version, she’s this thing that people want to own. I was interested in putting her against a character (played by Mescal) that actually is a deeply good person. It’s really about freedom, a person who is completely free.

AP: Tell me how you went about casting the two lovers.

MILLEPIED: For Carmen, we had a big search. I saw Melissa on a tape and she was really impressive. This was long before “In the Heights.” She has this ability to look like a dancer without having ever danced. It’s wild actually, and pretty unfair. We met, and she was really kind of bold in the meeting. We started working. With Paul, it was after I saw “Normal People.” I was watching Elia Kazan movies. I didn’t want a man-boy. I didn’t want someone who is self-conscious. I wanted somebody who could embody a Marine without posing — it’s not so easy. I think he just had this understanding of physicality, and how actors express themselves through their bodies.

AP: It’s always a challenge to integrate dance into film. How did you achieve that?

MILLEPIED: It’s not so common — a drama with dance. I wanted to tell a dark story that isn’t just (makes a happy-dance gesture.) How are you going to make this work? That’s tricky. I think the challenge here was doing a dark story and using dreams. Sometimes you don’t know whether you’re in a dream or reality: That’s where the dance takes place.

AP: Is dance having a crossover cultural moment?

MILLEPIED: Yeah, I think there’s definitely a cultural interest in dance. However, there’s a lot of dance that is related to the telephone, you know? Like TikTok videos. And there’s a problem with the frontal quality of it all. People don’t even dance in 360 (degrees) anymore. And the way you’re supposed to digest it: 15 seconds, 30 seconds. We’re in a moment where I just believe more than ever that dance and theater are so important. Dance not only as performance but as a communal experience, where you don’t have a telephone, is important and I really believe in it as a tool for wellbeing.