Olivier Assayas: "Acting is also part of what goes on between an actor and a director.” Photo: Richard Mowe
Olivier Assayas, who has a penchant for strong women as role models in his films (and in his life), was challenged by Juliette Binoche to write a part for her that explored the female experience. The result, Clouds Of Sils Maria, also features two new generation Hollywood actresses, Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz. He talks about how reality blurred with fiction, the influence of Ingmar Bergman and whether the “intellectual” film-maker tag still sticks.
Richard Mowe: Can you elaborate on the different acting styles of Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche?
Olivier Assayas That is very much what the film is about. They are actresses coming from completely different cultures. They have a completely different background and I have a completely different relationship with both of them. Acting is also part of what goes on between an actor and a director. It is just not out there on its own. Juliette is a very experienced actress who went through many phases. She is an actress who has had periods like a painter would have periods. In the early stages of her career she was heading in to a direction of controlling what she was doing and maybe intellectualising what she was doing and now she has gradually loosened up. She understood that she could be confident enough to improvise and to reinvent the scenes and to try things. Basically it is the process all actors go through because it is the only way they can have fun doing what they are doing. Someone like Kristen was doing the film because she felt she had something to learn from Juliette. She thought she had been limited in what she has been able to do in terms of her acting by the rules and stiffness of what is expected of a young American actress in an American film. She had a sense of that there was more to acting, there was more space and that she could try things the same way Juliette tries things. What made the chemistry between them in this film was the fact that Juliette understood that and understood that she could give her something and they started very far apart and gradually got closer and closer. They learned to function as a couple – and even at times seemed to become one person. I saw Kristen trying things she obviously got from Juliette and that she wouldn’t have touched during the early days of our shoot.
Juliette Binoche and Kirsten Stewart in Clouds Of Sils Maria
RM You seem to be attracted to strong women in your films. Why?
OA Not just in my films – in my life too! I have been lucky to have made movies with great actresses. I have been privileged – I have worked with Juliette and Kristen and Maggie Cheung, Asia Argento, Jeanne Balibar and so on. It is difficult to explain what inspires you but I think that portraying women in modern society is exciting and interesting. There is a sense that what defines the contemporary world is the way women have been empowered and how they have learned to use that power and that has been a subject that has fascinated me not only in films but in real life and in art and how society is changing.
RM: How much of herself did Juliette Binoche put into her character?
OA: She put a lot of herself in it, but she was also reinventing the character. It was part imagining the actress she could have been and part was using her own experience. I think there was always this slight distance in every single scene where she was obviously using herself – and I was using her. I wrote this film based on her. It is the story of an actress who is more or less the same age of Juliette, and more or less the career of Juliette and she goes through more or less the stuff that Juliette experienced. She knew perfectly well that I was playing with that border. I have known her forever, but we are not intimate friends. There is a lot I know about her, but there is also much that I do not know. I was reinventing it while I was writing. There was stuff that she could use and straightforward and that was biographical. And there was stuff that she could play with the idea of that kind of fading diva. All actors one way or another appropriate the parts. You write a story and a character and somehow it is embodied by someone – you use the body, the way of being, and of speaking. Here it is even closer to the bone because it is Juliette inventing a character that could have been very personal and in this case she embodies an actress who looks very much like her. For her it has been a way of exorcising a lot of the issues she has accumulated over the years – to age and the way your body changes and so on. I am sure she has a very personal relationship to this film.
RM: Is she afraid of the passing years and watching time going by?
OA :I think we all are. I think it is tougher for actors because as directors we do not have our faces blown up on a huge screen and fans scrutinising every wrinkle. Actors have to deal with that, especially women. Wrinkles are supposed to be sexy with men but not with women. This film is not about ageing, it is about how and when to open a new chapter in your life. Juliette is not old by any standard, and I am sure she has her best work ahead of her. In France a lot of the greatest actresses are older than her, but it is a moment when all of a sudden you have to deal with time and it is more about dealing with time rather than age. When you have to realise that there is stuff you cannot do any more but there is stuff that you were not able to do that opens up. It is a fact that time does pass and we all have to come to terms with that.
RM: You partner, Mia Hansen Løve, is also a film-maker. How does it work having two creative talents under the one roof?
OA: I think it is enriching for us both, although you would have to ask Mia for her point of view. She is a younger film-maker and she has a different world view and she has a different approach to cinema. It kind of forces me to reconsider my own way of making movies. I have a closer sense of how the world is changing and how cinema is changing. She is much more in touch than me of where that is happening right now. I think we also share a lot, including our tastes. We have been together for a while and it kind of rubs off. We have similar tastes, even if we don’t agree on everything. It is stimulating because you do not feel you are there on your own.
RM: In the wake of the recent Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris do you think attitudes are starting to change in France?
OA: I don’t know, but I hope so. I have been obsessed for a couple of years about how divided French society was, how conflictual it was and how antagonistic it was. The violence and anger was very present and extremely unpleasant and then all of a sudden there is this disaster and all of a sudden people seem to want to forget their differences and you hope that it will stick. It also has to do with the victims – the cartoonists who were murdered. Everyone in France has grown up with their drawings and had some kind of personal relationship with those guys. They were the most well-known and most loved cartoonists of their time and people do not see them as people who would get killed. They lampooned religion, yes, but like it or not you should not die for that. All of a sudden there is this sense of disbelief – two worlds that were not meant to meet. The older guys were in their seventies and had been famous since their twenties. I read Cabu’s comic strips in children’s magazines when I was ten-years-old. What has been happening in the aftermath has been positive in terms of French society.
RM: Was Ingmar Bergman an influence on you in this film in particular?
OA: Writing a film is a process. The process starts with Juliette. She calls me up one day and says, why don’t we make a film together in six months time? So I said I could think about it because I was in the throes of writing something else. We have known each other forever and we only worked together once previously in Summer Hours which was more of an ensemble piece. I said I would try and it all grew from there. After a few days I thought yes, she has a point, and we can do something with our history. The film that made her famous, Rendez-vous by André Techiné, was a film that I had co-written with him. It was my first serious screen-writing credit and the film was shown in Cannes in 1985 and we were the two kids. We have that past and the same starting point. What I thought I could do with her was to offer her the kind of role she had never had before. My starting point was using Juliette as Juliette in the context of how she functions and works at this point in her life. Juliette is an actress who works. She thinks and she works and needs to work. I thought of her as an actress who was rehearsing a play and if she was doing that she would need an assistant who most likely would be a younger woman – so yes that seemed a bit like Bergman’s Persona. I have always admired Bergman and he has been a model and I have been lucky enough to meet him and discuss cinema with him. I did not watch Persona again but I know it pretty well. It is one of my favourite films. I knew I was on Bergman territory but did not get there deliberately. I was conscious that Bergman was somewhere around there but I was not trying to do an homage or feel influenced. Any film-maker could make his own version of Persona in a strange way. Usually I try to avoid cinema inspiring my film-making but here I was dealing with an actress so I had to handle that texture.
RM: What did Kristen Stewart bring to the table?
OA: I suppose she was able to play around a bit with fame and Hollywood and her Twilight persona. She brought a new dimension. Juliette was part real and part fiction and suddenly Kristen also was part real and part fiction. It became a very different kind of film – in my other movies I try to erase the actors and have them blend in to the characters whereas here I realised that it was important that you were in and out of their personas. The film hovered between their characters and themselves as individuals.
RM: You were tagged early on as an “intellectual” film-maker. Is that still the case?
OA: You have film-makers who come from an experience of being actors or assistant directors. I happen to have approached cinema through writing about cinema and the moment I started making films I was tagged an intellectual. To me I have always been the exact opposite. I spent my whole youth drawing and painting – very abstract stuff. I learned how to write in order to make movies. I am kind of a self-taught film “intellectual” but behind that I had a fairly raw artistic instinct. Movies have to be inspired by life, and your own experience. After a film I try to lock myself out of movies for a bit and I try not to live in cinema circles. I try to do physical things – such as walking the mountains. I need to have a sense of society and the world around me.
RM: What else do you have in prospect?
OA: At this point I have two projects going on and potentially both will be in English but I am not sure which one I will do first. Shooting in English helps me to reinvent myself and, strangely, it gives me a greater sense of freedom. And maybe there are things I can do in English that I would not be so sure about in French. I would never have contemplated doing Sils Maria in French because for a start I would never had got the money because they would have said it was too dialogue heavy with boring French actors discussing abstract ideas. Set it in the Swiss mountains with a sexy American actress and all of a sudden it becomes more interesting! My culture is French, I grew up in France, and my own relationship to cinema is framed by the history of French film-making and it is part of my DNA but I can use that to look at the rest of the world and discover things I did not know. French film-making remains very exciting because it is one of the few places where you can find all generations still working together. We have the most women film-makers too, so it is a stimulating environment to be in.
Clouds Of Sils Maria is released in the UK on 15 May. Richard Mowe talked to Olivier Assayas at the Rendez-vous with French Cinema in Paris