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Catching Up with Olivier Assayas

We chatted with Olivier Assayas in Locarno about his viewing habits, mobile phones in cinema, and his next film, "Ebook".
Christopher Small
Olivier Assayas
Olivier Assayas. Photo by Locarno Festival / Massimo Pedrazzini
At this year’s edition of the Locarno Festival, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas was the head of the main competition jury. As the festival drew to a close, we caught up with Assayas in the lobby of his hotel for an informal chat about viewing habits, mobile phones in cinema, and his upcoming project Ebook.

NOTEBOOK: Have you seen any of the Jacques Tourneur movies from the festival's retrospective? 
OLIVIER ASSAYAS: I’ve seen Out of the Past (1947) and Berlin Express (1948). Out of the Past I saw ages ago and Berlin Express I thought I had seen but no, this was the first time.
NOTEBOOK: Do you like him?
ASSAYAS: I love Tourneur. I think he’s a genius—a great filmmaker. Well, I don’t know about a genius. Certainly a great filmmaker [laughs]. 
NOTEBOOK: I really like Berlin Express. It’s really interesting as a unique historical document but also it has that amazing sequence in an abandoned brewery at the end. 
ASSAYAS: Yes, yes, yes. It is and it’s really interesting in the sense that it is part conventional narrative as well as simultaneously a documentary of post-war Germany. It works in a certain way. It’s scary—the war is over but it’s not completely over. 
NOTEBOOK: I’m curious about your movie-viewing habits. Do you go to the cinema a lot?
ASSAYAS: Yeah, I do but I also watch more at home. What I don’t like is going to previews of movies—I hate that. I like to see movies at multiplexes, both mainstream and indie movies. They are shown more and more in multiplexes in Paris. I do that but also I think I watch more classics on Blu-ray or DVD or whatever. That’s something I didn’t do that much before but lately I’ve been doing that more and more. I’m not dependent on the programming of the cinematheque and once in awhile there is this area in the history of cinema that I want to reassess. But it’s not an organized thing. It’s very random. 
NOTEBOOK: Do you try and see everything that comes out? 
ASSAYAS: No, no. I see a lot. I have broad tastes, put it that way. I’m a very basic viewer. I get carried away by the story, I just enjoy it. If I get carried away seeing something from the perspective of a filmmaker it means that it’s not much of a good film. I’m not trying to deconstruct it. Once in awhile if a movie’s bad… I suppose that I’m never bored in movies anymore because if they are bad I start dissecting them, looking at them from a technical perspective, if only from that angle. But a screenplay is not enough. Sometimes you watch a movie and say, oh, the story is good but if only it was a better filmmaker or had better actors or if they had chosen a slightly different angle it could have been a better film. I think screenplays are secondary to whatever the films are, in the sense that the experience of cinema is space, energy, color, the physicality of the actors, your attraction to the actors. I think all that is much more important that how good the screenplay is. 
NOTEBOOK: I heard you recently say that you see filmmaking as film theory being put into action. I like that. Do you sometimes recognise more of an affinity towards critics than filmmakers? 
ASSAYAS: Well, I think the dialogue between film theory and film practice is vital. It’s the way cinema moves forward, in a certain way. Theory is a way of capturing what’s happening in the present and I think that there are a lot of things that filmmakers do unconsciously. Things that they do without knowing but somehow in the course of making a movie they capture something that’s modern, that’s part of the zeitgeist. A lot of film writing is about making what’s not conscious conscious. In that sense, it’s an important part of the artform.
NOTEBOOK: Do you keep up with reading criticism?
ASSAYAS: Once in a while, not enough really. 
NOTEBOOK: There aren’t any Serge Daneys out there?
ASSAYAS: No, no. But Serge Daney—I loved him. He was like an older brother, a friend. I always looked up to him. When I started, a kid writing at Cahiers du cinéma, he was the person that I saw as a kind of teacher in a certain way. At least to some extent, but yes, maybe more like a brother. But I did not agree with his tastes. There’s a lot I agree with but certainly not everything. Serge was remarkable because I think that ultimately the validation of film writing is… writing. It’s anything that has to do with writing about art. It endures if it’s good writing. And Serge was a great writer, a brilliant writer. Often, I prefer to read something that’s well written and which I completely disagree with than something I agree with that’s clumsily written. You want to be confronted with the process of thought of somebody who has his own voice, his own authority, and so even if you disagree with his opinion, it opens you up to the possibility that he may be right. Or maybe he has a point. Or maybe he is revealing something you yourself are not focused on. And Serge was very funny. He had a sharp wit and the dialogue with him was very exciting because he has this ironical outlook on life and movies.
NOTEBOOK: Cahiers du cinéma—whether under Bazin, Rohmer, Rivette, Daney—always saw cinema as a quintessentially moral medium…
ASSAYAS: I think that my connection to the history of Cahiers du cinéma is Bazin. What everything in the magazine shared in the period in which I was writing was, yeah, I suppose the morals of Bazin, the ethics of Bazin. He came from this left-Christian background. It’s the one thing that really structured the writing. We had very diverse writers at that time, coming from various backgrounds and with various interests. 
NOTEBOOK: In your films, there’s always a special contiguity between shots that in themselves are not ostentatious. The continuity creates an amazing movement that carries between individual shots and scenes. I know that Brian De Palma—who’s a much more ostentatious filmmaker—makes his movies by mapping everything out in advance with charts and grids. Do you do anything like that?
ASSAYAS: You know, you have filmmakers who use storyboards very seriously. They have a kind of frontal relationship to filmmaking. That’s the way Hitchcock functioned. Then you have the kind of filmmaker who uses a floor plan and draws lines on the floor plan just to show how the movement will go. I’m much more of a floor plan guy. I imagine the shots based on movements of the camera and space. But I also reinvent them on the set. You can’t have it too planned. Even if you have a precise notion of the shot you want you can’t scientifically figure it out until you’re actually on the set and you have the optics and you integrate into the shot the transformation of space through the optics. Once everything is there and you’re looking through the eye of the camera you have a sharper and much more precise, physical notion of the actual shot. You constantly adapt.
NOTEBOOK: In particular, I was thinking of Personal Shopper and the train trip Kristen Stewart takes to London and the whole time she’s texting somebody. There’s this amazing continuity within the scenes—you’re just watching her get a drink from the bar, sit down, get her ticket, etc. And the whole time the space of the mobile phone is perfectly integrated into that.
ASSAYAS: What was difficult about that scene and what I was interested in was the idea to have two simultaneous narratives, totally imbricated. I needed the very simple, basic actions of traveling and the things you do when you travel but ultimately something else is going on. There’s really very much this notion of what’s happening inside and what’s happening outside that informs much of the structure of the sequence. 
NOTEBOOK: It’s a very smooth, unique way of depicting the act of texting in a film. Was there a lot of planning involved there? 
ASSAYAS: Yeah. What I wanted was for it to be more of a seduction scene through text messaging. To me, the important part was the seduction—through text messaging, through this communication with someone that is invisible and the way that it triggers all her fantasies. But then it also became about texting itself, about the relation we have to texting, to the specific rhythms of it, and the ways we actually do it. And I thought it was going to be very simple when I wrote it. But once we started shooting I realized that, no, this was going to be absurdly complex—it’s extremely technical. I mean the pacing, the time you have to read the messages, the lens you use, how you move the phone in and out of frame, the moments of waiting. You have those three blinking dots in iMessage to think about. It’s a real headache.
NOTEBOOK: Shots of mobile phones are usually so boring. One way filmmakers overcome that is to have the text bubbles pop up on screen. This seems like a much better way. 
ASSAYAS: Yeah, I think the bubbles are very much the lazy way to show this process. We have a much more physical relationship to our phones. It’s not just the bubbles. We have a physical relationship to these devices. They really are an extension of ourselves—an extension of our memories, our knowledge, our information. The abbreviations are Maureen’s. Even the mistakes are part of her whole outlook, her demeanor.
NOTEBOOK: Could you speak a little about your next project, Ebook?
ASSAYAS: I’ve been working on it for a while. For some reason, it’s actually a very simple screenplay, it’s a series of conversations. It’s in French, shot in Paris. As simple as it gets. But for some reason it took me two years to write it. I kept coming back to it, thinking oh my god I don’t know where this is going, etc. And all of a sudden it crystallised and became something I really want to shoot. 
NOTEBOOK: Have you started shooting anything yet? 
ASSAYAS: No, we start shooting in late October. From mid-to-late October to mid-to-late December. 
NOTEBOOK: Would you say that it does for ebooks what Personal Shopper does for texts?
ASSAYAS: [Laughs] Uh, no. It’s more about how we adapt or don’t adapt to how the world is changing. And it’s about how ebooks are changing or not changing the publishing world. It’s basically about how each character adapts to how the world around him is evolving.


Olivier AssayasLocarnoLocarno 2017Festival CoverageInterviews
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