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?
No. 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.
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.
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.
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.