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Olivier Assayas on Recovering from Trauma and Capturing the Spiritual World with ‘Personal Shopper’

Written by on March 14, 2017 


Perhaps the greatest privilege of this job is an opportunity to speak with artists whose work you admire — doubly so when it’s multiple times over the years, as their oeuvre slowly expands and, with some luck, the interviews you do begin to form a sort of continuous dialogue. I like to think that’s the case with Olivier Assayas, to whom I’d spoken twice (once in 2012 and again in 2014) before we sat down at last year’s New York Film Festival on the occasion of his latest picture, Personal Shopper, playing for press mere hours before. Lo and behold, it again went quite well — both because Assayas is as open as he is intelligent and on account of the fact that this new endeavor could be discussed on and on and on.

Which also means the 25 minutes we had didn’t feel like quite enough. I thus managed to snag another, equally sized interview with him on the day of Personal Shopper‘s U.S. opening, during which time there have been some interesting advancements: the once-dead gangster picture Idol’s Eye has been resurrected, and he’s written Roman Polanski‘s new film. These, along with further reflections on Shopper, form the second part, but hopefully you won’t be able to tell so easily where a split begins — and where certain back-and-forths are mixed into a five-month-old conversation.

Last time we talked, you said something that stuck with me. Your brother, a rock critic, compiled a rock dictionary, and he passed along this theory that decent musicians have one song, good ones have two, and great ones have three, and you’re looking for your third song. Personal Shopper feels so much like you, but it constantly surprised me — for instance, I couldn’t believe I was seeing a CG ghost in one of your films. So do you see Personal Shopper as a “third Olivier Assayas song”?

You can’t make the process conscious, you know? [Pause] In the sense that you don’t control your inspiration. I never really sat down and said, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” I’ve always felt, with every single film I’ve made, that I have my back to the wall and that’s the one movie I can do. There’s nothing else. I would love to be able to do something else, but I only happen to be able… the only thing that kind of drives me is a specific story, so I just go ahead and don’t really question it. I think that, as far as abstract ideas go, what was present in the conception of this film was the feeling that… I’ve always been fascinated by… I always say “genre filmmaking,” but it’s wrong. It has to be more like with stories that deal with what we call “the paranormal.”

Because it’s something that has been absorbed by genre filmmaking, in a sense, and it has been codified by genre filmmaking. Something that has to do with the American notion of what genre is — meaning, defined by a Protestant worldview, in the sense that there’s good and evil, and what is on the other side of the mirror has to be evil, pure evil, meaning genre filmmaking is totally defined by this notion that evil is lurking around us. Which is something I do not believe, and I think that, including in French classic culture, but more in French culture of the late 19th century — symbolist poetry, early science fiction writing — you have a notion of what the other world is that’s slightly different, and it gives a very specific identity to the relationship of French art with the world beyond our world, with the world of the invisible. I had always been interested in trying to reconnect with that through cinema, in my films, because it’s something that has always been pretty close to the surface in all of the films I made, but never completely integrated.

I wanted to see what happens if you go one step further and you deal with a world where the existence of the invisible, of something behind the invisible, is part of the character’s worldview — where it defines the space where the film takes place. That’s why, very early on in the film, I inject that scene where there is something happening —there’s a door that opens — and she does not see it. But at least it sends the message that there is another world, and, eventually, if she’s not doomed, she might access it. I’m not sure if that answers your question. [Laughs]

I went into this movie purposefully not knowing much of anything.

Yeah. That’s the way to see most movies, I’d say. [Laughs]

Do you have a preference for what people know about this film beforehand?

personal-shopper-12No. I think that any movie — and specifically my films, because I have those weird twists and turns once in a while — the least you know, the better, because that’s the dynamic of the film. I think all movies, but maybe my movies more than others, are explorations of perception, explorations of the world, and they don’t have, like, pre-chewed answers, so it’s meant to surprise you; it’s meant to put you off-balance. It’s meant to provoke some kind of thought process where you have a dialogue with what’s going on on the screen. So, yeah, my ideal audience is an audience who knows nothing about a film. Or, eventually, who’s misled. [Laughs] Who thinks they will get something else and ends up getting that.

Do you have much of a hand in this movie’s marketing?

Not really. It’s really a part of filming where maybe I should be more involved, but, ultimately, I’m not involved. I’m very marginally involved. It’s the same way as I trust the people I work with on the set to chip in their ideas, their inspiration. When I’m working with a distributor, when I’m working with marketing people, I just consider that they know better than me. I have no idea how you market a film, really. I’m just not interested. I just prefer to keep it… dignified. [Laughs] That’s my main concern.

But then a movie like Summer Hours: in France it had, like, the ugliest poster. You have no idea. It just looked like a cheap family drama, and that was my biggest film ever in France. So what can I say? Those guys know better. And thanks to the success of Summer Hours, it helped me get away with a lot of things — so it was welcome. And you can’t twist the arm of your distributor saying, “I like this approach, this poster” because, ultimately, people will lose confidence. If you impose this or that on them, maybe they will trust it less than their own approach. To cut a long story short: I’m not involved that much.

I wasn’t expecting Personal Shopper to be so scary, but some of those sequences — especially in the abandoned house and when she’s looking through the peephole — had me on edge. I wonder if, in constructing those scenes, you were feeling your way through them more than others.

Yeah, I was. I was. It’s really interesting when you mention that specific scene — and I’ve heard it mentioned in other conversations I’ve had — because it’s really something that I didn’t realize the full potential of, really, and it’s really, when I was shooting, I was kind of… [Pause] I was kind of surprised. When I was shooting that scene, I kept on covering it and doing more and more and more because, when I was shooting, I was realizing that this was, in terms of tension, a very important moment, and, of course, it all came together when we were editing — with all the music I used and all that — but, still, I had underestimated the complexity of the scene and its dramatic potential, and it’s really something that I invented on the set.

Sometimes I have a shot list and it’s kind of precise. I figure it out in the morning. That’s the way I function: I have to invent the film on a day-to-day basis, but, usually, I kind of stick to whatever I designed in the morning. Here, I kept on adding shots. “Yeah, it’s really important to see her feet. It’s really important to see her approaching the peephole.” I realized, shooting, that it could be scary, and, in terms of tension, maybe one of the important moments in the film.

Are you a fan of Kiyoshi Kurosawa?

I’ve known him for ages. I love his films. Yeah, sure.

I thought of him here.

Yeah. It’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa. It’s Japanese filmmaking. It’s also part of Hong Kong films — some things in Hong Kong filmmaking. It’s certainly a movie connected to film cultures where ghosts are part of the worldview — cultures where people do believe in ghosts and it’s not an issue.


I have to ask about all the texting. I saw this with a friend of mine, and, when checking our phones afterward, we wondered when a film last made us so aware of using these devices. It’s one of the only movies I’ve seen where an iPhone — and I might even have the same model she does — is presented by people who seem to know how they work. Did you feel nervous or limited about filming a phone screen?

It was easy to write, because I had a very clear notion of what the scene was about, and I think it could’ve gone for much longer. I mean, half of the film could have been text. At some point, it was part of the idea I was playing with, and it just ended up being this very long scene, but there was a moment when I was considering how to approach the film. Doing it all through text messages was an option. But when I was writing it, it came very easily to me — it was completely obvious — and I thought it would be extremely simple to shoot. Then, once I started shooting the scene, I realized the complexity of it. I totally underestimated the complexity of that scene, in the sense that: once I started shooting screens, I realized that the pace of the typing, the timing of how the answer comes back, the expressions on the face — how Kristen would interact with the screen if I was using close-ups, a bit wider shots, how long — that every tiny nuance, even in the wording of the text messages, was essential, was part of the suspense that had to do with tiny elements.

So I became obsessed with the complexity of it, really, and, in the end, we redid those text messages — all of them — two times, three times, four times. The guys who do the special effects in the film were just going nuts, because I thought I had what I wanted live, but then I realized that I needed to inject… sometimes you have the three little dots that are blinking. Sometimes they were there; sometimes they were not there. It’s kind of random when you do it live, and sometimes they would come out blue, sometimes they would come out red, so it was extremely… there’s so many of them that we had to redo. When we were editing — even at the late, late, late stage of editing the film — I would be cutting a few images here, a few images there, and I realized that the whole scene reacted to those tiny, microscopic cuts, so it was so complex to get it right. Even when all the text messages come crashing when she turns her phone on.

That one, we tried five, six, seven, eight times, I don’t know, and the pace was never right. We tried a little faster, then a little slower. At some point, I asked my editor, “Why don’t we do it ourselves instead of asking the special-effects guy? Why don’t we just slow it down and try it step-by-step?” So we tried this tiny bit of slow-motion, and it gave this kind of vibration, and I realized, “Actually, that’s what I wanted.” My editor said, “We can have this fixed,” and I said, “No, no, I want the vibration. It’s the vibration that becomes scary.”

I actually thought you were off-camera doing the texting as the scene was being filmed.

No, no. We had a prop man. But there was someone off-camera, yes, because, again, I needed it live because I needed Kristen to interact. We could not do it just storyboarding it.

I got a pleasure out of how you take advantage of the tiny screen. In one scene, the camera has a wide shot from her right side, then a close-up of the phone, then a wide shot from her left side. That rotation evokes the sensation of being consumed by a small thing in a wider space.

It’s interesting you say that, because it’s a movie where I really had a sense of space when I was writing. I had a very clear notion of the place. Usually, not that much. I’m kind of open to suggestions. I often write as I would be writing a play, and then I kind of adapt to the spaces; I visit locations and, all of a sudden, say, “Oh, that’s interesting, because this gives such an interesting space to us.” Here, I had, like, a vision of the space, so that’s why I had a few of the interiors built as sets: because I wanted to stick to the sense of space that I had in the film.

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