In the oeuvre of modern French filmmakers, Olivier Assayas has always stood out as one who doesn’t like to have his work pigeonholed into the same arthouse fare as his fellow countrymen, and for his new movie Boarding Gate, Assayas decided to explore the world of genre with a sexy and violent revenge-thriller starring the glorious Asia Argento as a prostitute who gets caught up in a Hong Kong crime ring after a session with an ex-lover (Michael Madsen) turns deadly.
The last time ComingSoon.net spoke to Assayas, it was two years ago for his drama Clean, starring his ex-wife Maggie Cheung–you can read that interview here–and as was the case then, Assayas is a terrific interview subject who never pulls punches or minces words when talking about his distinctive take on a world filled with sex, drugs and violence.
ComingSoon.net: Last time we spoke, you were just getting ready to shoot this “genre film.” It has similar themes to some of your past films, but do you consider this more of a genre film than your other movies?
Olivier Assayas: Well, I’d say I think like many filmmakers, I keep on making the same film in different forms and shapes, but I just thought the genre part of it could open up new areas within whatever I’ve been doing. I think it’s also triggered by meeting Asia, because Asia is very much like me between different cultures, she’s part movie, part modern music, she’s part European, part international. She has a complex relationship with her own film culture, the same way I have a complex relationship with my own film culture. Also, she has been moving back and forth between independent filmmaking and genre filmmaking if only because she’s been making movies with her father, who is one of the geniuses of genre cinema. Obviously, his movies go far beyond that, so I suppose this is a movie I had wanted to make, because I had wanted to make some step into the direction of making something more straightforward in terms of having genre roots, but I just needed the central character for it, and I don’t think I could have done his movie with any French actress. I suppose she helped me a lot going in that direction and it was definitely a direction I wanted to go.
CS: Asia seems very much to be a force of nature, so did she inspire this character?
Assayas: Well, the connection between a real-life story and my own fantasies, I suppose, but it started from something in a way or another kind of happened, meaning it was in the newspapers. It has been in the press here and there. This banker who was found dead in his flat in Geneva, and he was dressed in latex and tied up, so obviously, he’d been killed in the middle of some kind of S&M situation by someone who had been his lover. The woman fled to Australia, she locked herself up in a hotel room in Sydney for three days and freaked out and took the plane back and was arrested. To this day, it’s not clear why she did it. It’s some kind of murder mystery, so I liked the way it connected different cultures. I liked the ambiguity, and again, the murder mystery situation, because it’s not clear if she killed him because of their relationship, or if she killed him because she was instrumentalized by people who had business dealings with him.
CS: You keep it deliberately vague in the movie as well.
Assayas: Yes, to me it’s both ways, it’s both things at the same time. Even when I was reading the pieces, I was wondering why would she kill him? But obviously, they had a long and complex and difficult story, so I think she had it in her that she had the potential to kill him, because he had been horrible to her, but then at the same time, killing someone is just like one step further and obviously, she took advantage of her relationship to kill him, so there’s clearly a possibility that she had been instrumentalized by people, but she’s not going to say that, so in court, she’ll get away with it, but better if it’s what they call in France a “passion crime” instead of being a hit.
CS: I’m surprised to hear that in France, a “crime of passion” is considered a suitable alibi for murder. I wanted to ask a question about Asia’s character and I see on the poster, it says “She’s losing control” but I thought she was very much in control. How do you feel about that?
Assayas: I suppose she thinks she’s in control, but she’s not that much in control. She thinks she knows what she’s doing when she doesn’t completely know. She spends quite a while figuring out if she’s going to kill him or not, because obviously, she came to kill that man, but then she changes her mind, maybe because of her old emotions or the relationship take over. For her, it’s like back and forth and basically, she doesn’t know which way she’s going to end up falling, and she ends up doing whatever she came to do, but it’s a complicated process with her. Also, she’s kind of overwhelmed by what she’s done, and at some point, she’s just trying to pass through it and survive, whatever that means.
CS: As far as working with Asia, besides being a filmmaker herself, she has this legendary filmmaking legacy from her father. As an actress, is she someone who’ll do whatever it takes to get the character across, because she seems to be very much up for anything in everything she does?
Assayas: That’s the great thing about her. She’s incredibly generous. She was a child actress, she’s always made movies, so she’s so much in her element on a movie set. It’s really like her life. She’s not the kind of actress who would lock herself up in her trailer; she doesn’t even have a trailer, she doesn’t want one. She’s just sitting there with the crew, and especially on this film, when we were in Hong Kong, we were working in Hong Kong filmmaking conditions, which was really rough, and she was completely into it. She loved it and she is 100% with you when you’re making a film, she’s willing to go all the way to do whatever is involved. What is interesting with her is the broadness of her range, because she’s at the same time someone who has this understanding of inner emotions, she can be incredibly interiorized and emotional and at the same time, she can run around with a gun, and to her, it makes perfect sense. There’s no contradiction. It’s all a part of the poetry of moviemaking and there’s no irony about it. It’s completely straightforward, so she’s really a gift in terms of filmmaking.
CS: A lot of your movies revolve around strong female characters and I thought this was one of her strongest performances, just like you got great performances out of Maggie. Have you ever analyzed why you’re so drawn to stories about women characters? And what’s the secret of getting these performances out of your actresses?
Assayas: I suppose that in the case of both “Clean” and “Boarding Gate,” the movies are tailor-made for those two actresses and were basically inspired by them. Like “Clean” was inspired by Maggie. It was completely determined by whatever I knew about her and sense of her, what in terms of acting she loves doing, what she relates to. The character of Emily in “Clean” is not exactly Maggie, but pretty close to her, and pretty close to her experience. It’s also a matter of… I think when you’re making a movie, I suppose that I like to have strong female characters at the center of my films. It’s difficult to analyze why, but basically, I’ve taken it as a fact. It’s the way I write, it’s my inspiration, it’s what inspires me, to make movies about women. But then, it’s a matter of knowing that when someone carries the film and someone’s there in the middle of the film, there has to be some sort of osmosis between you and the character. You have to be extremely aware of how those actresses function, an just make them feel entirely at ease with the notion that the film is theirs, that they have an essential creative input in the film, which is true and not true, but at the same time, there is a notion that if they come up with anything they will come up with, I will consider it and eventually put it in the film. Even if its nuances I had not planned. I think in the case of Maggie and Asia, it’s actresses who have very important organic and deep input into the film.
CS: And I noticed that you’re working with Juliette Binoche on your next movie, so how does she fit into that mix with those actresses?
Assayas: Juliette is a completely different actress, and the movie is also very different. I’ve known Juliette forever, I’ve known Juliette since… we basically started together in a sense in a symbolic sense in that her first major part was “Rendez-vous” with André Téchiné, which is a movie that I had co-written with André Téchiné at the time, and the movie was in Cannes, and all of a sudden it was a big success. They were like the senior filmmakers an we were like the junior ones, we were the two kids. So we did create some kind of bond. In that case, it’s very difficult because it’s about a family and the character of Juliette kind of blends within the family. It’s not like she has the same kind of status within the film.
CS: That movie’s coming out in France very soon, too, isn’t it?
Assayas: Oh, yeah, it’s opening on March 5, which is now.
CS: The second half of this film takes place entirely in Hong Kong, so are you influenced by the films from there especially the crime-dramas?
Assayas: It’s not like I’d say that I’m watching those movies now and I’m obsessed with them, because that would not be true, but it was extremely important for me. I was there in the early ’80s for the first time and it made a huge impression on me. I had been in Asia before but I’d never been in China. I was a young man, I spent almost a month in Hong Kong when I was researching a special issue of Cahiers du Cinema about Hong Kong filmmaking, which people were not that aware of it back then, they knew nothing of it. So I was there with my friend Charles Desau, who was a fellow filmwriter and we interviewed all the guys who made the classic Hong Kong movies like Liu Jialing and King Hu and all those guys, Stanley Kwan. It was a really fascinating experience and the shock of the city was amazing. It’s not that I saw a different culture, I discovered a world that was going to happen. Really, at that point, people had no notion of the importance, of the growth of China. They had no idea specifically in Europe of what was going to happen there and of course, I was lucky to be there at the time and understand that this was going to be huge. This was going to change the world. I think in the way I’ve been writing and the way I’ve been seeing the world, I always had this notion that there was history in the making. Of course, I thought the Hong Kong genre filmmaking was completely in touch with that energy. It was building a dialogue with Western film culture, they were both doing some things that were completely Chinese, but at the same time, they were just absorbing Western elements and basically, inventing new ways of making film, new ways of telling stories, movies that were sharper, faster, often more violent, more abstract also. I thought there was a lot of creative energy there.
CS: And it’s going the other way now, too, because they were influenced by Western gangster movies and now you have Martin Scorsese doing remakes of Hong Kong crime films. Now it’s over 20 years later since you were there when you were younger, so how was it working there as a director?
Assayas: It was fun, because I’ve been traveling back and forth. I’ve been spending time in Hong Kong, not exactly living there, but spending time there and being extremely aware of the city. Every time I came back to Hong Kong, I thought the city was so great, it’s beautiful, there’s something about cinematic about it, and somehow, Hong Kong movies don’t catch it. They don’t’ see it the way I see it obviously because I’m a foreigner. I always had it in the back of my mind that it would be great one day to make a movie there. I was just waiting for the right moment, the right story. Also, because I had some kind of familiarity with the city from the Chinese side, obviously through my marriage to Maggie, and I just saw that the Westerners that came to Hong Kong worked in completely different ways than the Hong Kong filmmakers. The Hong Kong filmmakers worked with no money, very fast with very fast crews and in the middle of complete mayhem, whereas when you’re a Western crew, they think that because you’re Western, you need special blah-blah-blah and all of a sudden, you put your foot there and you have a hundred people around you, and you have the whole circus of filmmaking. I came there saying that the whole point of me making this film in Hong Kong is that I want to work in Hong Kong the way the Hong Kong filmmakers work. I came with a crew of five, basically all the main technicians and that’s it. We used a complete Chinese crew.
CS: Were there any language barriers between French and Chinese?
Assayas: No, no, because basically we used technicians who were bilingual or at least they had in every department, the head of department was bilingual. There was very little French going on.
CS: I was surprised to see Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth) show up in that part of the movie as the head of the Triad. Did you do any research into the Chinese criminal world?
Assayas: No, I did not. This is sort of cartoonish in a way I suppose. She’s both. It makes sense in that she’s not a Mafia type. She’s someone who does business there and has connections here and there, but she’s someone who is in textiles and she designs stuff that are made in factories in China, which is one of the important elements in the Chinese and world economy today. I didn’t have to research that too far, but Kim had spent a few of her teenage years in Hong Kong, so all of a sudden, while I was writing the character, I knew she wanted to act–she had been in Gus van Sant’s film. Basically, she does want to act, so I thought why not ask her? I thought it would be funny because she hadn’t been in Hong Kong since and at that point, Sonic Youth were in Australia so she just came for a couple days.
CS: You probably get asked this a lot, but many of your movies deal with the seedier side of the world from internet porn to drugs, S&M, the whole gamut, so what’s the fascination with the dark underbelly of big cities?
Assayas: It’s extremely relevant to the world as it is today, I suppose. Of course, it brings back the notion of genre elements. I think basically since “Demonlover,” I’ve been somehow bringing in genre elements in my cinema via things that have to do with modern fantasies. I think drugs, sex, whatever, it’s something that is important and incredibly present in every single society at every single given moment but still, it has different shapes. It expresses itself in different ways. Whenever I’m using those elements that definitely are extremely important in terms of human drama
CS: Sure, that stuff is out there but so many filmmakers shy away from it.
Assayas: Yes but I think when you’re trying to deal with the forces of the transformation of the modern world of what drives people, you have to face that, you have to use it in one way or another, because it’s there, it’s part of the energy of today’s world, and of this weird mixture of pragmatism and fantasy which the modern world is very much about.
CS: You have two movies coming out in the next month, so do you have any idea what you might start working on next?
Assayas: Yes, but that’s really the one thing I can’t really discuss because actually, I have two projects and both are kind of happening, and I just need to make a difficult choice.
CS: Would you go further into genre at this point?
Assayas: Both are slight… they are genre in a certain way. One is just like plain classic melodrama, and the other one is more like politics.
Boarding Gate opens in select cities on Friday.