It is, of course, hard for movies to shake the narrative hoisted upon them. Wasp Network began its festival run rather unceremoniously, premiering at this year’s Venice International Film Festival to mixed reviews–Olivier Assayas’ first in quite a while–the director’s own admissions that he had neither the time nor money necessary for the sprawling epic clearly put on the page, and, as a sad addendum, word he’d be re-editing as soon as the now-“first” cut was seen.
To hear him tell it, he’s less than phased. And the new, supposedly streamlined cut that’s just premiered at the New York Film Festival does work: some narrative jankiness remains, but it’s far more coherent and confident than word would suggest. There was some need to go over all this when sitting down with Assayas immediately after this new iteration’s reveal, but that’s not even the half of it–Wasp Network boasts too much else not to engender a detailed interview.
The Film Stage: Wasp Network premiered only a little over a month ago. Is there a freshness the movie still has, in talking about it?
Olivier Assayas: Oh, totally, because I did a lot of stuff in Venice, but in Toronto I was, because of commitments, in and out, so I didn’t really do a lot of press. So I feel pretty fresh about the film, and I’m still at a stage where I enjoy discussing it.
By the time it played in Toronto, you’d decided to make changes.
It’s something I decided in Venice. I knew I wanted to do some fine-tuning before the release, and in Venice, I decided that I had to do it right away. The problem is that I had no time to do it, so I had to kind of “invent” the time to do it, but I thought it was just ridiculous. I think there was a problem with an overload of information, which was extremely simple to solve and disturbed me, myself, when I was watching the film in Venice. I wanted to do that for the general release, but I think it made more sense to do it as early as possible, for the film festival. But it’s really a decision we made in Venice.
Last we talked, you called Twitter “one of the evils of the modern world” for the terrible tradition of a narrative forming around a film as credits are still rolling and people need to be first with announcing their thoughts. I find it interesting that you’re very honest talking about how Wasp Network was a difficult production–not enough money, not enough time, trouble shooting in Cuba–then the movie premieres and you announce the need to recut. Even if it’s not fair to the movie, which I do think works, there is a narrative that can emerge.
Yeah, yeah. I know. I know.
Do you concern yourself with this?
Honestly, my concern is the film. My concern is the film. No, I understand what you mean, and I think you’re totally right–in the sense that, yes, there’s a narrative that’s built–but you have to protect yourself of that. Like, completely. Even in the sense that there is this notion of, when you make a film–even if it’s not publicized and this and that, people know it exists, that it’s in the works, that it’s going to happen. They grab elements like “spy thriller,” they grab “Cuba,” blah blah, and they come to the screening with very specific expectations–they’ve already made the film. They have their own version of the film, and usually what the film really is does not really match what they had in mind, so there is this moment of adaptation.
You’re right to bring it up, because it’s something you can’t really avoid. You deal with it, even if you can’t really repress it, and kind of protect yourself from it. It’s one of the levels on which the film exists, but then you shouldn’t be intimidated by that, because what’s at play isn’t the real film–it’s the fantasized film. You have to be patient and for things to cool down, for people to realize that the film is actually the film and watch it on its merits–on whatever it is, but not on the fantasy of what it “should” be.
To talk more specifically of the film: I found kind of extraordinary your aviation sequences, in particular the many, many images of planes flying through the sky. How much did you shoot yourself, or how much was second-unit?
[Pause] It’s all mine and all second-unit. I was not physically in the planes. I did something I never do, which is design the shots. I designed the shots and told the guy, “I want this, I want that,” but I was on the ground trying to coordinate those guys. To me, it was obviously the most complex element in the film. From the start I’ve been working and working and working on those scenes, on how to get them right, how to make them believable, how to get exactly the shots I wanted, because everything was a problem. There are no private planes, no tourist planes, in Cuba–it doesn’t exist–so we had to bring the planes from the U.S., which was a nightmare. Usually, when you shoot those scenes, you have helicopters and you adapt this kind of ball, where you put the camera, and you have some guy with joysticks in the helicopter.
There’s no helicopters in Cuba; there only was this huge army helicopter, which is bigger than a truck. So we had to shoot the in-flight scenes from that army helicopter. Coordinating the whole thing and designing the shots–saying “I want this, I want that”–the guys bring you the materials, say, “No, we missed this, we missed that,” they have to change this. It took up, I don’t know, like half the preparation of the film. And we used very few special effects, because at some point I thought we would use stock shots. But we used zero stock shots. We filmed the MiGs ourselves. Even when you have some in-flight scenes from the MiGs, we gave a camera–a small 4K camera–to one of the pilots in one of the planes. I’m asking him specific shots, so he’s not credited, but he was one of the cameramen in the film.
There’s a lot of stuff we did with drones, so the drone operator was pretty much on his own and bringing back the stuff that he did–saying, “This works, this does not work”–and it went on during the whole period of the shoot. We were very scaled with the budget because we had a very tight budget, compared with whatever the film is, so we had to do this with the least-possible special effects. When they shoot down the two planes, those are special effects, as you can imagine. Apart from that, we added a few reflections of clouds here, reflections of clouds there, we erased a couple of stuff, but there were more special effects in Personal Shopper than in this film.
You also have two credited DPs.
I have two credited DPs, I have two credited assistants, I have 18 producers. [Laughs] The film was very challenging for everybody concerned. Staying four months in Cuba is not something everybody is up to. I was supposed to make the film with Yorick Le Saux, and at some point Yorick, he had shot Greta Gerwig’s film in wherever they shot it, and he had been away from home for months and he has two small daughters. He, at some point, said, “Olivier, I beg you: just don’t make me do that. My wife is going to kill me and I want to spend time with my daughters,” and so on and so forth. We made a deal where we basically did the same thing as in Carlos, meaning: we had two cameramen.
It’s Denis Lenoir, who is a dear friend and great cameraman, who did the first half. Then Yorick came in. Same thing with my assistant: all those guys have families. They don’t want to be away from home so long, so he split it with a guy who actually had been my AD ten years ago, who’s now my producer but stepped in to help. I think that if you take the beginning of the prep until the end of the shoot, there were only two or three people who had done the whole production. Even the set designer, François Labarthe, he left three weeks before we finished Cuba, and he didn’t do Gran Canaria, where we finished the shoot, because he was doing a series for Netflix in Thailand or whatever. People were coming in and out, and I had to adapt every day to whoever was there. [Laughs]
And it’s a pretty consistent palette.
That was Denis’ bet. Denis’ theory, which is very generous but not completely right, is that it doesn’t matter if you have two cameraman because, basically, it’s the director who makes the light. I don’t think I make the light, but I think that I define a way of functioning with my cameraman, which is very similar when I’m working with Eric Gautier, when I’m working with Yorick Le Saux, with Denis Lenoir–they are really, like, the three guys I can work with because they understand how I function and they have the culture of functioning that way. Meaning, not rehearsing, having zero time to light, so on and so forth.
Lenoir shot that Tokyo short of yours from…
…almost forty years ago?
Yes, I know. [Laughs] I did all my films with Denis until Cold Water. After Cold Water, it’s a complicated story between us. We were supposed to do Sentimental Destinies, which, at that time, was the biggest project I had been involved in, and the producer of the film wanted me–because I would have to handle such a big budget for the first time–to use another, more experienced crew, and he kind of imposed on me another cameraman. Denis resented, a lot.
But then the film did not happen–it happened later–and then I wrote Irma Vep, I brought it to Denis, and Denis, he said it much more politely, but it’s like, “Fuck you. When you make the bigger film you don’t hire me, and now you’re shooting in four weeks, for no money, this movie, and you want me to do it? I’m not in.” But we worked again after that. Denis did Demonlover, half of Carlos, and he’s one of my best friends.
I was taken by surprised by the movie’s temporal leaps, for instance when Juan Pablo (Wagner Moura) and Ana Margarita (Ana de Armas) go on a first date; next time we see them, Rene (Edgar Ramirez) is visiting the home they share.
For me, that’s what was exciting about the film: this idea that, at some point, you just flip the cards. Possibly, walking in, you had a notion that the film was about Cuban spies, but you didn’t know exactly what kind of spies and doing what. Even if you, maybe, had your suspicions before, I like letting the whole thing take shape, give you a sense that you are in a completely different narrative. But of course I liked the idea that, at some point, you had to completely switch perspectives and… what can I say?
I don’t like linear narrative. I think it’s boring, and I like the idea, in terms of narrative and dramaturgy, to take risks and surprise. You want to surprise the audience, really. Being entertained and surprised is part of being entertained or raising your interest or curiosity or awareness of what’s going on. It’s really like, all of a sudden, you wake up and start watching the film in a completely different way. It’s obviously something I had fun with.
A clear dividing line is your flashback sequence, montage, and voiceover. And I can’t think of many instances in your filmography with voiceover.
No, it’s the first time I’ve done that. Totally the first time. Honestly, I had wanted to do it for a long time. It’s obviously lifted from Martin Scorsese, but I was so impressed with the way he does that in his movies, I promised myself that one day I would try to have a shot. I like the idea of speeding up the narrative, and there’s something very playful and energetic about it. I’ve very seldom used voiceover; I think I’ve never used voiceover. In the initial version of Sentimental Destinies there was a voiceover, but I don’t know, everybody hated it–except me [Laughs]–so I had to adapt and I didn’t use it, in the end.
But this one needed a voiceover, if only because the thing is, here, I was also confronted with a very complex story which I simplified to the maximum. The various and conflicting anti-Castro groups, the way they are infiltrated by the FBI, everybody playing double games and all this being defined by American politics in Florida because it’s a swing state–all of that, if you want to explain that to someone who’s not familiar with the U.S. and its political culture, is lost. There were a couple of moments where I needed to give just the raw facts.
I liked the performer you chose. What were you seeking there?
It was very difficult; I had no idea how to handle it. Everybody before the shoot kept on asking me, “So, what are you going to do? Who is going to be the voiceover?” I didn’t want it to be one of the actors because I think that would have spoiled it.” But I was really not sure of what kind of voice I wanted, but I work with my casting director, Antoinette Boulat, and told her we needed to find the right voice. She basically interviewed, like, a lot of people, and finally we tested the voices and narrowed it down to, like, ten guys who did the whole speech.
We chose the one that kind of fit, and we had him redo it many times to get it right. We spent a lot of time on that, and then we reedited and changed words–it’s been a pretty complex process. It was also very difficult because the guy we had chosen lived in L.A. He was in a recording studio in L.A. and we were in a recording studio in Paris, and we had issues with the connection.
You have a song from the Feelies, who, as my friend Vikram Murthi noted, were wary of their music’s use in Carlos.
Actually I wanted to use only their music in Carlos. My first cut is music from the Feelies all over. The problem is that we asked them for one song; they said okay. We asked them for two songs; they said okay. We asked them for three songs; they said okay. Then we started asking for four, five songs, and all of a sudden, “Why are those guys wanting so much of my music? This is going to be a movie about a terrorist,” and they were scared of being associated with a movie dealing with terrorism, and eventually they would not be able to sell their music for more family-oriented movies, so they kind of panicked. They allowed us three tracks on Carlos, and I’m sure they regretted it after. [Laughs] But I don’t know, for some reason… it’s not just that I love their music. Their music works with the way I film. On this movie, I tried many things, like I always do, and the only track that kind of worked was this track–which initially was in Carlos but did not make the final cut.
Are there any musical acts, songs, you’ve had in the back of your mind for putting in a film, but haven’t integrated because there hasn’t yet been a place?
I constantly make mixtapes. It’s, like, neurotic: I’m at home at 2 in the morning, in front of a computer, making mixtapes. Or I’m looking up obscure bands. Like, in this case, I have a flash of that song from the Five Americans, “Western Union,” which was a minor hit in the ‘60s, and I don’t know–for some reason it just came back to my mind and I looked it up on iTunes, I found it, I loved it, and it’s been in various mixtapes for a while until I finally found a way of using it.
Those playlists would be quite the cinephile currency.
I’d be happy to send it out whenever.
Wasp Network played at the 57th New York Film Festival and is seeking U.S. distribution.