Cirque du Soleil says it loves the movies, and evidence suggests that the whimsical Montreal-based circus troupe isn't kidding.
Cirque's latest show, "Iris," which opened last month at the Kodak Theatre to strong reviews, is an acrobatic mash note to cinematic marvels. Its French director, Philippe Decouflé, is an unabashed fan of Busby Berkeley musicals. The troupe's owner-founder, Guy Laliberté, keeps a home in the Hollywood Hills and counts director (and fellow Canadian) James Cameron among his friends.
What's more, the industry's hometown, Los Angeles, helped put Cirque on the international entertainment map in the 1980s, when it hosted the company's U.S. debut under the big top in Little Tokyo. Last year, when Cirque received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Laliberté declared that his company had "a love affair with L.A."
But despite its Tinseltown connections, Cirque has been cautious in its dealings with Hollywood over the years. Although Cirque gave a memorable performance at the 2002 Academy Awards ceremony and partnered with Walt Disney World Resort on its "La Nouba" show there, it has spurned some other Hollywood overtures. Among them, Laliberté said, was an offer from Columbia Pictures to make a film about the company's street-performer roots and rags-to-riches history.
According to Cirque personnel, those decisions have been grounded both in concerns about losing creative control as well as in philosophical differences with Hollywood that shed light on Cirque's own artistic and business methods, which have made it a global entertainment juggernaut with 5,000 employees worldwide and shows running from New York and Las Vegas to Tokyo.
At his hilltop home, Laliberté, seated barefoot on an outdoor patio sofa and smoking, recently cited two ways in which he thinks Cirque differs from the big studios' business-as-usual ways.
"There's so few people in the Hollywood industries that are not afraid of losing their job," the Cirque chief executive said in Quebecois-accented English. "So this is not an environment where you encourage mistakes in order to learn and grow. Because basically as soon as you make a mistake, you're dead."
"In our company we encourage mistakes because we believe that means they try things. The one thing we're very brutal with is that they repeat this mistake the second time."
The scale of modern movie budgeting inhibits risk-taking for all but a handful of A-list directors and producers, he continued, resulting in too many bland genre films and stale sequels. "They take financial big risks on certain productions, like on James Cameron, but very few," Laliberté said.
Cirque's expanding circle of outside collaborators — a group that includes brand names such as Michael Jackson, the Beatles and the Elvis Presley estate as well as numerous avant-garde and under-the-radar artists — underscores its own appetite for risk-taking. Cirque officials concede that their matchmaking occasionally misfires; "Criss Angel Believe" underwent revisions after opening to negative reviews and is still running in Las Vegas. Cirque and its partners generally have pronounced themselves pleased with both the creative process and the results.
Danny Elfman, the former leader of rock band Oingo Boingo and one of Hollywood's most prolific soundtrack composers, said he was given considerable artistic leeway in composing his atmospheric, genre-bending score for "Iris" — a practice that's rare in the committee-driven contemporary Hollywood studio system, he noted.
"There's not, like, Cirque people watching over us constantly, like, 'Don't do that, change this, don't do this,'" Elfman said. "They know that their best work comes out of allowing artists to be artists."
Cirque's open-minded attitude, Elfman believes, emanates from Laliberté. "Guy doesn't come in and micro-manage like some producers can," he said. The Cirque chief's management style, according to Elfman, is to step in with essential feedback at crucial intervals but otherwise stay out of the way.
"In a cinema reference, it would be like working with Louis B. Mayer in the '40s," Elfman said. "And so we're making the movie, and at a certain point Louis B. Mayer is going to walk in, and he's going to see the screening and he's going to go, 'Cut that scene, that scene, that scene's gotta go, and you've got to take 30 minutes out. Bye!'"
"Iris" writer-director Decouflé, a Paris-based avant-garde dance choreographer, similarly credits Cirque with granting creative space to its collaborators. While Cirque does insist that all its productions meet certain criteria, such as including a specified number of circus acts and not hewing too closely to a narrative through-line, Decouflé was surprised at how much room he was given to experiment with "Iris."
"I thought that I would have to change more and be more close to what is usually done," said Decouflé, who oversaw a Hollywood-scale production when he directed the opening and closing ceremonies at the 1992 Olympic Games. "But you can't say 'what is usually done' because in all of their shows Cirque has a different creative team. So there is many different colors coming to the work."
Unlike Hollywood studios, which sometimes practically rewrite entire films based on test-screening results, Cirque makes few artistic decisions based on audience surveys, said Mario D'Amico, Cirque's senior vice president of marketing, who has been with the company since 1999.
"We certainly care what the public thinks," D'Amico said, speaking by phone from Montreal. But the company doesn't tinker with shows based simply on consumer feedback, he added. "That just isn't Cirque."
Laliberté sees certain similarities between Cirque and a few of its most innovative Hollywood counterparts. For example, he compares the open-design layout of Cirque's Montreal headquarters building — which he believes fosters a creative synergy between the company's artistic and business departments — with the work environment at Pixar Animation Studios.
"There's the same type of energy and spirit within the company that is creative-driven but also works with technical and administration people," he said of Pixar.
Laliberté and his staff also keep a lookout for artists like Elfman and Decouflé with an outsider, envelope-pushing artistic perspective but also a popular touch that enables them to work on a mass-consumer scale and appeal to broad audiences.
"People like Julie Taymor is a person I would like to work [with], having her as a director of one of our shows," Laliberté said of the director of theater, opera, blockbuster musicals ("The Lion King," "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark") and movies. "We've been talking for many years, it didn't happen, but hopefully one day it will happen."
Perhaps the way in which Cirque least resembles a corporate entertainment behemoth is in Laliberté's very un-American credo that life should be about more than work, no matter how creative or fulfilling that work may be. To encourage workers to enjoy their days off, Cirque sponsors exhibitions of art made by employees, hosts private cabaret shows created by its performers, and allows employees time to take part in charitable and other socially beneficial activities.
"I know I'm very privileged," Cirque's ringleader said. But "the concept of people working all their life, seven days a week, piling up money, and dying being rich, I just don't get it."