Olivier Assayas • Director of Irma Vep
“I liked the idea of connecting American filmmaking with French independent filmmaking”
by David Katz
- The ever-hip French filmmaker regales us about his just-concluded new HBO series, and its many past echoes and reference points
It’s not TV, it’s HBO, as the US cable giant’s famous tagline goes. And now after colleagues like Luca Guadagnino and Barry Jenkins were given large, multi-episode canvasses for their projects, Olivier Assayas has also made the jump to American premium TV, expanding the premise of his 1996 meta-movie Irma Vep [+see also:
interview: Olivier Assayas
series profile], this time subbing Alicia Vikander for Maggie Cheung as the glamorous star marooned in the paranoia-infused French film world. Almost as a Freudian slip, Assayas referred to the project as a ‘film’ throughout our chat.
Cineuropa: Now that Irma Vep has finished broadcasting, that probably gave you some bittersweet feelings. Have you enjoyed following the weekly rollouts of the episodes, and seeing the reactions people have had on social media and elsewhere?
Olivier Assayas: Everything happened at the same time: the early episodes were screened and aired before I had even finished the last three. So I had to simultaneously work on the film, promote the film, and, you know, deal with the episodes that were at different stages of post-production. So ultimately I ended up finishing 8 when 5 or 6 were airing. So it was the first time really, when I was doing something on that scale, when I am both promoting and working on the film - which is, in my world, completely new and crazy. Once I was done, I left to Italy.
Were you thinking at all of the connection between the serials of early cinema and prestige TV now - the appeal of episodic storytelling which serious writers and filmmakers seem more drawn to than before? It seems to have come full circle.
Yes totally, and I was also very aware of it because it was the subject of my master’s thesis when I was a student. I wrote about the connection between serials - crime thrillers of the early 20th century - and symbolist poetry, and there was a lot of circulation in terms of the themes, the visuals, the fantasies that were simultaneously happening in lowbrow and highbrow culture. To me, the only thing that was slightly different from the way I functioned was the faster post-production and edit. I had to shrink that more than normal. We were hostage to the delivery date, all of us, which meant the work was pretty intense. I think it reflects the finished product, and ended up being a positive element.
I’m curious what it was like to work with HBO, perhaps the most respected American broadcaster. How much free rein did you have?
There was a lot of interference from HBO, which also had to do with the pressure in terms of the schedule - I had to send very early cuts to HBO, and they would come up with their notes very fast. If I had had more time, I would have waited before I sent, and would not have gone through their fastidious process. It helped me to have instant feedback on every single episode as I was working on it, and ultimately there was lots of stuff I used because the notes were pretty good. Some were a little bit... [trails off]… some made less sense to me, some were very useful.
The casting of the French actors feels quite self-conscious.
Totally. I’m a bilingual director - I’ve made movies in English, and so on and so forth. They were always European productions. In this case, this was a US production, so I liked the idea of connecting American filmmaking with French independent filmmaking and using a mixture - it’s also something that in previous generations you could not do, because the actors did not speak English, like Jean-Pierre Léaud in the original Irma Vep - he was speaking phonetic English, he had no idea what he was saying! So there were very few French actors who would be bilingual, who would handle an English part. But now it has changed, with the new generations of actors - most of them are pretty confident with their English, and most who are not enough have their coaches. So I know the mechanics of it, I am used to it. I can reassure them not to worry.
Considering how many of your films are explicitly about politics - especially the left - and world affairs, it’s interesting how that manifests itself here. I’m especially thinking of Les Vampires’ First World War context.
So, full disclosure, we shot the scenes because it was the poet Louis Aragon who wrote this really beautiful piece about the fascination of the surrealists with Musidora, and also about the eroticism of the character of Irma Vep, and it being the last sexual image of a lot of the soldiers in WW1, and they would die thinking of that. So I shot Louis Aragon speaking and there was a whole collage of war images, but it made no sense, because the majority of the international audience has no idea who Aragon is, and only a vague notion of what the First World War was. For some reason it felt completely right in the screenplay, and we shot it with the actor Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet. Although it was a beautiful scene, it broke the pace of the episode, so we had to cut it. But it’s still there, something that had to do with the war; there is a dark undercurrent in the film that connects exactly to the Louis Aragon piece.
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