An Interview with Olivier Assayas
by Jeff Reichert
Amidst talk of a dwindling, serious European cinema, the films of Olivier Assayas somehow always manage to poke through. He represents the perfect marriage of learning and application, a critic-turned-filmmaker who can miraculously parlay his theory to cinematic tableaux that always feel organic rather than studied. His most epic effort (Les Destinées) becomes his most intimate, and his most unassuming free-form (Irma Vep) becomes epic in its implications. His imagination plays host to a seemingly endless diversity: he followed up a miniturists portrait of being 30 in Paris with a casually sumptuous literary period piece and then topped it all with a startlingly contemporary take on . . . well, everything.
When demonlover first screened at Cannes 17 months ago, nothing happened. Well, mostly nothing. Our guess is that the tepid response was due more to laziness than any real understanding of one of the most fascinating and relevant films thus far in this very young 21st century. In honor of its long-delayed stateside release (following a notable reduction in running time), we have six individual pieces tackling different sides of this mammoth work and one on its accompanying soundtrack. The only real way to get anywhere near a film like demonlover is to bite off one chunk at a time—any more than that and you’ll choke. Along with a focus on a special film and critical writings on all of his prior features, we look back over the career of Assayas with the exclusive interview below, in which discussion ranges from his early days in the editing room of the first Superman movie (!), his first four features ,and his thoughts on his very particular brand of intuitive filmmaking.
1. Early Years
REVERSE SHOT: You grew up around “the industry,” you’ve painted a bit, written scripts, performed a stint at Cahiers du Cinéma—you could put all those things on paper, and it would seem to lead into becoming a filmmaker. I could sketch out your pre-history in a paragraph or two, as other publications have done, but I think it might be interesting to hear it in your own words.
OLIVIER ASSAYAS: Well, I suppose in a certain way I was very conscious that I wanted to make films—I think I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker well before I had the notion of what making films was even about. I suppose it’s connected to my childhood, to the fact that my father was a screenwriter, that children tend to be influenced by whatever environment they grow up in. But it’s not like my father’s friends were specifically cinematographic. He did have a few filmmaker friends who mostly came to the house for work sessions, and I went on set with him a few times, but that mostly concerns my early childhood. As I grew up and became a teenager, my father was very much a part of the “Classic French Cinema” that had been criticized by the Nouvelle Vague—people like Christian Jacques, Claude Autant-Lara, René Clément, René Clair, even Roger Vadim, but that was a little later. All those directors were somehow slightly put out of the picture by the Nouvelle Vague in the early Sixties. All of a sudden, things did not function in the same way: old-style producers, many from Central Europe, who barely spoke English, and all the deals going down in cafes on the Champs Elysses— that time was over by the early Sixties. I was very small at that time. After that, my father stayed in the business of writing screenplays once in a while. From the early to mid Sixties he was mostly involved in television, supervising screenplays for the state television channel. That did not fascinate me at all—I’ve always disliked television. I don’t think my father himself had a big interest in television. He was a storyteller, he liked telling stories—he didn’t think cinema was an art, or that making movies or writing screenplays was much of an art. He enjoyed doing it, but for him art was literature, art was painting, or music. In that sense I had notions of art at home—my grandfather is a famous Hungarian painter, my mother is a fashion designer who worked with Hermes for many years. My brothers and I were not discouraged if we had artistic inclinations, but at home art was not cinema.
RS: If cinema was not an art inside your home, how did you work your way to a conception of cinema as art?
OA: I had always held this obsession, this clear idea as a child that I wanted to direct films. I don’t know, it may have had something to do with something I’d seen on set, or with watching movies as a kid. There was something that just made sense—that attracted me extremely strongly to cinema. Nothing would have come out of it if I hadn’t enjoyed my early experiences with cinema which were the jobs my father managed to give me when I was on holidays as a teenager. I was always asking my father to find me any job doing anything on a film. I helped out at a company run by a friend of my father’s who did mostly dubbing of English films, but who also worked on these B-movies by this crazy Spanish director Jess Franco. Oh, it’s really absurd—you know, things like movies about the sex life of Frankenstein. It’s really kitschy. Once in a while you have retrospectives of his films at the Cinémathèque on midnight shows, and it’s just this really Seventies kitsch. They would send dailies to Paris, with actors speaking every single language on earth. I was assisting the editor who was just trying to make sense of all the mess. Stuff would come in basically as raw footage and he’d do all the production, hire actors to dub the voices, and turn it into some kind of decent film. That was my first job when I was 16 or 17. I was doing small jobs on small films, and I just enjoyed it. I did not know yet how I would make my way into making my own films. Ultimately the click for me—it’s always the very tiny occasions and tiny moments that have a very big influence on your fate in many ways—happened when I was a trainee on a film being produced by Alex Salkind, who was a friend of my father. It was a film called Crossed Swords, directed by Richard Fleischer—a swashbuckling movie based on a Mark Twain story. The film was shot partly in England, partly in Hungary, and they hired me as a trainee because my mother is Hungarian, I speak Hungarian, so I was also doing some translation. There was another French kid who was there because Salkind knew his grandfather or something. That kid was Laurent Perrin who is still my friend to this day. Laurent at that point had already started to make his own films and a couple of them were shown in Paris. He was shooting Super 8mm films—it was a cool thing to do at that time. He was already into this logic of making his own films. It was enlightening—I realized that you could make your own films. This had not occurred to me because my experience of cinema was in that world connected with my father—very much the old-fashioned industry where you had to be an assistant for quite a few films before some producer would give you the responsibility of directing. It hadn’t occurred to me that instead of going step by step, I could try and make my own films. It was through Laurent that I started writing screenplays for short films. Gradually I started using the same crew as Laurent, and when I started making my own short films, it became very obvious—all of a sudden, everything that was foggy up to that point became clear. I don’t think they’re really great movies on any level, but I had the same pleasure making them that I had making my features. All the pieces came together.
RS: So this was around 1979?
OA: 1978-79. Actually, I worked on Crossed Swords in 1976 when I was 21, and I think that Laurent’s first short film happened in late 1977 or early 1978. I think my own first short happened in early 1979. In between I had worked as a trainee in the editing rooms of the first Superman. I was in the middle of where it was happening—it was one of the first special effects movies and they had people trying all sorts of weird things. I was witnessing something very abstract to me at that time. I had no notion that you made movies that way. I was working on this machine that printed footage counts on the film—it was a nightmare, it’s mechanical so sometimes it would jump a sprocket, so all of a sudden everything is off-track, the numbers are in the wrong place, and you’d have to print the whole reel again.
RS: When and how did you get involved with the Cahiers du Cinéma group?
OA: That was a little later, but not so much. I met Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana after my first short film, which incidentally was a film called Copyright…
RS: What can you tell me about Copyright?
OA: To me it’s like a student film; it’s your first movie and you make all the mistakes. And you feel so bad that that you try a little harder to do better afterward. I haven’t watched it in a while. I don’t think I’d be nostalgic—the problem is that the acting isn’t very good. It happened in the time of post-punk, French rock ‘n’ roll, which was very much a scene I was involved with at the time. My friend Elli was a singer in a French punk band called Stinky Toys, and she was the star of almost all of my short films. Elli’s boyfriend, who was the guitar player in the band, did the music for Copyright. It was just this little cue on the synthesizer. We produced the soundtrack, and he did four or five versions of that cue and we were happy with it. He found a friend who released it as a record, and all of a sudden, it became a hit. And even now, once in a while, you hear remixes. “L’Rectangle”—people know it, it’s famous. They’re stupefied that this was the soundtrack to my first short film, which I’ve been hiding almost since I made it.
RS: So you made the first short, and then you met Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana…
OA: Yes. They saw the short film, and they liked it. Cahiers at the time had a festival of short films, documentaries that they championed, and they selected Copyright. Afterwards, they came to me and said that for the past few years they’d been mostly involved in politics, but now times were changing and that they wanted to open up again to cinema. They were looking for younger writers, since it had been the same group writing for the magazine for so many years, and they asked me to write for them. To me it was a real question. I’d never read Cahiers much before that. I’d been through a few issues, but politically I was very far from their Maoist position. I was interested in films, but I never imagined I would ever write about cinema. I thought that was for scholars. But I figured that if they wanted to change, to go back to their traditions, and if it was good enough for Truffaut, Godard, and Rivette, then maybe its good enough for me. [Laughs] So, I started writing. I would bring my piece to Serge Toubiana, who made the first contact and was running the magazine, while the chief editor was very much Serge Daney. I think they liked what I was writing, and I was enjoying what I was doing. I realized that writing on film could be something useful. Before that, I had a very immature approach to cinema. I had many questions but very few answers. I had no idea how to fit in, or what kind of movies I wanted to make. I didn’t have a clear notion of what cinema was. To me, writing about films was a way to explore how cinema functions and how I fit in. It was very good timing—Cahiers was in a period where they doing very much the same thing. They had been in a period where they were not involved in any of the basic questions of what cinema was. This time when I was writing was very much about reconnecting with cinema. And of course, it was exactly what I was interested in. To me it was like film school, but much better. I was traveling, having conversations with directors I’d admired. They were paying me very little money—it’s always been incredibly badly paid—but it was a job.
RS: You talk about this reconnection with various fundamentals of cinema—what kinds of things were you writing about at that time?
OA: I wrote about many things, but when I started writing, one of the new things that I brought to Cahiers was my interest in what was exciting at that time in American cinema, meaning: horror movies. It was the time of the early films of people like David Cronenberg, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter, who are very interesting filmmakers. For Cahiers it was a revolution to write that David Cronenberg was an interesting filmmaker, or that Clint Eastwood was an interesting filmmaker. Before that, Cahiers wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot pole. For the readers and also the older writers, it was a shock to see writing that said Honkytonk Man was a good film. I was also interested in Manoel de Oliveira whose work we were discovering at that time, and I also did a lot of simple movie journalism. It was an opportunity of opening Cahiers to the world. I was involved in doing the special issue of Cahiers on American cinema called “Made in the U.S.A.” that we published in 1982. Daney was involved, and a couple of other writers, but I was the one who was central in pulling together the whole thing. So we stayed for a few weeks in L.A.—it was a very weird time: Hollywood post-Star Wars. It was one of the worst periods in American cinema. In 1984 we went to Hong King and made the special issue on Hong Kong cinema. It was the first issue dealing with this cinema—not only its present, but also its roots. It’s still in print, people do buy it once in a while. It was the first serious Western work on popular Cantonese cinema and it was like discovering a new continent. We had no notion of who were the directors, what were the films, what were the classics…it was like discovering something completely new, which is very rare in cinema.
RS: The Cahiers period started in the mid Eighties, and your first film, Disorder, comes in 1986. Did your activities with Cahiers slowly start to trail off as you began working on the film?
OA: It’s more like…I think I did my best work there in the later period. It was more interesting in terms of the objects that I was choosing, and my writing got much better. But by 1986, I think had gotten everything out of Cahiers I could. I didn’t want to be a professional movie journalist. While I was working for Cahiers, I kept on making short films and writing screenplays. In late 1984, André Téchiné asked me to write his next film with him, which was a big break for me—it was the first time a serious filmmaker had offered me a serious job as a writer. It was called Rendez-vous which won the Best Director prize at Cannes, and was the first lead part for Juliette Binoche. When Techiné called me, I already had a rough outline of Disorder, and interrupted it to work with him. At the same time, I had this short film I had made which had been in some festivals and won some prizes, so suddenly things were kind of ready for me to make my first feature and I rushed into the occasion.
RS: There’s a certain way where most filmmakers, when they choose popular music, look for songs that have been canonized—they want something that’s going to have a resonance with a larger audience. In Disorder we see the influence of Joy Division and New Order, in Paris Awakens, we have The Pixies’s “Debaser” right after that album came out, and in Irma Vep was a lesser known live cover from Luna. You seem to be very free in the choices you make around the music you’re using.
OA: I usually like to put in music I’m listening to when I’m making the film. It’s what happened with the Pixies song in Paris Awakens, as well as the couple of hip-hop tracks which I was into briefly. It was very much what was happening then—music is about the present. What I like most about music is the poetry of the instant, so I like to somehow use it as that in my films. Une Nouvelle vie doesn’t have any music, but there was a scene which I cut out that had a song by Ministry, one song from the “Psalm 69” album that I was really into. I cut it out because I decided I didn’t want any music in the film, but if there had been music it would have been that Ministry track. I think it’s a way of bringing reality into the film—it’s also a way of creating my own soundtrack. It’s the reason why I’ve always felt uneasy which musical scores. I think most film music is very conventional, and I think the relationship with composers is kind of boring. You edit the film, and send a tape to the composer…it’s horribly boring and you lose control of something that’s completely essential to the film. When you bring your own tastes, when you bring your own music, when you bring your own musical intuition, it’s much more natural. The stuff instantly relates to the images—you’re the person who made the images, and you’re the person who listens to that music, so it’s more organic. To me, the most satisfying experience I have had with film music was working with Sonic Youth on demonlover. They are a band I admire and they created all that music and let me choose whatever I liked within the few CDs they sent me. I was free to remix it and fit it exactly where I thought I could use it. It was really great and exactly the way people don’t work with musicians.
RS: I’ve seen your first three films, Disorder, Winter’s Child, and Paris Awakens, described as a trilogy of sorts, and I was hoping you could explain the underpinnings behind that.
OA: I’ve always considered them somehow as a trilogy even if it isn’t exactly—things don’t connect that clearly. They were made in more or less the same format. I shot them in a row on similar budgets. I used pretty much the same crew—same cameraman, same set designer, same costume designer, same editor, and so on. All three are shot in color and processed in the lab to look more black-and-white. And they are all dealing with coming of age, in one way or another, with young actors at the center of the films. Within the three films, even if I was using different actors, somehow I feel you can relate characters in one film to characters in another—there’s a kind of circulation of characters. For instance, the character of Louise in Paris Awakens, this young girl living with a much older man, is similar to the character of Anne in Disorder who was left at some point in the story living with an older man. The character of Gabrielle in Disorder, who was the most serious of the guys in the band who leaves to go into veterinary studies somehow becomes the central character in Winter’s Child. So on and so forth. When I was making them, I sensed the coherence, but I never stopped and said, “I am going to make a trilogy.”
RS: One thing that’s been very common to many of the pieces we’ve received for this issue is that our writers talk about how you move the camera. In these three, it seems that your camerawork becomes increasingly mobile with each successive film.
OA: Definitely. In Disorder, the camera was kind of mobile, but in a much less complex way. When I made Disorder, it did have some handheld shots but more tracking shots. The syntax was very much about using handheld, using tracking shots, and using still stuff during long dialogue scenes. But in Disorder, if I remember well, you can see a use of tracking shots which became more systematic when I started making Winter’s Child. When I was making Disorder, I was like a lot of filmmakers making their first film—a little unconscious of what I was doing. I was just trying to do my best. I was putting everything I knew in that film. Nothing was ever as conscious as when I was making Winter’s Child or Paris Awakens, which were both much more considered in terms of style. When I was making those films I knew more or less where I was going. When I was making Winter’s Child, I knew that it was a more classic kind of film so it had much less handheld, all the shots were very designed—I was looking for something musical in the way I was using the shots. When I was making Paris Awakens, the handheld stuff came back. I was shooting in studio which I was not so fond of, and I very much wanted to break this feeling. The way to do that was do something a little more shaky with the handheld camera. If we are discussing that style, it became the most extreme when I was doing Une Nouvelle vie. That film was really the one with the most complex shots, done in the most complex way. It was a formally very ambitious film. The three first films were very narrative, so I was using whatever tool was the most relevant to deal with that situation or specific dramaturgy of the film. Whereas, Une Nouvelle vie has a very strong formal aspect—it’s very consciously a film where its shape is very much part of what it’s about. This is the same with Cold Water, the film which came right after, where I really systematized the use of handheld. It’s the first film I shot in super 16 mm and the camera is extremely mobile—it’s really the first film where I fully utilized the possibilities of handheld work.
RS: I also think of Une Nouvelle vie in terms of a really interesting re-conception of editing. I was at a festival screening where a cut between scenes in the first reel was so violent it caused audience members to leave the theater looking for the projectionist as they’d thought the film had been put together improperly.
OA: Well, it’s really the one most radical thing I’ve ever done in film. Une Nouvelle vie was not that radical when I wrote it, it just became obvious when I was editing. The beginning of the film establishes some kind of relationship to reality, and so you have characters, a story and then something happens, you don’t know what, and that character [Tina played by Sophie Aubry] wakes up in the middle of another story. And you have no notion of what happened or where she is or what is going on around her, and to me it was a way of putting the audience in exactly the same situation as that character. Her whole world crumbled—you learn later her mother committed suicide, the place burned down, she had nowhere to go back to except to this father who had always rejected her. So she’s so scared, she goes there, takes some pills, and falls asleep. When she wakes up she hardly knows what’s going on or where she is and nothing of the reality that’s going on around her. So when you’re watching the film, you are with her. You are trying to understand what’s going on, you are trying to understand who those people are, you are trying to understand the weird relationship between them and somehow you are forced to create for yourself some sort of fiction around the characters, in the same way she is fantasizing about individuals who are around her. And some of what she is fantasizing is right and some of it is wrong. The same way it is in reality.
RS: Une Nouvelle vie represents this expansion of the camerawork and this sharp shift in the way you’re using editing. Was it this film where you consciously said: “Yes, this is the new direction I want to be going in now?”
OA: Yes. I was very conscious when I was making this film—this is my fourth film, I am not going to start to copy myself. Whatever I had wanted to do in that format of the earlier three films, I had done. I was going to take my filmmaking somewhere else, I was going to try new things and take risks. I am going to try things that are not done in the format of French cinema. I am going to experiment in narrative. It was a very conscious move.
RS: I would also make the argument that Une Nouvelle vie is, at least visually, perhaps your film most influenced by the work of Robert Bresson.
OA: Bresson was an influence on all of my early films. He was a huge influence on me and there are bits and pieces of Bresson everywhere in those films. But I suppose in Une Nouvelle vie, this is very connected to the way I film Sophie Aubry. I remember sharply that when I was casting the character of Tina, I had different choices in terms of actresses and I could not make up my mind and all of a sudden it dawned on me that she was the actress Bresson would have chosen. And to me she’s very much a Bressonian character. In a strange way Une Nouvelle vie is like the blueprint for Irma Vep—it’s somehow the comedy version of Une Nouvelle vie in the sense that both movies are about characters put in a reality that they don’t understand and who are trying to make sense of the world around them.
RS: Would you say then that Winter’s Child works in a similar fashion as Late August, Early September?
OA: Yes, of course. It’s the way I picture my own films—there’s a very deep sense of interconnection between Winter’s Child and Late August. Both films, though it’s something I hadn’t really thought of, come at moments of separation in my life and reflect that. I made Winter’s Child after a separation from a girlfriend I had been living with for ages and Late August is about exactly the same thing. Two completely different films—one is a melodrama, one is a comedy, and somehow I think the deepest one is the comedy in many ways. But they are certainly both stemming from the same emotions. One is made by a more mature person, while one has an intensity that you have of someone who’s younger.
RS: Let’s talk about the notion of the unconscious in relation to demonlover. This film encapsulates this time so well, yet you so often discuss it as if you shot it directly from the hip…
OA: I don’t want to be misunderstood on demonlover and I’m very concerned with that. It’s a film that deals with a lot of ideas, and a lot of things that are very abstract, but it is really a film that comes very much from the gut. It was written very fast, totally on instinct and was not a theoretical film at all. It was a way of letting my subconscious express whatever weird connections it could create. It was very much about following my intuition as far as it could take me, which is something I have never done in any of my films. Demonlover is a film that says things. It’s a very coherent film in the way it creates its own world, and relates to things we are experiencing. It’s a political film in many ways. But it is also poetry. It is images connecting to other images connecting to other images and whatever circulation happens within the film is the kind of circulation you have within poetry. And poetry is not the kind of thing that you can theoreticize, it is something you have to experience, you have to live, and feel before you express.
RS: This issue will feature a feminist critique of demonlover, a piece discussing it as an allegory about the current state of distribution, one about the disappearance of the flesh in the wake of new technology, and something on the influence of new media in film. Demonlover seems designed to inspire a huge range of responses.
OA: I think it’s trying to connect cinema with the experience of the modern world. It’s trying to function on many different levels and the whole point of the film is to say that all of these different levels do connect. Usually films, even films I admire or am fascinated with, disconnect those levels, or concentrate on one level. This film is trying to say: “All these things are connected. I’m not sure how, I’m not sure why, but the one thing I know is that all of this is connected.” And connected to a bigger picture, which is the way economy is ruling and transforming our world. It’s about the struggle that is going on between humanity and economy—the circulation of commodity.
RS: I think demonlover is one of those rare examples of a text taking the next step in these kinds of examinations—a film can be “political,” but still can ignore the roots of whatever it is you’re dealing with. For you to talk about economy really seems very appropriate—it is so often that very ignored root cause, and I think demonlover is about nothing if not economy.
OA: It’s very interesting this idea you have of “taking the next step” because I think if there was one idea that was really powerfully present for me when I was writing, or trying to imagine this film, it was: “this is my shot of trying to deal with the next step.” Just go where French cinema has not gone before me. Try to at least make sense of the world we live in.