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► Annette is in UK cinemas now.
“We were pretty happy to get that lyric in there – ‘Counterintuitive, baby’,” smiles Ron Mael, who with his younger brother Russell Mael forms the iconoclastic duo Sparks. He’s talking about the song ‘We Love Each Other So Much’, sung by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in Leos Carax’s latest film Annette, which recently won him the Best Director prize at the Cannes film festival. Sparks wrote the screenplay and all the music for the film, which is almost all sung through from beginning to end, and is their first foray into cinema. What led to this collaboration with Carax?
“About ten years ago”, Ron says, “we were commissioned by Swedish National Radio to write a radio musical on any subject at all, as long it was somehow related to Swedish culture – so we chose to do something about Ingmar Bergman, whom we knew more about than other Swedish topics.” This led to the brothers writing a musical, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. “We enjoyed that process, of writing a long narrative piece,” he says – but the production was enormous and the brothers wanted to be able to tour with the recording. The idea of Annette, which has a much smaller cast, came into being as a result.
At Cannes, in 2013, the brothers were looking to get The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman off the ground as a film, and were introduced to Leos Carax, who had used one of their songs in his film Holy Motors (2012): ‘How Are You Getting Home?’, from their 1975 album Indiscreet. When the brothers returned to LA they sent Carax the project, and he immediately showed enthusiasm for coming on board as director, with the proviso that he would bring his own sensibility and personal touches to the film. Carax appeared on the brothers’ 2017 album Hippopotamus, contributing vocals to the accordion pastiche ‘When You’re A French Director’. All the while, Annette remained in production, mostly unchanged through different rounds of casting. “The entire story is still there, from our version that we sent him nine years ago,” says Russell. “Leos chose to do it in the way he did, with that really stylised sort of look where it’s kind of artificial, but in a really cool way.”
How did the brothers compose the music, in tandem with the script? “Before we got involved with Leos, we envisioned each scene and what would be needed lyrically, and then the tone of the music, and then tried to work almost simultaneously on those two things,” says Russell. “We envisioned it being wall-to-wall singing as much as possible, and so it was trying to figure out a different musical context for each scene. We did it in small segments, not worrying about how one scene would be jarring musically or lyrically with another scene. When we work on Sparks songs, we always write the music first, then the lyrics – but there were times with Annette when we would work the other way.”
The brothers’ process, resisting traditional structures and phrasing, and relishing clashes – hence that jarring lyric, “We love each other so much / Counterintuitive, baby” – was matched by Carax’s extravagant, disjointed directorial style. “We agreed with Leos about musicals, that everything has to be sincere,” Ron says. Russell cites Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) as an influence: “It’s all sung, and there’s a sincerity in the way it’s acted, and, as in Annette we hope, a few minutes into the film you kind of forget that people are singing.”
Though Annette is Sparks’ first musical, the brothers have at various points been involved in film projects by Tim Burton (who optioned the rights to a musical version of the manga Mai, the Psychic Girl in 1991) and Jacques Tati (who considered casting the brothers in what would have been his final film, Confusion – a project that never came to fruition). “He didn’t disappoint” says Ron. “When he walked in it was, you know, the Hulot character.” The brothers agree that Carax, Burton and Tati all have in common a highly stylised touch, a personal universe of their own, which concords with Sparks’ idiosyncratic body of work. “I think that’s why those directors wanted to work with us,” Russell says. “Leos told us that when he was 15 he would go into record stores with a big overcoat on and steal Sparks records, and that’s the biggest honour we could have.”