Sparks discuss their debut film, Annette

Pop duo Sparks bring their recent shift to a more operatic sound to its natural conclusion with Annette, a baroque musical they wrote with French director Leos Carax, which arrives at Edinburgh International Film Festival this month

Feature by Lewis Porteous | 16 Aug 2021
  • Annette

Edgar Wright’s recent The Sparks Brothers, a loving ode to the duo, has kickstarted an international Sparks love-in, but the Maels remain true to their reputation as forward-looking artists. Just a few weeks before the documentary’s UK release, the brothers opened the Cannes Film Festival with Annette, the screen collaboration between them and oddball French director Leos Carax.

The musical, which focuses on the relationship between a stand-up comedian (Adam Driver) and an opera singer (Marion Cotillard), went on to win Carax the Best Director prize at Cannes and spawned a critically acclaimed album of soundtrack selections. With their screenwriting debut a resounding triumph, Ron and Russell meet with us to discuss it.

You seem to be in sync regarding music. Is this also the case when it comes to taste in cinema? Are there any areas of art and culture in which your sensibilities really differ?

Ron: I might have more outside-pop-music interests than Russell in as far as digging deep into jazz and some esoteric classical pieces, but in general we share the same feelings about things. It’s the basic reason we’ve been able to continue for so long. Even as brothers, if we’d had different ideas about what constitutes the ideal pop song or film musical, there’s no way we could have gotten this far.

Russell: One of the things Edgar wanted to stress in his documentary is how our situation is kind of different from just about every other brother act in pop music. It’s unusual for us to not only be getting along as brothers at this stage, but to be doing work that’s as progressive and provocative in this day and age.

So was Ron responsible for the band’s shift to a more operatic style, of which Annette seems to be the logical conclusion?

Ron: My knowledge of opera is not as great as it might appear from the film, but I have a love of soprano singing, so I think that fed into [Marion Cotillard’s] character. We wanted to come up with two very separate and very distinct characters, and an opera singer was something I felt very comfortable writing for in a musical setting. Even if the music is not truly operatic, but in the style of someone who’s coming from pop and imposing an operatic style on that form. The other thing was having a stand-up comedian, how to convert what a comedian does into musical terms. It was fun to try and figure that one out.

Russell: Also, Ron had introduced me years ago to [minimalist composer] John Adams’ work, so I respond to that more than to elements of traditional opera. The repetitive, cyclical style that Adams uses in his operas, and even the orchestrations of them – to me they sound modern and coming from a certain pop sensibility. What he does is really sophisticated, working with subjects that you wouldn’t necessarily think an opera should be about.

Ron: In operas, I really like the kind of hyper-dramatic approach to things where even something that doesn’t seem like a big deal is addressed in a very dramatic way. That really appeals to me.

Are the film’s two main characters representative of you both in some respects? Ron as the acerbic comedian, and Russell the open-hearted interpreter of songs? Is the movie about your relationship?

Ron: Both revolting characters!

Russell: We’re going to have to steal that as a motive, because we’ve been asked it more than once. We never saw that at all. But it’s like with Sparks songs, people sometimes ask if they’re autobiographical in any way. In most cases we say they’re not literally autobiographical, but they were written by Ron or maybe me, so they came from somewhere within us. Maybe those elements are there, unbeknownst to us.

It’s interesting that the movie features excerpts of the Sparks track Bon Voyage. The original version seems very sweet, but turns out to be sung from the perspective of an animal left behind by Noah’s Ark. In Annette, the song is used in a very literal way, as characters part. Was it a challenge to be so direct in your writing for this project?

Russell: The Sparks music that’s repurposed in a certain way, that was all Leos’s idea. At first we were really opposed to the film having references to Sparks because we came up with this whole story. We asked why, when we had so much original material, but he was such a fan of the band that he was adamant.

Ron: The thing that matters is the song carrying through the storyline. You can have things that have maybe some symbolism, but in general things have to be more straightforward and understood immediately. One case where a song takes on a different meaning is Aria (The Forest), where it’s an operatic performance by Marion’s character in which she’s almost previewing what’s coming later.

You’re kind of thinking “well, this is just a generic downer operatic Aria”, but she’s giving you a glimpse of what she’s feeling may happen in the future. There are times when it doesn’t have to be quite so straightforward. In Sparks we try to have things multi-level in terms of meaning or tone, but they have to be more straightforward or plain-spoken in a movie musical.

You’re known to have tried to get film projects off the ground for decades. The lack of spoken dialogue in Annette plays to your compositional strengths, but was this always your intended approach? Have you worked on ‘straight’ screenplays over the years?

Ron: I don’t think writing a non-musical screenplay is something we’d be strong at. Also, we don’t feel comfortable doing just a soundtrack either – there are so many people who are skilled at that sort of thing. Our strength is being able to engage with a story in musical terms. In the original version of Annette, there was even less spoken dialogue, but Leos felt it needed some breathing areas for the audience. We thought ‘they can breathe after the movie’s done!’

We’re really big fans of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which uses a similar kind of approach. Even mundane things are presented in a musical setting. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic point in the film or someone breaking into song. It’s straight through, so that really is our interest and we’ve enjoyed this process so much that we’ve come up with another film musical idea that we’re starting to work on now.

You run your own record label through which you can present music directly to a dedicated fanbase. Given the self-sufficiency you enjoy as musicians, what’s the appeal of the film industry with its headache-inducing barriers?

Russell: We’re masochists, that’s the appeal basically! We’re wanting to find different ways to channel the music we can do. We love doing Sparks albums and we’re three-quarters of the way through a new one and we won’t ever abandon that, but it’s a different way of working and at this point it’s more interesting for us to have a variety of different ways to do music.

Ron: We’ve always been such lovers of film that to be able to be a participant in that kind of essential way in a film is just a dream for us. It’s a little boy’s dream.

Annette has its UK premiere on 21 Aug as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival
Annette is released in UK cinemas on 3 Sep, and streaming from 26 Nov, via MUBI