Interview: Olivier Assayas On CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA And A Hall of Mirrors

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Interview: Olivier Assayas On CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA And A Hall of Mirrors
Even though French director Olivier Assayas has been a trailblazer for international productions for a long time, he surprised everyone by casting teenybopper favorite Kristen Stewart opposite the great Juliette Binoche in his new film Clouds of Sils Maria. The multi-layered film is a hall of mirrors about acting, fame, aging, and Hollywood. It is also perhaps the most entertaining film Assayas has ever done. Stewart went on to become the first American actress to win a Cesar Award for her role in the film.

As a big fan of his work, I was thrilled to catch up with him at last year's New York Film Festival and talk to him about the film, his career, and his filmmaking process.

ScreenAnarchy: Where did CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA originate?

Olivier Assayas: It started simply. It started with Juliette Binoche. She called me one day saying, "I have a gap next winter for two months. Why don't you write something really quickly and shoot it quickly with a small budget?" "I like the idea of where I'd be playing an old part, where we can show two sides of me," something like that.

I said to Juliette, "I don't know, let me think about this...." It's not how I exactly function, I don't write things fast, plus I was finishing another screenplay at the time, and was shopping for Something in the Air. Then I started thinking about it. She had a point that we should make a movie together, I mean, for many reasons. The most essential one, being that there is something beyond the relationship between a director and an actor. We had known each other for 30 years. We started our career together. We have some kind of parallel history. But we really haven't worked together, very little. I mean we only crossed our paths when we did Summer Hours together where she plays one of the characters in an ensemble piece. But ultimately, you know, if you think about how long we've known each other, we should've done more movies together.

It was often the matter of timing. I offered parts to Juliette once in a while when I had something that would correspond to her, including when I did Les Destinee Sentimentale. It just never happened because our schedules never matched up. It was frustrating. And because we had so much fun making Summer Hours, we wanted to expand it.

The thing is that I was convinced that there was an opportunity to do something different with Juliette, to do a film that she had never done it before in a sense. A movie where it won't be just a part intended for her but I could do something with my familiarity with her, I suppose. I could build something around the person she is, use her as 'Juliette Binoche the actress' with the history she has and build something from that. Of course it would echo my own experience with time; growing and aging, both as a person and an artist. There was a potential for a film there. I wasn't sure what it would turn out to be but I could competently tell her that I have a shot at it.

Funny, preparing for this interview, I revisited André Téchiné's RENDEZ-VOUS, which you wrote, starring baby Juliette Binoche and baby Lambert Wilson, after twenty years. I realized what you are doing in CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA. The layers you create, with Juliette's history and her personal reflections ... it's a really intriguing hall of mirrors you are creating. I am wondering if there was another layer that you put upon the film as a director that I am missing.

If you've seen Rendez-vous, you know how much I am drawing from that film. I used the same theme... I think I used the overall mood of the film too. It's still a completely different animal. But it's also because the world has changed. 

In terms of the themes, there are things in common: obviously the theater and the path towards becoming an actress. But the major difference is that I am doing something that André (Téchiné) is not doing in that film, which was using whoever those actors are. I mean, in this movie, one additional layer to the narrative which ends up giving it this kind of hall of mirror feeling which was not planned.

It just kind of happened to me in a certain way, but it derives from the logic that begins with deciding that I am going to use Juliette Binoche. That I'd give her another name and a slightly different character, one inch away from her where she can have fun playing an actress she could have been. She can make fun of herself in certain ways. But still, the audience knows that it is watching Juliette Binoche playing a famous actress who is very much like Juliette Binoche. 

But then what comes out of it is that you are also watching Kristen Stewart playing Valentine and Chloë Moretz playing Joan. They are playing whom they could have been or part of someone they know. It gives very specific texture to this film. In movies, it's all about making you forget that you are watching these actors, having them blending into these characters who are believable.  Here, part of the fun is experiencing, acknowledging Kristen is Kristen and Juliette is Juliette.

Do you see yourself in the fictional theater director Melchior who dies in the film?

Hmmm. I just couldn't think of any other stronger way to stress the passing of time. (Laughs.) All of sudden, the guy, the old mentor is gone. You have to reflect the time that has passed, what you've done with that time. It kind of provokes you to go back to whatever you experience with that person. It also is the event that provokes the subsequent events. Because he is dead, because of that shock, that all of a sudden, Maria accepts something that she initially didn't want to do, which was to play that part of the older woman. She is doing it for him but the minute she says yes she has second thoughts about it.

So Juliette was already set for the part. Were Kristen and Chloë your first choices when you were writing the script?

No I wasn't really thinking about anyone in particular when I was writing it. But the minute I sat down with them, especially with Kristen, I knew she was the one. She was on the top of my list and obvious choice anyway. But things don't really happen that way in movie business, especially it being a small weird  European film and so on. So it stopped somewhere in the middle of the development stage. 

Then Kristen finally got ahold of the screenplay and contacted us and told us she wanted to do it. But someone already had a part and that someone couldn't do it anymore and Kristen came back. So it ended up how it was supposed to be. For me, Kristen was the ideal embodiment of Valentine, perfect. I wanted someone who has both youth and power in front of Juliette. I wanted someone to challenge her. Not someone who would be in awe of Juliette. I wanted someone with guts.

Chloë happened very differently. I didn't have that much of a clear vision for Joan until I realized that what would be interesting was having someone very young to play the part. And that's what Chlöe had brought me. She was 16 when she played the role. She turned 17 while shooting the film. ultimately, it was that age difference that she had with Kristen that made sense of the whole system.

Chloë came to me in the late stage but when I spoke with her it was completely clear. She has one more thing on top of what other young actresses have: her sense of humor. She is very witty. She is very sharp so she gets it really quickly. So that was very important in the comedy side of it also.

This is kind of an off the cuff question.

OK.

I've talked with Christoph Honoré a couple of years ago and he mentioned that there is no solidarity among the directors in the global film stage anymore. He said that there were real connections in the 60s and 70s where Truffaut would rescue Milos Forman from the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and Truffaut would star in a Spielberg film. You've done many international productions and I am wondering if you agree with that sentiment.

I understand perfectly what Christoph means but I've been trying to contradict that in a certain sense. When Christoph started making films in France, there was a whole indie scene that started happening. He could define or not based on his connections or disconnections with his peers, so-and-so forth.

In my case, it was a little more difficult because there were older filmmakers but very few filmmakers of my generation I could speak with. So very early on I had to find the way to connect with other filmmakers in other cultures and different countries. Because they were the filmmakers I could have dialog with. 

To me it was very formative moment in my career. It was meeting Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang; we are talking 1984, in Taipei. And those guys were completely reinventing Chinese cinema. It was like a big thing: those two guys changing the face of Chinese cinema! And I was there! I was the first Western writer -- I was writing for Cahier du cinema at that time -- to meet them and understand what was going on. And...

You did a documentary on Hou (HHH) didn't you?

But it was way before doing the documentary, like ten years early. I kind of promoted their work to the world. When I was getting to ready to do my own feature, these guys were just slightly older than me. The thing is, I understood what they were doing and it was exciting and modern compared to what was happening in France. I was inspired by them. I had much more creative, exciting dialog with Edward and Hou. Back then Hou didn't speak much English but with Edward, who grew up in San Francisco, my god, we talked so much!

I met Atom Egoyan when he was beginning to grow as a filmmaker. He's also someone who instantly became a friend, who I could have dialog with. I'm not even touching upon the guys I met in Hong Kong, like Wong Kar Wai and Stanley Kwan...

I've always been concerned by those issues. And I tried to find my own solutions. Like when Edward did Majong, he used Virginie Ledoyen because he had seen her in my film. You know, we met at the Kyoto film festival when I was there with Virginie and we had lunch and the next day Edward emailed me asking if Virginie would be interested in being in his film. Or when Maggie (Maggie Cheung, Assayas' ex who was in his films Irma Vep and Clean) came to France to do my film. I understand that it is not part of the film culture anymore, so you have to provoke it. I've been provoking it as far as long as I know. I think it's because I've been a film journalist and had the exposure to international cinema that few French filmmakers had.

It's interesting that you mention sharing certain actors. I saw [your wife] Mia Hansen-Love's last two films and your last two films and they have a lot of actors in common.

Even the cameraman [Denis Lenoir]. (Laughs.)

Do you guys always share the pool of actors or recommend to each other actors all the time?

With Mia, I've been discussing movies for the last 15 years on top of living together, and so and so forth. So yeah we share the same values and I suppose we also have tastes in common. I love her films and when she watches my films she loves the actors in them. So she's going to pick this or that guy. 

You know, like Felix de Givry, who plays the main character in Mia's Eden. He wouldn't have been right for my film, Something in the Air, but the it was a decision I hesitated for weeks between him and Clément Métayer and ended up giving Felix another role. But I saw the potential in Felix that he would be great in other films. It's just a matter of casting for the right role because he looked a bit old for that role, what I liked about Clément was he has more of a child's face.

That's true. But Felix is great in EDEN.

Oh yeah. Absolutely.

How was shooting in Switzerland?

It was great. We shot only parts of it in Switzerland. Most of the interiors, which is supposed to be in Zurich, we shot it in Germany. Some exteriors including the chalet, we shot it in South Tyrol which is a just the other side the border of Engadin, Switzerland. It was still a European film production with tax breaks and all.

The key element of the film, we shot it in Switzerland. The landscape was an essential part of the film. It's a character. So it was very vital to have those specific landscapes. It's something you have to struggle for. The producers tell you that mountain is a mountain. (Laughs.) But I said, 'Yes, but this is not exactly any mountain and the lake isn't exactly like any other lake.' You need the vibrations from the place...

Was it difficult to shoot in the mountains?

Yes. Of course it is difficult.  Especially you are out there shooting in the environment you can't control. You have to get up there in helicopter with your whole crew and everything. It's complicated. It's deceptively simple on screen but it involves fairly complex logistics.

Your actors are really troopers out there shooting in the snow. It must've been cold.

Yes, it was cold! We were shooting in the summer and all of sudden it was snowing. But it was snowing for the right scene. I like the idea of snow in that particular scene. Also we were on the schedule that we couldn't lose a day. So it snows, so be it. But snow looks so beautiful on screen. I'm just extremely happy that it ended up in the film.

How long did the production take?

With a small budget, you can't waste time. It took about 31 days.

I guess Valentine is a reflection or Maria's projection. I can't help thinking that the disappearance of Valentine is because she is the only one who sees the irony in the situation as an assistant to the great actress taking a back seat to the rising star.

You know, basically, she disappears so everyone can have their own take and interpretation on the disappearance. Everyone thinks it's a big thing, but ultimately its a small thing. It would be like, I add one shot of her buying a ticket and getting on the train for something. It's that tiny thing that opens up to a lot of interpretations and make it much more interesting.

I had couple of options, you know. But none of it is as interesting as yours. No, I'm not joking. When you are a writer you don't control everything that's going on. When you are a reviewer you discover everything. [We laugh.]

No, because you are discovering it and all of a sudden things make sense to you in ways it can't make sense to me. Because I was involved in assembling the elements and at some point things happen on their own and your imagination connects with the images and you recreate the film. Any audience recreates his or her own film, so when you have a gap in the narrative it's your whole imagination that is channeled into that gap. It's a way to appropriate the film.


After playing at the Toronto and New York film festivals, Clouds of Sils Maria opens in select theaters in the U.S. on April 10. For more info, please visit IFC Films website.

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com
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Juliette BinocheKristen StewartOlivier Assayas

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