Benjamin Millepied’s Carmen is inspired by Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera of the same name. But it’s also completely different.

“We call it a drama with music and dance,” Millepied tells MovieMaker of his feature directorial debut. 

“It’s not a musical,” says Nicholas Britell, who composed an entirely new score for the film. 

“It’s a musical anti-musical,” adds Millepied.

The dancer-turned-director was once best known in Hollywood for choreographing 2010’s Black Swan and playing David/The Prince opposite his now-wife, Natalie Portman. Since then, he’s choreographed and directed many short films and music videos.

His interest in directing grew out of his time exploring cities while touring as a young dancer.

“I started to take pictures, and it’s really a personal hobby that I very casually have lived with, and so I’ve taken pictures forever — on family trips, wandering through the streets, or wherever I was,” he says. “I made my first dance film in 2001, which was dancing in the streets of New York with a friend on VHS. After Black Swan, when I moved to L.A., I directed them sort of instinctively.”

Carmen director Benjamin Millepied

Millepied says he “really felt that there was something about filmmaking that I couldn’t get from choreographing for the stage, and that was a sort of deeper, psychological, intellectual experience. And then, the ability to play with elements like framing and lighting and the real discipline of moving people around the frame or not moving them — that, I find super, super thrilling.”

Britell, who has worked as a composer and pianist on projects including Moonlight, Succession, Andor and the Adam McKay films The Big Short, Vice and Don’t Look Up, estimates that his and Millepied’s Carmen brainstorming started about eight years ago. The pair have worked on several short films and dance projects together.

“From the first day I met Benjamin, he was already talking about his visions for different sorts of projects,” Britell says.

Their dynamic approach to Carmen means you won’t see stars Melissa Barrera and Paul Mescal bursting into song or expressing their feelings via melodies. Instead, the film enlists choreography and musical cues that feel natural, organic, and part of real life. 

Melissa Barrera as Carmen

What the new Carmen shares with the opera — and Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella that inspired it — is that it follows a strong-willed, beautiful, talented, and confident woman named Carmen as she goes on a life-and-death journey. It reimagines one of Carmen’s two lovers from the story, José, by morphing him into Mescal’s ex-Marine character, Aidan.

We meet the two lovers in the modern day, on opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. Listless since leaving the military, and haunted by PTSD, Aidan takes a job patrolling the border. On his first night, he meets Carmen as she’s attempting to cross from Mexico. They travel together to Los Angeles in search of Masilda (Rossy de Palma), the best friend of Carmen’s late mother and the owner of a nightclub that offers a refuge. 

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“There will be audiences who are very familiar with the opera who are coming to see it and have some expectations that it’s sort of faithful to it, and they’ll be disappointed if that’s what they’re looking for,” Millepied says. “But it was more the idea of this really fearless, brave woman and her connection to family and these other women, and her journey between life and death, that I was interested in exploring. And I actually purposely wanted to have a love story that felt meaningful, as opposed to the opera.”

A Carmen That Doesn’t Punish Carmen

Which brings us to another difference. In the opera, Millepied says, Carmen is “murdered for her sins.” 

Paul Mescal in Carmen

“It felt abusive,” he says. “I generally was just thinking about the origins of the character and the bravery and the fearlessness and the dance and the passion that she has in her, and decided to create a story that would lead her across the border and into the U.S. with this man.” 

There are two places where Britell and Millepied paid homage to the original Carmen: a scene in Masilda’s nightclub where Carmen dances with two men — a nod to the love triangle in the original — and a scene where a chorus of voices sing the original French lyrics from Bizet’s Carmen.

“I had this idea of, well, what if it was in French, and what if it was actually using the lyrics of the original opera, but set to my music,” Britell says. “I said to Benjamin, ‘What if inside this moment, the choir just starts speaking?’ It’s almost like a third voice that they don’t hear, but that we hear. It’s something I’ve never done before, and I never would dare to do that in any other film.”

Carmen is now in theaters, from Sony Pictures Classics.