Sparks tell us about the birth of their Cannes-winning musical Annette

Russell and Ron Mael—better known as Sparks—join Steve Newall to talk about their unconventional musical Annette, which is now playing in select Australian cinemas.

Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver star in the musical Annette, now in Australian cinemas, and with story and music by iconic duo Sparks (recent subjects of Edgar Wright’s documentary The Sparks Brothers). In a conversation over Zoom, we found out more about Annette‘s birth, their experience having an award-winning film at Cannes, and more—including why they think it’s too easy to say the film is “just bonkers”.


FLICKS: How did the idea first come about to do something in this medium?

RUSSELL MAEL: Well, we had wanted to do something that would be challenging for us at this point in our career, where we could channel what we do musically into kind of a some other way other than just doing our Sparks albums—which we’re continuing to be really passionate about—but we also wanted to try something that was different for us, doing a narrative story.

We thought that Annette would be Sparks’ next album nine years ago. We had finished the project then, and it was ready to go. We were going to tour with it actually, as well. And because of the small amount of characters, Ron would play the conductor. I would be the stand-up comedian role. And we would have an outside person, a woman soprano being the Marion Cotillard/Ann role.

Then we went to the Cannes Film Festival eight years ago. We met Leos Carax. And he had used one of the Sparks songs, one of our songs in his last movie called Holy Motors. A friend had arranged a meeting with him—just for us to thank him, basically. And then we got along really well with Leos. When we got back to LA, we thought we should maybe, just for no specific reason, send Leos this project. He really liked it and said, “I want to direct this as my next movie.” And then eight years later, here we are. It escalated into having major stars, Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg. And it was the opening film at the Cannes Film Festival this year, which was a dream for us.

FLICKS: You have framed your creative output in lots of different ways with your music. How did that balance of form and content work when it came to Annette?

RON MAEL: Well, one thing is through the years, we’ve become fairly fluent in so many kind of styles of music. And we were able on Annette to draw from so many different ways of having the music formed. And we really didn’t care about there being necessarily a stylistic consistency to the pieces in Annette. Even the jarring of styles was something that we embraced.

If people haven’t seen it, it’s pretty much a straight-through musical where almost everything is either sung or sung-spoke within a musical context. And so we just tried to match whatever the particular scene was with something stylistically that would kind of either heighten the emotions of that scene or just be a setting for a certain dialogue, but within a rhythmic context.

FLICKS: Would you take exception to it being described as a weird musical or a bizarre musical?

RON MAEL: We do. And maybe it’s overly defensive on our part, but I think once that label is attached to something, then you kind of judge it in a different kind of way. It’s almost like you’re flaunting the thought of it being outside of the mainstream. And for us maybe it’s something that we’ve tried to do with Sparks through the years.

But we feel—and we could be wrong—that something can work both as something that’s mainstream, but also seen as kind of interesting and challenging. And so it seems too easy for us to say—I hope you haven’t used this in a comment about Annette—but that Annette is “just bonkers”. It’s just too easy of a classification of a film. A film can be challenging without it just being kind of, “oh, it’s so weird.” We have more faith in an audience than just rejecting something that isn’t straight down the line, isn’t just the typical Hollywood kind of film.

FLICKS: I wondered if there’d been a bit of a hangover from your music being interpreted with that sort of binary as well.

Well, that, and also I hate to speak for Leos Carax, but his films are also seen as being divisive in that kind of way. But to me, partially just because the cast is definitely A-list, we would hope that people could accept it in a way where it wasn’t just something for their weird friends.

FLICKS: Any film will be blessed with the leads that are in Annette. How was it envisaging what it might become with Marion and Adam in the film?

RUSSELL MAEL: We were exceptionally happy when Adam had been the first to sign on. And he’s actually been attached to the project for probably six years now. He found something really special in the story that we had created and the music and the fact that it was a musical and he would have to sing for two hours through it. And he felt it was something that really resonated with him—the uniqueness of the project, the uniqueness of the story, and being about a stand-up comic who, through the conceit of it being a musical, also has to sing most of his dialogue.

He was exceptionally excited about the project, so much so that he had been ready to start Star Wars and at the time when we first met him and he hung in there. His initial enthusiasm didn’t wane over that six-year period while the producers got it together. So it just was a real kind of testament or vindication for us that there was something unique and special that someone of Adam Driver’s caliber was really excited about.

And then when Marion Cotillard signed on as well, we were equally as happy. And we were happy with both of their attitudes towards what a modern musical should be.

We discussed early on with Adam about stylistically what we prefer and what he prefers in musicals. For eight years, I had done the voice of Henry McHenry, his character. And so you become attached to that over time and think that that’s the right way or the only way that that is done. But then when Adam came on board and when he finally started doing the singing and when we saw him, especially once he was acting as well as singing, we couldn’t have been happier because he’s coming from the same spot that we all were.

We didn’t want this to be sort of a traditional Broadway musical in the sense of having these big, overly-emotive songs that kind of like are the stereotypical Broadway-type show tunes and that sort of thing. And he approached it more like we see it. It’s almost like a guy from a band sensibility, more than a Broadway sensibility.

FLICKS: The film balances what might be considered high and low art, between opera singing and stand-up comedy. How important a part of the DNA of the story is that to you?

RON MAEL: That was a key thing. Because just with our band, it wasn’t intentional from the beginning, but we’ve developed into straddling the two areas a more artistic kind of approach, and then also we have a passion for pop music. And we don’t see them as necessarily being contradictory things.

But within the context of Annette, we wanted to have two characters that were really discrete in their artistic sensibility, and the way that each of them was represented musically. It was easier with Marion’s part, where in the moments where she is singing operatically, that’s obvious what the music is going to be in a general sense. But the thing that was a challenge, in a good kind of way, was putting Adam’s stand-up comedian into a musical context. So the conflict of the two areas that are their creative obsessions, that was something that we enjoyed working on to represent that in a musical way within Annette.

FLICKS: Some elements in the film are timeless, while elsewhere there are things like a sequence of women coming forward to talk about Adam’s character’s behaviour in a way that’s very contemporary. How did that mix come about?

RUSSELL MAEL: It wasn’t something that we wanted to stress as some kind of theme or something. It was just part of this story. And, as it turned out, that six-women-have-come-forward piece that you mentioned, it sort of became more timely in the recent past, that issue—and specifically with show business people being abusive in that sort of way.

It was created, that piece, well before there was an actual Me Too movement and before people were using the term in the news: “Women have come forward speaking about them being abused or taken advantage of in situations.” That scene also was a dream. It’s Marion’s character, Ann, that’s thinking these things and wondering if it’s happened before. So it just part of the story, that situation.

RON MAEL: You hope that there isn’t an expiration date on something within something that you’re working on, whether it’s your own individual songs or a film where 10 years from now, people will see it and just say, “Oh, yeah. Oh, that was something then, but now it doesn’t really resonate.”

FLICKS: Do you expect that over time, the film will just feel like another natural part of your body of work alongside your records?

RON MAEL: I think so. And I think, actually, it’s the kind of thing that maybe will  just grow. When you release an album, there’s sort of a timestamp on it in a certain way. I mean, obviously with Spotify and everything, things are around forever. But it’s like “your new album” and that sort of thing. And then what are you doing now? And that sort of thing. But with a film, it is more timeless. Even if you’ve done several films, there is kind of the area where it kind of lives more forever.

And so, I think it’ll remain a strong part of what we’ve done, and maybe even take a stronger part in the future because people can kind of gravitate towards it over time. I mean, things are different now as far as the way they’re presented. And it isn’t like a film has an opening weekend and that’s it. People aren’t viewing things in that sort of way. So we kind of see it as something that will last a long time as a part of our body of work. I mean, we were so excited just to work on it, just the process really, that we’ve begun working on a new movie musical in addition to Sparks material. So—we’re in deep now.

FLICKS: That’s very, very exciting to hear. You said there’s not so much an opening weekend, but you did have what must have been an incredible experience taking the film to Cannes to share with an audience for the first time. Can you tell me a little bit about what that experience was like?

RUSSELL MAEL: It was really spectacular because for us, what the Cannes Film Festival represents, is sort of the pinnacle of the world’s attention about new movies. And it has such a history, 74 years of the festival. You go back and look at old footage or books about Cannes and see Alfred Hitchcock there and see Brigitte Bardot and Orson Welles. And then you think, “Oh, you’re on this red carpet now standing there in the same place. So for us—we’re real cinephiles—it was the most magical evening.

And it opened the Cannes Film Festival, it was the first film. And after a year’s delay where there wasn’t a Cannes Film Festival, to come back with the very first few minutes of the first film of the festival having a piece of music called So May We Start?—that became almost this anthem in a certain way around Cannes this year, where people were referencing that piece of music, also how it ties in with the whole reopening—at least at that point, for that one week—reopening of things, that life and movies could kind of get back on track again. So it was really special. And being on the red carpet with Adam Driver on the right and Marion Cotillard on the left and seeing 500 photographers snapping away, it was really amazing.

RON MAEL: It was the first time we’d seen Annette with an audience. So to actually have your first real viewing of the film in front of an audience at Cannes was just dreamlike to us.

RUSSELL MAEL:And then that it won best director as well for Leos Carax was amazing. And then we won the best soundtrack award, which was given outside of the actual official awards. They have a body of, I don’t know, 13 critics that for the last 12 years have been giving out a soundtrack award because there is none in the festival. And the music won for the best soundtrack. So it couldn’t have been more amazing, the event

FLICKS: It’s a really beautiful image, the idea of the opening of a film as reinvigorating, people being out and having a shared communal experience again.

RON MAEL:  Absolutely. And there’s just something so special about that kind of situation with cinema. You can have as big a TV screen at home as you want, but it’s not the same as seeing a special film and with kind of strangers there, all experiencing the same thing and under incredible conditions, just with the sound and the way it’s shown. So it was really amazing.

Also after just this desert period before that… it was almost like this cathartic thing where everybody was so eager just to watch films that you could really feel the passion in the audiences. And we went to several other films, and that was there for other films as well. There just is an eagerness for people to see films in the way that they’re meant to be seen.

FLICKS: You mentioned your cinephile qualities before. And cinephiles obviously exist worldwide – but it must be really special being a resident of Los Angeles, surrounded by the history of Hollywood and having a motion picture come out after a long gestation process. What’s it like having a movie arrive after a long process, and being surrounded by that culture?

RUSSELL MAEL: It’s amazing. And the ironic part, is that it took a French director and a French production company to initially back this project. So in a certain way, it’s unique because it wasn’t a Hollywood film in that sense. And even though we were from Los Angeles and we’ve been surrounded by Hollywood for our whole life, we’ve had a good relationship for a long time with France, with places that are not from our hometown. The UK was the first place to really embrace Sparks in a big way, and then France has been really supportive of what we’ve doing both in a creative way and from a public way.

So it’s ironic that it took a French director who was a huge fan of Sparks, and that was the initial impetus for us even hooking up to want to do a film like this. And now it’s kind of come in through the back door, it’s distributed by Amazon in America. So now all of a sudden it’s got the Hollywood stamp on it in a certain way. But it came to Hollywood via this circuitous route.

RON MAEL:  I was born in this area of Los Angeles called Culver City. And when I was growing up, our family would always drive by what was at the time the MGM studios, and it’s now Sony. But you kind of accepted the fact that you were living in a city where movies were being made. And so just after all this time and after a few near misses for us, to have a film actually made, it’s extraordinary.