The story at the heart of the opera “Carmen” stuck in Benjamin Millepied’s mind from his childhood into his adulthood. With his new film by the same name, the choreographer-turned-director has reimagined George Bizet’s 19th century original into a modern immigration tale set on the present-day U.S./Mexican border. Melissa Barrera plays Carmen and Paul Mescal, her love interest, Aidan.
Millepied, Barrera and Mescal stopped by TheWrap and Shutterstock’s Interview and Portrait Studio at the Toronto International Film Festival to speak with TheWrap’s Editor in Chief Sharon Waxman about adapting the tragic love story about a femme fatale for modern audiences while remaining true to Carmen’s character.
“This [is a] story that we’ve seen over and over and over about, you know, people crossing the border to freedom to seek safety, to seek a better life, running away from danger,” Barrera said. “The reason that I wanted to tell it this way is because telling it through song and dance, in such a poetic, different way, is something that I’ve never seen done before.”
The heroine in the new film, Barrera said, retains the “essence of the same character.”
“Carmen is an iconic character,” the actress continued. “I think everyone in the world knows of the existence of the story and the opera, even if they haven’t seen it or heard it. They know that Carmen exists. So it’s this … in a way femme fatale; she’s all freedom and sensuality and unapologetic.”
Though the movie partially takes place in Mexico, for Covid reasons, it shot in Australia. “Authenticity was always very important even though the film has this dreamlike quality,” Millepied said. “I think that’s why it works so well still that we didn’t shoot in Mexico, but all the work that I did, and I think the care for it really counted.”
For Mescal, who plays an ex-Marine suffering from what the actor identifies as “undiagnosed PTSD,” his character was meant to be “somebody who is there to facilitate Carmen’s journey through the film.” “It was kind of placing myself within the story to allow Carmen to escape, be free and experience a different life,” Mescal aid.
“Carmen” also pushed the “Normal People” actor to delve into a full body experience of acting as he took up playing guitar, boxing and dancing for the first time on a set. Despite her “innate talent,” Barrera was also not professionally trained as a dancer but “transcended into this really unbelievable, convincing, beautiful dancing,” according to Millepied.
The dancing, it turns out, also helped the stars connect. “That’s how the chemistry was born because we were getting to know all of our body, all of our movement, trusting each other,” Barrera said. “He had to lift me — he had never done lifts before — and he had to do all these crazy things … We were just trusting each other and that was a beautiful way to go into a character.”
Studio sponsors include GreenSlate, Moët & Chandon, PEX and Vancouver Film School.