In the spring of 1986, at the age of 31, Olivier Assayas left his job as a reviewer at Cahiers du Cinéma for greener pastures, laying down his pen to pick up a camera. The transition from critic to creator appeared inevitable for the youthful Parisian. By switching vocations (or métiers, if you wanted French continuity), Assayas would join the fine company of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Eric Rohmer—all of whom were once contributors to the prestigious magazine before taking their talents to the silver screen.
Since making the jump, Assayas has written and directed over a dozen feature films. Simultaneously a celebration of and lamentation for the digital age, his latest work revolves around an illustrious actress (played movingly by Juliette Binoche) who begrudgingly agrees to take part in a revival of the play that jumpstarted her career 20 years prior. Much of this spellbinding affair contains Binoche's pained and perplexed character rehearsing lines with her shrewd personal assistant, who is played by Kristen Stewart with a confluence of confidence, sexiness, and passion. As Clouds of Sils Maria unfurls, Assayas powerfully unpacks the insecurities and emotions of both of these characters with wit and wisdom. It's at once a melancholic evocation on the impermanence of youth and a searing commentary on the inanities of Hollywood. (It also contains a hilarious conversation about the virtues and vices of a sci-fi blockbuster that may literally induce a spit-take.)
In conversation, Assayas candidly discussed his fears, the evolution of his storied career, and why he was mesmerized by the unexpected talents of Kristen Stewart.
Trailer for 'Clouds of Sils Maria' (2014)
VICE: How has your work as a critic affected your films?
Olivier Assayas: Eh, you know, I've forgotten! [Laughs] The last piece I published in a film magazine as a film writer was in 1985. So we're talking a pretty long time. For me, film criticism was like film school. I learned whatever I needed to start making my films. I suppose that I was extremely lucky because I was very young. I could travel and go to film festivals and watch stuff I never would have watched if I had stayed in Paris. I could meet filmmakers I admired. And I also wrote in a magazine, which was fine in terms of publishing very long pieces. So I had a lot of space to ask myself the questions I kind of needed to answer to feel confident to make my own features. But, you know, I've made quite a few films since, and I don't believe in the same things, and I suppose I've changed a lot during the process.
There's a line in the film where Kristen Stewart's character says, "The text is like an object that's going to change perspective depending on where you're standing. " Do you feel your perspective has shifted in terms of looking at your body of work?
Well, hopefully. I've learned to be less theoretical. Hopefully I have learned to trust more of my instincts, to leave space for the actors to not exactly improvise, but certainly reinvent the scene. You learn that the process of filmmaking is about capturing real life and capturing real-life emotions. Ultimately, you don't have to be too stiff, you don't have to be too controlling, you have to let things happen.
But, in terms of how you can tell a story in a million different ways, that's something I subscribe to. When Kristen's character says that, it's practically the definition of the movie you're watching in the sense that, if you imagine the same film with two different actresses, it's a completely different story. At some early stage of the film, I was about to cast Mia Wasikowska instead of Kristen Stewart. I admire her and I would have been really happy to work with her, but it would have been a completely different film. We would have had completely different dynamics.
It feels as if these roles were written exclusively for Stewart and Binoche.
I let them appropriate the roles. I encouraged them to go in whatever direction was defined by the dynamics between them. I knew when I was writing and preparing the film that it would be completely depend on something happening between those two girls. And whatever happened was in a certain way beyond what I had imagined. I pushed things in the direction I felt they were leading me to.
And what direction was that?
Well, one side of it is obviously hard to handle, the fascination, the form of desire that attracts them to each other. And that's something that's created by tiny touches, like little dots here and there. The way it was expressed, what is actually happening comes straight from them. I never told them, "Do this" or "do that," I just told them just go find that direction. The thing is that they had fun functioning together. There's a certain comedic feeling that could have been there or could not have been there. And I think they are both very smart, so there's a certain irony and sense of humor that was much more present than what the film would have been with other actors.
Especially Stewart, whom most people have undervalued throughout her career. What did you see that compelled you to cast her?
I think she's amazing. I've always liked her. I always thought she had a huge potential, and I always felt she had such a striking screen presence, even when I saw her for possibly the first time in Into the Wild. And I remember thinking when I was watching that film, Who's that girl? She's great! Someone who should be a background character comes to the forefront. But honestly, I'm not sure I trusted her, and I've always felt there was more to her than what normally people thought. I had no idea she would go that far. And even when we were shooting, I was watching her, and thought, Oh my god, she's really great. But it was really in the editing room, that I realized so many of the nuances, the subtlety and the depth of what she was doing. I think she will do great things.
How much of these characters are projections of yourself, the people around you, and your experience in the film industry?
Well, you know when you write, you end up being all characters at once. So I suppose in one way or another, you have to understand [them] from the inside. The great thing about being a writer and a filmmaker is that your face is not on the screen, so you're allowed to not to be concerned with issues of aging and time passing. I've always kind of decided that I did not want to grow up, somehow. Filmmaking allows you to not grow up.
And you don't fear aging?
I suppose in the sense of that character, I have to face the fact that time is a factor. I'm trying to not make it a burden. I'm trying to use it rather it abusing or affecting me. And again, art is a shield, art is a thing that protects you.
Have you ever suffered from artistic stagnation? A frustration with the work you're doing or compromising more than you want to be?
The thing is, I've been lucky enough to make the movies I wanted to make and make them the way I wanted to make them. I never really had to compromise them. And so, whatever my films are, they are completely what I wanted. They are the best that I could do at that specific time. So, in that sense, there's not frustration on that level.
But once in a while, when I'm writing, I can be angry with my characters or with myself. You have to live those situations and the situations have their own logic. You invent characters, you put them in motion, but you're not sure where they're going to take you. And once in a while they take you to weird places and make you feel like you're stuck. As if you've reached a dead end, and you get angry because all that stuff will go straight to the wastebasket. And then you kind of overcome it and maybe you understand another angle and can get things right. But I'm often very angry with myself and my characters when I'm writing, in the same way you can be angry at any character.
You have no desire to make a superhero movie?
[ Laughs] Superhero movie! I can enjoy watching them, but the problem is that I think they are extremely boring to make. It's a different job. Once you start dealing with special effects and you start shooting characters on green screen, you end up assembling them in the editing room. I think it's a great job, I think it's fascinating. Some guys do brilliant things. But I think it's so technical.
More editing than directing?
So boring. You know, I like the idea of action film, things happening in front of an actual camera. I don't have the patience. If I was more patient, if I was more competent technically, maybe I would have more fun doing fantasy movies. As it is, I'm happy to watch them.
Your characters in Clouds of Sils Maria often blend their professional life and personal life until you can't tell the difference between the two. Is that something you yourself work on?
When you make a movie about actors then and now, you have to deal with the kind of world they live in. An actor, it always involves mild schizophrenia. He's always someone who lives a parallel life. He's someone who has his own everyday life, and on the other side has another life, which is the fictional life he's living in the movies or on the stage. But it's not less real. In terms of your body, in terms of your imagination, it's actually happening to you, even if it's supposedly fictional. So there is always an interaction. You can't pretend that the parallel world that you're living in does not affect you. Physically, morally, when you have to live with very dark characters with dramatic sad situations, you can't protect yourself 100 percent from the fallout. When I'm making a movie like this, I'm trying to oppose the characters of Maria and Joanne. Joanne is more like a 3D character, because she is from another generation, where she has three parallel lives. She has her own life, she has her fictional life, and she has her life on social media. She has some version of herself that is on YouTube, that is on Facebook, that is on whatever, which is a life of its own. Because it's her world, and because she's young, and because she has grown up in that world, she speaks that language fluently and she controls it. But again, it's a layer that someone like Maria does not have to deal with. She's an old-school actress in that sense.
And has your work as a writer/director affected your world, and even the world of your wife Mia Hansen Love, who also makes great films? You both are constantly dabbling in these fictional worlds you create.
I think a lot of filmmakers would give you similar answers. Sometimes you feel that your life on the set is realer than your everyday life.
Does that scare you?
No, it's not scary, actually. It's kind of comforting, because you don't have to deal with the burdens of everyday life, you're free from that stuff as long as the film lasts.
Isn't that problematic? The films must end eventually.
The movies are like bubbles, they always explode. One day, you have one hundred people working with you, and the next day you're just sitting on the tube reading the newspaper and wondering what the next step is. Movies are ephemeral enterprises, which is one of the frightening parts of what movies are. So of course it's violent, there's violence involved. I think it's vital to be able to go in and out. To be able to go in the bubble is great because for a while you are somehow protected by something that you have built around you. But also it's a very artificial world and you have to be able to come back to reality and you have to be able to simultaneously deal with reality, because it's that reality that will inspire your writing. You can't get yourself out from that stuff.
And what do you need protection from?
I suppose what we all [need protection from], the burdens of real life, of material life. Of just filling in the paperwork, paying your bills, worrying about your bank account or whatever. It's just stuff that's present in the material world, in its broader definition, which is something we all have in common. But once in a while you have to step back to get out of it, and it's a privilege you have when you're a filmmaker.
Clouds of Sils Maria is in selected theaters now, including IFC Center, BAM, and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York.
Sam Fragoso is a writer based in San Francisco. He is the founder of Movie Mezzanine, and his work has appeared in the Atlantic, Playboy, Forbes, and elsewhere. Follow Sam on Twitter.