We met with the directors of Reset – a beautiful film detailing Benjamin Millepied’s first season as director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet – at Sheffield Doc/Fest.
You have made films about lots of people, both famous and unknown. What attracts you to your projects, and why this time did you make a film about Benjamin Millepied?
TD: We have made films about personalities as different as Karl Lagerfeld, French actors like Fabrice Luchini or Vincent Lindon. We also did Thuram, a famous football player. We make documentaries, portraits. We are really portrait artists. For Benjamin Millepied it was him and his team who came to us because Benjamin had been impressed by Ballet 422, the film about the New York City Ballet. This was his most advanced creation, and his first as director of dance, and he wanted a record of it.
AT: We don’t make investigative films, we do portraits. We make films about famous people but also unknowns, people we refer to as ‘anonymous’. What interests us each time are their stories, and their ability to tell them. Whether they are famous or not, if they have an interesting trajectory, or something outside the norm, with a story that can be told, that interests us.
The title of the film in French is Relève, but in English it is Reset. I feel the French is closer to something like ‘The Next Generation’. Was it you who picked the translated title?
AT: We chose the title in French and in English. It’s true that Reset isn’t exactly the same as Relève but it was ‘relève’ because Millepied went looking for dancers who were not the prima ballerinas [his dancers came from the corps du ballet], that Millepied himself was part of a sort of ‘relève’ because his arrival at the Opera Ballet was like a breath of fresh air. What isn’t in the word ‘relève’ but is in ‘reset’ is this idea of…
AT: Yes, this idea of going back to basics and rebooting, of restarting the machine.
TD: There is an aspect of 2.0 with the title Reset as well. This idea of 2.0 is in the film, with the new methods of recording the ballet, dancers filming themselves with iPhones…this is another reason why we chose Reset in English.
You had incredible access to the Opera Ballet and to Millepied himself. Was everybody happy about the film? I noticed that it is a co-production with Paris Opera.
TD: That’s mandatory. We cannot film the Paris Opera without it being a co-production. The dancers are obedient, so when Millepied said to them ‘there is a team coming in to film you’, they couldn’t really refuse. Also this is one of the revolutions Millepied brought about at the Opera Ballet – before there were very few cameras allowed in. They wanted the audience to see the ballet without being privy to the secrets of its creation. Millepied, who is very modern, said no, we will open up the ballet and the Opera House to cameras.
What I took from the film is that Millepied is a very nice guy. Is he always so charming?
TD: He isn’t charming to his secretary! He has two things, Benjamin; he is always in a hurry, that’s the first thing, and he has a very strong and fair relationship with his dancers. He is very cool as well, he never gets angry.
That’s probably what I meant to say – not charming but cool. He’s relaxed.
TD: Very, yes. He is very American, very much the managing director in trainers. When he says he does not like the hierarchy among the dancers, he really isn’t someone who controls through display of force. He is more about seduction and desire.
AT: This also has to do with the idea of relève or reset – some people who have seen the film have noted that it is also a film about management. There is a style of management like Benjamin’s which is not at all frontal. We never see him throwing a tantrum. What he has in front of the camera, he has in real life. We never saw him adjusting his behaviour for the cameras. He is very even-tempered. He is somebody who manages differently.
TD: We don’t see the hierarchy.
The film is very beautiful. Was it in some way your goal to make your film a work of art in itself?
AT: When we met Benjamin one of his criteria was to say ‘I want to make a film with you but I want it to have a modern look’. There are not many films that have been made about the Paris Opera Ballet but one which is notable is Frederick Wiseman’s film, made in 2009 [La Danse]. Wiseman is a master of the documentary format – we had absolutely no interest in lining up to do exactly the same thing.
We had to be different. Not being different for the sake of being different but we had to do something else, otherwise the film had already been made, it already existed. We wanted to do something more current and contemporary, and something very polished visually. After all the Opera House pushes you in this direction; the décor is beautiful, the dancers are beautiful. We are filming creativity, we are filming youth. Everything there is to film is beautiful. This invites you to treat everything in an aesthetic way.
Did you have to choose between filming the people and filming what was going on around them? There are lots of things to film at Palais Garnier [the Opera House] but you follow the people. Was this a choice made at the start of filming?
TD: We don’t write our films before we start making them, so we have to adapt to what we discover, to what we have filmed. We quickly tried to identify the dancers we wanted to focus on, from the first day we could see that Virginia [Millepied’s assistant] was quite a character…but in the end it is a film where we chase after Benjamin. We had two goals – to describe the creative process and also to show how Benjamin, as director of the Opera Ballet, dealt with the institution. Those were our two axes.
In the film we see Natalie Portman [Millepied’s wife] very briefly, and there is a shot where a dancer caresses another dancer, but we don’t see much of their private lives. Did you decide to focus on the dancing rather than the dancers?
TD: For Portman we wanted to completely remove her from the frame because Benjamin Millepied is frequently referred to as ‘the husband of Natalie Portman’: he came to the Opera House and it wasn’t a choreographer who arrived, it was the husband of Natalie Portman. We wanted to show, from the start, that it wasn’t the husband of Natalie Portman who interested us but the choreographer. We see her in three shots and after that we don’t see her again. The film examines the creative process; we barely leave the Opera House. People’s private lives were not the object of the film.
I know one should never talk about film reviews with directors but I wanted to get your opinion on this. In the Variety review, they say that we don’t really see any difficulties in the film, that we know from the start that Millepied will succeed, that there isn’t really any controversy. What do you think about this? Was it clear to you from the start that Millepied would be successful?
AT: For a start film critics critique and filmmakers make films. It isn’t fiction, it’s documentary. We have to adapt to what happens. We’re not going to invent things. We showed the difficulties that Benjamin had to overcome. I’m sorry if that disappointed Variety, if they wanted others which didn’t happen – but this isn’t fiction! Millepied had the threat of strike action until three days before the performance; he had dancers who got hurt. He had a number of people in the administration who were against him – it’s complicated because we were not allowed to film the technicians and even for the bureaucratic side of things we really had to invite ourselves. We were allowed to sit in on some meetings but not all. We feel we did everything we could to show all that.
Could you talk a little about your next film?
TD: It’s called Rocco and it’s a portrait of porn star Rocco Siffredi, who is most famous for the size of his equipment. It looks at Rocco’s last ever scene in porn and at the same time delves into the world of pornography. It isn’t a career retrospective of Rocco, we just wanted to understand how his career has lasted thirty years when the average lifespan of a hardcore porn star is seven years. We look at him as a porn legend – if it were boxing we could have looked at Mike Tyson. We knew that we were faced with an enigma. We mostly tried to understand his personality.
Are you going to use Rocco as a kicking off point to examine the wider porn industry or is it very much a film about him?
TD: No, it’s a portrait of him and through him a gallery of portraits of the people close to him: his cousin, his favourite actress, his wife, his kids. It’s Rocco’s world.
Do you have any advice for people who want to make documentaries?
TD: Do not listen to any advice! When we arrive in this field we always say that we are not cut out for it. When we started out we said that there wasn’t a place for us, but we found one. It’s about desire. He who wants to make a documentary will give it a go and if he’s good he will succeed.
AT: Also there are stories everywhere, and the production methods nowadays…we can make a film with an iPhone. We are not controlled by a budget or any production requirements. It suffices simply to open up your eyes and ears and to film what you feel to be real stories.
Special thanks to Fetch Publicity.