Olivier Assayas Talks About the Clouds of Sils Maria

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While Olivier Assayas continues to be one of the more prolific filmmakers in France, he also continues to be one of the most diverse as he switches genres with each film. 

This Friday, he returns with possibly his most accessible film to date, Clouds of Sils Maria, which reunites him with France’s prized jewel Juliette Binoche from Summer Hours, and also has him directing two of America’s hottest young actresses in Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace-Moretz. 

Binoche plays Maria Enders, a world-renowned actress attending a tribute for the director who discovered her twenty years earlier, but before she arrives, the director passes away, paving the way for someone wanting to revive his earlier play with Maria, who previously played a young girl named Sigrid switching to the role of her boss Helena who is driven to suicide. As Maria copes with the tragedy of losing her friend, she moves into his isolated house in the Alps along with her assistant Valentine (Stewart) to start preparing for the play by reading through scenes together and rediscovering the characters.

Assayas’ latest is a film of many layers in terms of how the relationship between Maria and Valentine is reflected in the play’s characters Helena and Sigrid, and as they rehearse, the lines between reality and theater start blurring together. This relationship allows Assayas to explore a lot of complex thoughts, but it’s been well received during its nearly year-long festival run with Stewart becoming the first American actor ever to receive France’s coveted Cesar Award earlier this year.

ComingSoon.net has interviewed Mr. Assayas many times over the years and while it may still be a while before mainstream audiences discover his brilliant work, teaming with better-known American actors certainly is a step in the right direction. We spoke to the director back in September when the movie played at the New York Film Festival. The day before, we had spoken to Binoche about the role that only she could play. 

ComingSoon.net: I feel like the last time we spoke was probably for “Something in the Air” two years ago, and you mentioned you were writing something for Juliette. You had already done “Summer Hours” with her and I know you’ve wanted to work with her. I spoke to her yesterday and she mentioned that she wanted to challenge you this time.

Olivier Assayas: Yeah, I didn’t feel it was very challenging. I had written a lot of parts for women, but she called me… a lot of movies don’t have a precise starting point. This movie has a starting point, which is basically my phone ringing and Juliette calling me to say, “I have two months this winter. Why don’t we make a movie? We write it fast, shoot it fast.” “Well, Juliet, it doesn’t exactly work that way.” But I knew that she was right. I knew that we should make a film together. There was a movie missing in both our filmographies in a certain way, and it was worth trying to play on it. I instantly knew she was right. I was not sure what kind of movie we were making. I knew that it was not going to be that winter, because actually at that point, I was in the middle of rewriting “Something in the Air.” 

CS: So it was a while ago…

Assayas: It was a while ago, because the process of writing is slow. There are movies you struggle with and there are movies you write really fast. This one was neither one nor the other. It’s a movie that came to me by layers. I would start writing it and then leave it like that for a while. I left it also because I did not know where it was going. I had all the elements, I was just not sure how to make sense of them, how to structure some kind of clear narrative. When I first started working on this film, the writer was still alive, he was pretty much part of the story, so it evolved slowly until I finally found… I mean, I knew it was a complex narrative and because it was complex, I needed to find a very simple solid backbone and ultimately, make it as simple as possible because it’s about something very simple, which is the passing of time and how we all experience it. I knew that this movie I would only make when I felt I had got it right, so it took awhile. 

CS: You talk about the passage of time but Juliet is playing a fairly well known actress so we’re seeing the passage of time of someone in the spotlight.

Assayas: I knew that the one thing I could do with Juliette and few other directors could do is make a film where she would be herself. She’s not exactly Juliette Binoche. Maria is someone slightly different, but still, when you’re watching the film, part of you is watching Juliette Binoche. A lot of what we assume about the character is what we imagine what we know about Juliette and her career. In a lot of movies, you try to erase as much as you can of what the audience knows about a specific actor. You want that actor to blend into your narrative, to become someone else completely, so you end up forgetting it’s Gerard Depardieu you’re watching. In this case, it’s the opposite. In this case, it was important for the film that the audience stay aware that the actress they’re watching is also Juliette Binoche, and also, it echoes through the whole film because in the end, you never forget that you’re watching Kristen Stewart, even though she’s playing Valentine, you always have in the back of your mind that it’s actually Kristen. Same for Chloe. There’s one layer in the film that’s something I haven’t really used often in my films, which kind of gives to this story a specific light.

assasayasclouds4CS: Absolutely. Even when Kristen is playing a personal assistant, a lot of what she’s saying are things you’d expect maybe her personal assistant might say. It does make it a very layered movie.

Assayas: It shows you Kristen’s sense of humor that she has a wit, and it’s all things that again, if you’re watching the film, you might think, “Oh, I didn’t know that Kristen Stewart would have that sense of humor,” that she would have fun with the way people perceive her the way she does in this film. It’s all elements that play into the film.

CS: How important was it for you to get Kristen for that role?

Assayas: Oh, she was vital to this film, because Juliette is a very powerful actress. She absorbs all the energy around her so she really needed to have someone very strong in front of her who embodied, not just a talented actress but also a very successful young actress. Because that’s more threatening, that kind of pushes Juliette and it obliges her to try things. It challenges her, and I think it’s so important to give challenges to actors, especially when you’re working with someone like Juliette, who has done so much, who has proven so much. I think that this is also what’s exciting for her. The bigger the challenge, the more exciting the part really. I think that Kristen was very much a part of what challenged Juliette on this film.

CS: In the center section which is just the two of them and the line between reality and them acting is so blurred, but she’s also dealing with playing a role that’s an older version of herself.

Assayas: You know, this is emphatically not a complex film. I think it’s a very simple film. It becomes complex in the viewer’s eye in a certain way, because it plays on a very simple line. It’s just like an actress works on a part with her assistant, disagrees with the assistant on how to approach the part, the assistant leaves and she ends up on-stage playing the part. The rest is anecdotes, so it’s really as simple as that. But then, because there’s an echo between what’s happening in the play they’re rehearsing and the dynamics between that woman and her assistant, because Juliette is Juliette and is simultaneously Maria, and because Kristen is simultaneously Kristen and Valentine. All of a sudden, it’s really like pinball. Things you have no control on begin echoing. You use some elements and all of a sudden they come alive, which is ultimately what you always hope in movies. They come alive and they provoke interaction, they provoke connections that ultimately you have not imagined. In a sense, it’s like a game, and the audience is part of the game. The audience is not just witnessing the game, the way the audience interprets what’s going on is pretty much part of it.

CS: Juliette seems to be taking on challenging roles in general, whether it’s movies like “Certified Copy” or this and she makes interesting choices.

Assayas: I think it has to do with two things. It’s a matter of personality, but also, when you’ve done so many things, when you’ve acted so many parts, you’re looking for things that are different. You want to try new things. You want to do things that you have never done, then of course you have actors and actresses who like to play it safe or more or less play similar parts over and over again because that’s their comfort zone. What’s exciting about Juliette is she’s scared to be in her comfort zone. She feels that if she’s in her comfort zone, she will fall asleep or something like that. She needs to try things, just to stay awake and stay young in a certain way, which is pretty much what this movie is also about.

CS: She was telling me why she decided to do “Godzilla” which is probably the biggest mainstream movie she’s done, which opened around the same time this was at Cannes. Also, in this movie you have what some might say is your version of “X-Men.” Have you actually seen those movies or was this your impression of what an X-Men movie is like.

Assayas: No, no, no, this is more like, I don’t know. The thing is that we did not have the budget to do my version of “X-Men.” I’d be happy to do my version of “X-Men” because I love “X-Men,” but obviously, we were operating on a very small budget. It’s more like ‘70s TV or something like that and it’s closer to “Star Trek” than anything but the thing is that I was having fun with it. This is a parody, it’s a comedy scene, but then I’ve always been fascinated by the complexity of the characters in Marvel Comics. You can make fun of it, but then once you get into it, it functions on so many layers of reality, the complexity of the emotions. It’s much more challenging than a lot of modern novel-writing. It’s kind of exciting because you deal with something real. Okay, it’s for kids, or older kids like myself, I suppose, but it’s true, it’s complex, it’s human in its own way, and if it’s sometimes crazy, but the craziness is part of our imagination, so what I was using was more the type of pop psychology you have in the comics rather than what the “X-Men” movies are about.

CS: I’ve been a comic book reader for a long time, too, and someone might see this and read into things.

Assayas: My problem today is that the movie version of the Marvel Comics are sanitized versions. What was exciting about those comics in that day is that they were not sanitized. They had a lot more interesting sexual dynamics and so-on and so forth, that’s lost in the movies. It’s a pity now that Disney has bought them over and I’m not sure what will made of what’s in those comics.

assayasclouds2CS: It was funny to see that scene, because I write for a pretty mainstream movie site and every time I want to talk to an indie or foreign filmmaker I have to convince my editor that maybe someday they’ll direct an X-Men movie.

Assayas: (laughs)

CS: I’ve never actually asked you if you might want to direct one of those movies, but I guess this gives us some idea what that might look like.

Assayas: Yeah, well, not exactly because I’d do it in a completely different way, but I think anybody that would propose me to do an “X-Men” movie would be out of his mind. (laughs) I’d love to do it but I think that now to do those special FX movies, it involves knowledge that I don’t even remotely I have I think. You end up shooting people in front of green screens. I could learn the technology, of course I could, but still, it’s a completely different job. I’m interested in reality. I’m interested in real life people, that’s what I love filming. I love watching the movies. I love to be a part of the audience. I’m not sure I would have fun spending a year making that kind of special FX movie, which ultimately is closer to animation in the end.

CS: I noticed that a few things in this movie hark back to your earlier films like “Irma Vep,” which is a story set in the making of a movie. The play itself seems like it’s based on the relationships in “Demonlover.” It seems like you have nods to your past work while creating something quite different.

Assayas: Well, you always come back to similar things, I suppose, but it’s very different. It’s similar to “Irma Vep” that in a sense, both films I use a real-life actress as the central character like Maggie was Maggie and Juliette is pretty much Juliette. I think that the similarities end there in the sense that in “Irma Vep,” I was using an actress to somehow make a comedy about the conflict, the contradiction, the complexities of modern independent filmmaking. Here, I’m using an actress to embody what aging is about, because we all have to deal with age, but we don’t have to see our face blown up on a huge movie screen so the process I suppose is less painful. When an actress, it’s the most painful really, but still, what an actress experiences is what we all experience, except it’s multiplied, it’s emphasized. In one movie, I was using an actress to deal with cinema. In this movie, I’m using an actress to deal with basic human emotions.

CS: Juliette goes through such a transition from the first chapter to the second one. Obviously, she’s dressed up for the big gala premiere but that’s the way we’re more used to seeing her.

Assayas: Yeah, it’s so much what actors are about. They’re always on two different layers, one layer is the person they are when they have to do a red carpet or introduce this or that or present their movies on stage and they’re sponsored by fashion brands. You have this whole audience out there that wants to see the glamor, and then they are whomever they are in real life. It’s not the same person, it’s two different people. They have two parallel lives, but it’s how all actors function in one way or another.

CS: But she looks a lot older in the second chapter, because in real life, she does not look old at all.

Assayas: No, but also I liked the process of… obviously, she gets closer to the character as the film evolves. She starts looking like Helena, in the more masculine side, but she’s also getting younger. The film is about aging but ultimately, Juliette is not really aging in the film. She’s slowly becoming lighter, more open and ultimately more youthful, the way I see it.

CS: A lot of that comes out of spending time with the younger Valentine.

Assayas: Yes, of course, absorbing something of the energy of Valentine.

CS: This was at Cannes at the same time as David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars.” Have you seen it?

Assayas: Oh, yes, I’ve seen it.

assayasclouds3CS: There are some interesting parallels between the two films with an aging actress having a young personal assistant, so that’s something interesting that’s in the ether.

Assayas: I know, it was almost disturbing even because at some point, Kristen was not available—there were conflicting schedules with another film—so at that point, I offered the part to Mia Wasikowska, who for a while was supposed to do it, so it was extremely disturbing to watch that. I’m a huge fan of David Cronenberg. I think he’s a genius, I think he’s a great, great filmmaker. He has a completely different perspective on cinema, because he’s operating on the border of Hollywood so he has to deal with the not-to-great part of what Hollywood is about, and I’m sure anybody who has to deal with that stuff suffers from it. And it kind of twists the perspective on what the industry is about, what the city is about. This is written by Bruce Wagner, who lives in L.A., and he’s pretty much part of that culture and of course, he watches it with a very cruel eye, which sometimes sadly is a very realistic perspective. I am protected from that. I’ve never made movies in that context. I’ve never had to deal with that bullsh*t in a certain way. I’ve kind of protected myself and my movies from that, so what I was interested in was not what is pathetic about being an aging actress. I could focus on the beauty of it. I think both versions are true. It’s not like I’m saying, “I’m getting it right when Cronenberg is doing a distorted thing.” Cronenberg’s film is great and he gets it completely right and it’s a very brave movie in many ways. Obviously, coming from where I come from, working where I work, my sensibility draws me another direction.

CS: And then Kristen did “Still Alice” with Julianne afterwards, which I haven’t seen, but it just makes it even more confusing. It seems like there’s a lot of commentary on things like modern day theater and the play at the end seems to specifically make fun of the plays that are very pretentious.

Assayas: I tried to recreate my impression of the plays I’ve been seeing recently in Paris or anywhere else. I wanted this to be believable. I didn’t want to have some sort of archetypal play. I really wanted to make a movie where there’s always a layer of irony, the way I’m watching things, because it’s how I look at the world I suppose. I just wanted the play to feel real, to feel like it’s really the kind of play, that you accept that Klaus is a famous director, that is doing stuff that’s successful because it’s completely in touch with the times. To me, it was all a matter of believability.

CS: This also seems to be the closest you’ve come to straight comedy, at least it’s one of the funniest movies you’ve directed.

Assayas: Yeah, with “Irma Vep,” it was sort of a comedy but since then, not so much. When I was writing, I knew it was a comedy. I had no idea how far I would take it, then I gave the screenplay to the guys who finance movies and they said, “This? Comedy? Are you joking?” I was there sitting in offices of guys financing the film and I was like, “No, I promise you. This is going to be funny.” And they say, “Well, don’t bullsh*t us. You just want to sell us your film. We know it’s not going to be funny.” “But I promise you! This stuff is actually funny.” Of course, it becomes funnier than the screenplay based on the dynamics between the actors. It’s the way I emphasize those elements with Juliette and Kristen. It’s things that happen on the set. You have the elements to go there, but ultimately, it’s how you use those elements on your set, and how you channel your actors.

CS: Do you feel it’s one of your more accessible films?

Assayas: I would say, that’s the way I see it. Because it’s layers but it’s pretty simple to understand what it’s about, and even when I’m parodying this and that, people understand what I’m talking about, and it’s about a very universal topic, so that’s what makes it the most accessible. It’s like when I’m making “Summer Hours,” it’s all about what you pass onto the next generation, and this movie is about how you deal with aging. In both cases, it’s something we all have our own experience of it, so there’s some kind of dialogue going on with the audience.

CS: Any idea what you might want to do next? I imagine this movie would be a hard one to follow.

Assayas: This movie, to me, is a little bit like “Irma Vep,” it’s kind of on its own, and you can only make that kind of movie once in a while. No, the next movie is more “Carlos” territory. It’s going to be some kind of thriller. 

CS: It seems like every time I talk to you, it’s for a different genre of movie.

Assayas: Yeah, but for me, it’s all the same film. The way I’ve always summarized it, even for myself. (At this point, he starts doing a very graphic visual with his hands.) Here you have the world (displays with one hand) and here you have your cinema (displays with another a small distance away) and you’re looking at the world, so you’re a filmmaker that stays there and looks at the world. To me, there’s a world that’s there on cinema, their own perspective on it. I make movies where this is the world and I kind of turn around it. I change perspective. Once I’m here, once I’m here, once I’m here, but what I’m dealing with is always one and the same thing. So the subject of my filmmaking is about the complexity of the contradictions and the conflicts of the world we live in.

Clouds of Sils Maria opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, April 10.

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