Personal Shopper – Interview with Director Olivier Assayas – words Paul Risker
Olivier Assayas’ ghost story intertwined with the day to day of Personal Shopper Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) intrigues through the contradiction of the enthralling nature of the mundane. Behind the projected images cinema is a process and it is one French filmmaker Olivier Assayas affords his fullest attention.
Even before entering filmmaking, writing for the distinguished Cahiers du Cinéma, Olivier Assayas began an enquiry that he has since continued to pursue as a practitioner of the filmmaking craft. He explains, “I began to understand exactly what cinema was about or at least what cinema was about for me – how you had to question the nature of the medium to be able to understand what it is you want to do, and if it’s right for you.”
Process was very much the topic of conversation when Flux sat down to speak with Assayas in October of 2016 when Personal Shopper screened at the BFI London Film Festival. The filmmaker reflected on a journey perhaps defined by the pursuit of answers to questions that has culminated in his attempt to answer a question cinema itself is asking of him. He also spoke to the way in which cinema intersects with our life experiences, and how its perspective on art defines cinema as a unique medium.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Both in a strange way, in a sense that as a kid I was not sure why, but I had a very clear notion that when I grew up I wanted to be a filmmaker. But I had no idea what it was about, making films yes, but how? It was kind of this childhood obsession, or not an obsession because it was strangely clear that was what I wanted to do. So I was attracted to film, but it was not accessible – you cannot make movies when you are growing up. Eventually you are able to approach filmmaking, but you always approach it the hard way. So when I was a teenager until I was a young man, meaning aged fifteen to twenty five, my relationship to art was mainly through painting. As well as painting I was drawing and doing graphic design because I needed to express myself, and I could not be satisfied by doing just stupid jobs in the film industry – it was too frustrating. But I think all the while I was approaching cinema step by step, gradually understanding what it was about until I got to a point when I had to choose between painting and making movies. You can’t follow two roads at the same time, or at least I could not.
Agnieszka Holland described the cinema to me as a “conglomerate” art form. If this is true then your own journey mirrors the very essence of what filmmaking is.
Yes absolutely! It was about figuring out a few ideas, which I think are fairly complex in terms of what cinema is about. I made a couple of naïve short films initially and at that point I needed to reflect on the nature of the medium. I was extremely lucky because I had the opportunity to start writing for Cahiers du Cinéma, which I did for five years between 1980-1985. So it was quite a while ago when I was a young man. I began to understand exactly what cinema was about or at least what cinema was about for me – how you had to question the nature of the medium to be able to understand what it is you want to do, and if it’s right for you. And I started imagining the framework where I would be making films, meaning that I was judging cinema to be an art form that is not part of art history, but could eventually look at art history.
So cinema should not just be considered an extension of other art forms, but one that can offer us a filter through which to look at art more broadly?
I am convinced and it’s what differentiates cinema from the other art forms in many ways.
The way in which ideas or stories take shape are divided between those writers who write through images, and those writers who perceive that stories are thought out through words. How does the process work for you? Does the idea emerge through images or expressions and words?
I am like a novelist who uses some kind of subconscious process. One scene leads to another and even if I have some kind of plan, a backbone to the story, I am not going to use all of the backbone. It’s something that has a kind of dream logic as opposed to a logic logic, and I think that storytelling in film is an exploration of perception. What I’m saying is it needs to be in touch with the subconscious and it needs to have some form of poetic truth to it, which also gets you into real areas. I don’t have a vision for the scenes and I don’t think that much in visual terms, I don’t think in visual terms at all actually. When I say vision I mean the style of the film I approach has something that happens gradually, but much later. So sometimes I am just in a panic because I’ve written myself into a corner and I’ve no idea how I’m going to shoot this or that.
By not thinking in visual terms, how does the process of working with the actors and deciding where to place the camera unfold? Do you see filmmaking as an instinctive process?
Yes it is, but I design my shots on a day to day basis because I need to see how the film grows. So I work and rework, and it’s like the first sentence in a novel which is ultra-important [laughs]. I work on the shots for the first couple of days and I know that during the process of preparing, in the last week before we start shooting, I will design and redesign those shots until I feel comfortable. But after that I have no idea what I will do and it’ll depend on what has happened those first two days. After that I just take two hours every morning before shooting to design the shots, which will be very precise. But once I am on the set I will of course be adapting to the instincts of the actors. “The way I’ve designed the scene you are sitting here, then you stand up, you go to the window and then you go back and sit here, and someone comes in… Are you comfortable with that?” I am the director and so they say they’re comfortable with it, but sometimes after a few takes they will say, “Well I don’t know, it feels awkward if I do this or I do that.” I’ll respect that and I’ll adapt the shot. Once in a while watching on my mini video there will be something that looked great when I was imagining it in the morning, but then it doesn’t look great, it could be better. So I’ll fix the shots day after day.
Is flexibility essential to the filmmaking process?
Oh yes. Some filmmakers are not flexible at all and they’re right in the sense that it can produce great works of art. But for me I need to adapt completely on the set to the actors and to the instincts. I don’t want to lock my actors into some kind of mental framework. I need them to feel like we have all the time in the world and that we are not speeded up by the process of filmmaking, which is something you have to keep to yourself because you are indeed pressured by the dynamics of the work day. But still, you need to make them feel that if we need to do it ten times, then we’ll do it ten times. If we need to do it twenty times, then we’ll do it twenty times, that it’s not an issue, it’s a matter of going to the end of this. But going to the end also means reworking, adapting the shot until you get it right, until often you try to go beyond the stage where you get it right to see what happens if we try to do it again and again. So maybe something will come up and sometimes something does.
You’ve spoken of how genre cinema has ruined the ghost through the way it has used it or tried to use it. Here you are employing the ghost in a way that goes against convention. In doing so do is it inevitable that you’ll fight the tide because art is fundamentally built upon established expectations?
Well there are two answers to your question. One is that for some strange reason there are very few filmmakers that are actually interested in what is central to cinema, meaning exploring perception. Every single movie knowingly or not is about exploring perception. What is fascinating about perception is also when it is distorted, and it is constantly distorted, which is the route of all dramatic structure. It’s something that I am trying to explore in my own way and my films feel weird because there are very few filmmakers who are trying this. I am not saying that I am successful, but I am trying to deal with the question that the medium is asking me, and I think they are unavoidable in one way or another. And so there is no such thing as genre in the sense that there is filmmaking that deals genuinely with our experience and filmmaking that is fake. I think you have a lot of perfectly genuine genre filmmaking, great artists working in genre who deal with areas of the mental process of our inner conversation that are completely valid, and possibly more than movies that seem more straightforward or psychological. I don’t see that much difference between an Ingmar Bergman and a David Cronenberg movie to put it that way.
The scene with Stewart on the train where she goes shopping is an enthralling scene to watch unfold, yet it’s mundane on another level because nothing happens. It forced me to consider that with cinema and storytelling, it is not about what’s happening on the surface, but what’s happening beneath?
Oh yes, and what fascinated me by this process when I was shooting that scene or imagining that scene is that nothing is happening. Nothing, but still there is a tension that is very similar to our own everyday experience. All of a sudden it becomes a genre scene and people will say, “Oh yeah, there’s this Hitchcock tension in it.” I say, “Well yeah, but in the same way as Hitchcock is in our everyday lives.” Whatever is happening to her, meaning the way she is attracted to something, she does not know that’s happening – it’s this weird conversation she has. We have to deal with very similar emotions in our everyday life and what she is doing is she’s travelling for her job, and it’s a job that’s not exactly fascinating. She’s doing something she’s only half interested in, but still she’s awake, and so she can react to it in her own way. For me it defined the very space of this film. If we look at it a bit more closely it’s how tensions that we tend to see as filmmaking and entertainment are actually what we go through every day.
On this point of the way in which cinema connects to our everyday lives, filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
I am not sure if it’s a good answer to your question, but I genuinely think that filmmaking makes me a different person on two levels. One level is the specificity of the art of filmmaking, which is really fascinating in the sense that it’s not just an art, but it’s an art that lets you explore areas in the world you are not aware of. Every single movie I have made has expanded my perception of the world, including in areas I was completely unaware of. It’s something that very few jobs in terms of the human experience give you. You make a movie and you are looking for a flat, but you are not going to build it and so you visit homes. You see how people live in places that are so far away from whatever your own experience is, and this happens in different countries. Also with making a film is this extraordinary vantage point where you are in touch with those different layers of society. You have technicians, craftsmen, artists, business people and financiers. You have the whole spectrum of society and you become aware in very interesting ways of the workings of society and that’s one side of it. The other side of it is that you end up spending half of your time in your or some kind of dream world. So all of a sudden the lines are blurred and if you are an intuitive filmmaker, if you are attuned to the forces within filmmaking, then it gives you a sense of life fully lived more I would say than any other art. There is something very intense seeing in front of you the embodiment of your imagination. You write a character and he’s there in flesh and blood. You imagine a situation and all of a sudden that situation is there in front of you, it materialises. There is something magical about it and I would say you live in some kind of magical world.
Personal Shopper from Olivier Assayas is released theatrically in the UK on Friday March 17 2017.
Personal Shopper – Interview with Director Olivier Assayas – words Paul Risker