Interview: Olivier Assayas Talks Kristen Stewart and Breaking the Boundaries of Filmmaking in PERSONAL SHOPPER
French writer/director Olivier Assayas, turned 62 this year. He doesn't look it though. He is an ultimate cinema geek - when he talks about filmmaking, you can easily be overpowered by his enthusiasm and fast talking. He hasn't lost the twinkle in his eye. The only giveaway of his age might be his short graying hair.
Assayas' diverse filmography (including Irma Vep, Summer Hours, Demon Lover, Carlos) reflects his tireless exploration of film as a medium. Clouds of Sils Maria, a delicious hall of mirrors meta-film, made an international splash two years ago and made its young American actress, Kristen Stewart a darling of French movie goers. Assayas and Stewart, an unlikely pair, hit it off and now we have Personal Shopper, a marvelous mashup of whatis-it mysteries both natural and supernatural, that is 100 percent Assayas. For me, as of now, Personal Shopper is the hard to beat movie of the year. I met Assayas on a blustery snowy day in March in New York for a brief chat. Honestly, I could listen to him for days.
Screen Anarchy: There is always this fluidity in your films but especially in Personal Shopper, there seems to be surprises at every turn. It was really fun to watch the film! How did this particular script develop?
Olivier Assayas: I think I’ve been experimenting more and more in terms of screenwriting. I’m just trying things. I've kind of lost interest in the classic dynamics of the narrative, of linear narrative, I would say. For some reason there is something frustrating about it for me, so I’m just trying to see by twists and turns and putting on layers, whatever, so I can come up with something that’s more exciting for me. I always have this notion that if I’m having fun writing it, quite possibly the audience will have fun watching it.
I can’t deal any more with ‘traditional steps’ when you are telling the story. I just want to go straight to moments - I need to write cinematic moments that would make sense once connected together. It feels somehow stronger. I need to feel that because there is so much of corporate industrial filmmaking going on, movies have become totally predictable. Because you have to adopt to standards and if you don’t they will think it will have problems with the audiences.
I think it’s important to move on because filmmaking has so much potential. So I have been describing this movie as a collage which in a way it is - I’m using mixed materials to tell my story.
You know when people say ‘cut to the chase’ and I’m constantly cutting to the chase. I am constantly moving to the next exciting moment. But I don’t really deal with the connection, I just, (hitting his hands together) hit the two things together. It would be like hitting two stones together to create a spark or something like that.
I think that’s the best kind of cinema.
Kristen Stewart is obviously the main character in this and you’ve made her a big French star now with two back to back films. In our previous conversation when you were presenting Clouds of Sils Maria, you said that Stewart’s biggest assets are her youth and her power to go against a legend like Juliette Binoche in that film. How did this continued working collaboration come about?
I think so much of filmmaking is about grabbing opportunities when they come to you. I’m not sure why— well, I kind of know why. Connecting with Kristen has been an inspiration in a sense that, I would not have imagined that we would click the way we clicked. I mean we met and talked. I liked her work and she’d seen a couple of my films that she liked. I thought that it was interesting that this young American actress is interested in my work. I thought if we were gonna work together, something interesting would come out of it. But then I realized that we connected way beyond that. There was something deeper- how we approach filmmaking, how we idealize filmmaking in a certain way, how we live for movies.
There is something very genuine in her in approaching filmmaking. And she is very ambitious in the best sense of the word. She always wants to go beyond whatever she knows how to do or has been doing. She has this feeling that filmmaking is an open space for her.
I’ve been trying to break the boundaries of French filmmaking. I always felt trapped, not as much as limited. I am a product of French independent filmmaking in many ways. But simultaneously, it’s been frustrating to see that there are certain things you can do and can’t do in any film culture. At some point there is this framework and I’m always excited by what’s beyond the framework.
Kristen brings another dimension, which is youth. It’s essential. It’s vital. Independent filmmaking is kind of losing touch with the young audience.
You know I think it’s happening all over the world - the indie film crowd is aging. But I think filmmaking has so much to do with youth because the youth is the real audience for cinema. It’s a medium for young people so you don't want to lose that audience. You just hope that you connect with it. Beyond anything we do together, Kristen brings me that.
And as a director and an actor, it goes both ways right? And what I can give her is space, time and freedom. Like my movies, indie European films - often we create then while we are doing it. It’s not always possible to do that in an American indie framework, unless you are Malick or someone who has been doing that for all his life.
What did she first think about the Personal Shopper script?
She was in Paris for couple of days. And we were like 'lets have a drink together'. We kind of sat down and she asked me what I’m up to and I said I was working on a screenplay and she was like, 'oh can I read it?' 'well, yeah sure.' (laughs) And she sent me the document saying that she loved it and would love to do it. And that was pretty much it. I suppose we had couple of short conversations afterwords but nothing much.
What I love about Kristen is that she doesn’t ask questions. Most actors, including most interesting, great actors I’ve worked with, want me to discuss the psychology of the characters and why this and why that. Kristen doesn’t function like that. She connects physically with a character and she considers making sense of it as an actor which is their job. Other actors would take it as that they ‘should somehow contribute’. Because I’m the director and writer, they want to please me and want to go in my direction. But I don’t want that. I want them to bring their own imagination to bring the spark of life to my screenplay. When I finish writing a screenplay, I already went as far as I can go. I need someone to take over the character.
The supernatural element of the film reminded me of Irma Vep. Despite all the glamorous settings, there is something sweet about Maureen being a medium and waiting for her brother to give her a sign. I’d call it sweet spirituality. Is it what you were exploring? Some kind of spiritualism against this rather vacuous materialism?
That’s what I was aiming at, I suppose. I wanted to make a movie that dealt with invisible, whatever that invisible is - you can call it spirituality, you can call it ghosts, parallel reality, alternative facts! (laughs). The thing is, there is the material world and there is our inner world however we project ourselves -longing, imagination, into this outside world. All through the ages, every culture in the world, people have had visions, heard voices or projected some of these tendencies to the outside world. So I wanted to deal with that. I was always convinced that cinema was a way of capturing things that are ultimately beyond perception.
Intangible. And I wanted to explore that. Once you decide to go in that direction, you will be using genre elements because cinema had invented the ways of dealing with that dimension of human experience which is genre filmmaking. I’m saying that in terms of films like Vampyr by Dreyer or Nosferatu by Murnau would be considered horror movies today but they are not horror movies. They are films by those directors who tried to cross the dimensions of reality through those specific stories.
So there is Nora Von Wal--
Who is an Austrian actress, there is Lars Eidinger--
Who is German.
Anders Danielson Lie who is Norwegian in that group as well. Once again, you have this whole international cast working for you. How do you come up with such great actors from all over? Do you cultivate relationships over the years?
You know, I love working with people that I love. Nora has been a friend since we did Carlos together. I've known Lars since Sils Maria and I hope to keep working with those guys. I think it’s so precious to establish those kind of friendship with your actors. And they happen to be great actors.
When I was talking about opening the boundaries of french filmmaking, it mostly involves working with the actors I love. And making my films in English helps me with that. It’s because I’ve done a few films in English, all of sudden I can work with German actors and I can work with Anders Danielson Lie whom I think is an amazing actor.
You know, I saw him in Oslo, August 31. I thought he was amazing. He has something specifically modern about him that fascinates me. I can’t imagine a French actor who would’ve brought the same vibe to that role. So shooting in English opens the possibilities of working with the broad range of actors and in that sense broad range of colors that I can use in my film.
We talked about this before but you were always on the forefront of pushing and discovering film culture from other parts of the world and I still feel you are the only one as a French director who continue to do so.
One thing I found interesting thinking about your filmography - Demon Lover, Boarding Gate and now Personal Shopper. There is this hyper-capitalist element in the background. And I can't help myself thinking that "oh Assayas perhaps is satirizing the highly advanced capitalist society." Is that the case?
Ha ha. Yes. I think it’s totally over the top ridiculous about fashion world or celebrity worshiping culture but I wouldn’t say I am satirizing them. I am presenting them as reality. That there is the side of the world that actually exists.
Personal Shopper is now playing in New York and LA. National roll out will follow next week.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everyting cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com