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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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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…