French director Olivier Assayas (b. 1955) and his muse, American actress and “Twilight” star Kristen Stewart, recently made a wonderful piece of art called “Personal Shopper,” their second collaboration after his previous film “Clouds of Sils Maria,” which co-starred Juliette Binoche, hit the screens two years ago.
In their latest and captivating feature, Kristin Stewart plays the personal shopper to a highly demanding German supermodel-designer, played brilliantly by Nora Von Waltstätten – driving around as a celebrity slave on her Peugeot scooter in the streets of downtown Paris to pick up and drop off various outrageously luxury items and expensive jewellery that her boss needs to wear at various events. On top of that, Stewart’s character is also a medium who tries to contact her twin brother who recently passed away. In this unconventional story, with Kristen Stewart playing a woman who’s going through a spiritual crisis, she gives a top-notch performance, proving once again that she is by all means one of America’s most established and versatile actresses. And, just like Jennifer Lawrence, she’s only 25. Hard to believe, but undoubtedly, we assume the best is yet to come.
This year’s best director at the Cannes Film Festival with “Personal Shopper,” multiple and international award-winning director-screenwriter Olivier Assayas is one of France’s leading filmmakers. Formerly a film journalist as well, writing about European and Asian film directors in Cahiers du Cinéma, he has yet a third film in a row with Kristin Stewart lined up.
Invited at the 2016 Film Fest Ghent, Mr. Assayas was the subject of a Director’s Talk at the Flemish Festival prior to the screening of his film, which was followed by a Q & A. The interview as presented here is an edited version of the topics Mr. Assayas talked about concerning his latest film and his craft as a screenwriter and director.
“Personal Shopper” is your second film with Kristen Stewart. What makes her in your opinion so exceptional?
There are many reasons. As a child actress, she grew up in front of the camera. She has this incredible technique: she’s so precise, totally aware of every single move she makes, and simultaneously, she is completely spontaneous. She gives you everything on the first take. And when we do the second take, it’s different because she’s already slightly bored with the situation [laughs], she feels like she lived through it the first time around. So her approach to acting is very honest, very human and very pure. It’s also structured by this really remarkable knowledge of film technique. It’s a very rare mixture. She has this intelligence of the cinematic space, she has a way of moving inside the frame, and her fluid body language manages to make something out of the tiniest thing you give her.
Don’t you think that her behavior and her movements are slightly un-American as you would see those more in European cinema and less frequently in American films?
It’s not so much about European or American behavior, but she has this sense of freedom, a sense of independence, a way of being a rebel that is very unlike of what Hollywood generates. I’m not saying that in the stereotypical sense, because if you would ask Johnny Depp, he would present himself as a rebel. But I think that Kristen is genuinely someone who has her own values and who just follows her instincts. She doesn’t try to seduce you, adapt to any kind of framework or any preconception that you might have of her or what she is doing. She is so much about this free spirit and that might bring her closer to European actresses. I feel I have been extremely lucky to work with her at this stage of her career when she was discovering new areas. It’s not that I touched her with something magical, she has always been like this. I only give her this space that American films don’t give her and don’t give to actors generally. And she obviously makes the best of it.
She also has a kind of mystery that’s very cinematic, it’s not defined, but you can project a lot of your own emotions into it. Would you agree with that?
Maybe it’s very paradoxical to say that about a movie star, but she’s very private. She’s very protective of her world and her way of life. I think she’s both things at the same time. She’s very solid, I suppose that’s what attracted me to write this story and cast her for this film. You can push the limits in the sense of connecting her to the supernatural. She will bring it back to something that’s authentic and real, again because she’s so solid and grounded. You trust her and you’re ready to follow her anywhere she goes. She has this kind of fascination and a connection with the viewer.
Maybe it’s a little bit a simplification, but in the film you have this world of high fashion, and then there is this dream world of the ghost story. Was this a kind of a mix you chose right away?
It always was part of the initial core of the story. To me, what generated this film, was the idea of the character defined by the tension of an alienating, silly job she only does to make a living, but she’s not happy it, she’s not happy with her life, she’s not doing anything that brings her any kind of satisfaction – like ultimately most people. All of us, one way or another, have to go through something that is about making a living and about paying the bills. The modern world doesn’t bring us many jobs that give any kind of inner or spiritual satisfaction. So I liked the idea of someone who would save herself from that, from the materialism of the modern world through connecting with the world of her dreams, her ideas, a world whose boundaries are also defined by art. She wants to be an artist and she has some kind of dialogue with the great artistic creations of the past that give her a sense of something bigger than her. So, obviously, if I want to describe this kind of job, a very mundane job as a personal shopper, with the realities of the modern world, the luxury, the fashion industry. It’s just a caricature of modern materialism. Simultaneously she finds some consolation in the world of her ideas, in the world of her imagination, the world of connection to art. Which is how we all function: we’re all looking for something to save us from the brutal materialism of the modern world and she tries to do that in her own way. What also interested me in this job, as opposed to working in an office, or maybe answering the phone for whatever company, she also has an ambivalent relationship to fashion, because ultimately, there is also art in fashion and we should not be blinded by the excesses of the luxury industry – the same way the absurdity of the art market doesn’t stop us from understanding and appreciating contemporary art. And also, we see a character who’s reconstructing herself: she’s really like a person who is cut in half, because she just lost her twin brother – a man – so she’s questioning her own identity, and of course, in relationship to the fashion, the texture, and the look of the cloths, there is something that questions her femininity. Which is also a magnet for her, even if she’s pushing it away from her.
What about using CGI [computer-generated imagery] in your films? Are you interested in that?
I used a little bit in “Personal Shopper,” but certainly not extensively. I merely use it as a point of reference, more like spirit photography. If you want to show ghosts in a movie – when I hear that word, ghosts is like a code word to something that is happening within us. We have an ongoing conversation with the persons we love and who are gone. They can be our parents, other relatives, or friends. If they have passed away, you keep on having some dialogue with them, they are constantly alive within you, consciously or non consciously. Once in a while we project it into reality, and ultimately that’s what we call ghosts. So in a film you can represent them. In a certain sense, I believe in ghosts if only on the basis like Kristin Stewart’s character in the first scene of the film is walking at night in this big, old, empty house, in the middle of nowhere. She is scared of something. There is very little chance that in that big, empty house, something evil would be lurking, but still, you don’t turn off the light, you hear weird noises, you start being aware of things around you which you wouldn’t notice in daylight. All of a sudden, there is something within you that says, ‘There are spirits around.’ And you’re convinced of it, anybody would be. So with the spirit photography in the film, I’m not using any kind of “Star Wars” technology, you know. With technology you can almost do anything on film and it looks real. The special effects revolution in the early 1980s was the major transformation in terms of the texture of cinema. Up to that point, there were a lot of things you could not do in film, but from that moment gradually everything became possible. You didn’t have to build huge sets anymore, all of a sudden it opened a huge space. Then the question is: am I interested in that space? My answer is: not really. Not really, because it’s another job. It’s closer to animation. A lot of the big blockbusters end up pretty much like animation with actors embedded inside of it. So ultimately, the only thing that’s kind of alive, are the actors. And I don’t think it will stay that way for a long time, because if you want Humphrey Bogart in your space opera, you will have him. It’s a totally different area of filmmaking, and I think the genre of filmmaking has been colonized by special effects in a certain way.
Do you think that blockbusters can influence smaller films and/or vice versa?
I think what’s great about some of those blockbusters is that they are as labs, with their infinite budgets, new technologies and filmmaking techniques that somehow will be recycled – used – in smaller films and will open new areas, although I think it is happening less and less now. The problem I have with the corporate blockbusters we are dealing with today, is that they are becoming less interesting. I do admire someone like Christopher Nolan who is making movies that are really unlike anything else. The way I see it, he has a really authentic voice. I am like a very open audience, but the super hero movies tend to be like carbon copies of each other and they lose a lot of the beauty, the fun and the poetry of filmmaking.
Modern technology plays an important part in “Personal Shopper”: the texting scene with the cell phone is extremely suspenseful. How challenging was that Hitchcock-like scene for you?
I was not sure how long it could hold, but at least I liked the idea of trying, just to see if I could transcribe in cinematic terms something that’s part of our lives. We have conversations via text messaging; it can be about our jobs, about our relationships, and they can get quite intense. Sometimes people end up texting things that they possibly wouldn’t say as bluntly if they had the person right in front of them. So I asked myself, ‘Can it work in movies? How far can I stretch it? Can I recreate in cinema the intensity of the kind of conversations when we’re texting?’ It’s like poetry: the words can be extremely charged. And I was kind of experimenting, and in movies it gets exciting when you try things to see if you can get away with it. In the process of shooting, I realized that it would work, but it was extremely difficult to get it right during the shooting, the editing, and in every single stage of the post-production. When you get into it, you realize the dynamics of texting, about how fast you type, how fast you get an answer, how fast you reply yourself. And you have those three blinking dots… is he writing? If he is answering, why is it not coming? Or is he erasing something he wrote? That scene is very charged, very detailed, and every tiny detail matters, so it was a very long and painful process to get it right.
As we’re all getting older, is it hard for you to keep up with all of this new technology?
No, I think what’s hard is not to keep up with it [laughs]. What’s difficult is not having our privacy invaded by it. I am kind of scared when I am communicating. Cell phones have been part of our lives for the past twenty years, and texting for, let’s say, the past ten years. It was not around when I was growing up, but we have all been living with it for a while now and it’s kind of disturbing when you realize that your phone has become an extension of your brain. But that’s the way we live now. I hope the world of images and communication doesn’t invade us more than it actually does. I’m perfectly happy sitting in a lounge chair, all alone, reading a book. That’s much more my culture. There’s a lot of stuff that I’m concerned about, like social media. A lot of people twitter all day long, I just don’t do that. I am not interested in Facebook and so on. So I accept there’s a lot of technology that’s just not part of my world. But if you also consider writing emails for example, we have a much more active correspondence via email now than we used to have. Ultimately, to me there is hardly a difference between writing a letter or an email: I write an email the way I would be writing a letter. I try to write correctly, I try to express my thoughts, I try to make my point as subtly as I can. It’s actual writing. But what’s interesting in terms of technology in general, the conversations we have on our cell phones are pretty similar to the conversations we could have on the phone, or the conversations we could have in a bar: they are still conversations. The text messaging specifically is a form that’s unlike anything else before it. It has a world of its own, it has a logic of its own and it is a form of communication that is essentially modern. You have to use very few words to express yourself, and it’s very factual. It’s a new form of communication that opens things as opposed to closing things.
How important is casting to you and how do you work with your actors on the set?
Casting is essential: the actors are always part of the process. When I choose an actor, it’s because he’s slightly different from the part, but he will bring to the part the spark of life – it can even contradict the part – something on top of whatever I wrote and imagined. I am not casting an actor, I am casting an individual and he will know more about the character than I do. But if he needs any back story, I am not going to provide it, you know. If he wants to invent it by himself, that’s fine with me: it’s his process and I respect his process. Some actors need to be guided or need to be reassured, and I can provide that. It’s a part of my job. And suppose an actor works in a specific way, I am going to adapt to the way he functions, I am not going against it. There are actors who are great from the start – instantly. They do one take, then a second or third take, and then it’s finished. It becomes repetitious and boring for them. When I’m on the set, I try to adapt to the circumstances, try to channel the energy, deal with a million problems, and I don’t rehearse at all. From the moment the actors arrive on the set, I say, ‘Okay, so here is the camera, then it will be there and there. You will be here, you know the scene and you know more or less what you will do.’ The minute they’re on the set, the actors jump into their characters and we are immediately into the action. One could say that I’m shooting the rehearsals. In a certain way, I think I only shoot the rehearsals. The moment everything falls into place, I’m happy, but I don’t feel I want to go further than that, because all of a sudden it might feel stiff. Within the shot, I like it when you have a sense it’s still a bit unstable, and there’s this kind of improvised frailty. That’s what I’m looking for: spontaneity. The beauty of cinema is that you record expression and emotions on the face and the expressions of your actors which belong to the moment when they say their lines for the first time.
What about your screenplays? Do you write them in English or French?
Sometimes I write in English, sometimes in French. I wrote “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Personal Shopper” in French, and got the screenplays translated to adapt the dialogue. But then, when I give the dialogue to the actors, specifically to someone like Kristen Stewart, she has total freedom to adapt it in terms of the sense, the precision and the truthfulness of the [English] language, she knows that much better than I do, so I give her a lot of freedom. The information or the emotions we need in that line, she knows perfectly well how to verbalize it, while I know where the scene is leading to. What’s important for me, is where it starts and where it ends. How I get there ultimately, is emphasized, underlined, expanded – whatever – by the actors’ work. And in that sense, every single actor recreates the character from within the shot. That’s how we do a film.
Film Fest Gent, Ghent (Belgium)
October 12, 2016
The trailer of “Personal Shopper”
LES DIVORCÉES (1973) DIR Louis Grospierre TRAINEE ASST DIR Olivier Assayas PROD Jean-Louis Misar SCR Alain Quercy (original idea by Louis Grospierre) CAM Roger Fellous CAST Georges Wod, Aude Loring, Philippe Deplanche, Jacqueline Mach, Marc Michel, Daniel Fillion
THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER (1977) DIR Richard Fleischer THIRD ASST DIR Olivier Assayas PROD Pierre Spengler SCR Pierer Spengler, Berta Domínguez D. (novel by Mark Twain) CAM Jack Cardiff ED Ernest Walter MUS Maurice Jarre CAST Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Mark Lester, Ernest Borgnine, George C. Scott, Rex Harrison, David Hemmings, Charlton Heston, Harry Andrews, Sybil Danning
SUPERMAN (1978) DIR Richard Donner PROD Pierre Spengler, Richard Lester [uncredited] SCR Mario Puzo, Robert Benton, David Newman, Leslie Newman (story by Mario Puzo; characters created by Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster) CAM Geoffrey Unsworth ED Stuart Baird, Michael Ellis EDITORIAL INTERN Olivier Assayas MUS John Williams CAST Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Trevor Howard, Valerie Perrine, Maria Schell, Terence Stamp, Susannah York, Larry Hagman, John Ratzenberger, Richard Donner
RENDEZ-VOUS, a.k.a. ANDRÉ TÉCHINÉ’S RENDEZ-VOUS (1985) DIR André Téchiné PROD Alain Terzian SCR Olivier Assayas, André Téchiné CAM Renato Berta ED Martine Giordano MUS Philippe Sarde CAST Lambert Wilson, Juliette Binoche, Wadeck Stanczak, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Dominique Lavanant, Anne Wiazemsky, Jean-Louis Vitrac
PASSAGE SÉCRET (1985) DIR – PROD Laurent Perrin SCR Olivier Assayas, Laurent Perrin CAM Dominique Le Rigoleur ED Denise de Casabianca MUS Angélique Nachon, Jean-Claude Nachon CAST Dominique Laffin, François Siener, Franci Camus, Julien Dubois, Leonard Smith, Ged Marlon
L’UNIQUE (1986) DIR Jérôme Diamant-Berger PROD Jérôme Diamant-Berger, Christian Ardan SCR Olivier Assayas, Jérôme Diamant-Berger, Jean-Claude Carrière, Jacques Dorfmann CAM Jean-François Robin ED Luc Barnier MUS Guy Boulanger CAST Julia Migenes, Sami Frey, Charles Denner, Tchéky Karyo, Jezabel Carpi, Thierry Rode, Fabienne Babe
LE LIEU DU CRIME, a.k.a. SCENE OF THE CRIME (1986) DIR André Téchiné PROD Alain Terzian SCR Olivier Assayas, André Téchiné, Pascal Bonitzer CAM Pascal Marti ED Suzanne Koch, Martine Giordano MUS Philippe Sarde CAST Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux, Wadeck Stanczak, Nicolas Giraudi, Jean-Claude Adelin, Jean Bousquet, Victor Lanoux
DÉSORDRE, a.k.a. DISORDER (1986) DIR – SCR Olivier Assayas PROD Claude-Éric Poiroux CAM Denis Lenoir ED Luc Barnier MUS Gabriel Yared CAST Wadeck Stanczak, Ann-Gisel Glass, Lucas Belvaux, Rémi Martin, Corinne Dacla, Simon de la Brosse, Etienne Chicot
AVRIL BRISÉ (1987) DIR Liria Bégéja PROD Jacques Arnaud, Jacques Tronel, Denys Fleutot, Frédéric Mitterand, Charles Gassot SCR Olivier Assayas, Liria Bégéja, Vasilis Vasilikos (novel by Ismail Kadare) CAM Patrick Blossier ED Luc Barnier MUS Steve Beresford CAST Jean-Claude Adelin, Violetta Sanchez, Alexandre Arbatt, Sadri Sheta, Hasan Zhubi
L’ENFANT DE L’HIVER, a.k.a. WINTER’S CHILD (1989) DIR – SCR Olivier Assayas PROD Paolo Branco CAM Denis Lenoir ED Luc Barnier MUS Jorge Arriagada CAST Clotilde de Bayser, Michel Feller, Marie Matheron, Jean-Philippe Écoffey, Gérard Blain, Anouk Grinberg
FIHA DA MÃE, a.k.a. LOVELY CHILD (1990) DIR João Canijo PROD Paulo Branco SCR Olivier Assayas, João Canijo, Teresa Villaverde, Manuel Mozos CAM José Luis Carvalhosa ED Sabine Franel CAST José Wilker, Rita Blanco, Lídia Franco,
PARIS S’ÉVEILLE, a.k.a. PARIS AWAKENS (1991) DIR – SCR Olivier Assayas PROD Bruno Pésery CAM Denis Lenoir ED Luc Barnier MUS John Cale CAST Judith Godrèche, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Thomas Langmann, Antoine Basler, Martin Lamotte, Ounie Lecomte, Michèle Foucher
UNE NOUVELLE VIE, a.k.a. A NEW LIFE (1993) DIR – SCR Olivier Assayas PROD Bruno Pésery CAM Denis Lenoir ED Luc Barnier CAST Judith Godrèche, Sophie Aubry, Bernard Giraudeau, Christine Boisson, Philippe Torreton, Bernard Verley
L’EAU FROIDE, a.k.a. COLD WATER (1994) DIR – SCR Olivier Assayas PROD Georges Benayoun, Paul Rozenberg CAM Denis Lenoir ED Luc Barnier CAST Virginie Ledoyen, Cyprien Fouquet, László Szabó, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Smaïl Mekki, Jackie Berroyer
IRMA VEP (1996) DIR – SCR Olivier Assayas PROD Georges Benayoun CAM Eric Gatier ED Luc Barnier MUS Philippe Richard CAST Maggie Cheung, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Nathalie Richard, Antoine Basler, Nathalie Boutefeu, Alex Descas
ALICE ET MARTIN, a.k.a. ALICE AND MARTIN (1998) DIR André Téchiné SCR Olivier Assayas, André Téchiné, Gilles Taurand PROD Alain Sarde CAM Caroline Champetier ED Martine Giordano MUS Philippe Sarde CAST Juliette Binoche, Alexis Loret, Mathieu Amalric, Carmen Maura, Jean-Pierre Lorit, Marthe Villalonga, Roschdy Zem
FIN AOÛT, DÉBUT SEPTEMBRE, a.k.a. LATE AUGUST, EARLY SEPTEMBER (1999) DIR – SCR Olivier Assayas PROD Georges Benayoun, Philippe Carcassonne CAM Denis Lenoir ED Luc Barnier CAST Mathieu Amalric, Virginie Ledoyen, François Cluzet, Jeanne Balibar, Alex Descas, Arsinée Khanjian
LES DESTINÉES SENTIMENTALES, a.k.a. LES DESTINÉES (2000) DIR Olivier Assayas PROD Bruno Pésery SCR Olivier Assayas, Jacques Fieschi (novel by Jacques Chardonne) CAM Eric Gautier ED Luc Barnier CAST Emmanuelle Béart, Charles Berling, Isabelle Huppert, Olivier Perrier, Dominique Reymond, André Marcon, Julie Depardieu
DEMONLOVER (2002) DIR – SCR Olivier Assayas PROD Xavier Giannoli CAM Denis Lenoir ED Luc Barnier MUS Jim O’Rourke, Sonic Youth CAST Connie Nielsen, Gina Gershon, Chloë Sevigny, Dominique Reymond, Jean-Baptiste Malarte, Edwin Gerard
CLEAN (2004) DIR – SCR Olivier Assayas PROD Xavier Marchand, Niv Fichman, Xavier Giannoli CAM Eric Gautier ED Luc Barnier MUS David Roback, Brian Eno, Tricky CAST Maggie Cheung, Nick Nolte, Béatrice Dalle, Jeanne Balibar, Don McKellar, Martha Henry, James Johnston
PARIS, JE T’AIME (2006) DIR only segment Quartier des enfants rouges (DIR – SCR Olivier Assayas); other segments “Place des Victoires” (DIR Nobuhiro Suwa), “Montmartre” (DIR Bruno Podalydès), “Quais de Seine” (DIR Gurinder Chadha), “Le Marais” (DIR Gus Van Sant), “Tuileries” (DIR Ethan Coen, Joel Coen), “Lion du 16ème” (DIR Walter Salles, Daniela Thomas), “Porte de Choisy” (DIR Christopher Doyle), “Bastille” (DIR Isabel Coixet), “Tour Eiffel” (DIR Sylvain Chomet), “Parc Monceau” (DIR Alfonso Cuaró), “Place des Fêtes” (DIR Oliver Schmitz), “Pigalle” (DIR Richard LaGravenese), “Quartier de la Madeleine” (DIR Vincenzo Natali), “Père Lachaise” (DIR Wes Craven), “Faubourg Saint-Denis” (DIR Tom Tykwer), “Quartier Latin” (DIR Gérard Depardieu), “14me Arrondissement” (DIR Alexander Payne) PROD Claudie Ossard, Emmanuel Benbihy CAST (segment Quartier des enfants rouges) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Lionel Dray, Joana Preiss, Laetitia Spigarelli
BOARDING GATE (2007) DIR – SCR Olivier Assayas PROD François Margolin CAM Yorick Le Saux ED Luc Barnier CAST Asia Argento, Michael Madsen, Kelly Lin, Carl Ng, Kim Gordon, Alex Descas, Joana Preiss, Sau-Ming Tsang
L’HEURE D’ÉTÉ, a.k.a. SUMMER HOURS (2008) DIR – SCR Olivier Assayas PROD Charles Gillibert, Nathanaël Karmitz, Marin Karmitz CAM Eric Gautier ED Luc Barnier CAST Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jérémie Renier, Edith Scob, Dominique Reymond, Valérie Bonneton, Isabelle Sadoyan, Kyle Eastwood
APRÈS MAI, a.k.a. SOMETHING IN THE AIR (2012) DIR – SCR Olivier Assayas PROD Charles Gillibert, Nathanaël Karmitz CAM Eric Gautier ED Luc Barnier CAST Clément Métayer, André Marcon, Lola Créton, Carole Combres, India Menuez, Hugo Conzelmann, Dolores Chaplin
CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (2014) DIR – SCR Olivier Assayas PROD Charles Gillibert CAM Yorick Le Saux ED Marion Monnier CAST Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz, Lars Eidinger, Johnny Flynn, Angela Winkler, Hanns Zischler, Nora von Waldstätten
PERSONAL SHOPPER (2016) DIR – SCR Olivier Assayas PROD Charles Gillibert CAM Yorick Le Saux ED Marion Monnier CAST Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Nora von Waldstätten, Sigrid Bouaziz, Ty Olwin, Hammou Graia
D’APRÈS UNE HISTOIRE VRAIE (2017) DIR Roman Polanski SCR Olivier Assayas, Roman Polanski (novel by Delphine de Vigan) PROD Wassim Béji MUS Alexandre Desplat CAST Eva Green, Emmanuelle Seigner