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

Written by on March 14, 2017 


I know you’re a great admirer of John Carpenter — for instance, I was really into this piece you wrote about The Fog for Cahiers in the ’80s — and the widescreen frame brought him to mind, even though the compositions and atmosphere are different.

What I admire with Carpenter, and in a movie like The Fog, is the sense of the invisible. I think he uses CinemaScope brilliantly — visually, it’s extraordinary — but, also, he really has this sense of the invisible. That’s very specific. I mean, he has this sense of abstraction and he’s always scarier when he does not show you things. He’s so good at that.

Again, I was really surprised by the computer-generated ghost. I’d like to know about your deciding how much would be shown.

Yeah, I know. That, of course, was a question. I knew I wanted to show the ghost, in the sense that… because, somehow, I wanted to emphasize the fact that it exists and does not exist — both things. To create the notion that it does not exist and is really something happening within her. What happens in her has to have a physical reality, in a sense that her anxieties and fears are both real and abstract. Whatever creates anxiety within us is not tangible, but still it affects our body. So, in that sense, I think what scares Maureen has to have a name and a visual expression.

So that’s how I approached it is, yes, CGI, because that’s how you do that stuff, but what inspired me was 19th-century spiritist photography. There was this whole trend when people did believe in spiritualism: the medians would hire photographers to represent whatever they saw in the séances. So that’s the direction I wanted to go. I wanted it so that, when Maureen sees the ghost, this ghost will look like whatever the medians in the 19th century imagined they were seeing. We based so much on the images they created — and they are very beautiful; they are both very naive, but also very disturbing, in a certain way — and also the descriptions that medians would give of their experiences of hallucinating, certainly, but the visions they had of ghosts. That’s the world I wanted to connect with.

Relating to medians: I kind of lost my mind with the fake TV movie that she watches.

Oh, yeah. [Laughs]

That was so much fun.

Yeah, yeah. I know. [Laughs]

I just want to ask about everything going on there. I don’t have time, but…


Where do I even start? Shooting in 4:3, for instance. Obviously it’s a correct choice for a ’60s TV movie, but I wonder if you especially relished that.

Yes, I did; you have no idea. I loved every minute of it. I spent so much time. I had so much fun doing it, and I’m happy — it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I would refer to it as my Manoel de Oliveira movie. I like the idea of having this 1960s TV drama. [Laughs] But, at the same time, I took it really seriously. I was really happy with what we were doing; I thought it looked beautiful. I had fun researching it, really. I really tried to get it as correct as possible, so I really used the actual transcript of the Victorian ghost séances.

Every single character in the room is a character that’s actually described in the transcripts, so every single one corresponds. No one knows it, but one of the characters is Adèle Hugo — Adèle H. So, in that sense, it’s kind of an homage to Truffaut. But Adèle was actually there. I mean, it’s really like, if I could imagine the whole film and it’s only one piece of that film, that I could have made that film. I would have loved, actually, to make a film about the Victor Hugo séances, because they are incredible. You read the transcript, it’s beautiful.

I could have watched that entire film.

There is a longer version. I think we’ll include it in, like, the bonuses. There is, like, a six-minute, seven-minute version of it, yeah.


You often have movies within movies — Clouds of Sils Maria, Irma Vep, even Something in the Air. What is the attraction to this?

Maybe I should give you the short answer, because, ultimately, you shouldn’t try to dig too far. It echoes in interesting ways within my films, but, ultimately, I think it’s entertaining. I genuinely do. When I’m writing, I’m just getting bored with conventional narrative. I just don’t have the patience to write those kinds of screenplays anymore. Gradually, I’m trying to find a way of making the process of writing fun and exciting for me — meaning, not go through the technicalities of how you tell a story, just giving the information here and there. I really want to from a moment I like to a moment I like to another moment I like, and it has to be fun, in a certain way. I need to have fun writing.

Sometimes I just have a sense: “Why not insert a music video? A clip from some weird movie? Just to reenergize the narrative.” I think, somehow, it pushes me to try to rewire the narrative in interesting ways and to bring another dimension while having fun doing it. For some reason, I think it’s so unexpected to, all of a sudden, have them discuss Victor Hugo. “What the fuck? Victor Hugo?” All of a sudden, you have Victor Hugo who pops up in the film. I think it’s fun for the audience. At least for me it’s fun. At the same time, it connects in interesting ways with the film. I think it deals, in a very profound way, with the essential elements in this film — but at the same time, it’s funny, because “wow.” [Laughs]

And your last few movies are heavy on narrative ellipses, where scenes sort of fade out mid-sentence. Do you know ahead of time that they’ll be occurring, or do you find yourself sort of “reaching them” when it’s time to write a sequence?

They are pretty much built into the screenplay. It’s always kind of part of the… I think that a lot of what happens in movies happens between ellipses, so it’s really important where I cut and where I start again, because the “void” in the middle has to be kind of controlled, in a certain way.

In one of these moments, the name of Stewart’s character is stated, and I feel like this, fairly late into the film, is really the first time we heard it.

Yeah. Yeah.

I’m curious about this method of revelation.

I like the process of discovering who those characters are, who that person is, and so on and so forth. It’s something that kind of unveils itself when the movie goes forward. When the movie starts, it’s not just that we don’t know her name. We hardly know who she is, where we are. We could be anywhere. You have those two girls. That car stops in front of the house; one the girls leaves. What’s going on? And then, all of a sudden, you have this really long tracking shot where we follow her walking into this empty house. We don’t know who she is, we don’t know why she’s there, and you feel that something weird is going on. What is it, exactly? So it kind of conveys the idea that you are with that girl, who is a blank page.

Gradually, you are going to identify with her. I think the fact of not knowing a thing about her helps you identify with her, and you end up being like her — feeding your way into the story, and, layer after layer, the narrative unveils. The way I introduce the narrative is, you’re with her and, after a while, you realize she is some sort of psychic and is visiting that house, and you realize that being a psychic is not that interesting for her. Eventually, it has to do with art, because she’s interested in this Swedish artist. I give a lot of information, but not the information you’re expecting, and certainly not the way you expect them to come to you. And I think it’s always the most difficult part of a film: how you walk into a film.


You’ve scripted Roman Polanski’s next film, Based on a True Story. How is it to write without directing?

We have the same agent. So he kind of called me one day. “Roman Polanski really likes your work. Would you be interested in writing this? Because I know you write really fast. He’s had this project that fell apart and he wants to shoot right away, and he kind of needs someone to help him with putting this project together really fast. Would you do it?” And I don’t know. I like Polanski; I like the person. I thought, “Well, why not? Why not have a shot at it? I have not done it for ages. Let’s see what happens.” Sometimes I felt like Rick Rubin producing Johnny Cash, or something like that. You know? [Laughs] Helping Roman Polanski be Roman Polanski, or something like that.

I kind of like the idea. I wrote this screenplay real fast. The book is, like, a big book with lots of stuff going on, and they had lots of problems because no one really cracked it, so they kind of needed someone to just get rid of everything and start from scratch. It’s not great literature, but it deals with something that is interesting — at least I got interested in the subject matter — and I wrote something very fast. I wrote the script in, like, three weeks, and then I started working with Roman. They needed something real fast so they could start financing the film. We were in July and they wanted to start preparing the film in September and shoot in October or November, so they were in a rush.

Then, you know, once the process got going, I sat down. We started working with Roman to rework my screenplay to suit whatever his vision of the project was at that point. So, simultaneously, I love the process of working with him; I’m happy I worked on it. I thought my initial version was better. [Laughs] And I would’ve had fun directing it. So, yeah, of course there’s this tiny bit of frustration with it, but that comes with the package.

I’m glad that you appear to have resurrected Idol’s Eye, which, of course, was right on the cusp of shooting before being shut down.

Well, I’m crossing my fingers.

You wrote Personal Shopper after that fell apart. Does the film feel like it grew out of that experience?

I suppose, yeah, it could have grown out of the trauma. I was recovering from a trauma; I can’t deny that. I suppose, in one way or another, it’s there — in the background. Yeah. There was something — I’m not sure if we discussed it — but I had a hard time. Sometimes movies don’t happen. I went through that, and it’s part of the job. I don’t like it, but sometimes you write a movie and it just, for some reason, can’t get off the ground. Looking back on it, you understand why. On the spot, you don’t; looking back, you think, “This was not ready for shooting,” or, “This was not the right time,” or, “These were not the right actors.” Whatever. That kind of stuff happens months before shooting. Worst case, you just start putting the film into place and, gradually, you realize you are not going to get the full financing of the film. It’s okay. I don’t have a problem with that.

But spending $5 million, preparing the film for months, and, all of a sudden — like, the day before shooting, when the equipment is in the trucks, when the actors are there, when the whole styling of the film is done — that’s weird. It’s weird, it’s irrational, and it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating because, in the case of that film, it’s not like it’s weird. For some reason, if a movie like Personal Shopper doesn’t happen, I kind of understand. A financier will find it too weird, it’s too abstract — whatever. At least I get it. I don’t agree with it, but I get it. In the case of Idol’s Eye, it’s ridiculous. The film is a very exciting project by any standards, with a great cast. It’s as much of a classic genre film as I will ever make. There’s no reason that this film would never happen. That’s the most frustrating part. So, yes, when I was making Personal Shopper, there was this kind of “fuck you” feeling in the background. [Laughs]

I’ve told people that Personal Shopper is more “punk rock” than something like Sils Maria.

Yes, it is.

But your last couple of films haven’t made a big use of needle drops, whereas you once caused something of a stir with your choices of Sonic Youth, Credence Clearwater Revival, New Order, etc. I wonder about this recent shift.

Well, recently, the thing is that [Laughs] I’m a little bored with the use of indie rock in indie films. I think that, now, everybody’s doing it. Or in mainstream films. The kind of stuff I was using — which was usually indie rock — has become elevator music, in the sense that, now, you are in elevators and listening to Nick Drake or something. [Laughs] It’s just creepy. They are in hotel lobbies, or when your plane lands and they’re playing a “cool indie band.” I think it’s become invasive; it’s just too much. I’m backpedaling and trying to find another approach to music.

So that’ll be the case with Idol’s Eye?

No. Idol’s Eye is a little bit more of a “rock ’n’ roll” movie, so that’ll have a bit more of a rock ’n’ roll style.

Do you already have specific songs in mind?

Well, usually, when I start thinking about films, I kind of put songs aside just as an inspiration. I will use them or not. I mean, I suppose that some other filmmakers put aside photos, paintings, whatever. For me, it often comes from songs.

I love Sylvester Stallone, so the chance of you two collaborating is very great. Hadn’t you written about him for Cahiers years and years ago?

Yeah, I think I did. I mean, I’ve always loved his work. I mean, I genuinely think he’s a very exciting, interesting artist, so I love him as an actor, I love him as a writer and director, and I think he’s a great person, so yeah. I met him a couple of times, and I was just so happy because he’s a filmmaker and you have filmmaking conversations with him. He’s very open and very likable, so that’s great. Yeah, no — I’m really looking forward to it.

Do you have a favorite of his writing-directing efforts?

Paradise Alley? I love Paradise Alley. I thought the recent ones… he did Rocky Balboa, right? I liked Rocky Balboa. But I like the early Rockys. I kind of mix them up. He did the second one, which was really good. But even, like, the last Rambo movie was pretty good. It was very violent — extremely violent; disturbingly violent — but yeah, I liked it.


I recently read that you were the subject of a Cinema of Our Time episode. What was that experience like?

I didn’t want to get involved too much. It’s a guy I met who wants to make movies and had only done documentaries, and I kind of mentored him a bit. He asked me, at some point, “is it okay if I follow the shooting of Personal Shopper and turn it into a documentary on your work,” and I said, “Yeah, sure, fine.” He came every single day of shooting, which was crazy. He shot, really, a lot of material, and I was a little bit suspicious that it wouldn’t be so great because I thought he’d be shooting too much material, and why do you need all that stuff?

In the end, it’s not bad. It took him, like, I don’t know, a year, so he was constantly adding material, and everybody was watching the early cuts, was not too thrilled with it. So I was kind of apprehensive. But finally, when he had all his material and everything kind of clicked into place, I think it kind of made sense, so I was happily surprised.

After your Hou Hsiao-hsien episode from the mid-90s, do you have any itch to do another?

To have a dialogue? The thing is, I’m always interested in having a dialogue with filmmakers; I think there’s not enough conversation with filmmakers. I’m always interested in discussing how we work. The thing is, I’m not sure I would have the patience now to go through a movie like the documentary I did with Hou Hsiao-hsien, but there’s a lot of filmmakers. Someone I really think is a great — in a certain way, underrated — filmmaker is Steven Soderbergh. I think that Soderbergh is one of the most inventive, original filmmakers active in any culture, because he’s really experimenting and trying things. He never does the same thing twice. You feel someone who’s just imagining new ways of making movies. So the results are uneven, but he’s definitely a great, important modern filmmaker.

Or even new ways of doing TV.

Yes, absolutely.

There’s one last thing I must ask: in 2014, you told me you were really excited for Michael Mann’s Blackhat, which was about to come out. Did you see it?

Yeah, I loved it. I thought it was really good; I think it’s one of his really good films. I’m a fan, but, yeah — I did love it.

Personal Shopper is now in limited release.

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