Annette is undoubtedly one of the year’s most daring and ambitious films, featuring stellar work from its cast which includes Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and a particularly terrific Simon Helberg. Having previously directed Holy Motors, filmmaker Leos Carax is known for his bold, wild and inventive storytelling and Annette is absolutely no exception.
One of the film’s biggest strengths however, is the work from the sound team, led by the fearless and talented Erwan Kerzanet, who has collaborated with Carax in the past. We were lucky enough to sit down and chat with Kerzanet about the production process of Annette and how the film came to be, and you can read the interview below:
Bradley Weir: Firstly, talk to me about how you got started on Annette?
Erwan Kerzanet: Annette isn’t the first time I’ve worked with LC. I briefly worked with him on a segment called “Merde” from a film called “Tokyo” (Michel Gondry / Bong Joon Ho / Leos Carax) A couple of scenes we filmed in France and I was introduced to LC there. Then I meet him again for Holy Motors and we started a real collaboration. Holy Motors has been a very important film to me because the story puts into balance the human and the machine, with the figure of the actor at the center. So as a sound mixer, I could feel a lot in common with the character’s experiences. My way of working was conditioned by the subject of the film itself, helping me to find right gestures and right machines, in particular for the two music scenes : Kylie Minogue singing alone in the Samaritaine and the Accordion Band in the church are both live recordings that required specific ideas. So when we started Annette, several years later, it was a different relationship with LC. He had met up with Sparks in Paris after a gig and, they gave him a script fully made of songs. He had always looked to have space for music in a film, and he had thought of different projects that could have that fully musical mood with actors singing. Annette was meeting all these expectations. So it started!
BW: So what are the challenges – as a sound technician – of working on a musical compared to a non-musical?
EK: The musical is one thing, and Annette is another thing. Obviously, Annette is a strange cousin to the musical. I knew from the very beginning that LC didn’t want to think of Annette as a musical, in the classical idea we have of the genre, but more as a musical dramedy . One can think the film is much more harsh in comparison to recent musicals such as La La Land, there’s a big contrast between those two.
So the main challenge was to handle the world of a musical in a more authorial way of working, and LC wanted to bring something very personal to it, in particular he wanted to keep all the live singing of the cast and extras.
BW: There’s definitely a clear difference between those in particular, La La Land is such a colourful, positive film whereas Annette is much darker and grittier. In an interview, Adam Driver spoke about the freedom he felt working with LC compared to other directors. Do you feel that same freedom as working on sound ?
EK: I was watching back the monologue scenes with Henry (Adam Driver) on stage, what Adam did is amazing. In France, actors have a lot of freedom to pitch ideas and to take as many takes as they want. It’s part of our culture. It can be strange for foreign actors to do so many takes with French directors, and also it can be strange for foreign directors to work with French actors and wonder why they want so many takes! Driver was really interested in the fact that LC allowed him to be free with what to bring to the character and the scenes. LC presents his characters Henry and Ann on stage almost naked before the audience. Throwing Adam Driver on stage for his live monologue was like throwing a gladiator in with the tiger, especially as we shot this in a one-shot scene with a real audience.
BW: You can tell with his performance how much fun and freedom Driver is having. Did he rehearse a lot ?
EK: He asked us if he could take the microphones home so that he could practice in his room and become comfortable with it, and every detail was so important to him. Everything he brought to the scenes – especially the breathing and the heartbeat – is all coming from him. While he performs live we also get live feedback from the audience most of the time singing on musical line written by the Sparks. This scene is a face-to-face between Henry’s intimacy and the audience’s animosity, recording the sounds of these two different spaces (stage and theater) was really hard especially when the audience is yelling/ singing at Henry not only because we were dealing with a lot of audio tracks but the sound was constantly circulating from stage to the audience and back from the audience to the stage. We were going from very small intimate breathings to crowd shouting in the same take ! We had to consider all this as one big complex thing. Same idea when Simon Helberg is doing these few crazy live musical scenes he has. In the Conductor scene, Helberg conducts while talking and crying toward the camera in a one shot scene, that’s completely live and the orchestra is really playing, and we did 24 takes! I like the idea that we are listening to what the Conductor says just as if the musicians would try to understand and interpret the melancholy out of their conductor. The character is talking and conducting at the time so his melancholy is being heard too through the music of the orchestra when the camera is on Helberg’s back, and through his thoughts when you’re in the position of the orchestra playing softer to hear the lyrics.
BW: So do you find it difficult to find and decide the balance between what needs to be heard most by the audience?
EK: It is always the main question to me. LC is a very precise person and knows exactly what he’s looking for when in preparation. As the original script would be basically the lyrics of the songs, we had another version of the script that was around 300 pages with all LC’ notes and connotations. The most important thing for everyone involved was to understand all the ingredients of each scene. LC always puts you in the need to find something tailored. General solutions almost never works with him. There’s a particular scene where Simon Helberg is playing on a piano (I am an Accompanist ), but we have him playing a silent piano so we could keep the voice clean. He was listening to what he was playing through his earwig and we were recording the midi on a protools. The camera starts on the orchestra tuning playing live and then rotates 360 degrees around him, but because the piano was wired, we needed people to move silently all the cables around off camera so make way for the dolly. It is part of the Méliès side of LC’s work, we would always rely on very simple and practicals solutions to achieve the shots !
BW: Is there a particular scene you read in the script that you couldn’t wait to get working on?
EK: Literally all the scenes ! I remember reading that opening scene and I had my jaw dropping to the floor. Knowing that all of this would be filmed live, the one scene shot, taking us from inside the studio booth with all the Sparks Band playing live ‘So May We Start’ down to Santa Monica blvd to end up with all the cast singing on a parking lot two blocks away from the studio was incredible to think about. And we did it ! The music you hear is the live recording of the studio while the actors are singing two blocks away in production sound. But the whole film was like that! Each day was a gamble. The film was the gamble of the gambles! So prep was the key to be able to keep the live singing. In a situation like this, every singer needs to pull their weight, and if two singers aren’t on the same page it would make us miss the whole thing. We worked with a wonderful musical executive producer (Marius De Vries) and a supernatural Musical Director (Fiora Cutler) and they took care of all of the singers and carefully followed the shooting schedule so that the singers and actors were always on top. Only once did we do any re-dubbing, and that was one day with Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard on the boat deck. LC wanted to keep some of those natural noises of the rain and the storm from the production sound mixed with all sound design by Paul Heymans, and you can hear all of that in the track for that particular scene along with Adam and Marion’s voices, but we re-voiced good part of the singing.
BW: So what was the length of time between you receiving the script and production wrapping?
EK: There was a false start because LC wanted to change a few things, and we had some actor issues. Never with Adam because from the beginning he was LC’s biggest supporter. But we spent around two years before shooting, then real preparation begun around eight months before starting the 16 weeks of shooting.
BW: How did it feel when you received your first Cesar Award nomination for Holy Motors a few years ago?
EK: Well it is a special moment we experienced altogether (9 nominations) although it’s not the reason why we’re doing films. While making a film, we always expect something magical to happen. Holy Motors was the first time I really felt a blossom and something special. I didn’t think another blossom like Holy Motors would’ve come so soon afterwards. Holy Motors was kind of chamber orchestra music while Annette is more kind of a symphonic one, so was my joy on this one!
BW: So finally, what projects do you have coming up that we can look out for?
EK: I’ve been finishing now the shooting and will start soon the sound editing for a film with Italian director Pietro Marcello, who also directed Martin Eden. When I met him, he just said to me that I have carte blanche as long as I’m happy to work with some very strange microphones. I was so happy when I heard that, so I did almost of the recordings with ribbon microphones. It’s been a very exciting experience with him and I can’t wait to start editing the sounds.
BW: Well I just want to say that your work on Annette is excellent and the sound design is definitely one of the standouts of the film.
EK: It’s important for me to say that the most important aspect of the film was the collective work. Sound design here is a mix of everyone’s work on set, sound post production team and music department. Everybody brought his talent. I share with them all the quality of what we hear. The other incredible strength comes from the acting. Everything we hear comes from the genius of the actors. It’s very rare as a sound technician to work so closely with everybody from actors to producers and editors, we really shared something super special.
BW: Erwan it has been an absolute pleasure to work with you today and I’ve really enjoyed your insight into one of my favorite films of the year.
EK: Perfect, thank you.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.