Kenneth Branagh's The Magic Flute : Interview with Producer Pierre-Olivier Bardet and Exclusive Photos

Ideale Audience International, 4 May 2006
**Thanks, Lyn

Creator of Ideale Audience, Pierre-Olivier Bardet is also producer of the much anticipated The Magic Flute adapted for the big screen by Kenneth Branagh currently filmed at Shepperton studios in England. Throughout this interview, he give us a few exclusive insights on the project as well as a very first look at some photos from the shooting.

Q: Before going any further how do you explain that cinema and opera have a relationship that can be qualified of distant, blurry, that they are two worlds that sometimes cross each other’s path but never find one another?

The reason is mainly due to the fact that making an opera film is in essence an impossible task. But trying to solve that equation is hugely interesting. In a way, each attempt ends up in an imperfect film as well as an imperfect opera. Once all those imperfections are acknowledged, i find the hybrid results to be extremely interesting nevertheless. If we consider the most experimental things like Sylberberg’s Parsifal which i love, or more mainstream stuff like Zeffirelli’s Traviata or in between things like Tosca by Benoit Jacquot, it’s always interesting even if one stays unsatisfied because of fundamental incompatibilites. The biggest one, in my opinion, is the frame imposed by music throughout the piece. It clashes with the rythm used for cinema. It can be felt in the editing : Within a conventional movie, it is possible to fasten things up by making cuts. Within an opera film, it simply isn’t possible: it is ok to start a shot earlier and finish it later but a cut can never be made… The second difficulty is that cinema has massively gone for realism or naturalism. And singing in real life just isn’t natural. Here are the two big problems. It must be added that opera singers are not necessarily great actors and cinema is first made with actors and buit on actor’s name. A movie is financed on an actor’s name and there are no such names in opera, which is a major difficulty for a producer.

Q: Opera movies are to be considered as some kind of "UFOs" then?

The History of cinema is full of UFO’s. There always have been space for UFO’s and within them opera UFO’s. And its like that search for the philosopher’s stone ; this quest for the alchemy that will make gold works with opera movies as with all other UFO’s in cinema. I’d say that it is totally possible to finance an opera movie today, it simply recquires producers willing to take a crazy risk. In that case, one should rather find someone new to this game because there have been many flops. However, the film we are making today couldn’t have made without a sponsor.

Q: On an economical scale, where exactly is 'The Magic Flute' standing?

The budget for the film is £ 15,4 million, roughly 23 million euros. It is a big budget for a European studio picture and a small budget for an American studio picture. I’d say that this is a picture where the budget isn’t spent on actors as the cast is made of young opera singers, who aren’t movie stars and therefore not paid as such. The money goes to the screen which allows us to have a extremely spectacular movie with a budget that represents the quarter of a traditional studio production. We worked on five soundstages at Shepperton, in parralel or successively. We used the very large set on the H soundstage at Shepperton which is one of the biggest in Europe. It is gigantic : we built the No Man’s Land there with the tranches as well as two other sets : the mill and the old farm’s ruins. We then had a second set where the inside of Sararstro’s palace was built which is absolutely magnificent. The outside of the palace was built on a third set. So it is a real studio production: Eleven and half week of shooting on five sets, it is big, almost unreal. It is a mix of the old studio tradition with current digital techniques for a truly spectacular result.

Q: The Magic Flute clearly positions itself as a great show?

Totally. The choice was to make an experience out of this movie . It will be a visual, as well as a sonic experience for people who will see it, a first class experience I hope. This film was firstly designed to be seen in theaters so it is a spectacle. But it totally respects the original work while bringing invention and creativity to every single image to attain the highest degree of fantasy. It is a show made to be shared by the largest possible audience in the sense that it wasn’t designed just to please opera fans. We could have done a superd Flute with Bob Wilson : It would have been way cheaper and would have been much more selective as far as the audience is concerned. We chose another option which matched the Peter Moore’s Foundation‘s desire: Bringing opera to a new audience. Opera’s core audience will enjoy it as well, because from James Conlon to the Chamber Orchestra Of Europe and the entire cast of singers, we’re on the highest possible level. So opera die hards will go and see the film but what we truly wish is that those very people will be so enthusiastic that they get ‘ll back to theaters bringing two new persons and tell them that what they‘ll see is a real movie and they won’t be bored a single second. One can say that it is the Toscan (French producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier) way of doing things: Getting directors with a real knowledge for popular movies and who aren’t coming from the opera world at all. That was the case with Joseph Losey, with Francesco Rosi and Comencini as well as with Branagh now, who isn’t into opera while being a very musical person.

Q: In which way?

There’s an energy that Branagh brought to the film that was taken over by conductor James Conlon. Ken was very present during the soundtrack recording. He even explained to the Chamber Orchestra’s musicians what was supposed to happen behind them, so that they can be into the action while they were performing. And when he thought that the iperformance wasn’t moving enough, he discussed it with the conductor. Ken has this faculty to transport energy, he is contagious on that level.

Q: How did your choice finally focused on Kenneth Branagh to conduct the project?

First, the Peter Moore Foundation approched me explaining that they wanted to produce an English singing Magic Flute for the big screen and aimed at a popular audience. For 20 years now, Sir Peter Moore have been dreaming of making a Flute for the big screen but so far, he never found the right way to do it. I therefore established a list of directors to whom we pitched the project in order to find one whose vision we would agree on. Obviously all were chosen for the quality of their work and all originated from the English speaking world because we were to produce an English version of The Magic Flute… It is with Branagh that things clicked in the most natural way. On my list, I had people like Coppola, Ang Lee, Tim Burton. We also thought of Clint Eastwood. All those options had an interest but i believe that none were quite as self-evident as Branagh, the Bristish aspect of the whole operation being one. Ok, Branagh is Irish but we’re speaking of the same thing here. The second being his ability to translate theatre for the big screen as he did with Shakespeare. The third is that being one himself, he has an enomous care for actors. In this particular case, singers were to be transformed into actors and no one would have been able to provide the work Branagh done on the cast. It must be said also that he wanted this project and his desire to mke it his own was essential. Branagh’s approach to the Flute is that of an artist not of an intellectual. It is not a new reading of the piece, Ken is someone who is from the cast, the people, the acting and it is this very dimension that he brings today to the Magic Flute which I think is a tremendous success.

Q: Will the movie soundtrack be available before the movie itself gets released?

The soundtrack will be available territory by territory at the same time as the film is released locally. For reasons connnected to the P.M.F., it can’t get a commercial release before March 2007, probably when the movie will be released. No global deal with a major recordcompany was signed for the simple reason that there is something unfair in those agreements: If the movie is successful, the majors reap the benefits of the risk taken by he theatrical distributors when they release the film. We thought it would be fair to give the soundtrack’s rights to local distributors so they can have total control and be flexible when it comes to various promo operations.

Q: As executive producer of the Magic Flute, what do you think will get the audience interested in the film?

The combined names of Mozart and Branagh make a strong argument. We’re just hoping that the Mozart year hasn’t completely killed the interest for this composer. At the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is the quality of the film: If the film is good, it’s going to do well. All the rushe’s screenings we had so far are enthusiastic so I’d like to say that the project looks very good. In all humility, there is something really great in this adventure : the fact that everyone is going in the same direction. Everyone wants to make a great movie. From Sir Peter Moore who invested considerable amounts of money to the last techician on the set, everyone has the same agenda: not only to make a great movie but also to bring it to the largest possible audience. It’s not about the movie making money, it’s about it being seen by the largest amount of people.

Q: If the Magic Flute is a success, is it possible other projects of the kind will follow?

With Celluloid Dreams who is selling the film worldwide, we have created a incentive system which works like this : as more people buy tickets for the film, more money goes to the local distributor. That will encourage them to really stand behind the film and support it strongly. It will also allow distributors to make profit and not only the producer. It really becomes motivating because it makes the distributor a full partner of the film.The target for us is to recoup what was invested. If we reach a high degree of audience participation with significant incentives for the distributors, we really will have built an economic model. It means that an individual person can invest £ 15 millions if he does it cleverly. And of course it also means that a similar project could be set up in similar conditions.

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