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.
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.
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]
Just a side note. Anyway, I think Clouds is among your most complex feats as a screenwriter. One thing that intrigued me most was Binoche and Stewart doing their dialogues for the play, and how, although it’s rather obvious that these characters’ relationship bears similarities to what’s been written there, such correlations (somehow) don’t feel on-the-nose. There’s a dance of sorts between the two stories, and I’d love to hear about striking this balance — getting something that’s very clear and still not thuddingly clear.
[Pause] You know, the truth is that it is stuff I did not really want to have any control on — in the sense that it is two parallel movements. And I knew there were going to be interactions, but, honestly, I had very little notion of exactly what they would be, how far it would go, and so on and so forth. If you look at the way the story moves, I really focused on, like, the important moments within the play. When they get together, when things start to go wrong, when they break-up — stuff like that. So, it’s fairly simple. The four scenes are like four turning points in the relationship between these two women.
And, simultaneously, you have, of course, the evolution of the relationship between the character of Valentine and Maria as it is somehow impacted or transformed by the nature of the relationship between the characters in the play. It’s similar, in a certain way, to what I was trying to do in Irma Vep when, all of a sudden, you have this “ghost” of Irma Vep, which somehow takes possession of every single character, in a certain way. Here, it’s like the ghosts of those characters who end up inhabiting the actresses.
So, it’s very subtle, because it’s nuances. But, somehow, is there really attraction between them, or is it more like they are getting close to the characters because they are acting them, and, somehow, they are somehow contaminated? It’s like the character of Maria, through the film, is becoming more and more masculine — becoming more and more Helena — but, ultimately, is this really what she is? Will she stay like that? Possibly not. It’s just a path that takes her to a point where she can embody that character, and then she will move on and she will be playing, you know, that mutant in that weird science fiction film. [Laughs]
You mentioned Irma Vep, and the announcement of this film immediately brought that to mind. One thing I find funny is how, when we’d spoken, I asked about similarities between Something in the Air and Cold Water. Were you conscious of how Irma Vep followed Cold Water, and now Clouds of Sils Maria follows Something in the Air?
[Laughs] Yes! I know, I know, I know. But, you know, it’s my… my brother is a novelist, and he’s a music journalist — he’s a music writer who published this huge dictionary of rock ’n’ roll. So he’s an expert. It’s funny, because once I had a conversation with him. You look at those, like, million bands; ultimately, some bands have, like, one song. You have better bands who have two songs, and, best case, you end up with bands that have, like, three songs. [Laughs] And I thought he had a point, and, ultimately, it’s something you can adapt to filmmaking. So I’m trying to have… I’m shooting for three songs. You know, it’s variation; it evolves, and so on and so forth. But it’s really like I’m trying to follow three parallel tracks. [Laughs]
Is Carlos your Metal Machine Music?
[Laughs] Yes, yes. Something like that. Although the next one — the film I will be shooting now — is like the continuation of Carlos.
One thing I want to trace back to, from an earlier question, is that I’ve seen you express a distaste for rehearsals. Is it more concerning — or at least remotely concerning — when you’re working with actors who have these very complex parts where it sometimes requires them to play two characters simultaneously? Does it thus feel like even more of a plunge? Granted, I don’t know anything about directing actors, so tolerate this question as much as you can.
The thing is… when you’re dealing with situations where there’s a certain ambiguity, a certain complexity involved, the less you rehearse, the better off you are. In a sense that, if you start putting words on that complexity, it kind of narrows down instantly the spectrum of what you will get. Because words put borders; they kind of inscribe borders, in a certain way. If you don’t say a thing, and you have the actors just jump into it, what you will get is ultimately the real-life complexity of any situation with actors who are not trying to control it — who are not trying to be “smarter” than the lines or whatever. They just discover the scene as they are acting it, and instead of intellectualizing things, things become very physical.
Because once an actor starts acting — if you start discussing the part; you know, if you sit down at a table and you start discussing with an actor, “Oh, why would he do that? Why would he say that? When he says that, does he exactly mean this? And what happened in his childhood?” that kind of stuff — it’s empty talk for me, because it doesn’t help. It just brings wrong, simplified ideas. When you don’t say a thing to an actor and he goes through the part — he plays it: he sits down, he stands up, he moves, he runs, he comes back, whatever he does — it becomes physical, and it becomes like choreography. Instead of dealing with the analytical mind of your actor, your actor understands the part through his body. Because once he has done it once, the body remembers the movements and the coordination between voice and body.
And it becomes something much more organic, and the questions remain unresolved because they don’t need to be resolved. You don’t need to know. It’s like when you’re speaking with people in real life: you don’t need to know their backstory. You don’t know exactly, entirely what they mean. The process of communication between human beings is fascinating and complex and not conclusive. So it’s really what I’m always trying to reproduce when dealing with actors. I’m just trying to give them space to reinvent. I give them space to ad-lib, to change their lines, to adapt the wording to their own pace, and to get close to reality. The issue is always about control. I hate the idea of control. I don’t like it because you don’t control what’s happening in real life; it just happens. So, also, I think movies should have that kind of quality of connection to reality, where things can just happen without being dissected, analyzed, simplified, etc.
Regarding needing to know: as a storyteller, how do you work your way up to the final interaction between Binoche and Stewart, which is this very mysterious, L’Avventura-esque point?
It’s tiny, tiny, tiny nuances, ultimately. It’s like small stones on the path. Ultimately, I think it ends up happening in the editing room, because it’s the takes I choose, because I have a lot of variations in the scenes. I mean, I have very different versions of all those scenes, so it’s really about constructing when you are editing, step by step — having things build up using the material you have. There, the sensual element of the story is something that has to be understated, but still present. Here, it’s pretty much a matter of fine-tuning. It shouldn’t go too far, but it should be present, so it’s really a very delicate balance. I had stuff that would have pushed it a bit further, and I had stuff that could have erased it, also, a bit more. I was happy with the balance that we found — but, again, in the editing room.
On the subject of fine-tuning, albeit in relation to pre-production: did you find that any of your initial conceptions of this project changed greatly when Valentine went to Kristen Stewart instead of your original choice, Mia Wasikowska?
Yes. Well, yes. You know, it’s… well, actually, I would put it a little differently. Whatever I wrote, I had in mind something fairly different from Mia Wasikowska; I think that the character was closer to Kristen in the first place. When, you know, for some reason, it was not happening with Kristen and I went to Mia Wasikowska — who I think is an incredible actress; I think she’s just brilliant, so smart — I said, “Okay, she’s great. I will adapt. We will find a common ground, and I’m sure that the dynamics will work.” I’m not sure exactly how they will work, but they will work. But we’re moving in a slightly different direction.
So when — for so many different reasons — we had to switch back to Kristen, somehow the whole process felt easier — because she was a much more obvious fit. But the thing is, I would have been extremely happy to make the film with Mia Wasikowska, except that it would have been a completely different movie. And that’s really interesting, in a certain way, because that’s where it ends up being like theater, like stage. When you have a play, you can have a million different versions of that play, based on who you cast. Here I felt there were different versions of this story. There were different possible versions of this story, but I knew that, in any case, I would have to adapt to whoever was playing Valentine.
Does that happen often, where you have to switch actors and it begins to feel like you can have a different film on your hands?
Usually, the range is narrower. Usually, you have some kind of idea. There are limits to what you can try, so it’s usually more focused. Here, I would say it’s a part that was much more open than usual for me.
One of the most common reactions I’ve seen to this movie, whether or not somebody likes it, is surprise by how strong Stewart’s performance is. Perhaps because there are preconceptions of her. You choose to work with an actor, so I assume you have good feelings about them.
But are you surprised by people’s surprise? Do you find that strange?
I understand it, in a sense, and, in a certain way, I’m happy. I decided to make this film with Kristen based on my intuition — based on the fact that I think she has this incredible, incredibly striking, unique screen presence. She has such a powerful presence onscreen. That’s something everybody’s aware of — or you have to be blind not to see it. But then I had no idea if I would be able to bring her on the terrain on this film. I had no idea how she would function with Juliette, how far she could go in terms of reinventing the scenes, improvising, not rehearsing, blah blah blah.
So I had a feeling that I was just betting; I was betting the film on something that I had no security of. I did not know. I only had my instinct. It’s not like I had any proof that she had already done it; she had not done it. I was taking her in a completely different area. But after, like, one day, I knew she was just perfect for the part, and it was really great. And, the thing is, as often with great actors, I was amazed by her. Like, on a day-to-day basis, I thought, “Oh, my God. How fast she adapts.” Because Juliette was doing stuff I knew that she… I had seen… I know her. I know her enough that I knew she could go in that direction.
Honestly, I do think she’s much better in this film than in a lot of movies she’s done, but that was my concern. Because I think that Juliette, as great as she is, you know, sometimes she can be not so focused. So I knew I had to help her focus. But, for Kristen, I was amazed by how easy she felt with stuff that was completely unfamiliar ground for her. But then, the tiny thing — the nuances, the way she moves her body, the way she looks — that’s stuff that I discovered when I was editing. I was just amazed by the precision. You can’t really see that when you’re shooting. You record it, and you say, “Oh, yeah, this looks great. Let’s move on.” We move on to another shot, and then when you’re in the editing room and you watch stuff again and again, you realize the precision, the intelligence, the subtlety of what she’s doing. I was just constantly impressed.
I can ask one more question, so here’s a brief thing: among my favorite moments in this movie is when Maria plays with her 3D glasses in the theater to test the projection. Do you also do this?
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah.
Clouds of Sils Maria enters limited release on Friday, April 10th.