How Sparks brought their psychodrama movie musical ‘Annette’ to life
We’re celebrating the release of Annette, streaming exclusively on MUBI from November 26. Music and story by Sparks, directed by Leos Carax and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. Watch with 30 days of MUBI for free here.
For those who don’t know, Sparks are a pop group based in Los Angeles, formed by brothers Ron and Russell Mael.
For those who do, you’ll be aware of five decades and 24 albums of off-the-wall songwriting, confounding lyricism, theatrical performances and endless adventure through music. With Ron’s robotic, rhythmic keyboard playing juxtaposed by Russell’s histrionic stage presence and elastic vocals, theirs is one of the most inimitable and quietly influential stories in pop music history.
And the Sparks story achieved two major milestones in 2021. Firstly a documentary, The Sparks Brothers, directed by Edgar Wright, premiered at Sundance and delivered the most comprehensive and coherent account of an otherwise-hazy origin story. Then came Annette, an epic movie musical fantasia 10 years in the making, written by Sparks and directed by French director Leos Carax.
Annette tells the story of an edgy stand-up comedian (played by Adam Driver) and his soprano opera singer girlfriend (Marion Cotillard). They have a baby – Annette. Portrayed onscreen as a wooden marionette puppet, Annette grows against the backdrop of an unravelling marriage. Her life takes another turn following a stormy night at sea where her parents decide to waltz on the deck.
Equal parts soul-stirring psychodrama and darkly hilarious rock opera, Annette is a staggering feat of filmmaking, songwriting and performance. In lots of ways, it’s a miracle it got made. In a rare interview, Ron and Russell Mael walked us along the long road to their big-screen debut.
I’ve read in other interviews that the movie musical had always been on the Sparks wishlist. Where did that come from? Did you watch a lot as kids?
Ron: I think it’s less being inspired by seeing older musicals and wanting to replicate them and more that we’re both really big music people and also big film fans. The combination of those two things is really exciting for us. We feel that the musical film form is kind of dated and we wanted to reinvent things. We wanted to start from zero and see what we could come up with.
Russell: There are certain types of movie musicals that we like more than others. Ones like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg where it’s more naturalistic and doesn’t break into song – it’s all music. And something else that sets Annette apart from other musicals, it’s not a joyous ending. It has an ending that’s kind of tragic!
I watched the Edgar Wright documentary and it touched on the journey to Annette and previous attempts to get this project or projects like it off the ground. Would you be able to give us a potted history of the road to this moment?
Ron: We had a brief period with the great French film director Jacques Tati in the middle of the 70s. Somebody from Island Records thought there was some kind of sensibility connection with him. I wouldn’t be presumptuous enough to say that myself! But we always loved Jacques Tati’s films. So we met him and he was working on a new project called Confusion. For various reasons – budgetary and health reasons – on his side, that one didn’t see the light of day.
Then there was a movie musical project that we worked on in the very late 80s/early 90s called Mai, the Psychic Girl, based on a Japanese manga. We were brought in by a producer who wanted to convert it into a movie musical. We worked on it for not a short amount of time and we actually finished the whole basis of the musical. The producer had worked with Tim Burton on Beetlejuice. By chance, we ran into Burton in a restaurant and said, ‘Hey! You should come up and hear this!’ So he came up and sat down on Russell’s couch and said, ‘You know, I’d really like to direct this!’ So we thought, ‘This is easy!’
It went through a few rewrites, Tim kind of lost interest and it went through two other directors – Tsui Hark, the incredible Hong Kong director and through Francis Ford Coppola’s company – so we knew that we knew that we could do this but we needed the right circumstances. Then about 11 years ago we worked on a radio musical called The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman for [Radioteatern, the radio drama arm of Sweden’s national radio broadcaster]. We always felt that it could be a film as well. Even though it hasn’t seen the light of day yet, it led to us going to the Cannes Film Festival and meeting Leos Carax and finally sending him Annette which we had written about nine years before. He said he wanted to do it. So this time we got lucky.
Very concise! You’ve done this before…
Ron: Well! I don’t know, I’ve not given the Gettysburg address or anything!
You joke in the opening number of the film that ‘the budget is large but still, it’s not enough’, which made me laugh. What was it like trying realise the project the way you wanted to?
Russell: We had no idea that we would be confronting that actual reality in this movie. [Budget] was an issue, like it is probably in most movies. Everybody is looking for more money to make their film theoretically better.
That song was one of the first to be written in our original version. It’s talking about what’s to come in the film and the issues involved in getting the film made. ‘The authors are here so let’s not show disdain. The author’s are here and they’re a little vain.’ That line was self-referential to us. Leos responded so favourably to the material, both story wise and musically. He’s been a fan of Sparks since he was younger growing up in Paris which led to his sensibility never being an issue. This made the whole collaboration easier than working with a director without that background interest coming onto the project before the idea was fully fleshed out.
A lot of the eight years were spent refining elements of the story. Leos would come to LA where we live, and we would go to Paris, where he lives. There were many times we’d be in meetings where what was being sought after was vague but that’s the way it is. Everybody’s fishing for things and it’s hard to articulate what those are. So for eight years, we revised elements and scenes were added which weren’t in the original screenplay.
Furthermore, Leos suggested adding the scene Girl From the Middle of Nowhere with Marion Cotillard in which she’s describing her character’s life and fears of her marriage which have led her to that very moment. We then came up with the music and a large part of the lyrics for that piece which was a lengthy process. In the meantime, Leos was looking for actors and the very first person he attracted was Adam Driver about five years ago. Driver was attached to this project for that long and he was equally passionate about it as Leos, sticking with it while completing other projects like Star Wars.
You mentioned that Leos had an understanding of your music, but I wondered what the creative common ground looked like between you?
Ron: We had a general discussion very early on with Leos on our shared view of what a modern movie musical should be. One thing we both believed was that the characters should be utterly sincere in their dialogue. It shouldn’t be kitschy, with them winking at the audience. When characters are saying something, they’re really saying it. It sounds old fashioned, but what I think is off-putting about some musicals is that you feel it’s all a laugh. Not in the sense of it being funny, but just that ‘we’re putting on a show’. We prefer the real sincerity and intensity of the characters. This was something that Leos really felt as well. Leos hasn’t done an incredible amount of films, but he really focuses on each one. and each of his films has a musical segment in it that is incredible.
And what did you present him with at first? Was this a script? A tape of demos? Sheet music?
Russell: Leos was initially given two homemade CDs of all the pieces of music and lyric sheets. The lyric sheets were our version of the physical screenplay as they were the dialogue. We would then make some stage notes on the setting saying ‘Henry, on the boat at night in a stormy sea.’ We had made close to 40 pieces of music, and each of those had the dialogue that was the story of Annette.
Once production was underway, what did your involvement look like?
Ron: Early on, we wanted to establish the singing style in the film. We met with Adam [Driver] five years ago to discuss this. It was difficult for us because all the singing was done by Russell in the original versions and we didn’t want an actor trying to mimic what was there, but we wanted the basic sensibility to remain. We were trying to emphasise that we didn’t want it to be Broadway-esque and over-emotive, which to us was ludicrous in this day and age. We wanted it to be more naturalistic, and Adam understood that completely. But once the shooting started we were happy to be spectators, we didn’t want to get involved. We felt that it wasn’t right. It was unfair to both Leos, and to the actors to be imposing ourselves.
Some of the most touching moments are achieved through harmony in this film. Harmonies that feel very much in tune and others that feel slightly discordant reflecting where Ann and Henry are in their relationship. Was there any kind of workshopping that happened with Adam and Marion, as to how their voices work together?
Russell: I think the main issue – which was not something that couldn’t be overcome – was that it took a little juggling to find a happy medium of how you could make Adam not have to sing too low in order to accommodate Marion and or vice versa. Even in the final scene The Abyss with Devyn McDowell, the young girl that played the real Annette, with Adam, we musically loved the way their two voices work together. Especially as the piece was with a five year old girl singing against Adam’s presence with words that are not in her natural vocabulary or subject matter.
One of the things we liked about working with Adam, was that there were times we didn’t want to change the key and he was happy to go along with it and sing a little bit higher than his range. We actually like that he’s a little bit strained at times. It was a little out of his comfort zone but in the end, we thought those moments worked well.
I was blown away by the film’s production design. There’s a beautiful blend of mundane, real life settings, alongside stunning fantasy scenes. It’s a juxtaposition that feels quite Sparks. How involved were you in the art direction of the film?
Ron: To be quite honest, we have to give credit to Leos, the production designer Florian Sanson and the Director of Photography, Caroline Champetier. We had visions in our head of what everything would look like but they actually had to make them a reality on film. The blending of realistic settings and artificial ones without worrying about seamlessness is something we talked about with Leos earlier on.
It wasn’t that we were kind of imposing a visual sensibility on Leos. We’ve seen all of his films, and we know what he does, and we had faith. He even pushed it beyond what he had done before. In particular, the scene on the boat. He was thinking out loud, ‘Should this really be filmed on the ocean? Or, should it be something more artificial?’ We’re so pleased with the way he decided to shoot it with the artificiality of the surroundings. It feels hyper and intense. It was filmed on the largest water soundstage in Europe in Belgium. There were water hoses blasting the actors with the boat physically tipping with them sliding all over the place!
Annette is at its heart, a film about family, and you two are in the rare position of writing music as brothers. Are there any themes from family life that informed or shaped this narrative?
Russell: I don’t know if there was something specific… The one thing that we liked was the disparity of these two parents. What they do in their careers, that Harry is this edgy, stand up comic, and Ann is a more refined, elegant opera singer, and seemingly they are complete opposites who found something to love within each other. Obviously, the relationship goes astray.
Ron: We had such a middle class, unexceptional relationship with our parents. Nothing was nearly as dramatic as you see in Annette. It stems from a desire to explore what it would be like if you grew up in an environment where life could be hyped up and – I hate to use the term normal – but beyond an unexceptional kind of childhood. In a certain sense, with all of our songs we’re trying to add more colour and emotion to what actually existed in real life situations.
At the Cannes premiere you got a well-reported standing ovation but also some walkouts. What was that like?
Russell: The culmination of what the Cannes Film Festival represents, being such an iconic event in the movie world and to be there, and have the opening night film… It was amazing. It was amazing to get the reaction that we did on the night and to be in the audience of 2000 people who were seeing it for the first time. There’s horror stories of movies being ‘booed’ at Cannes and then there are stories of films that have gone onto be classics. You have your trepidations but that wasn’t the case. Polarity of opinions is something we’re used to. We like to think that it means there’s something with substance in what you’ve done – that it sparks a dialogue between people. The worst thing is having people come out of a screening and think ‘this is nice’.
It’s so clear how much you’ve enjoyed this whole ride. I wondered if it unlocked anything creatively or career wise in Sparks that wasn’t there before?
Ron: Specifically, we’ve begun work on a new movie musical and we’re thrilled by simply the act of writing it even though it’s unfinished. We feel energised too. You like to think that your inspiration doesn’t come from other people responding positively to what you’ve done. But it’s human nature.
There is more of an awareness of what we’re doing, than there has been in the past. Partly from Edgar Wright’s documentary, from Annette, and then from what we’ve done as a band. We feel a real passion now – we’ve always felt that obviously – but it’s easier now. We feel like we’re riding this wave, and you never know how long these things last. That’s the only thing I’ve ever learned about any of this is not to count on it.
Personally, it’s not as satisfying being out of that comfort zone but creatively, we know it’s right. The results of what we’re doing are and will be stronger because of that discomfort.
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