An Interview with Olivier Assayas on "Carlos" and Carlos

An interview with the French director of "Carlos".
Glenn Kenny

Olivier Assayas' epic but intimate treatment of terrorism and geopolitics, Carlos, has been garnering a well-deserved amount of exegesis since its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May. (See the roundups from our own David Hudson here and here.) There's a lot to discuss, from the issues addressed by the film to the bravura performances by a cast led by the spectacular Edgar Ramírez in the title role. While there are more than a few artists who are either uncomfortable with or inept at discussing their work, Assayas, once a film critic himself, is not one of them. So when I sat down with him to talk Carlos and Carlos, I knew he'd have plenty to say, and now I think, for the purposes of this piece, I should just let him say it. So I'm putting up this interview with very little in the way of introduction—let's say it'll be better appreciated if you've already seen the film, but if you haven't, it should definitely make you want to. (I should also note that certain plot points are discussed in some detail, which might constitute what some call "spoilers" were it not for the fact that all of said plot points are in fact part of a factual historical record. But then again, with some people you never know; I recently came upon an internet kerfuffle over a reveal of the ending of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde.) In the interest of full disclosure, that quaint old journalistic ethics bedbug, I suppose I should mention that during the post-production of the film I was happy to be able to provide Mr. Assayas with an assist with respect to music rights contacts. And now, without further ado:


NOTEBOOK: I've seen Carlos twice now and watching it for the second time, I wondered—this is a more general question—do you think it's possible as an artist to make a work that's entirely undetermined by ideology?

OLIVIER ASSAYAS: Well, it's a good question.  Yes and no, I suppose.  It's yes in the sense that you can try and go in that direction.  But you should not, of course, delude yourself into thinking you got there, because ultimately you never get there.  A film is always seen through the eyes of an individual and if you choose to tell that scene from that angle, it's obviously defined by something.  And I suppose that even the kind of distance that I try to create in terms of my position and in trying to be as factual as I could, it's still an ideological position, which also somehow means that I'm possibly not on one side or the other.  But is that acceptable?  Is that not defined by some form of ideology?  It's pretty much open to question.  Making movies is something that is ultimately so close to the complexities of this perception of the world—and it's ultimately so defined by philosophical questions of interrogating the very texture of our perception—that you would be a fool to believe that you can have any kind of genuine objectivity.

NOTEBOOK: I'm not sure if this is the case as much in France as it is in the United States, but there's this tendency, and it's not an intelligent one but it is one that exists, among certain arbiters of culture, to suggest that making a film about a subject automatically valorizes that subject.  Steven Soderbergh ran into that quite a bit with Che:  "Well, you're making a film about Che, therefore you must be glorifying him."

ASSAYAS: Yes.  Which is something I don't agree with.  I think that Che is absolutely not about glorifying Che!  I think it's not a biopic and I think it's hardly about Che Guevara.  I think it's a movie about strategics.  I think it's the one movie I can think of which actually does take the issues of strategy as its core theme.  The way I see the film is you have a first part that describes how you win a revolutionary war, how you move from the swamps to the village, from the village to the small town.  How you actually do win an urban guerilla battle and how ultimately you win the war and take over the country.  And it goes into great detail in explaining the dynamics of it, the logic of it, and why, how and one thing leading to the other, ultimately you win.  And then you have a second part, which explains exactly why you do not win because the terrain is not appropriate, because the local population is suspicious, because the legitimate politicians are too conflicted about your struggle, because the enemy has grown stronger.

What a movie like Che taught me is that when you have the space, you can use the historical figure to deal with issues that are basically more ambitious than just telling the story of that person.  And also you can be more ambitious than when you have a smaller canvas.  The bigger canvas just gives you space to deal with stuff that shorter films simply cannot deal with.  So in the case of Carlos, I knew that through Carlos I could deal with the history of a generation, the history of ultimately—and also how during a generation's lifetime the world has changed and how one character carried, pushed by history, ended up crushed by it.

NOTEBOOK: Well, Carlos reveres Che and may think of himself as a strategist, but at the crucial points in time, his actions are always impulsive. And that either increases his mystique or noteriety, or screws him up, as in when he kills the Libyan at the OPEC siege.  Or on the other hand, certain of those bombing, as insane as they were, did create something like the impact he was looking for.

ASSAYAS: Or the opposite of the impact he was looking for. You blow up a bomb, and you know it's going to shake up the chain of events, but ultimately you're not exactly sure on which side chips are going to fall.  Carlos first, yes, fantasizes himself as a third world revolutionary.  He uses the idea in a very crazy way—that is the way I see it, playing with the iconography of Che Guevara and using the beret, the goatee, whatever.  But he uses it for projecting some kind of media image.

Carlos is not an intellectual, he's not a theoretician of the revolution, he is not even the leader.  He is someone who executes orders.  And he executes operations that have been designed by someone else higher up.  And when he becomes a mercenary, well, basically he executes operations, commissions, for whoever is paying him.  Deluding himself somehow that he is a revolutionary.  Ultimately he is an employee of some state or other.  And I don't think he really has the naiveté to believe that those states are paragons of revolutionary idealism. For the film, it's always a matter of not confusing the way Carlos projects himself and the reality of what Carlos did.

NOTEBOOK: Early on—in both the film itself, and in the timeline of Carlos' career—you see his degeneration, when he falls into certain bad habits, with drinking and so on and so forth.  But at the outset, he gives the impression of being relatively clear, relatively focused and very, very eager to act.  And he says, "Behind every bullet we fire there will be an idea."  But very shortly after that, things start falling apart almost immediately with the Japanese action at the French Embassy in the The Hague.  The one Japanese terrorist shooting the picture of Pompidou, who's no longer in power; it's gone from an idea behind every bullet to kids playing with guns almost instantly.  Now that particular juxtaposition, was that something that occured in the script phase or is that something that fell together in the editing?

ASSAYAS: No, no, it's just very factual.  It's very factual.  The fact that the Japanese were having fun shooting at the portrait of Pompidou it's factual.  And Carlos's dialogue with Nydia Tóbon—we don't name her in the film, but that's the name of the actual character, the woman with the young child, with whom Carlos is involved in London—it's related in the book that Tóbon wrote about her relationship with Carlos.  I trusted the elements I had, and I had no agenda, no dramaturgic ideas in the classic sense of the term.  I had a series of factual elements, and I did further research into them.  I had a couple of conversations with Nydia;  I had narrations of the Japanese hostage operation, including Carlos's own description.  It is the one honest interview, the one he gave to Assam El Jundi, which is depicted in the film, and in that, he describes the whole hostage situation basically the way we describe it in the film.  It's based on his version, which is I think perfectly accurate.  So to me, a lot of things in terms of the dynamics of the story of how the character of Carlos ends up appearing were kind of out of my control.  I just put in the film whatever I had and that was as verified, believable, accurate as possible.

NOTEBOOK: So you don't feel the sense of stressing certain ironies?

ASSAYAS: Not as such.  But I am having fun with it, if you will.  When I outlined the structure of the film, it was just a matter of writing down the themes; and you just have a chronology of Carlos's life.  He goes to Paris, on that specific date that's the first Orly operation and that other date that is the second Orly operation.  In between he guys will be discussing why they failed and why they're going to try again.  And when I start researching the specific scenes, I just look at the absurdity of the operation.  I had no idea initially. It's very difficult because you end up working as a historian, because you have very sketchy description in most of the books of those operations.  So you have to go back to the news footage at the time.  You have to find a newspaper clipping because they are always just more accurate in terms of the space, in terms of the exact spot, in terms of what happened, etc.  And you start doing your own specific research.  When I researched the two Orly operations—the guys were just out of their minds!  It's ridiculous, it's funny.  But until I learned the specifics of it I had no idea it could funny.  It was funny because just plain looking at it, what they were trying to do was absurd, and how they did it was more absurd. There are certain absurd details I didn't even use.

NOTEBOOK: The American writer, Jimmy Breslin, wrote a book, a novel, about inept mafioso called The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, which became an early De Niro film.  And that phrase was in my head a lot, watching the film. Some of the retrospective ironies that you get watching the story unfold from where we're at now, as when Carlos very, almost eagerly, assenting to acting more or less as a stooge for Saddam Hussein in a grudge match with Iran and Saudi Arabia for the whole OPEC conference; they're fascinating.  And that gives the picture that resonance that speaks to its pertinence in the world today.  Adding to that is the way you show the shift of ideologies, where it's going from what is claimed to be a very hard core Marxism to where we're at today,with what's for better or worse some iteration of Islam.

ASSAYAS: The fabric of terrorism of the 70s was ideology.  Ultimately, it can be said more simply that it was the Cold War.  Yes, it used idealism, the conviction of the youth of that time, but then ultimately it was manipulated by the cold warriors. Whereas of course now it seems to be defined by religious extremism.  Which involves the idea of martyrdom. So it seems to be following a completely different logic.  But ultimately it's fairly similar.  I think to me it's just another level of cynicism in the sense of the guys who are manipulating those guys, because they think it's easier and simpler just to let them blow themselves up, which permits them whatever heaven the religion appears to be promising them.  But ultimately it's the same thing.  They are the foot soldiers of geopolitics, of their time, the same way as the leftists who used to run the terror operations in the 70s were soldiers of the Cold War.  And of course the basic similarity is that whatever terrorism is about, it's defined by the fact that it's run by states.  There's only state terrorism.  There's no terrorism per se.  That's the way it was in the 70s and that's the way it is now.  It's always one state sending a message to another.

NOTEBOOK: Well and that's the interesting thing in the film, it's something that certain American liberals of the more doctrinaire variety might not like, but you are pretty clear that Reagan's hard line did make a difference in the Cold War push back.  It was not ineffectual.

ASSAYAS: Of course.  Of course.  And it is felt in the history of Carlos.  Because, among other things, that's when the powers stopped talking.

NOTEBOOK: And I do love those Hungarian cops who finally seem more than a little bit pleased to be expelling Carlos, because they do seem to have crept out of an Eastern European film of that period or before.  They're wearing these kind of shoddy clothes.  They're a little jowly, a little overweight, you can tell they work way too hard.  When you were casting the film, how did these people come to you?

ASSAYAS: It's been a fascinating process, truly exciting, because it is exciting to cast parts in different cultures, actors you've never seen, you've never heard of, so you're really candid. But we had a hard time with the Hungarians.  It was very difficult because of course we needed actors who could speak some English.  And for some reason we had a lot of difficulty in finding the right Hungarian actors, and somehow we kind of turned our problem into an advantage because there were only two actors I really liked.  One is Péter Scherer, and he was more of a known quantity, having been seen in a lot of prominent Hungarian films; he's a very smart, very funny guy.  But his cohort, played by Jósef Tóth, hardly spoke English.  But we played with it.  Basically Péter kind of invented the interaction between the two guys.  So the way Tóth was stumbling on the words, all became part of the comedy.  And also it was a very interesting moment, a very interesting scene for me, because it's based on transcripts.  The whole scene with the Hungarians, all the scenes with the Hungarians, actually come from transcripts of recordings.  We were kind of grateful for the STASI, and all of the Eastern European secret police, because Carlos's house was bugged, the police offices were bugged, it's all recorded, and it's all now published.  But it was really wonderful how working with the actors I could turn a couple of those very arid transcripts of bureaucrats into comedy.

NOTEBOOK: It's also interesting, the use of language, the way that among all these various Europeans and South Americans, English becomes the default language, even in the very intimate discussions between Magdalena and Carlos, because it really was the language most of these people had in common. But there's an on-the-nose quality in the dialogue, particularly the emotional exchanges, that seems a little too obvious on the face of it, but by the same token it makes perfect sense because they're each speaking to each other in what is, after all, either their second or third language respectively. So there's that layering of alienation of communication involved there that's really fascinating.

ASSAYAS: Absolutely. Yes, no, to me that was always part of the subject.  And Carlos, as a character, is partially defined by the fact that he is good with languages. And he's the one in the middle and so in that sense he kind of embodies the whole reality of internationalist politics of the time the way no other figure of that era does.  And so that's why; it really fits the purpose of the narrative, that he's in the middle.  That's why he can communicate with the Arabs, why he can communicate with the Germans, and that's why he connects and embodies again the international reality of terrorism.  So yes, of course, I knew that the movie would be very much about him switching from one language to the other.  And then I got extraordinarily lucky to find Edgar,who can actually do that, and very few actors can.

NOTEBOOK: The music, much of it post-punk and new wave songs, has this great tensile quality but it's also very interesting in terms of most of it being from a very specific time, going directly from about 1977, the punk era into the Reagan era. I love the use of "Sonic Reducer" by the Dead Boys, playing on the radio during the scene of Nada's confrontation with police at the Swiss border. Although I think you cut it a little close there in terms of verisimilitude—I was wondering if the record was actually out at that time? Because I'm not quite sure...

ASSAYAS: Yes it was.  Totally.  Totally. [And indeed it was; The Dead Boys' Young, Loud and Snotty was released in October of 1977, and terrorist Gabriele Kröcher Tiedemann, a.k.a. Nada, shot two Swiss customs agents in a border confrontation in December of 1977. Serves me right to doubt such a thorough researcher.—G.K.] And to me it was very important to have that—like this punk rock track just to signal it's 1977.  So to me it was just like a time capsule.  The other music, that has a different status.  But this one, it comes from the radio.  And I just like the notion of connecting it, of course, to Nada and to the arrest of Nada.  Because it's the end of an era.  To me, the arrest of Nada is the end of Western European terrorism.  And also, all of a sudden, reading it backwards we kind of see her, in a way, as some kind of forerunner of punk rock!  She's like the MC 5 of terrorism.

NOTEBOOK: If there's a kind of conscience among the terrorists, it's the character of Angie, played by Christoph Bach.  When he says things like "Anti-Zionism, that's great, but anti-Semitism is not what I signed on for," he may well be echoing sentiments that some people in the audience might believe they have themselves...

ASSAYAS: Yes.  No, yes, of course.  I kind of made Angie slightly better than he actually is. He had made these rather elaborate confessions, that his father was a Nazi and his mother was Jewish and so that's why he was so conflicted and so on.  But then after that it was revealed that actually his parents were just, like, shopkeepers and certainly not Jewish but neither Nazis.  So it kind of diminished his image and so on and so forth. But still—even looking back on it, and with that in mind, I think he's the one character who just did the most courageous and responsible thing.  He jumped out of terrorism at a moment when it was extraordinarily dangerous.  He seriously was taking this major step in this life.  And they really tried to kill him.  They tried twice. I've met him a couple of times and he's a decent guy.  He's absolutely a decent guy who basically destroyed his life in the process of doing what he did.

NOTEBOOK:Working in this kind of form, doing the film in this large expanse for the television showing, and then putting it into different iterations of length for certain theatrical screenings; is this something you feel comfortable with?  Is this something you want to do again?

ASSAYAS: No, I absolutely never want to do it again.  It was hell.  [Shrugs] No, maybe at some point.  The thing is, the budget was so tight in terms of what we had to do, there was just like zero comfort.  So when you combine the length of the shoot, the complexity, the political issues, the problems politics created for us in terms of the making of the film in the Middle East, the constant budget problems...and of course the difficulty of shooting in Lebanon.  We had to struggle for every single car, every single bike, every single costume.  It was just like a war.  We really have been at war during the whole shoot of this film.  It's great, because ultimately that's what gives it its energy, its focus.  But once it's done, you don't want to go through that again.  And also I can't say I had the most thoroughly supported production, in terms of the actual producers.  The guys really had no idea what it was like, what we were getting into.  They had no idea.   They didn't even show up in Lebanon when we were shooting in Lebanon.  The basics? They'd say OK, so this is the envelope, finish the film and we don't want to hear from you.  They didn't even watch the dailies.  So we were pretty much on our own.

NOTEBOOK: You acted as your own producer by default, then.  How long did it take into the process for you to realize that it was all on you?

ASSAYAS: Well, it was both on me and on Sylvie Barthet,  the production manager and she's the person I always work with.  But then I think it also has to do with actually the whole crew being extraordinarily supportive.  Because once you understood that you were just like on your own,you were out there in the middle of nowhere and basically everybody had to rely on everybody deepens the involvement. This film, it's very much a collective work.  Everybody had input in it, they all had a notion of getting it right, of knowing what this was about and they were very judgmental.  So they were very involved in it, they could  see the ambition, the complexity of what we were doing, and they were completely up for it.  And I always used to say when you're making a film, you're lucky if you have like one or two other people who really understand what's going on on the set.  In this case I had all of the crew getting it.

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