Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Olivier Assayas talks about Kristen & 'Clouds of SIls Maria' with The Film Stage, Indiewire & BlackBook

The Film Stage

Just a side note. Anyway, I think Clouds is among your most complex feats as a screenwriter. One thing that intrigued me most was Binoche and Stewart doing their dialogues for the play, and how, although it’s rather obvious that these characters’ relationship bears similarities to what’s been written there, such correlations (somehow) don’t feel on-the-nose. There’s a dance of sorts between the two stories, and I’d love to hear about striking this balance — getting something that’s very clear and still not thuddingly clear.

[Pause] You know, the truth is that it is stuff I did not really want to have any control on — in the sense that it is two parallel movements. And I knew there were going to be interactions, but, honestly, I had very little notion of exactly what they would be, how far it would go, and so on and so forth. If you look at the way the story moves, I really focused on, like, the important moments within the play. When they get together, when things start to go wrong, when they break-up — stuff like that. So, it’s fairly simple. The four scenes are like four turning points in the relationship between these two women.

And, simultaneously, you have, of course, the evolution of the relationship between the character of Valentine and Maria as it is somehow impacted or transformed by the nature of the relationship between the characters in the play. It’s similar, in a certain way, to what I was trying to do in Irma Vep when, all of a sudden, you have this “ghost” of Irma Vep, which somehow takes possession of every single character, in a certain way. Here, it’s like the ghosts of those characters who end up inhabiting the actresses.

So, it’s very subtle, because it’s nuances. But, somehow, is there really attraction between them, or is it more like they are getting close to the characters because they are acting them, and, somehow, they are somehow contaminated? It’s like the character of Maria, through the film, is becoming more and more masculine — becoming more and more Helena — but, ultimately, is this really what she is? Will she stay like that? Possibly not. It’s just a path that takes her to a point where she can embody that character, and then she will move on and she will be playing, you know, that mutant in that weird science fiction film. [Laughs]

Regarding needing to know: as a storyteller, how do you work your way up to the final interaction between Binoche and Stewart, which is this very mysterious, L’Avventura-esque point?

It’s tiny, tiny, tiny nuances, ultimately. It’s like small stones on the path. Ultimately, I think it ends up happening in the editing room, because it’s the takes I choose, because I have a lot of variations in the scenes. I mean, I have very different versions of all those scenes, so it’s really about constructing when you are editing, step by step — having things build up using the material you have. There, the sensual element of the story is something that has to be understated, but still present. Here, it’s pretty much a matter of fine-tuning. It shouldn’t go too far, but it should be present, so it’s really a very delicate balance. I had stuff that would have pushed it a bit further, and I had stuff that could have erased it, also, a bit more. I was happy with the balance that we found — but, again, in the editing room.

On the subject of fine-tuning, albeit in relation to pre-production: did you find that any of your initial conceptions of this project changed greatly when Valentine went to Kristen Stewart instead of your original choice, Mia Wasikowska?

Yes. Well, yes. You know, it’s… well, actually, I would put it a little differently. Whatever I wrote, I had in mind something fairly different from Mia Wasikowska; I think that the character was closer to Kristen in the first place. When, you know, for some reason, it was not happening with Kristen and I went to Mia Wasikowska — who I think is an incredible actress; I think she’s just brilliant, so smart — I said, “Okay, she’s great. I will adapt. We will find a common ground, and I’m sure that the dynamics will work.” I’m not sure exactly how they will work, but they will work. But we’re moving in a slightly different direction.

So when — for so many different reasons — we had to switch back to Kristen, somehow the whole process felt easier — because she was a much more obvious fit. But the thing is, I would have been extremely happy to make the film with Mia Wasikowska, except that it would have been a completely different movie. And that’s really interesting, in a certain way, because that’s where it ends up being like theater, like stage. When you have a play, you can have a million different versions of that play, based on who you cast. Here I felt there were different versions of this story. There were different possible versions of this story, but I knew that, in any case, I would have to adapt to whoever was playing Valentine.

Does that happen often, where you have to switch actors and it begins to feel like you can have a different film on your hands?

Usually, the range is narrower. Usually, you have some kind of idea. There are limits to what you can try, so it’s usually more focused. Here, I would say it’s a part that was much more open than usual for me.

One of the most common reactions I’ve seen to this movie, whether or not somebody likes it, is surprise by how strong Stewart’s performance is. Perhaps because there are preconceptions of her. You choose to work with an actor, so I assume you have good feelings about them.

Yes, yes.

But are you surprised by people’s surprise? Do you find that strange?

I understand it, in a sense, and, in a certain way, I’m happy. I decided to make this film with Kristen based on my intuition — based on the fact that I think she has this incredible, incredibly striking, unique screen presence. She has such a powerful presence onscreen. That’s something everybody’s aware of — or you have to be blind not to see it. But then I had no idea if I would be able to bring her on the terrain on this film. I had no idea how she would function with Juliette, how far she could go in terms of reinventing the scenes, improvising, not rehearsing, blah blah blah.

So I had a feeling that I was just betting; I was betting the film on something that I had no security of. I did not know. I only had my instinct. It’s not like I had any proof that she had already done it; she had not done it. I was taking her in a completely different area. But after, like, one day, I knew she was just perfect for the part, and it was really great. And, the thing is, as often with great actors, I was amazed by her. Like, on a day-to-day basis, I thought, “Oh, my God. How fast she adapts.” Because Juliette was doing stuff I knew that she… I had seen… I know her. I know her enough that I knew she could go in that direction.

Honestly, I do think she’s much better in this film than in a lot of movies she’s done, but that was my concern. Because I think that Juliette, as great as she is, you know, sometimes she can be not so focused. So I knew I had to help her focus. But, for Kristen, I was amazed by how easy she felt with stuff that was completely unfamiliar ground for her. But then, the tiny thing — the nuances, the way she moves her body, the way she looks — that’s stuff that I discovered when I was editing. I was just amazed by the precision. You can’t really see that when you’re shooting. You record it, and you say,
“Oh, yeah, this looks great. Let’s move on.” We move on to another shot, and then when you’re in the editing room and you watch stuff again and again, you realize the precision, the intelligence, the subtlety of what she’s doing. I was just constantly impressed.


Binoche and Stewart have a very complicated relationship — they’re friends, but there’s an ego and competitiveness on top of a employee/employer relationship. Tell me about working with those two.

To be honest, the part scared Juliette. When I gave her the screenplay, she was surprised in good and bad ways. In good ways because the film had a broader scope than anything we had really discussed, but then the bad side was she would have to deal with aging, and she knew it was going to be painful. I think the way she approached it was by letting it go. I think she certainly thought about this, prepared herself for it, but the minute she was on the set, all that anxiety vanished. She did not give it a second thought.

I've known Juliette for forever, and I've never seen her that happy, that generous and never questioning anything we were doing. She was ready to go all the way, and I think it contributed a lot to the energy of the shoot.

How did Stewart's approach differ?

I think it was the dynamics between her and Kristen that really shaped the film. While I'm sure she loved the part and the subject, I think Juliette was a very strong element in what attracted her to the film. She admired the way Juliette had never really been absorbed by the industry. She has managed to keep an independence, and that helped answer a lot of the questions that Kristen had about all the work and the evolution of the work. She loved the spontaneity of Juliette, the way that she creates her own space within the film. And Kristen was there to learn in a certain way. Juliette did not expect that, and she was flattered that Kristen would be so respectful of her work and she did not want to disappoint her. She kept on trying new things and pushing herself further, and Kristen followed. Kristen was excited by the interaction, which really created an interesting dynamic within the movie.

Yeah, it’s interesting because their dynamic is intimate but tense and fragile from minute one. It’s almost like they’re on eggshells with each other because they kind of wound one another often. 

Oh yes! It has to be cruel when you confront youth and middle age. You can pretend it's not, or you can pretend that it's the way of dealing with that, but it is cruel and it has to be understood and accepted on both sides.

I loved the Chloe Moretz character, which I believe Stewart was supposed to play first. Was it fun to comment on blockbuster culture the way you did with her movie-within-the-movie character? 

It's one of the comedy elements of the film. And Chloe's extremely smart and witty and she got it. She really had so much fun going from one persona and playing with that kind of media culture. But what was interesting for me was the fact that she's modern. She has a classical training, and she ultimately she comes from the same place as someone like Juliette comes from, but she's aware of the modern world. She's aware that you have the Internet, you have social media, you have some of this kind of pervasiveness of western culture. When you’re an actress, you have to play with it and be able to use it as your own space. You have to somehow control it before it controls you, and so while Juliette’s character knows about all that stuff but won’t touch it or participate in it, Chloe’s character is completely fluent in that language and takes from it what she wants —meaning a kind of scandalous celebrity thing— but then on the other side, she knows exactly how to protect herself from it. She’s in control of it. Her character is really from another time. And so the film’s not so much about aging for Juliette’s character, but it's about being confronted with how the world is changing and then being less relevant to the world then one would like.

Yeah, there’s definitely an awareness to Moretz’s character, which I think adds another great layer. She wants to be  a serious enough actor to be part of this play, but she’s an active participant in her celebrity.

Yes. Initially when I wrote the screenplay, it was only the character of Juliette who was ambivalent. Meaning in the sense that Maria Enders was both Juliette and not Juliette. But in the end, the same thing happened to the other characters. Kristen became Valentine and not Valentine. It's a movie where it's not a problem to see the actor through the part. Usually you try to erase the actor and hope that your audience only sees the character and the emotions injected in the role. But here you can have it both ways. You can watch the character of Valentine, but at the same time you never lose perspective that it's Kristen Stewart playing her. She's playing with her own authority, commenting on herself. So it's part of the film and same thing about Chloe. She's obviously not Jo-Ann Ellis but she could have been Jo-Ann Ellis. She knows actresses who are shallow and complicated like that. So again, the three of them have both those layers.

It's a shame, but at least you have this picture. I look forward to whatever you're doing next. Oh, and by the way, congratulations on Kristen Stewart winning the  César award.

I was happy her work was recognized. She's brilliant. 

Please note: The Indiewire interview with Olivier is a podcast. It can be listened to here.


How did Kristen Stewart come into the picture? Considering you wrote the film around Juliette, did you initially have anyone in mind to play opposite her?

Not really. I didn’t write with someone specific in mind. I just know that the moment I sat down and started imagining who could be Valentin, the name of Kristen instantly jumped from the page.

Was there a particular role of hers that caught your attention?

I liked her in every movie I’ve seen of her. Even in movie like The Runaways, I thought she was so amazing as Joan Jett. I was not so fond of the film, I think it could have a million times better, but the way she grasped that character and embodied it, it was believable. She had that punk rock energy, and few actresses can do that. I met her a couple of times in real life, thanks to my producer because he had produced On the Road and they became friends. That film was in festivals when Something in the Air was traveling around, so we bumped into each other a few times. I really liked her, and I liked her presence. She has a weird presence, but she has a kind of intensity, which is what translates best on screen.

She and Juliette have a simpatico relationship and fantastic energy between them. Was that something that grew instantly and organically or did you work with them to build that dynamic?

It just happened. I don’t work with actors, I film them, but I don’t work with them in the sense that I don’t rehearse. I don’t do reading and I don’t give them comments on the psychology of the character or backstories. I’m just not interested in that, it bores me to death. I believe in spontaneity and recording in the documentary way of what happens when the actors say the lines for the first time. So you can say I film rehearsals, but another way of putting it is, that what you see in the film happens to be rehearsals, it’s like the first time they say those words, and it’s magical.

That’s where I connected the most with Kristen. I’m less organically attached to Juliette’s process. She needs to work and she needs rehearsal, but I did not give her rehearsal. She needs a coach, but I did not give her a coach. She kind of resents that still, but it’s not my culture and I don’t like it. If they want to rehearse in front of the mirror in the bathroom, I don’t have a problem with it, I just don’t want to know about it. I just want to know that whenever they are on set things will come out with a certain degree of spontaneity. So Kristen is the opposite of Juliette in that way—she learns her lines in the morning and thinks she’s done after we’ve filmed one or two takes.

That’s also evident in their characters and performances, as Juliette/Maria is so heightened and theatrical, whereas Kristen/Valentine provides a more mellow, naturalistic foil.

Exactly, and ultimately it’s not really something you can predict. You don’t know what is going to happen between two actresses in a scene. They could have disliked each other because they’d never met, so anything could have happened. Here we were extremely lucky that there was this instant bond between them and an instant connection.

Via Via

Please note: With all of Olivier's interviews, we have only posted the Kristen mentions. Therefore, please do read the full interviews at the source for more on 'Clouds of Sils Maria'.

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