I’d spoken to Olivier Assayas four previous times in almost as many years, and last month was the first time I caught him at a funny moment. Though the writer-director remains as intelligent, enthusiastic, and friendly as ever, this latest promotional run not only concerns a film that’s about to turn a quarter-century — Cold Water, his semi-autobiographical 1994 feature restored by Janus and now getting a U.S. theatrical release for the first time — but interrupts post-production on his latest feature, Non-Fiction. (A vast improvement over the originally reported E-Book.) Though the good fortune of seeing it at Criterion’s office had enlivened my memory of his alternately spare and fulfilling tale of love, rock, and radicalism in a post-68 landscape, the inherently in-between nature of our conversation often took us away from there and towards specific musings on what’s happening with film culture today. Needless to say, Assayas has many a thought.
The Film Stage: Where are you with Non-Fiction?
Olivier Assayas: I’m finishing editing. I’ve almost locked image, after months of post-production.
How do you usually feel late into editing? Is there a serenity, calm in getting there?
[Pause] I start to get impatient to know exactly how it will play. In this case, it’s kind of a comedy. I didn’t write it as a comedy, but, in gradually putting the elements together, I kind of realized that was the closest to defining it, even if it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever done. It’s a series of dialogues, really. It’s a series of dialogues about the modern world — or, I guess, something like that. [Laughs]
Is it strange to do interviews about an old film while working on a new one?
Yes. It’s strange. But the thing is: it’s a movie I care a lot about, and it’s been such struggle just to get it, to get it out of the clutches of Universal, first — who sat on the film, who had the old rights and sat on it for, like, ten years — to solve the music-rights situation. It’s been a long process. Plus, restoring it — the image, the sound, ah! It’s been an ongoing project for quite a while, so I’m just, at least in talking about it, relieved, because it’s the end of the ordeal.
When did you last see the film?
I had to see it over and over again when we were restoring it, but I was just so focused on the technical side that I was not watching it. When the film screened in Austin, I did something I never do: I stayed for the screening and I watched the whole film with an audience, just being able to sit back and look at as a viewer — which is obviously completely an illusion, but at least I could kind of have a notion of what the film is about.
Is Cannes usually the one time you watch a film with an audience?
With the recent one, the one time I watched it with an audience was Cannes, yes. Absolutely. Totally. In Cannes, I don’t really see the film. I mean, Cannes is… it’s great. I’m always very happy my films are shown there, but it’s such a tough experience in the sense that that’s not what you make movies for. The tension, the pressure in Cannes, it’s so violent, so extreme. It’s a very violent experience. It’s not about it being positive or negative both ways; it’s just too much. It’s really hard to keep some kind of cool head in the context.
Well, Personal Shopper immediately had sprung upon it this narrative of “booed at Cannes,” yet reports indicate it was really an isolated incident.
Yes, yes, yes! I know. And I more or less know who the people are, so it has to do with French politics. It was absolutely not important, but that’s also the Internet age; it’s the Twitter age. People don’t know what to say about the film. The thing is, anybody — myself included — needs… a moment, a few hours, a day, two days, I don’t know — some people less, some people more — to know just what you’ve seen and how to react to it. How it stays with you or does not stay with you. Just to analyze your feelings to a film.
Now, with Twitter, people… the credits are rolling, they want to be the first to say something, anything. It’s not the reason why I make movies. I don’t like that relationship to the medium; I think it kind of twists, in a bad way, the perception we have of cinema and movies, because it becomes competitive. It’s kind of absorbed by the worst, evil energies of the modern world, in a certain way, when movies should… it’s an art, so it should not exactly be happening in a bubble. It should be a moment of quiet in the media age. That, to me, is what movies are about.
It’s interesting to hear you say this since you started out as a critic, most notably for Cahiers. Do you find yourself still participating in discourse, even privately?
No, I do not. But it’s because I think I’ve been moving away from the logics of the ascetics of cinephile culture. I mean, I think that something of the cinephile culture has become fossilized in film theories of the 1960s and ‘70s. As much as cinephile culture has been a very relevant tool, in the ‘60s, for the New Wave and post-New Wave writers to make sense of cinema, to make sense of what had been happening — including in Hollywood; it was kind of a road map for what had been happening — I don’t think it works anymore. I genuinely don’t think it works anymore, because it creates some kind of closed, limited film world. I think it’s much more exciting and much more interesting to think about movies in terms of art theory, and I think that you can’t deal with cinema — with what is going on in cinema — if you don’t use the best tools that have been defined by writers through the ages to deal with images!
I suppose it’s one of the reasons I admire David Hockney so much and I think he’s one of the great theoreticians of modern images. He kind of uses the best tools of classic art theory to deal with how you can capture the world, analyze perception, and capture some notion of our experience of the world with the new, modern tools. You know, making paintings with iPhones or iPads or whatever, but trying to use them in relation with recreating the experience of watching a tree, a landscape, the view out of your window — very simple, basic things. So what I am saying is: I am much more excited by writers who think about analyzing perception and how reality is subjective and how moving images — including movie images — transcribe that in cinema. I think that’s where my concerns have been, as opposed to the cinephile debate, which I find extremely limited and frustrating and, in a certain way, out of touch with reality.
Not to bring up a cinephile debate when I note, nevertheless, that Cahiers caused a stir by having Twin Peaks as their best “film” of 2017 —
Yeah, I kind of refer to Cahiers as “post-Cahiers.” I think they have moved in a direction that is basically the opposite of what this magazine is about. Because I think it’s André Bazin’s magazine. I’m extremely conservative in that sense. I really believe that the framework that André Bazin designed — meaning: its relationship between filmmaking, ethics, morality, and representing reality — is basically the identity, the DNA, of what Cahiers is about. If you move away from that… and I’m not discussing Twin Peaks. I admire Twin Peaks; I think that David Lynch is a genius. But I think that Cahiers has been moving away from the Bazinian aesthetics in ways that I find disturbing.
The first time I saw Cold Water was in 2012, off a file I downloaded from The Pirate Bay.
Yeah, of course. Absolutely. For sure.
Do you have particular stances about the age where people are sharing rare, out-of-print films?
No! No. I am perfectly comfortable with that. I’m extremely honored, you know, when guys [Laughs] kind of struggle to get my films wherever they can get them. I think the relationship to a film, often — with any artwork — ultimately is made by the effort you made to access it, and that effort is not necessarily with money. It’s movies I made a long time ago. No, my concern is that people access them in a better shape, form than possible. So that’s why I’ve been struggling to restore this film, image, sound: so next time someone gets the film from the Pirate Bay, it will be a better standard. [Laughs]
I would never illegally download any film of yours I could easily buy.
Yeah, no! I don’t… well, “I don’t have to.” I don’t need to download stuff from a pirate site. I buy DVDs, and I like watching movies on a big screen, but again: I’m perfectly okay with the process. I’m just so happy when I find pirate versions of my films in China, on the street. I go, “Oh, wow, they went through the trouble of printing a jacket, putting it into the case, and now it’s on the street. Maybe someone will bump into the film and had never had a chance to see it.”
I’d just worry about the translation.
We fixed all the subtitling. Criterion helped us with that kind of stuff.
Were you looking closely at the screenplay and previous translation?
I always supervise the subtitles, the English subtitling. So they used the original subtitling, except there were a few mistakes. They made it better.
Speaking of at-home viewing, I’m sure that Criterion has you in mind of who sees this on Blu-ray.
Do you see most films at home now?
I like to… I have this fetish with silent films. I love silent films — I’m just obsessed — so I watch silent films at home. But I don’t know. For the last couple of years, I vote for the Academy Awards. So I get screeners, and I get screeners of movies I want to see because they are new films by directors I like. They are not accessible in Paris, so I end up watching screeners on my TV. A lot of recent American films — all the movies that were in the Academy Awards — I’ve seen on DVD. It’s a bit frustrating because, especially for the movies I like the most — like Phantom Thread, which I was just amazed with, I loved — I wish I had seen them on the big screen. Now I will be lazy, because the film has opened in Paris and, I noticed, I didn’t gather enough energy to go and see it again on the big screen.
When you watch silent films at home, do you soundtrack them?
No. I’m extremely respectful. [Laughs] And I’m not so fond of the guys who experiment on silent films. Once in a while, something decent comes out of that subculture, but, usually, it’s abusive. I remember when they had fully restored version of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc — all of a sudden, the full, original cut of Dreyer with 15 minutes more, at least, than the version we usually know — they gave the score to that modern composer. I went to see the film, and, at some moments, the sound level was like heavy metal, which made, like, zero sense. It was an unpleasant experience because, as much as I loved the image, I hated the soundtrack. [Laughs]
I was thinking of Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis as the gold standard.
Yeah. I like Giorgio Moroder, but… I prefer more conservative versions of the soundtrack to Metropolis. But I have it. I have it somewhere.
You still buy films regularly?
Yeah. I’m not a streaming person.
You would’ve been in your late 30s when you made Cold Water. You’re now in your early 60s. When I was younger, I was really fond of movies about kids because I could identify, and now I’m at an age where I’m not interested in that. But I wonder if I’ll feel differently about that when I’m older, especially if I have children of my own. Has there been a change in how you perceive youth in cinema?
Cold Water was about looking back on the ‘70s, which is something that I rejected. In the sense that, for my generation, you had politics — leftism, radicality — in the years between ’68 and ’72, ’73, and, gradually, whatever had been fascinating, exciting, energizing in those years became oppressive, became burdensome, became cut off from reality. That’s when punk rock happened and, all of a sudden, it’s like you had turned on the light in a world that had become dark. So I was very much part of that, and I left the early ‘70s behind. I think it’s been rushing ahead, and, at some point, I had to turn back — and that was Cold Water, in a certain way. Accepting the ‘70s again and remembering the energy.
The thing is: I’m the least-nostalgic person. I don’t like looking back on the past, and I get no emotion out of that — or if I get some sort of emotion, it’s a melancholy, anxiety, depression. But still, I think I had to reconnect with myself. It’s like I had been cut off from a part of myself that was essential, and who was the person I grew up as. I think it opened the door to my following film, Irma Vep, where I also tried to deal with stuff I had left behind — including film theory, my love of Chinese cinema, and so on. It’s stuff that I had left behind because, when I started making films, I was just so mad that everybody would ask, “Okay, so how does it feel to start as a film critic and become a filmmaker?”
But I never defined myself as a film critic. I was a kid trying to get myself as close to movies as I could, and writing about them was one of the paths. But I had been a screenwriter, I was an assistant, I was a trainee on movies, I was a trainee in the editing room — I did any job that would get me to there. So I was so reactive against that that I kind of repressed the part of my life that had been about writing about movies and loving movies and experimenting — the cinema’s geography. Irma Vep was a way of getting back there, of reaccepting, of saying, “Yes, that’s also part of what defined me,” because it’s this weird kind of autobiographical moment.
Many studies of your filmography treat the pre-Cold Water titles as a prelude, which I find odd.
Well, for some reason, Cold Water is my first movie that had any kind of international recognition. The other ones did really well in France, but they were made in the framework of French indie filmmaking. But I’m better-known in France for my early films, in a certain way. Disorder and Paris Awakens were successful films, were much-lauded, at the time, in France, and they were released not so much in the English-speaking world. They were released in Italy, in Germany. They had some kind of European audience. But I genuinely think that I became, also, a slightly different filmmaker after Cold Water. Before making Cold Water, I had consciously tried to transform my approach to cinema when I did A New Life. A New Life, it’s like: you follow the wrong path. You want to move on, but I took a wrong turn somewhere. Instead of defining something new, I think I kind of pushed to the extreme what I was doing, into some strange, abstract area.
I love the film — I’m very happy I did the film — but it’s very much a transitional film. Whereas the change I needed, I longed for, was the change I found in Cold Water. I made this string of movies using the Super 16 format, which is more like a Dogme moment. It was Dogme before Dogme, where I realized, “If I use non-professional actors, if it’s handheld, if it’s Super 16, if I shoot it faster than I used to — if I kind of break all the formalities of filmmaking, get rid of the weight of filmmaking — maybe I can move on and go further in the direction I went for, and I think that’s what happened. Cold Water was the turning point.
You have Non-Fiction next, but there’s already word you’re developing another title.
Wasp Network. It’s the story of the Cuban Five, who were Cuban spies in Miami in the early ‘90s. That, I think, will be my next film. Most of it will be in Spanish.
And Idol’s Eye?
Idol’s Eye can happen; it still can happen. I actually had an offer to make it this summer, and I’ve written Wasp Network; I want to do Wasp Network first. If the offer is still around, I will do it next year.
Hopefully Non-Fiction shows up at NYFF so I can see it ASAP.
It’s a weird film. But I’m very curious to see how it plays abroad, because it’s a dialogue. Subtitling will be an issue. [Laughs]
Cold Water opens at IFC Center in New York starting Friday and at the Laemmle Royal Theater in Los Angeles on May 18, 2018, to be followed by a nationwide rollout.