Sparks On The Evolution Of 'Annette', Ceding Control, Their Next Project(s), And More [Interview]

Annette, the eccentric new musical from Holy Motors director Leos Carax, stars Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Marion Cotillard (Inception) as a comedian and an opera singer who fall in love and have an unusual child named Annette. That's the simplest possible way to describe this story, but that description belies the film's wildly unconventional approach. This is the first movie written by Sparks, the eclectic pop band that has been shapeshifting through the music scene for decades and actively refusing to be put in an easy-to-describe box. (They were recently profiled in a great Edgar Wright-directed documentary called The Sparks Brothers.) 

This week, I had the opportunity to speak with Sparks (real names: Ron and Russell Mael) about the evolution of this project, ceding creative control to Carax, and much more. Read our full conversation below.

I initially thought Edgar Wright's recent documentary was my introduction to your work, but in doing research for this, I realized that I had actually heard some of your stuff well before that because you did the soundtrack for the Jean-Claude Van Damme film Knock Off in the late '90s. 

Ron: Oh yeah, classic!

Was there anything that you learned on that project that you were able to take with you into the making of Annette?

Ron: Well, to be honest, what we learned is that we feel that we have more abilities to do a movie musical than we do to do a soundtrack. Maybe it was the circumstances then, but there's so many people that are capable of doing soundtrack music and working quickly to satisfy a director in that way, but we feel that working to do a movie musical, we've figured out a way to incorporate singing and sung-speaking within a musical context that we feel is fairly unique. So we prefer to do that. Not to take away anything from that film. It was a great Hong Kong director, Tsui Hark, that directed that film. But we realized then that that experience, not because of the film, but the process wasn't something we were particularly interested in.

I'm curious about the origins of Annette. Did you write a specific song first that you then thought might work well in a movie? Or did the idea to write a movie come first?

Russell: No, it was to actually have a complete narrative piece. We had done a lot of Sparks albums, 25, and at this point, it's kind of challenging to find new ways to frame our music and new challenges. So doing a long narrative piece was something that we set out intentionally to do. We had thought Annette would be Sparks' next album nine years ago when we came up with the idea. We had all of the music and the story was there, and at that point was when we presented this, just by coincidence, to Leos Carax the director. He responded so favorably to it and wanted to direct it eventually. We initially thought this would be a live theatrical presentation by us as a band, and we each would be doing one of the characters that's in the movie now and we would bring in an opera singer as well to do the "Ann" role.

So was it the fact that Leos sparked the concept that got you guys to change your mind about the final form of how this would come together?

Ron: Yeah. We've always wanted to make a movie musical. We never considered that this would be the one. Also, we had such respect for him as a filmmaker, so when he said he would be interested in directing the film, all of a sudden we thought, "Well, maybe we'll change course and go that direction." To have that kind of thing, of having a movie musical directed by Leos Carax is just a dream situation for us.

You mentioned earlier the idea of pleasing your director. Since you guys were the creative force behind generating this project, what was your relationship like with Leos? What was it like for you guys to cede control to a director after living with this story for so long?

Ron: Within the band, we're dominant in what we're doing and we don't take any outside advice particularly well. But obviously, within a film situation, it's such a collaborative process, and then in particular with a director like Leos, who really has a personal stamp on his films. You realize going in that you're going to have to cede quite a bit of that kind of control. But the thing we had faith in was, first of all, he really liked the whole basis of what was there. Then we had discussed early on with him, also, our feelings about what a modern movie musical should be, and we were totally in sync with that in a general sense. The idea that the characters should always be demonstrating a sincerity when they're saying the lines. That it shouldn't be distanced or winking when they're performing something. And also, maybe this isn't something we discussed but it's natural for the way he makes films and we were feeling the same way, that there isn't the typical Hollywood musical choreography in the film that you might see. There is choreography, but it's very subtle within the film. But the stylistic thing of the way people are singing isn't done in a Broadway sense. It's more naturalistic and maybe even pop at times. It isn't being done like in that grandiose style of Broadway. 

So we were all together in a general way about what we felt it should be. Obviously, there were discussions along the way about altering some of the lyrics. At his suggestion, we added at least three songs. "The Abyss," "Girl from the Middle of Nowhere," and "The Birth of Annette" were all things that weren't in the original. But we had faith that he loved the original thing so much that it wasn't starting from scratch.

I was surprised at the sheer amount of music that is in this film. Can you tell me about your decision to include lots of short songs rather than to rely on a more traditional approach with the soundtrack?

Russell: Yeah. A lot of film musicals – like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg comes to mind – where there's one theme that's sort of pounded for two hours. It's an incredible theme, but every two minutes it comes up. Our approach was that there didn't necessarily have to be a connection, both thematically or stylistically, between pieces in the movie. That it could be really fluctuating constantly and in the end, hopefully, there would be a cohesion to the whole thing despite the fact that it doesn't have a repeating theme. We liked that approach to it. There's actually 42 pieces of music in the movie, and there are a couple of scenes that ended up cut from the film, where there's maybe four or five pieces where Leos thought scenes were superfluous in a certain way. So there was actually more music created for the film [than that].

Did the medium of film unlock a different sense of freedom or creativity for you? 

Ron: Even in the original version, we were working outside of what we normally do as a band. Different than doing discrete songs. The reason we wanted to work that way in tandem with a Sparks album that we would have been doing at that time was that there are certain freedoms that you can have when you're doing a long narrative piece. It doesn't have to be self-contained with a beginning, middle, and end within that three minutes. It can be something that's relating to something two hours later. But stylistically, we never felt bound by having to do something in a particular way. I don't think it was the idea of it being a movie that gave us the freedom. I think it was just the idea of a long narrative musical piece that obviously became a movie, that felt very liberating to us. Leos was able to [visualize] – so many of the scenes from the film were, in our own minds, it was just a vague concept of what would be shown. It was so brilliant and always surprising in really good ways. It was such a treat for us to see what he would come up with as far as how he was shooting different scenes.

Did you feel like this was an opportunity to explore themes that you felt wouldn't work in the form of an album?

Russell: I mean, it's a story. That was more the case, rather than having any relation to any causes. Some people have brought up references to – without saying it at the time because it was written well before that – but the #MeToo movement, and about the destructive nature of show business, those sorts of things. For us, those things might exist in a way within the story, but they're not things that we wanted to – it wasn't trying to be a statement about those things, by any means. It was more of a story, and this relationship that goes off-kilter between these two people, one being a stand-up comedian and one being an opera singer. Lives that are so different became one, and that ended up not working for them. And the idea of this child inheriting the ability to sing after the death of her mother, that was more intriguing to us. So as a byproduct, those other elements do appear within it, but thematically, it was more the story of this relationship that was more interesting to us.

Ron: We feel, within the context of making Sparks songs, we're pretty free to go into any area. We never feel like we're bound by what a traditional pop song should be about. So in that sense, it isn't a big stretch for us to be writing about other things within a film area.

After this experience, do you have any interest in directing in the future?

Russell: I think our abilities would be more in doing another movie musical, but in the same position we were in with Annette, where we're writing the story and doing all of the music. We've, in fact, started working on another movie musical project because we love the process so much and love the possibilities of what you can do with a modern movie musical. So that's the next thing we're working on, apart from a new Sparks album at the same time. I think that's probably where we would be, better than having to stumble into the craft of directing. We think we could leave that to somebody else that we really trust, with their ability to do that and incorporate our sensibility of how to do a modern movie musical.


Annette is streaming on Amazon Prime Video right now.