Olivier Assayas • Director
by Jorn Rossing Jensen
- The French writer-director talks about his Cannes contender, Clouds of Sils Maria, and his method of filmmaking, where the screenplay is only the starting point.
"It was like non-stop surprises," said French writer-director Olivier Assayas about the shooting of his latest feature, Clouds of Sils Maria [+see also:
interview: Charles Gillibert
interview: Olivier Assayas
film profile], which was competing for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, with a cast featuring the likes of French actress Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz.
The son of French writer-director Jacques Rémy, Assayas assisted his ailing father in writing his scripts, mostly for television, subsequently going on to create them himself. Once he had delivered Rendez-Vous (1985) for French director André Téchiné – which had Juliette Binoche in the lead – he had no problem finding producers or funding for his own feature debut, Disorder (1985).
At the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä, Finland – 129 km north of the Arctic Circle – Assayas was a guest of honour, screening six of his features (one-third of his production), delivering a lecture on Swedish director Ingmar Bergman (about whom he has also written a book) and discussing cinema with Finnish festival director Peter von Bagh. The films included Irma Vep, and his most recent works, Summer Hours [+see also:
film profile] (2008), Carlos [+see also:
film profile] (2010) and Clouds of Sils Maria.
Cineuropa: You became a scriptwriter more or less involuntarily, because of your father?
Olivier Assayas: In a way, yes. Between the ages of 15 and 25, painting was the big thing in my life; I wrote screenplays for shorts and features, mainly to help my father. When I began to make my own shorts, I realised that filmmaking was much more demanding than I had envisioned – and when I started making actual movies, I understood it was one or the other. You cannot be a filmmaker and a painter – it doesn’t work like that. Still, I am happy I learned the job, and I am happy I listened to what my father taught me. I wasn’t exactly patient, and most of the stuff I wasn’t really interested in – I mean, adapting Maigret is not the most glamorous thing you can do.
And then you were a film critic for five years?
I did a lot of film journalism, some of it for minor magazines – but Les Cahiers du Cinéma, which printed the bulk of my work, didn’t pay at all, so I made a living as a scriptwriter and making short films. That was until Téchiné asked me to work on Rendez-vous, which won him the prize for Best Director at Cannes, became a big hit in the cinemas and made Binoche a star, and then I began making my own features. Already by that time, Binoche and I had agreed we would work together, but it didn’t happen until Summer Hours, which was not really the film we were supposed to realise. Then she called me – what about it?
Clouds of Sils Maria deals with an actress, who has to navigate through those different layers of reality – it is pretty much a portrait of Binoche, as she is today, not a movie with Binoche, but a movie about her. She really brings a lot of herself into this character, so it has fairly deep roots. Shooting was like non-stop surprises. Binoche and Stewart had never met each other before, but they were both very generous; Stewart was genuinely impressed, she admired Binoche – and Binoche was very happy to work with a young actress who would challenge her, stimulate her. It went both ways, and beforehand you could not have been sure that this would have happened.
The nature of Sils Maria – the meteorological phenomenon in the Engadine valley, the serpent of Maloja – was also part of the inspiration. I used to go on holiday in the region, I had seen those clouds, and then I discovered this Italian short film from the early 1900s.
Your breakthrough was a screenplay. Didn’t Clouds of Sils Maria turn out as you had expected?
The screenplay is the backbone of a film, but merely the starting point. The process of writing doesn’t stop there; you just freeze it for a moment, and the making of it should hopefully take it much further. I have no idea of where, really – it grows, it expands, and I try to channel that. My screenplays can be fairly long – I like to cut, and I like the actors to play fast. Every single film is a different story – they have different dynamics. Some are deeply connected to the collaboration with the actors – like Sils Maria – and the locations, which are the strongest visual element, the style of the cinematography.
Sils Maria could have evolved in many different ways because it is so dependent on the dynamics between the two main characters; I had thought of doing it with Mia Wasikowska instead of Stewart, but then it would have become a totally different film. The casting of a film is the most important moment – once you have structured the cast of your film, it is pretty much there. The big choices are made there. There are millions of aspects to preparing a film, but the process of casting, and feeling my way into it, is where I spend most of my time.