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The Man Who Made “Black Swan” Fly

The Man Who Made “Black Swan” Fly (photo)

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As Vincent Cassel’s ballet director Thomas Leroy paces a rehearsal space filled with dozens of dancers, stretching and unsure whether to be overjoyed or fearful of a tap on the shoulder, he announces to his company his choice of what they will soon be performing: “‘Swan Lake’ – done to death, I know. But not like this.” A guiding principle for Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” a complete reinvention of Tchaikovsky’s famed ballet was assured when the director hired the New York City Ballet’s Benjamin Millepied as his choreographer. A sample is here:

“Dance films don’t come around that often and they’re not usually that good,” admitted Millepied, which is probably just as well since he hasn’t had much time to spare since studying under Jerome Robbins in his teens to gone on to become one of the world’s most prolific and accomplished dancers. However, as a fan of Aronofsky’s (“‘Requiem for a Dream’ had a big impact on me as a young adult”) tasked with turning “Swan Lake” from a classic fairy tale into a tremulous fever dream, his screen debut intends to change all that.

“It was a really exciting collaboration because most of the time as a director, I’ll say something to an actor and they’ll turn it into emotion and in the case of Benjamin, I would say something and he would turn it into movement,” said Aronofsky, who happened to first meet Millepied as he was putting together a ballet about birds scored to the Kronos Quartet.

Soon, Millepied was arranging for the director to see “Swan Lake” in London and for Natalie Portman to work with the Paris Opera for a day in preparation in between perfecting the pas de deuxs and pirouettes of the largely untrained leads of Portman and Mila Kunis. And though one only gets hints of what a Millepied-choreographed “Swan Lake” would look like – the film features snippets of ten sequences that he created – it’s the cumulative effect of Millepied’s efforts, aided by a skilled group of ballet luminaries, that makes you believe in every move and the passion behind it. Recently, I got a chance to talk to Millepied about the difference between choreographing for the screen instead of the stage, his own foray into film directing and whether he should worry about Cassel giving French ballet directors a bad name.

12052010_MillepiedBlackSwan.jpgWas it different choreographing something for film rather than the stage?

Completely because when I work for the stage, I’m my own director. Here, I was part of a larger project. [I had to take into account when] there was a principal actor being filmed, whether we would be a tight shot or a wide shot or the sort of energy that Darren wanted. Specifically when all the girls were running at the end, behind [Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers], that’s very much something I wanted to create, a whirlwind, which Darren and I talked about. It’s very much something that George Balanchine does in his own production of “Swan Lake,” so we had a lot of running in the last act, which we shot a hundred times. I remember the one night we finished that scene, girls were in tears because there’s nothing worse than running in pointe shoes. It was horrible.

Did you have much input beyond choreography?

Once stuff was choreographed, I was in the room when shots were being blocked, so I was there to change things if needed. But I did have a role in bringing ideas or scenes from old movies, or things like that to Darren, especially I showed this film of “Swan Lake” by Mariinsky, which was shot on a shiny black floor that was super striking — he loved that and we used it in the film. There were things like that. I was there to feed him with ballet stories and ideas and Darren was doing his own research as well with other people. It wasn’t just me. He was questioning everybody. But I very much had that responsibility to make sure things were credible.

You actually get a couple of the film’s best lines. How did your role as the dancing partner to the actresses offscreen become an onscreen part?

We didn’t have a lot of time and I was partnering with Natalie and Mila and they were comfortable with me, we were working together every day, so it was the easiest thing because the partnering was a big part of how I made them move. I manipulated them. Once you put them in the real dancer’s arms and they’re really manipulated and moving and doing the extra movement, it made it look more real. So the idea to bring in an actor and have to teach him how to partner, which is extremely difficult, I think Darren quickly realized it would be easier to put me in the film.

12052010_MillepiedBlackSwan2.jpgIt would seem that beyond learning the choreography, an actor might be asked to express emotion differently as a dancer.

Yeah, definitely. It was also like she can do this well, but she can’t do this well, so I have to do a lot of that and use their qualities to make it look good. So that was very much something that required observation. But Natalie works very, very hard and went from being an amateur dancer to look like a ballerina on screen, which was really satisfying. As we were working, I would film her on camera and how she looked and what worked. I would play with filming her upper body and her arms and seeing what angles and what didn’t work, so that’s how I did it with her. I very much observed what would be interesting, what could make her succeed in portraying this ballerina.

I’ve read that you watched Baryshnikov’s “White Nights” a lot when you were growing up. Was your vision for “Black Swan” shaped by other films you had seen?

I think those films were an inspiration as a dancer, as an artist, and wanting to move to America and see where Baryshnikov was dancing maybe or be a part of that, that’s really what it is. I don’t think seeing those films did much for me in terms of [this particular film]. I love film and I’ve taken photos as a hobby for a very long time, so I think there was a cinematic sense that was very much exciting to me to be a part of. I’ve played around with moving with a camera with a dancer, using the camera as a third viewpoint, like a third dancer, which Darren excelled very well at in the film.

I understand you’ve made a short film of your own recently.

Yeah, after “Black Swan,” there’s a friend of mine, Asa Mader, and we had talked about making a film together for a long time, so we co-directed this film [“Time Doesn’t Stand Still”] that we shot in Paris. It’s really about a relationship from beginning to end and things that happen in this apartment. We concentrate on gestures to link the film and to tell our story, but it’s not a dance film. So it was super exciting. I was in it as well, with Lea Seydoux. She was really a knockout.

12052010_MillepiedBlackSwan3.jpgI’m going to make another short in the next year that would be a kind of exploration of dance in film. I think there is a lot to do still and I’m excited about exploring it. I’m working on two commercials in Europe as well and it should be really fun because it’s interesting to really set dance in our time and present it in film, not in a way that it’s cut from reality. It’s not like we act/we dance, but really make it a natural link where it really could go from one to the other. Make it a more natural, pedestrian language, which is what I’m working on.

Did you find much truth to the way dancers were portrayed in “Black Swan”?

Oh yeah. There’s a lot of what we call bunheads. There are these girls that live with their parents and are determined to become ballerinas and sort of have no life beyond the life they have in their dancing careers. And pushing others – it’s a very typical thing. Very. You see it in documentaries that have been done on dancers. It can be very extreme. Parents want their child to become a ballerina and be extremely pushy. It’s typical. It happens a lot.

Do you fear Vincent Cassel’s Thomas Leroy will give a bad name to French artistic directors?

[laughs] Time will tell. I don’t know whether we’ll have less ballerinas in ballet schools or more. I’m not so sure. We’ll see.

“Black Swan” is now playing in limited release.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

E.coli-class-

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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