Annette: Interview with Cult Filmmaker Leos Carax–Winner of Best Director (Cannes Film Fest 2021)

INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR LEOS CARAX

First Encounter the Music of Sparks?

When I was 13 or 14, a few years after I discovered Bowie. The first album of theirs I got (I stole, actually) was Propaganda. And then, Indiscreet. Those are still two of my favorite pop albums today. But later, for years, I wasn’t really aware of what Sparks was doing, because by the age of 16, I started to focus on cinema.

Meeting the Brothers Ron and Russell Mael?

A year or two after my previous film, Holy Motors, came out. There’s a scene in which Denis Lavant plays a song from Indiscreet in his car: “How Are You Getting Home?” So they knew I liked their work, and contacted me about a musical project. A fantasy about Ingmar Bergman, trapped in Hollywood and unable to escape the city.

But that wasn’t for me: I could never do something that is set in the past, and I wouldn’t make a film with a character called Ingmar Bergman. A few months later, they sent me about 20 demos and the idea for Annette.

Relationship to Musical Films? 

Ever since I began making films. I had imagined my third film, Lovers on the Bridge, as a musical. The big problem, my big regret, is that I can’t compose music myself. And how do you choose work with a composer? That worried me. I didn’t watch many musicals when I was young.

I remember seeing Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, around the same time I discovered Sparks. I eventually saw American, Russian, and Indian musicals later. And of course, Jacques Demy’s films.

Musicals give cinema another dimension —almost literally: you have time, space, and music. They bring an amazing freedom. You can direct a scene by following the music’s lead, or by going against the music. You can mix all sorts ofcontradictory emotions in a way that is impossible in films where people don’t sing or dance. You can be grotesque and profound at the same time.

Silence becomes something new: not just silence in contrast with spoken words and the sounds of the world, but a deeper one.

Annette as Rock Opera Musical?

There was always the operatic, some rock but not much, and Sparks’ unique mix. I have always been struck by how you take formal and experimental risks, but you’re also not afraid to make visual gags with these physical actors.

Characters as Performers

I first wondered: why is she an opera singer, why is he a stand-up comedian? Sparks world is pop fantasy, with multilayered irony. But I had to take it all seriously at first. And I knew nothing about opera, and just a little about stand-up comedy. I quickly became very interested. These two forms, so far apart, do share a few things. The nakedness, vulnerability, of opera singers and comedians on
stage. The game with death: opera is basically women dying on stage, in every possible way, while singing their most beautiful, poignant song, called the aria; and great comedians, like Andy Kaufman, are the ones who flirt with death on stage. Grotesque is essential to comedy, while serious opera avoids it, but is often mocked as grotesque anyway. Singing and laughing are both very organic: they rely on complex anatomic system, the same vital system for how we breathe.
I started to see the whole film as a metaphor for breathing: life and death, and laughing, singing, giving birth, holding your breath. Also breathing as a musical rhythm.

Prologue: Asking Viewers to Stay Focused

Which now takes on a new meaning, since Annette will come out in this Covid time, when you’re not supposed to breathe too much in the company of others. Life and death, again. Backstage musicals, like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the films of Vincente Minelli and Busby Berkeley, sometimes make profound comments about the essence of performance and connecting to the audience.

When Sparks gave me their first songs and treatment, I had one big concern: the guy was a stand-up comedian, but there was no sense of what his act was like. I had seen some stand-up in France, as a kid and later, through my parents,.  I’ve always loved Tom Lehrer. He was a math teacher who started doing stand-up in the 1950s, singing and playing piano. His songs are very tongue in cheek —a little like Sparks, actually. In my first film, I had stolen this line from him: “It is a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.” And I used a bit of one of his songs in Annette, but this time with his permission.

I also knew Lenny Bruce and Andy Kaufman’s work. I started reading biographies about them and others —Richard Pryor, Steve Martin. Some comedians vomit out of panic before their act. To enter the stage knowing that you have to make people laugh… Must be terrifying. Like if I were forced to go on stage at Cannes, and to go naked.

Dual Theme

There was a dual theme: opera, the woman who dies on stage, with music and grace; and stand-up, which involves grotesque and provocation, to the point where it can become self-destructive, as you can see if you watch any great comedian perform.

The story of Annette is archetypal and contemporary at the same time, I thought about A Star Is Born, Pinocchio, Beauty and the Beast.

Emotional Response to the Story?

I loved the songs right away. I felt fortunate, and grateful. But at first I told them I couldn’t do the film. I had personal worries. I have a young daughter —she was 9 at the time. And although the brothers knew nothing of my life, there were some things in the storyline that could upset her. And did I really want to —could I— make a film about such a ‘bad father’ at this time in my life?

But as I was listening to the songs over and over again, she started to love them too and asked me what they were. I told her and realized she already understood a lot; and that by the time the film would get made (if it ever did), she would understand how a film project comes to life. So I said “Yes.”

Strategies to Make Personal Film?

Music is so intimate. I couldn’t see myself doing a musical if I didn’t feel for every note in every song. I was worried about that, especially since we were trying to have the whole film in songs. Musicals usually have 10 or 20 songs—with often half of them boring. But we had to create 40 songs!

Working with Music as Not a Musician?

The process with Sparks was miraculously simple: they’re re very inventive and humble and fast, with that unique sense of melody and rhythm, melancholy and joy. And I’d known their music for so long; it felt like going back to my childhood house decades later —but a house with no ghosts. There’s risk, when you have so many songs, however great they are, that the film will become a cloying cake. Or a jukebox playing too loud too long. Which would have killed the experience. You
have to be very careful with the total score, the same way you have to be with the totality of your film when you edit a sequence. It’s a matter of finding the film’s natural breath.

Creating a Relatable Henry?

A Henry I could relate to. And what true father-daughter relationship could I imagine, in this context of “exploitation”?

Opening: “So May We Start” song?

Is it meant to be not an introduction to the film, but more to the film’s specific form. It owes a lot to Sondheim great Invocation And Instructions To The Audience. And also, to the tradition of the opera prologue, especially the
beautiful one from Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

Being in the First scene, Just Like in Holy Motors

Yes, and again with my daughter. I had imagined it for me, her, and our dogs (but we couldn’t bring the dogs to LA.) For Holy Motors, it was important to be there with her at the very beginning of the film. Probably to reassure myself, after all these years of not making films, that we were just doing a small experimental home movie.

In my mind, these last two films are experimental films. Annette is a big one; Holy Motors was a small one. I think of them as “films I have made since becoming a father.”

It’s interesting to compare both films: Holy Motors was so experimental, and Annette has much more of a traditional story arc than any of my other films. That comes from Sparks. They came with this dark fairytale, which I respected.

Toward the end of Holy Motors, Kylie Minogue sings a song that mentions having a child… Losing a child, actually. It was the first time I wrote lyrics for a film. Neil Hannon, from The Divine Comedy, wrote the song’s music. A very good experience, and a step closer to making a musical. I had always worried about what would happen if I asked someone to write music, and then didn’t like
it. But we got to a song I liked a lot, and filming Kylie was beautiful. So it gave me confidence.

Desire to Make Film in America?

To make a film in English, for sure, English was my native language. But no, shooting in America was never a strong desire. About 20 years ago, I had a project called Scars, a tale set in Russia and America —New York, and on the road to the West Coast. And in the 1990s, an adaptation of Peter Ibbetson, set in France and America.

In those years, after Lovers on the Bridge, it was impossible for me to make films in France. So I considered making films in the US. It seemed possible, or less
impossible.

Annette also started as an American project, with producers in L.A. I kept getting emails from them, with the word ‘hyperexcited’ written all over them —but nothing was really happening. So I brought the project back to Europe.

Shooting in L.A?

The film was imagined for L.A. The Mael brothers live there, they were born there. In all these years of pre-production, I was asked again and again to move the film out of L.A, because shooting there is so expensive. I tried to imagine other cities but they didn’t work as well.

I wanted Henry to travel on his motorbike like a cowboy, between his world and Ann’s world, and that wouldn’t have worked in New York, Paris or Toronto. So we had to reinvent LA, mostly in Belgium and Germany. A fantasy version of a fantasy city. We only shot in LA for a week: the prologue, the motorbike shots, the forest amid the canyons and hills.