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Olivier Assayas Talks the Complexities of ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ and the Genius of Kristen Stewart

Written by on April 8, 2015 

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First, a bit of necessary context: I spoke to Olivier Assayas on October 9, at which time he was deep in preparation for Idol’s Eye — a title that ended up being cancelled in early November, reportedly just as cameras were set to roll. (I even waited for him to finish a text-message conversation with someone involved in that film before actually starting our interview.) While it’s fortunate that his intelligence and insight are as clear here as anywhere else in the interview, it’s also all the more disappointing how his frustrated comments foreshadow the disaster that awaited.

But the central point of discussion is Clouds of Sils Maria, which is finally being released stateside some eleven months after its Cannes debut. Fans of 1996’s Irma Vep (i.e. almost anybody who has seen Irma Vep) will be happy to know he’s working in a similar territory this time around, utilizing the powers of Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart to investigate the place an aging, transnational actress has in today’s world. It’s a beautiful, moving, and unsparing piece of work, the sort that feels like it could only come from a filmmaker who’s keenly aware of the world in which they’re operating. As I remember quite vividly from 2012, Assayas is in no short supply of things to say about the entire messy process — as well as just about anything that can relate to it — and the extended time we were given allowed for much ground to be covered.

The Film Stage: How are you?

Olivier Assayas: Good, good. Thank you. I’m a bit busy, because it’s very difficult — you know, I’m shooting, like, in ten days, so I have prep going on in Toronto. So it’s very difficult just to be in two places at once.

We chatted when Something in the Air played at the festival two years ago. When you come to a city like New York, which you don’t live in and which I can’t ever recall you shooting in, do you see it through a director’s eye — either how you’d shoot it or, even, just as little as a place you’d like to film in?

Well… yes. Yes, but no. “Yes,” in the sense that I’ve been coming here for ages. I love the city. I don’t know it the way you know a city — the way you need to live in a city to know it. I’m not familiar with so much about it, but it’s been part of my life for a long time. So I would love… often I imagine that. But I’d say that it’s technically impossible. I mean, it’s too expensive. I mean, you can’t shoot a movie. It’s too expensive to make movies here. It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. The logic, the union logic — this kind of bureaucratic structure of how you’re supposed to make movies in the U.S. — is a nightmare.

And it’s ridiculous, because filmmaking is changing. It’s changing so fast. So, okay: you can make indie movies, and so on and so forth, but the problem means that you have to work with specific actors who are not union actors, whatever. You have to be, like, flying below the radar. And even if you’re functioning under the radar, it’s still kind of expensive. So it’s extremely frustrating. It’s extremely frustrating because the next film I’m shooting, I wanted to shoot it in Chicago, and the difference between shooting in Chicago and shooting it in Toronto is so big that I end up not even having a choice. I have to shoot Toronto for Chicago. It’s a drag.

Part of the reason I ask is becuase location matters a great deal in your work, and it’s unsurprising that Sils Maria makes great use of its own. The atmosphere of these Swiss mountains is very intrinsic to the emotions at this film’s center, and the title alone makes clear that you’d had it in mind, but were you thinking about it before anything relating to this film had sprung forward?

It’s based on very banal experiences. I went hiking with friends in the area. I mean, I have friends who go there, like, almost every year, and they’ve been, like, harassing me — “Why don’t you join us? It’s so beautiful.” — and so I ended up joining them, enjoyed the holiday, went back a couple of times. It’s really one of the nicest areas in Switzerland. That doesn’t say much, but…

So it’s at least familiar. I kind of had feelings for those landscapes, because they are not just beautiful — they are inhabited. They are inhabited by history. They are inhabited by the artists or the writers who have lived there, who have spent their summers there in the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century. So it’s not just a neutral landscape. There are ghosts there, and this is also kind of a ghost story, in a sense — you have this presence there, hovering. I thought there was some kind of connection between this story and those landscapes.

During our last conversation, you talked about the very meticulous work you do with your set designer — for instance, how you once took two hours to reorganize everything just the way you wanted it.

[Laughs] Yes.

When you’re shooting somewhere with such intoxicating imagery, does something along the lines of that design become less of a concern?

Well, it’s… set design, in this film, was important for a lot of the interior scenes. A big deal was building the set at the end of the film. Those were, like, the big issues. Otherwise, it was fairly simple. I mean, okay, the other issue was the chalet, so it was really about having the right chalet, and completely redecorating it and reinventing it and making it feel as close as possible to what we wanted. But, still, the important thing when you are making a film like Clouds of Sils Maria, it’s all about the outdoor photography, really. It’s more about finding the right path, the right angle — the right hour and the right angle to shoot the right path. Which is, ultimately, extremely complex. I mean, the film is, technically, very complex.

It’s kind of a headache, because, when I was writing it, I was kind of naïve. “I mean, after all, half of the movie is people hiking — it won’t be that expensive.” Yes, but if you want to find the right hiking path with the right background, with the right this, the right that, it involves searching for days, and it involves scouting with helicopters. Same thing once you make up your mind and you start shooting. You have to bring, via helicopter, the whole crew and the infrastructure of the shoot. It ends up being absurdly complicated. I tried to keep it as simple as I could, but, still, it involved complexities I had not anticipated.

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You shot this on film, which I know you prefer. There’s a real grain in the texture of Sils Maria, which also speaks to its atmosphere. When you’re shooting on celluloid and you need to go through all of these aforementioned steps to make what often plays as a drama about two people talking in a room, do financiers balk a bit?

[Pause] You know, the thing is that, in the end — if only for preservation purposes — you need a 35mm print. So once that is integrated into the budget, shooting on film is not a huge difference. It has become a difference, because labs are closing down, so the guys who still do it, it’s a much more specialized line of work, so they tend to charge you more. I think what will be happening in the near-future, it’s going to be some kind of a luxury to shoot on film.

But we’re talking about something that’s very recent. Two years ago — a year ago, maybe; I don’t know; let’s say two years ago — it was still very similar in terms of cost. It’s only because the labs have been closing down that, gradually, you have to deal with different partners who end up being more expensive. But it’s not big on the scale of a film, of the costs on a film. The difference between digital and 35mm is not relevant.

Do you absolutely prefer that a film be projected on 35mm?

I prefer it. I prefer it absolutely not for ideological or nostalgic reasons. I mean, I’ve been completely in love with every single technological evolution of cinema. I’ve been using digital editing, like, the second it started existing. I’ve used, obviously, digital technology for sound ever since it was possible. It’s just that I don’t think digital is as good. I think 35mm looks better. Not just in terms of taste; it’s just that the range of what you can do with the 35mm negative is wider than what you can do with your digital element. No one has ever given me coherent proof that there was anything, in any given situation, where digital was better than film. It’s different. The best thing you can do is that: it’s different. So, if you love that texture, you can have that texture.

I know you’re a big fan of Michael Mann, and if you can do something like him…

Yeah, no, I know. I know. I know Michael Mann uses digital, David Fincher uses digital, and the movies look spectacular. So it’s not like… again, it is something. In terms of texture, it’s something else. Also, those guys are functioning with much bigger budgets. If you have the time and the money, you can get digital pitch-perfect. When you work fast, on a smaller budget — when you don’t have much time to light, and so on and so forth — digital is not necessarily so great.

I’m sure you’re excited for Blackhat.

Oh, I can’t wait! [Giggles]

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