Olivier Assayas, the French-born titan of international cinema, has been making films for more than 25 years. Although he, in this time, has managed to jump genres and topics with apparent ease — and, while arguably retaining many themes over that period — it’s all happened in a manner he considers “random.”
You can almost see where he’s coming from. In following 2010’s terrorism epic, Carlos, the man has returned to the youthful days of early ‘70s France, where he himself was a teenager engaged in the period’s art and counter-culture movement. Such a world acts as the crux of his newest work, Something in the Air, a highly personal and, at times, impressionistic look at what made that period tick.
Despite such a high reputation, Assayas is a rather unassuming man in person, both loquacious and open about every step of his craft. The twenty-five minutes I spent with him resulted in the following:
The Film Stage: Many were kind of surprised to see you do this after a five-and-a-half-hour, globe-trotting, decade-spanning epic. [Assayas laughs] Did Something in the Air feel like — I don’t want to say “a comedown” — but did it feel like a good release? I’ve heard you speak about how much Carlos took out of you.
Olivier Assayas: Well, yes, you can imagine; it’s just, like, a huge thing. But this one was pretty tough to make. I mean, when I started writing, I referred to it as “a small film.” You know, “what’s your next film?” “Oh, I’m doing a small film with kids.” It was really tough. Really tough. Very, very difficult.
It was as difficult as anything we’ve done with Carlos, really, because it’s on a different level. But, you know, just getting the setpieces right — getting the demonstration right, getting the party scene right — I mean, it was very intense. And it kind of surprised me, because I kind of started making the film thinking it was going to be much lighter, and I realized that, actually… I understood, in the process of making the film, that the film was more ambitious than what I imagined.
Because I realized that the setpieces were, really, as important as whatever was happening between the characters, and getting the setpieces right, it was not just in terms of the way it’s filmed — but in terms of details, in terms of clothing, in terms of movement, in terms of rehearing the extras. It was very complicated.
Well, the early riot scene is quite extraordinary, thanks in part to the feeling you’ve really learned from your prior effort. The application is quite noticeable.
Oh, yes, of course. I learned a million things. Not because of whatever the film is, but because of the length. When you make regular-format films, you — more or less — know the algorithms. You know what the aesthetic logic of the film is, and you kind of find the right balance — and, somehow, the film gradually takes shape based on a couple of rhythmical principles.
When you make a film that is that long, you have to use every single possible trick just to keep the attention of the viewer. So, you not only have to use the tricks you know, but you have to use the tricks you don’t know; you have to invent new tricks. You have to invent new ways of filming because, somehow, after a couple of hours you’ve used everything you had up your sleeve! [Laughs] You have to reinvent yourself because, otherwise, the film is going to get repetitive and boring.
One of the first things to hit me here was your choice of music. You said that, while it often takes a long time to compile, it was easy to assemble here because the process simply required a selection of what you remembered. Much of the film seems to be about (and hinges upon) our relationship with art, so if music came right from the start, what about films or paintings? Were those as quick?
I knew what I wanted at that spot, when I was writing. I admire Bo Widerberg; I think he’s one of the great, underrated… he’s the great, underrated 1970s filmmaker. I knew I wanted to use a film by Bo Widerberg and, specifically, Joe Hill, so that was kind of built-in. It was part of the story.
It was even part of a scene which I ended up cutting out, where the film was being discussed by the two characters. It kind of felt awkward; the scene was not bad in itself, but it kind of, just, broke the narrative in a certain way, so I dropped it. That film was pretty much part of the movie from the start.
The other movies: I knew I wanted a specific militant film dealing with the situation in Asia — with the war in Asia — for the scene at the screening in Italy. I was not sure which one, so I kind of researched movies made during that period, and I ended up picking the one that I found. Also, because, as always with movie clips, there are always problems with the rights, it was fairly laborious — it was a long and not-interesting process. [Laughs]
Same with the Sanjinés movie, The Courage of the People, which we see the end of. I wanted to have, you know, I wanted a movie that was released at that period; that was a militant, third-world movie, representative of a lot of those movies that were shown in France, in independent theaters at that time. So it ended up being Sanjinés. It could have been something else. There’s no specific intention in linking the film to the work of Sanjinés.
It’s also hard to ignore Air’s aesthetic design. Not just specific props, either, but also their colors, their tones, and how they interact with the surrounding environments. This feels true about everything you do, so I was surprised to read an interview where you said that, when dealing with the modern world and telling a modern story, a film is “not for aesthetic purposes.” When tackling a bygone era, then, is there some sort of aesthetic attraction?
I’ve been working with the same art director since I started making films. I mean, since my first feature, really, and he’s like a brother. We function very closely, and I had much more… a while ago, I suppose I had much tighter control on what he was doing, and, by now, I suppose I kind of trust him, because he knows exactly what I want.
Doing Carlos together — meaning: exploring together the 1970s in France, Germany, Lebanon, etc. — we kind of understood each other very clearly, in terms of what we liked and how we approached the recreation of the period. He really has the credit of… it’s like a language we know together; in the end, a lot of the aesthetics of the sets on both Carlos and Something in the Air really belongs to him, to François[-Renaud Labarthe]. I often contribute, you know, when I get on a set — and it does happen once in a while — if I’m not happy with it, I will rearrange it. I will take an hour, eventually, two hours, to rearrange things to the way I sense them, but it’s always based on François’ work.
Many scenes are set amongst the fields, so Summer Hours came to mind, but the work I thought of most often was, of course, Cold Water. (You’ve talked about how Something in the Air “grew out” of that.) One thing that really stuck out was the bonfire scene, which feels very in line with that film’s own.
Yes, yes, of course.
Was there ever a point where, in going back, you felt you shouldn’t stick too closely to that territory?
I cut a lot of the bonfire stuff. [Laughs] I had, of course, much more of the bonfire stuff, and I didn’t want to use, too much, the Cold Water texture. But.. how should I put it? [Pause]
This movie is really about putting into a de-dramatized perspective a lot of the elements I have been using in some of my early films; in a sense that the fiction in my early films was always defined by semi-autobiographical elements. Meaning, when you start writing a story, it’s based on your own experience, your own feelings, your own imaginations, but they all come from one place — which is, more or less, reality.
But then you dramatize it, you construct a narrative around those events, so that’s more what I did when I was doing my first film, Disorder, or when I was doing Cold Water, and certain other movies. And Something in the Air is pretty much the autobiographical, simplified — again, de-dramatized — version of that same texture. Meaning that it’s more like, this movie is not derivative of Cold Water, if that makes any sense — it’s Cold Water that’s derivative of the events I’m depicting in this film.
Because, as much as Cold Water is using very autobiographical elements — which are instantly recognizable when you kind of cross, when you compare it, with Something in the Air — still, the narrative is much more fictional than whatever Something in the Air is about. So, somehow, Something in the Air is pretty much about recapturing and re-putting — into the most simplified and realistic perspective — the elements I had used, in dramatized versions, in my earlier films.
Is this de-dramatization part of “growing” as an artist? That is, creating distance from your youth as you age?
No, because it’s… well… I hope not. [Laughs] I hope not. I think I kind of need to go back to those years, to the person I was at that age, because you constantly need to rejuvenate your inspiration when you make movies; when you make any kind of art, really. It’s the only way of moving on. Moving on always involves — I mean, for me — going back to where it all started, because that’s where the energy is, that’s where the point of implosion is.
And I think that, somehow, trying to go back to the 1970s and depicting them as simply & as clearly as I could was pretty much part of stripping down, you know, the creative process of filmmaking. And connecting, maybe, in more intimate ways, with the period and youth.
Because there are, of course, two aspects to this: One aspect is just going back to the narrative of my own experience. On the side of it is the desire to work with young actors — to work, to film actors who have that kind of virginity of having never really been filmed. Where there is something new, there is something, also, which is essential that involved the superimposition of whoever they are with the character, which is something you can’t have so profoundly when you’re using actors who have been doing many different parts and use their skills to adapt.
Just how long was the casting process, then?
Well, it was the longest part of the film. I knew that the film was dependent on the cast, so I was really willing to spend as much time as needed to get it right. So I really got the film really moving only once I was sure I had the characters I wanted. It’s very difficult to answer your question, because I don’t exactly remember how long it took — but it really took a while. It was a long process of selection, research, screen tests, discussions, because it involved casting almost fifteen young actors. Finding each one was a long process.
When you say there’s no personal nostalgia for this period, I was actually surprised. I was enveloped in the time as I was watching, what with the music and the sights and so on. So, if the film is as autobiographical as you suggested, could this be a way of looking back and thinking you were wrong?
No. No, absolutely not. It’s… [Pause] no, what I’m trying to say when I’m not nostalgic, it doesn’t mean that I’m not concerned anymore with the beauty of it, with the specific poetry of it — which is something that made me the person I am. I mean, that’s where I come from. I kind of became myself during that era, and defined, more or less, by its values, so they have remained with me in one way or another. So, yes, it echoes and eventually does echo, emotionally.
What I am saying when I say I am not nostalgic is, it’s pretty much, “I’m not nostalgic about my youth.” I mean, for nothing in the world would I want to go through my youth again. I think it’s a moment of doubt, frustration, and there’s something beautiful, also, about it, but it’s also painful. It would be really lying to pretend I can look back on the ‘70s with empathetic nostalgia, because living through the ‘70s was tough; in terms of the dogmatic politics of the time, and the way they were completely cut off from the reality of society of those years.
It was suffocating and, you know, I’ve written it and I’ve said it a million times, but punk rock in the late ‘70s came as relief. It was just, like, the end of something that had become unbearable. It was liberation in a major way, so… I do not dismiss the 1970s. The ‘70s were fascinating. They were crazy, and people were just experimenting with their own lives. There was a great beauty to that. But, no, I don’t regret that. [Laughs]
You shot this on 35mm which, needless to say, is a format that’s becoming less common (or accepted) the further we go along. Is there a certain importance, to you, when it comes to filming this way?
Yes: It’s better quality. It’s really as simple as that. I’ve heard, like, a million times, people explaining that digital is cheaper, that it’s lighter, that it’s better quality — I mean, it’s wrong. In terms of cost, it’s the same price. In terms of weight, it’s heavier and more complicated. And, in terms of texture, it’s not half as good as 35mm. So I’ve, really quickly, done the math.
Even though this was shown through a digital projector, there’s that weight of celluloid in your images.
I shoot in film, but, of course, the post-production is digital, so I’m completely fine with the digital projection. I kind of do prefer film, but it’s really tiny nuances. The problem with digital is that it breaks down once in a while, so once in a while you have a DCP they just can’t open; that’s horrible. But, apart from that, the image is very stable. As long as the projector is decently set, you get the image you want.
There are plenty who like digital, though, and I know you’ve been fond of a few results: Back in 2010, you participated in a Q & A discussion following a screening of David Fincher’s Zodiac.
Now, I have a certain interest when it comes to renowned modern filmmakers, such as yourself, and who they look toward as… maybe not necessarily “inspiration,” but someone they have a great respect for.
Yeah, yeah, sure. Well, David Cronenberg is a great filmmaker. I love Michael Mann; I think he’s a great filmmaker. It’s not like I would put every movie of his on the same level, but I think he is, by any standard, a great filmmaker. I’m often excited to see new, independent American cinema, which is becoming interesting again. For a while it was fairly dull, I would say, and now it’s producing really exciting, original new work. I like Jeff Nichols; I think he’s really good.
At this stage, there’s nothing much I’m so excited with in terms of Asian cinema. I suppose that I really… except the movies of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I was not so fond of him at the start, but I think the recent work is amazing; Uncle Boonmee’s absolutely beautiful. There’s a lot of movies by young filmmakers — I mean I see a lot of really exciting, more than any other period, first-feature, second-feature directors. There’s a sense of vitality — I think, in general — in cinema today.
Do you find it difficult to maintain that vitality the further your career progresses?
[Pause] No, because I enjoy making films. I have fun making films. So, as long as I’m not bored… [Laughs] And I’ve always kind of refused to get locked in a specific genre, or whatever, so I’ve managed to preserve a situation of complete freedom for myself. I think, now, the message is pretty clear: Just don’t expect from me any coherent follow-up to what I’ve been doing before, [Laughs] or something like that, and that I will be moving on according to my own rules.
Which is a way of protecting what is essential, which is the pleasure I have in making films. I mean, to me, the only way I can make something that has any relevance is if I can function in complete freedom, without any pressure. So, I suppose it’s also the reason why I’ve always made my films in Europe.
If you could follow Clean with Boarding Gate, you’re certainly running the gamut.
[Laughs] Oh, thank you very much.
Something in the Air is currently showing at NYFF and opens in the spring of 2013 via IFC Films.