What, to you, makes Kristen such a great screen presence?
I think she’s incredibly gifted. I think also she has this completely fascinating relationship with the camera. It’s something beyond her own talents. She has it. It’s something that’s obvious. It’s something that struck me the first time I saw her onscreen in Sean Penn’s film, “Into the Wild.” She stands out. There is something that happens when she’s onscreen that’s beyond analyzing. What’s exciting about her is the mixture she has of animal instinct and deep technical knowledge of what she’s doing.
Do you encounter that much?
It’s very rare to have a combination of the two. You have great, very technical actresses, you have intuitive actresses, but actresses who have both, who know how to use their instinct to control in very nuanced ways what they do, it’s pretty unique.
What about for “Personal Shopper,” specifically?
In terms of a movie like this one, which deals with the supernatural, with the invisible, I thought it was really important to have an actress that’s as grounded and real as Kristen. The thing is, Kristen brings everything back to something very human, simple, obvious, and she connects that with the audience.
Are you guys going to work together again?
I would make another film with her tomorrow. I just don’t have the subject yet, but I’m sure I will find it. I think there’s really space for us to make another film. I would love it to happen.
Costume designer Juergen Doering was responsible for the wardrobe, and worked with director Olivier Assayas and the cast to piece together his own impression of how it should look. “First I read the script and I asked Olivier to tell me in three adjectives what he thinks about each character,” explains Doering. “Then I looked at the cast - so I led with the character first and the person second. Then I went to the actors and, without telling them what the director had said, I asked ‘How did you get this part and how do you see it?’ Because Olivier likes for people to feel the character and feel the clothes.”
There’s a noticeable difference between Maureen’s day-to-day clothing and the more elevated style of her boss. “We were thinking that Maureen’s American, she’s in Paris, she’s wearing jeans, she’s a little bit rugged - sneakers, vintage, sweaters,” says Doering. “I looked at some vintage Fruit of the Loom sweaters at a shop in Paris, and was looking for things that you could believe a girl like this had picked at the flea market. The flying jacket in brown leather, very manly, for when she’s always on the bike - a young person will try things.”
As the film progresses - spoiler alert - Maureen sneakily borrows and wears some of her client’s designer pieces, including a Vionnet organza gown with a harness, something that was specifically requested by Assayas. “I was looking in all the couture collections for a harness dress,” says Doering. “The director said ‘Maybe it’s a harness over a dress, or maybe it’s part of the dress.’ In the end I saw it at Vionnet and Olivier liked it immediately. We chose black because there is something ambiguous about her personality: she says she hates the job she is doing and the girl she is picking the things for, but when she comes to desire men, she wants to be that woman she hates.”
Maureen also borrows a silver sequinned Chanel dress. As Stewart has fronted several Chanel campaigns, it was no surprise to see the fashion house popping up in her movie - though Doering says there was no contractual obligation involved. “We know the team at Chanel well, but if we didn’t find what we wanted, we had no pressure,” he says. “I asked the girls there, ‘Do you have something with sequins?’ and they said ‘Oh we have this old dress that no one has worn before.’ And I saw it and I thought ‘Oh, this is it.’” It may be the only time you’ll see Stewart in a Chanel dress that doesn’t fit like a glove: “Of course we didn’t fit it onto Kristen, because it is not supposed to be her own dress. She feels uncomfortable in the dress, it’s not hers - but she likes it because it’s not correct for her to wear it.”
Though the contrast between Maureen’s casual wardrobe and this highly polished eveningwear is visually dramatic, it somehow feels like a natural fit for Stewart. The actress is known for her grungy personal style of T-shirts and Converse, but she’s also a muse for Karl Lagerfeld and a fixture on the front row. Working with her was easy, explains Doering: “Kristen knows her stuff. She loved Chanel before she was famous. For her it was easy to jump from the jeans to the dress, no trouble.”
He clearly felt that they had a meeting of minds. “Often actresses they have no taste!” he laughs. “So it’s good to actually have a conversation with someone who knows.”
What were the main things you had to consider wardrobe-wise with the film?
"The story has many levels. You have a mourning part, because Kristen's character recently lost her twin brother and she's looking to connect to his soul after the death – that's one part of the film when there are no clothes. And then there is the part where she works as a stylist for a female celebrity, who is a bit like a Kardashian, but she’s not very nice, and she hates her. At this point she wears a casual, vintage-y wardrobe, but not standout clothes. It's very personal, a little boyish; like Kristen can be - a jean, leather bomber jackets, and nice wool sweaters – it's a French style in a way. And the other element is that she is cruising a guy, and when she has to meet him she wears a crazy, shiny, embroidered Chanel dress."
How did you get into costume design?
"At the start of my career I was in fashion design andI worked for Karl Lagerfeld, but it was not the famous icon Karl of today, it was the beginning of his time at Chanel. Then I worked in Yves Saint Laurent, which was where I really refined the culture of fashion. I was not making a dress for the sake of it; I was interested in the culture of making a dress. When Mr St Laurent died fashion changed a lot, with modernisation and over-marketing luxury; I didn’t like it. A guy with the pencil from marketing school was telling designers what to produce. So I thought, no, I need something more free and creative, so I moved to cinema. A girlfriend of mine was doing costume design and she said to me, 'Why don’t you come and assist me on a film and see if you like it?' loved it!"
Kristen is an ambassador for Chanel…
"Yes she is, and we worked with Chanel for Clouds of Sils Maria, the film before Personal Shopper. Chanel always invited Kristen to their fashion shows and dressed her for them, and everybody said, 'Oh that girl is interesting', which she was. And then she made the advertisement for their glasses and makeup. The real Chanel headquarters in Paris appears in the film." Is Kristen as comfortable in a polo top as she is in a Chanel gown?
"Yes, because the real chic is to be yourself, and not to try to be the dress. The dress has to come to you, not the contrary; and Kristen understands that exactly. When she put the Chanel clothes on for the movie, she didn't change anything about herself or the way she moved - if she is wearing a sweater or very cheap T-shirts she acts the same. She's pretty and young and moves well so everything follows her. She's fabulous." Is it difficult to make things look authentic in a film?
"My job is to make clothes look credible, true, but I must not forget that it needs to be cinematographic, because cinema is not real life - it has to be with a special line - if it's realistic, it has to be a little bit above reality. For example, for the main dress I could have chosen a shiny or silver dress, but the Chanel dress has something really chic – although it's not something you would enjoy to wear to a party because you can’t sit in it, it's heavy and you can't move because it's really 'plumpy' but nobody watching the film knows so it gives to the image something more powerful.” Are there any celebrities you think are really stylish now?
"That's a difficult question for me because I like people to get dressed the way they really are, and not the way someone [a stylist] dresses them - and today a lot of these stars have no personal look. A really chic person for me is, what's her name…oh…. the British girl with the very blonde hair, like this [he clips his temple with his hand]. She's a blonde, very skinny and from Scotland…I will have to call my sister. [He calls his sister and speaks to her in French]. It's Tilda Swinton! I love her because she has something personal, she follows nothing and is strong and free – raffinée."
The man responsible for the amazing looks in the film is gay costume designer Jurgen Doering.
‘I’ve worked with Kristen two times,’ says Jurgen, referring to Personal Shopper director Olivier Assayas’s last movie; the amazing Clouds of Sils Maria (a drama with a strong LGBTI subtext, also starring Juliet Binoche). ‘Kristen is very inspiring and easygoing with the clothes, and easy to work with,’ he tells us.
Here, he talks about gay people in the movie industry, Kristen’s dual sense of style, and the one item of clothing that belongs in every wardrobe…
In the film, Maureen dresses casually, but is also fascinated by high fashion – that’s so like Kristen!
You’re right. In real life Kristen is comfortable with all clothes. She’s natural in a couture piece, and also jeans.
How involved was Kristen in choosing the clothes?
She gave me direction on the phone before coming to Paris. She tried things on with a friend of hers and said ‘That’s cool’ and ‘that’s not cool.’
Did she get to keep any of the clothes?
Yes, some pieces. Not all of them. She’s not that kind of actress! During the film she said [puts on sweet voice] ‘Oh, don’t forget to give me that sweater…’
What is she like to work with? Is she nice?
Oh yes. Friendly, nice, normal. I’ve worked with some that weren’t like that. I wont give names. Actors and actresses – it’s a strange job. It [makes] you crazy a little bit! You have to be very strong in your head. Have you seen the film yourself?
Many times. What’s my understanding of it? Well, it’s normal to feel confused. She’s confused. She loves her twin brother and she’s very insecure during the film, that’s why she’s looking for the ghost, the spirit. What is your top style secret?
Follow what you feel. Do what you want to do, be free. What one piece of clothing should everyone have in their closet?
A white t-shirt, in proportion to your body, is very important.
Is your industry very LGBTI-friendly?
Cinema isn’t very gay. It’s very macho. Oh really?
Yes. That was my first surprise when I moved from fashion to cinema. Fashion, we are in ‘our’ world. When one is hetero you think ‘Oh, what’s happening with them?’ But in cinema, the hairdresser and make up people are gay, but all the other ones are not telling. There’s never cruising on set – nobody comes to you and says ‘Hey, what are you doing tonight?’
Are you proud then to see Kristen talking about her sexuality in interviews?
Yes. She does it in a very natural way, in a way I understand. Take it or leave it, no apologies it’s the way I am. It’s very close to a lot of my nieces and young people [I know]. They say ‘I’m with a boy for the moment, and next week I might be with a girl.’ They don’t think about gay or not gay, it’s what they feel.
That’s reflected in fashion too, and in Kristen’s style perhaps – the gender-fluidity…
Yes, of course. I love that. One day she can be very feminine and play the girl and the day after she’s in that boyish way again. It’s all her.
Did you have any crazy nights out with her in Paris?
No, she’s not so ‘crazy’, she’s not the kind of person who wrecks a room at The Ritz! She just enjoys herself, has drinks with all the crew, listens to loud music in the car when we had to move… She’s just…cute! I would love to work with her again.
Have you seen Kristen’s new haircut by the way?
No. What’s that? How’s she looking?
She’s shaved it all off!
No – completely?
Yes, and she’s bleached the little bit of hair she’s got!
But it would be a mistake the call “Personal Shopper” a ghost story in any literal sense, says Assayas, who sat in on a conference call with his leading lady to correct misimpressions about the new film. Despite the presence of an ectoplasm-spewing poltergeist, “Personal Shopper” is, according to the 62-year-old filmmaker, less an art-house version of “Ghostbusters” than a metaphor for “visibility and invisibility.”
“It’s a story about someone who gradually manages to comes to terms with herself, and to understand her identity and, eventually, even her own femininity,” Assayas says. “I’m using the conventions of genre film because it’s the best way to convey inner fear, inner anxieties and so on and so forth.”
If the title also is a metaphor, it’s an especially apt one. After all, is it not the task of the personal shopper to channel the personality — or at least the tastes — of another individual? In the film, Maureen is shown studying the work of Hilma af Klint, a Swedish painter who claimed that her pioneering abstractions were commissioned by beings from the astral plane, as well as that of the writer Victor Hugo, who believed he could communicate with spirits of famous dead people. Isn’t channeling, in a manner of speaking, what every actor does?
According to Stewart — who says she’s not sure whether she believes in ghosts — the answer is a resounding yes.
“I find it really self-aggrandizing and idiotic for self-proclaimed artists to take an immense amount of credit for their work, in a way that is self-celebratory,” says the 26-year-old actress, who in 2015 became the first American to win a best supporting actress César — the French equivalent of the Oscar — for her performance in “Sils Maria.” “Really, you’ve just been on the receiving end of something that passes through you.
If man cannot judge “Personal Shopper,” he certainly has tried (though the scorecard is, so far, pretty mixed.) An early audience booed the film after a media screening at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Then, the following night, the film’s festival official premiere was met with a five-minute standing ovation.
As an actor, Stewart says, she takes such ups and down in stride, and compares her best work to participating in a kind of seance-like trance. “There’s never been a time when I’ve done a scene and looked around the room and gone, ‘Ooh, we nailed it. We should be so proud of that.’ What you do is you look around and go, ‘Oh, my God, did everyone just feel that? Did everyone feel the same way?’ Once you realize that you did, and that you’ve made this connection, it always feels spiritual. It’s like, ‘Wow, we’re so lucky that we were open enough to let that pass through us.’ ”
Whatever accolades Stewart has received for the film — and more than one critic has called her performance mesmerizing — the actress gives all glory not to God but to Assayas, who says he wrote the part of Maureen, a profoundly lost and troubled soul, specifically for Stewart. “Kristen has such incredible control of what she’s doing,” he says, “at the same time as she’s following complete freedom. It’s a mix that’s extremely uncommon.”
Stewart describes Assayas’s way of filmmaking as arising less from the impulse to tell a preconceived story than out of an interest in asking open questions. “In this case,” she says, “there was the [ghost] subject matter, but, more importantly, there were really pointed questions. But every single person on the crew — every single cast member, myself included, and Olivier — we all had different responses to these questions. Whether our responses to them were the same or not didn’t actually matter. They defined the movie, but didn’t alter our course. What we ultimately discovered was that everything was a revelation, rather than an accomplishment.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with making movies where everything is cut and dried, Stewart says. Ceding complete control to a director can be just as liberating as letting the spirits move you. “I’ve been involved in films where a story sort of preexists and is somewhat finite, and you’ve been hired to function as not much more than a mouthpiece for a filmmaker,” she says. “You feel that control, and it’s not always stultifying, ironically. Sometimes it’s actually really satisfying to hit something hard really hard for someone, and to do it in a way that is controlled by them.”
On the other hand, Stewart says, she has come to realize that her greatest strength now lies in what she once saw as her greatest weakness: that sense of painful awkwardness that comes from being a “naturally shy” introvert. And how exactly did she gain that insight? Only the hard way, she explains: by making bad movies. “Anytime anything was super planned out, or seemed like a great idea on paper and there was nothing that could go wrong with it, it always ended up being trite and empty and embarrassing and so not worthwhile.
“I’m much more comfortable,” she says, “being uncomfortable.” Source
Say what you want about Kristen Stewart but she knows how to shock a red carpet. Just the other day, at the New York premiere of her new film Personal Shopper, she stunned everyone in a floor-length halterneck Chanel gown and dyed-blonde buzz cut.
Practical, severe, chic — it’s typical of Stewart’s style, one she’s been developing long before vampire franchise Twilight turned her into a megastar in 2008.
It’s why she appreciates the work of her stylist, Tara Swennen, who can regularly be found on Instagram posting pictures of Stewart.
‘I have a really open and involved collaboration with my stylist,’ says the actress. ‘I’m not remotely dressed by someone. But she’s known me for so many years. I’ve been working with her since I was 13, so she can highlight who I am, rather than make me something else.’
We meet before the New York red carpet, when the 27-year-old isn’t rocking quite such a severe look, just a white vest-top, navy trousers and black trainers.
Her blonde hair is falling over her shoulders, her green eyes accentuated with dark eye shadow.
Around her neck are silver chains, one with a mini-padlock on it. ‘I like them,’ she murmurs, ‘but they are not symbolic of anything.’
Maybe she should be wearing a cross, given the subject of Personal Shopper. Set in Paris, Stewart plays Maureen, who — when she’s not seeking out designer gowns for her supermodel boss — communes with the spirit world. Part-thriller, part-psychological portrait, it’s a tense yet teasing tale as Stewart’s amateur medium, desperate to speak to her late brother, becomes increasingly haunted.
Oddly, it’s her second ‘assistant’ role in a row for director Olivier Assayas, after 2014’s Clouds Of Sils Maria, in which she played the PA to Juliette Binoche’s actress.
‘Maureen is stuck in a very dark place in her mind,’ says Stewart. ‘I know that feeling — having physical manifestations of anxiety based on really lofty questions that you’re never going to have answers to. How the hell do you get out of that thought process? I think the way you do that is not by meaninglessly distracting yourself but by finding a peace in not knowing.’
After dating her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson, Stewart has spoken openly about her sexuality, and has had partners including French singer Soko and current squeeze, model Stella Maxwell.
‘I’m just trying to acknowledge that fluidity, that greyness, which has always existed,’ she recently told one interviewer.
You can imagine conservative studio heads blanching at such confessions, but she couldn’t care less. Acting since childhood in films such as Panic Room, Stewart says she’s not that career-conscious. ‘I work very instinctively and it’s all about gut [instinct],’ she says.
It’s why these days you’re more likely to find her in recent indie film Certain Women than a blockbuster.
‘Doing soul-fulfilling work is when I’m finding myself and not hiding,’ she says. Not that she doesn’t know how to have fun: see comedies such as American Ultra and the Rolling Stones video Ride ’Em On Down.
She’s now working behind the camera, having directed the Take Me To The South video for Sage + The Saints and her first short, Come Swim, which premiered at Sundance.
‘That is one change in direction I’m definitely going to try and focus on,’ she says. Calling all the shots — it beats being the assistant.
In Personal Shopper, Kristen Stewart spends her time browsing haute couture stores and even trying on the slinky outfits belonging to her character’s supermodel boss. But in real life, does she have a massive wardrobe?
‘I have a lot of sneakers! I’m really sneaker-obsessed. But, no, not really,’ she says. ‘All this stuff we wear is being lent to us. I try to keep little pieces that feel like mine but I don’t have that much stuff.’
Stewart is not afraid to mix it up either. When she hosted Saturday Night Live recently, she wore Christian Louboutin heels with a $78 Spanx slip dress. And while it’s rare to see her at a fashion show, she has modelled for Chanel. ‘There’s nothing wrong with appreciating beauty and aesthetic,’ she says.
‘The people who are drawn to fashion for genuine reasons are the artists and are those who can appreciate that art.
‘Those drawn to it because of the attention that it brings and the potential popularity contest that they have a chance of winning... that’s just self-serving. It’s really selfish and it’s not beautiful at all.’
At Members-only screening at LACMA’s Bing Theater on March 6, director Olivier Assayas and actress Kristen Stewart sat down with Film Independent at LACMA curator Elvis Mitchell to discuss their new Paris-set mystery drama, Personal Shopper. Immediately following the screening, Assayas and Stewart delved into an intense 20-minute conversation about their connection as collaborators as well as what drew them to Shopper—out now in limited release and on VOD.
As with Assayas and Stewart’s prior collaboration on the director’s 2014 Clouds of Sils Maria, Shopper reflects the theme of women uncovering facets of their identity while experiencing the world around them. Stewart plays Maureen, a young American woman living in Paris working as a personal shopper for a spoiled celebrity. It’s gradually revealed that Maureen is also a medium using her uncanny abilities to communicate with her dead brother, whom she was very close. From there, the film takes audiences on a journey through Maureen’s self-discovery during the somewhat mundane life that followed her brother’s passing, as well as her thrilling (and decidedly not mundane) encounters with unknown spirits.
Assayas began the Q&A by giving the audience some insight into just how sure he was of Stewart’s ability to play Maureen. He said it came naturally to give her the screenplay, because the story “didn’t make sense” without her.
“I’d always been a fan of her work, but I didn’t know how far we could go or how we could function together,” Assayas said. “It was gradually on the set of Sils Maria that I realized we could go further. I had no idea where the limit was, and I still don’t know.”
Assayas praised the human quality and authenticity that Stewart brings to the screen, saying that Stewart gave (and gives) him the confidence to try things and explore areas he wouldn’t dare to go without her—just the type of collaboration he wanted for Personal Shopper.
Clearly, for those who have suffered the death of a loved one the experience can be disarming. It can be a struggle to find your ground after something so confronting. In Personal Shopper, Maureen is a dismantled, stark version of a person trying to put her life together again—a challenge Stewart endeavored to portray.
“I think every response to this movie is entirely individual, so my own interpretation took a second,” said Stewart. “But very ambiguously, I knew that it was something that was worth doing, and I was very intimidated by it. But I knew that I really loved working with [Assayas].”
To portray the character, Stewart said she had to know what being “alone” felt like. She needed to put herself in a mental space where she felt completely isolated in order to channel the feeling of grief required to portray Maureen.
Mitchell asked Assayas and Stewart if they thought they trusted each other enough prior to production to push the normal boundaries of filmmaking. With great chemistry comes great creative collaboration; the relationship between director and actor is important for the evocative atmosphere intended for a film like Personal Shopper.
“It gives you this sense of security knowing that he does good work, and it sounds really simple, but it’s true,” Stewart said of her director.
Assayas knew that because of Stewart’s relaxed composure as an actor she would perfectly what Personal Shopper was about. But her ability to go beyond her limits encouraged and inspired him as a director.
“I think we made this film together, because she reinvents with me. We were completely complimentary,” he said.
It’s obvious that Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper are both united by a common motif. Mitchell was curious to know where this inspiration came from and why Assayas thought he gravitated toward stories about the relationship between women and identity.
Assayas shared that growing up in France the son of immigrants—a Jewish-Italian father and a Hungarian mother—finding his own identity was often a struggle. According to him, the women depicted in his films more or less reflect his past. He’s always been interested in “a stranger in a strange land” and the decisions foreigners have to face in a culture they don’t fully understand, writing about people who have to make sense of the world around them. Since, he said, we’re all trying to discover ourselves on a day-to-day basis, it was his goal to translate this trouble-filled process to film.
Assayas admitted to a complex relationship with the abstract process of turning his screenplays into movies. He explores each script word-by-word and in filming those words takes them much further—especially with the help of Stewart. When filming with Assayas, Stewart said that everything belongs to the environment and because of that, Personal Shopper was a film she was proud to do.
Find more photos and videos from the screening at LACMA here.
At the Q&A screening of Personal Shopper, a couple of audience members mentioned being scared.
Would you agree the film is scary?
I don’t know. If they were scared I suppose it’s scary. It’s not scary for me because I’ve done it. It’s something you can’t really quantify. I suppose that genre filmmakers can know and control it a bit more than I do. I have zero control on it. I want to push the scenes as far as I can, but I’m not sure when people are actually scared. When you make something that’s funny, that has comic overtones, you know instantly, because the audience is laughing. When they are scared, you don’t have that kind of feedback.
It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that early on, we get to see a ghost on-screen. How did you decide how much you were going to show?
I wanted to show it. What’s in the film is pretty much what was in the screenplay. Slightly different; I obviously adapted, and blah blah blah. To me, the question was more how to represent it. It’s a difficult question because it’s a projection of your imagination. Doesn’t have to look too CGI, too digital. If it’s just a superimposition it will look corny. Very early in the process I had the clear notion that what I wanted to use as a reference was spirit photography, from the second half of the 19th century, early 20th century. It looks very naïve now with the perspective of time but it’s still kind of scary and it really does represent what the medium thought of what they saw in séances. Ultimately I used descriptions by medium of their encounters with spirits. I was as strict as I could be in terms of representing ghosts in a way those in the spirit world imagine they see them.
There is an extended sequence in the film without any spoken dialogue but tension is sustained through a mysterious, menacing text message conversation. What were the difficulties and possibilities of using modern media in this way?
I was really wondering if I could manage to translate on-screen the fascination we have with our cell-phones, with the conversation we can have via text message. It can be addictive. ‘How long will it take to get an answer?’ ‘Oh, he’s writing, the dots are blinking.’ That kind of tension. I thought it would be fairly simple, but in terms of technique it was a nightmare. To get that stuff right, I had no idea how complicated it would be. I kept changing. Some of the text I ended up changing the wording. I reworked that scene for ages to maximise the tension.
Given the rate at which technology moves on, do you not worry using text messaging like that will date the movie?
Of course it will date the movie. But think about when Superman changes in the phonebooth or something. We kind of accept it in the history of filmmaking. We’re fine with watching movies where people don’t have cell-phones. To put it that way, your film, any film, instantly becomes a period piece. You don’t have to wait five years. Especially in terms of communication. In terms of communication, this will be completely outdated in five years’ time. Even if I think people will keep on texting, because texting is a very interesting form of communication, it will just be a memory of how people functioned in 2016.
Kristen Stewart’s performance is terrific, but you suggested at the Q&A that there were depths to her that were still yet to be seen. Can you elaborate on this?
I genuinely think that I’m extremely privileged to be working with Kristen because I think she’s a very unique actress. When we were making Personal Shopper I was just wondering where the limit was. I never really sensed where the limit could be. I think that Kristen can be funny; I think that’s a dimension of her that has not been explored much. I think she has a wicked sense of humour. Once in a while, when she has something she can use for comedy, she’s pretty smart at using it. I would love to do a period piece with her. I’ve made two movies with her and I’m still curious of where she can go. Which doesn’t mean I’ll be making my next film with her but there is the potential for that.
You also said that the role wasn’t written for her; given certain similarities between her character here and her role in your previous film [Clouds of Sils Maria], did one role grow out of the other?
I didn’t exactly write it for her, at least not consciously. I was certainly inspired by her. I don’t think I would have written the character of Maureen if I had not worked with Kristen. She was my one experience of observing a young American girl. When I’m writing the part of a young American girl it has echoes of that one person I know. Until the moment we finalised that we were going to work together on this film I kind of refused to admit the logic of how it all fell into place. But the minute it was clear, I had to accept that I’ve been writing this piece for her.
Where did the idea for the film begin?
Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to explain, but here it’s fairly simple. I think that what inspired me was the notion of this girl doing a stupid job, at least a very mundane job. She thinks it’s superficial, wasting her time, but she needs it to make a living. She finds some sort of comfort by exploring ideas out in her dreams. And it grew from that.
In this, as well as being one of the big talking point of Clouds of Sils Maria, there is a strong sense of ambiguity to the narrative. How would you explain this?
I’m interested in the twists and turns of how I describe things. I like the idea of how to surprise the audience. How to not go for the obvious, the expected, and take it in another direction. I’m not interested in resolution. I’m interested in the excitement of witnessing something that’s strange, in a film. If you explain it you kind of spoil it. Usually movies are adverse to ambiguity. I like the notion of ambiguity. I like the unresolved quality of ambiguity. I like the way it generates questions that stay with the viewer. To take another example that’s maybe more clear-cut, like when Valentin disappears in Clouds of Sils Maria, I think it’s just more interesting to have her disappear, as opposed to having her leave. I could have added a shot where we see her with her hiking boots boarding a bus, and no one would have questioned it, but I think the question mark we stay with increases our awareness. It gives a sense of maybe she won’t come back. It gives a sense that during the whole epilogue of the film she’s present. She’s like a shadow that’s hovering over the whole night. It’s much more interesting to leave it open. Has she disappeared? Why has she disappeared? Ultimately we don’t care. What we care about is that she’s still around, she lingers on. It’s this notion of unease that’s generated by Personal Shopper. The ambiguous few shots of some ghosts walking out of a hotel is beneficial to the ending of the film. It’s something that echoes.
You shot Personal Shopper in a short amount of time. Given a larger budget/longer timespan, is there anything you’d change?
No, because I like the energy of it. I like to shoot long days. I’ve shot all my recent films in about six weeks. Even Carlos. Carlos was three movies, but it’s like three times six weeks. Maybe Something in the Air was a bit longer. But I like this struggle with time. It’s what makes the process exciting. When there’s too much time, it gets a bit boring, and you can get… bourgeois.
Olivier Assayas has never heard the term "ghosting" before. You would think someone would have brought it up to him anytime between now and last year's Cannes, since his new movie, Personal Shopper, involves Kristen Stewart getting quite literally ghosted. That is, she gets into a frantic, voyeuristic, threatening, and sexually charged texting conversation with a ghost, who is possibly her dead twin brother. As weird as that sounds, it translates to the screen in a magnetic way thanks to Stewart's brilliance in every frame, Assayas's devoted gaze as his lead actress tries on beautiful clothes, and his fashionable sensibilities while unraveling this chilling story.
This is the second time Assayas has worked with his new muse. In 2015, Stewart's role as a personal assistant to Juliette Binoche in The Clouds of Sils Maria won her a prestigious César Award (basically the French Oscars), making her the first American actress to do so. Personal Shopper is a far more daring and experimental turn for Stewart, whom Assayas cites more as his collaborator than actress. And because this is an Assayas film, he doesn't give us clear answers in his 21st-century mystery. And he doesn't just stay in just one genre lane—whether it be horror or thriller or a coming-of-age story (even the makeover montage is nothing like you've ever seen before)—or even a single medium, using séances as inspiration in the ghostly scenes and shooting long back-and-forth exchanges that take place on the iPhone.
Ahead of the film's solid box office opening this past weekend, we sat down with the acclaimed French director to talk about his new movie, texting etiquette, and working with Roman Polanski.
VICE: The film is more than just fancy clothes and texting, but I sound so silly whenever I try to describe the movie. Did you have any trouble getting your vision across before having the movie made?
Olivier Assayas: Well, not really. Kristen Stewart was immediately onboard, and we were making this film for very little money—in the $5 million range. If I had to do pitching, I would have been in trouble.
Have you seen Elle? It reminded me of that a bit: How women deal with grief or loss, and how sometimes it makes no sense to other people.
Yes, I've seen Elle. I think the film is, ultimately, exactly as you say. It's really someone else's coming-of-age story or just someone who, through grief, becomes herself again. I've used various elements—anxiety, fear, whatever—to help the audience share those very basic emotions. And then I tried to convey that through the genre elements.
Is it weird that people are just starting to write about Kristen Stewart like, "Turns out she's actually a good actor" after your films?
I always loved her. I did not know how far we could go together. I had seen her in the first Twilight film. I had seen her in Into the Wild, and she was amazing. And I also really liked her as young Joan Jett in The Runaways. I thought she was getting that kind of punk energy so right. I always thought she was a very special actress. How far she could go, I had no idea. I discovered it while we were shooting The Clouds of Sils Maria. I realized every tiny thing she had to do, she would just turn it into something that was completely cinematic. I don't think I invented Kristen or whatever. It's really her talent and hard work, but I think I was the right person at the right moment because I could tell her that it's OK to be herself.
Right, it's much weirder material.
Yeah, that scene where she tries on clothes was very much a Kristen creation. I said to Kristen, "Don't worry, just take your time, do it however you want, and I will edit it." And then, when I saw her doing it, I thought, Oh my God, I'm not going to edit that. She made something out of every single movement. I mean, that's what Kristen does; she's like a dancer. She also has this very precise awareness of how sexy a moment could be. And she micromanages it in a brilliant way.
Do you know the term "ghosting?"
OK, say you're dating someone, and you're texting or communicating with them, then they suddenly stop talking to you. That's what you call "ghosting." I kept thinking you bring ghosting to the next, literal level in your film.
Ah yes, yes, yes. I did not know the term, but I like the idea of the dramatics of text messaging. Especially when it has to do with some sort of weird sexual thing, you know? I like the idea of the seduction scene, by someone you don't know, but you can fantasize. And so I like the idea of her being dragged into this kind of thing that has to do with physical desire or sexual desire or whatever you call it. And also by someone who is just an abstract entity, and it could be a boy or a girl.
You decided to include read receipts in there, which is often considered rude. I guess that's perfect for a ghost to do. Were you thinking about that specific texting etiquette?
Well, what I wanted to capture ultimately is the complexity of that specific form of communication. I think I had an intuition of it, but I didn't realize it until we were actually shooting the film. When I got into editing it, all of a sudden every tiny nuance echoed in very complex ways. People are so used to communicating through text; it's an experience we all share… every tiny nuance of how you respond, how you don't respond, how you delay responding. I wanted to be able to reproduce on film the complexity of that language.
You use a CGI ghost, which is obviously not your usual trick. How did you direct that scene to get exactly what you wanted?
It was a complex process. I didn't want to connect with contemporary specialist acts; I wanted to be able to connect with something a bit rawer, cruder, like spiritualist photography at the end of the 19th century. They used photography to reproduce what they imagined they saw during séances. So I used that kind of photography and used the description by mediums of what they saw during the séances. I think ultimately what we ended up putting on the screen is as close as possible to the way the spirits looked like in the imagination of mediums.
Ask anyone who the biggest star at last year's Cannes Film Festival was, and the resounding answer would no doubt be Kristen Stewart. From her opening-night appearance in Woody Allen’s Café Society to her multitude of winning red carpet looks (including a controversial Vans moment), she was everywhere. The biggest news for Stewart, though, was her starring role in Personal Shopper, the psychological thriller written and directed by Olivier Assayas that premiered at Cannes and is now showing in U.S. theaters. As you may have inferred from the title, Stewart plays Maureen, an American in Paris hired to tend to the fashion needs of a famous model (they’re the same size, so she can easily shop for her). But that’s not really why Maureen is there; she’s also a medium and is trying to communicate with her deceased twin brother. Contrasted against her day job of Chanel fittings and trips to Christian Louboutin is a series of supernatural phenomena, confusing “signs” from the ghost of her brother, and a stalker who harasses Maureen via text.
Personal Shopper is Stewart’s second film with Assayas; she was the first American actress to win a Cesar Award for her role in his 2014 film, Clouds of Sils Maria. To say the stakes were high for Personal Shopper is an understatement. Many critics praised the movie and said it was Stewart’s best performance to date; at a Cannes press conference, she also admitted it was one of her toughest roles yet. That was likely the case for Jürgen Doering, the film’s costume designer, who also worked with Stewart on Clouds of Sils Maria. In both films, Stewart assists a high-wattage celebrity, so the wardrobes alternate between casual, everyday clothes and glamorous red carpet fare. In Personal Shopper, Stewart wears an old Fair Isle sweater in one scene and a metallic Chanel gown in another; we spoke to Doering about the challenges of pulling both, and what it’s like to work with one of the industry’s most-sought-after actresses.
“Kristen is amazing,” Doering says right off the bat. “She’s very cool in the clothes. For me, it’s really easy to work with her, now that I know her [from Clouds of Sils Maria], and she trusts me. She’s so chic—you can take her anywhere, and she really wants to understand [the clothes.]” Doering also acknowledged that Stewart has been a face of Chanel for more than two years, so one might expect her to want some control over the clothing choices—but the opposite was true. “She always asks what I think, what I might propose, and then we have a real talk about it,” he says. “She’s not high maintenance at all—she’s very sexy. She has this big contract [with Chanel] and dresses for her job on the red carpet, but in the film, she looks like a student in sweaters and jeans.”
Stewart wears Chanel in the film, too—but it’s not her Chanel. After picking up a silvery sequin-encrusted dress for her boss, she briefly slips into it, as if to temporarily forget her haunted journey and assume a glamorous, unencumbered life. “It’s that game of dreaming of being who you work for,” Doering says. Much of his research focused on those clothes Maureen shopped for, as those scenes were pivotal moments in the film. “Olivier would say, ‘Why Chanel?’ or ‘Why Vionnet?’ because we didn’t want it to feel too obvious.”
When she isn’t playing dress-up, Maureen wears a modest wardrobe of jeans, polos, and leather jackets, which plays a subliminal role in the film’s dark mood. “She doesn’t like her job,” Doering says. (“I spend my days doing bullshit that doesn’t interest me,” Maureen says at one point. “It’s driving me fucking crazy.”) “I took that into account,” he adds. “She’s feeling bad, and she’s missing her brother, so [those clothes] create a big contrast between the designer dresses she tries on.”
Designing costumes that look like someone’s normal, everyday wardrobe may seem easier than working on, say, a period piece or far-flung drama. But it speaks to the impact that clothing has on a film, particularly how “real” a film feels—and that’s likely why Assayas hired Doering. The director is notoriously detail oriented, so every sneaker, coat, and bag probably had to go through a scrupulous approval process. “Everything had to feel credible,” Doering says. Stewart is familiar with offhand, believable style, too; don’t forget, she slashed a Chanel T-shirt for her first appearance at Cannes at Cannes.
EW: What was the first idea or image that set you off on writing this film?
OLIVIER ASSAYAS: My original idea started with the character. I imagined this girl who was bored by her dull, frustrating, alienating day job and she finds some protection and consolation in the world of her imagination. Then in the process of writing, I also realized it was a coming of age story. And it made sense once I realized it was also about someone who was reconstructing herself after a devastating loss. She’s lost like half of herself and has to become whole again.
How long ago did you start writing?
I had been scribbling down some ideas and one day a few years ago I just sat down to figure out if this had potential or not.
Was that day before or after you’d first met Kristen Stewart?
Well, I suppose that the character preexisted before Kristen but I think it’s definitely Kristen who gave life to it. We had been making Clouds of Sils Maria and I realized what a unique actress she was and for some mysterious reason, we had a connection. And afterwards, I hoped we would be able to go further into that. Maybe the reason I had never fully written Personal Shopper was because I did not have the actress for it. For both of us, this film was about finding where the limits were. And after finishing it, I can tell you I have no idea where the limits are for her.
I’ve seen you two interact. It seems like you really like each other and feel very comfortable together.
We do, very much so.
What is it about your friendship and your collaboration that clicks so well?
I think I have been the one filmmaker perhaps who has given her more space and freedom. When we worked on Clouds of Sils Maria, I was the one who told Kristen, “It’s okay to be yourself.” To me, she wasn’t a movie star, even though her name was helping to get my film financed. I was interested is Kristen as a human being and I loved discovering that she was so instinctive.
She’s said that this film was very hard work for her but that she really understood this character.
I think she understood my script better than I did. I’m half joking but half extremely serious. For instance, I wrote the screenplay really fast and I wanted to shoot it right away. And Kristen kept telling me, “Oh, no, I’m doing this Woody Allen movie (Café Society) in the summer and I really need to prepare for it.” And I was like, “Kristen, you don’t need months to prepare for a Woody Allen film.”
But I accepted it and we postponed the film until she was done with the Woody Allen film, which I loved by the way. But once we started shooting, then I realized her preparation process. It’s amazing. She needed time to appropriate the grieving, the anxiety, and find herself in all the places where this character takes her. I fully realized that she needed all that extra time. And in that sense, Kristen was much more the adult in the room than I was.
What’s the collaboration like while you’re shooting on set?
We actually don’t talk very much. We’re each very intuitive. I like to discuss my work once it’s done because somehow then I end up making sense of it. But it’s much more raw in the process of making the film. And Kristen functions that way too. I don’t rehearse. I don’t explain. With Kristen, she’ll come to me and say, “I like this moment,” and I’ll say, “Very good, then let’s try to expand it.” We have a very matter-of-fact discussion style.
It’s funny, though. When we’re discussing the film with journalists or doing a joint interview, already I think I’m telling her more things than I ever said during the shoot. I think words are a limit to the complexity that we create on set. Putting out too many words while making something kind of spoils the process.
Do you feel weird talking about the film without her?
In a way, yes. I feel like I’m appropriating something that’s really a collaboration. All my films have been collaborations with my actors, but I hope audiences realize how much this film really owes itself to Kristen. In a certain way it was inspired by her, in a sense, because we had worked together on Clouds of Sils Maria and I got to know her.
And I realized that there was some bond between us, something that was happening. I mean, we are definitely not of the same generation or the same background, but there is something like siblings about how we function. I really wanted to extend that. And then I sat down and began writing this story which was about a young American girl. And my experience in knowing young American girls is mostly Kristen. So it became something.
You’ve dealt with familial grief as a subject matter before, like in the wonderful Summer Hours. But where did the idea to add a thriller element come from? There’s an iPhone in Personal Shopper which is like a Ouija board. It’s amazing.
The thing is that Kristen’s character was lonely from the start. What turns her on is transgression, doing something forbidden. I think she accepts and understands it but also struggles with it. This is also a movie about solitude.
I liked the idea of this ghost world we live in, which relates to the text messaging in the film and also the communication we have with someone who’s not really there and who we don’t know. I like the idea of her loneliness being informed and inhabited by the world of modern communication. I liked it in artistic terms but I think it also deals with the strange ways that our lives have changed. The tools of communication have changed our brains and our way of living and how we connect with each other. It’s a major dimension in the evolution of modern humanity.
What should audiences keep in mind while watching Personal Shopper? People might not know there’s a supernatural element in the film.
That’s true but I think there have always been ghosts in my movies. There are always doors between things known and things unknown. One thing audiences should keep in mind is that they won’t get all the answers. I think movies are more about questions than answers. Movies have been helping me to think about the world and question the human experience for my whole life. That’s hopefully what I share with an audience.
In real life, Kristen is an actress that fashion houses clamor to style, but there’s this interesting tension when she wears their expensive dresses because you know there’s a part of her that would rather put on a hoodie and tennis shoes.
Yeah, and you see it. You feel it, you sense it. The character is inspired by her because she has this androgyny, a masculine and feminine side, and she’s completely herself and comfortable on both sides. I think that’s part of what makes her fairly unique because, as you say, she’s this fashion muse but she’s also a rebel. There is something genuinely rebellious about Kristen. She has this kind of punk-rock energy to her.
Do you remember the very first time you met Kristen?
I remember very vividly the first few times I met her. The first time I met her, I went to visit Robert Pattinson in London and they were together at the time. I just remember this girl who came in and out of the room where we were having a conversation, and I was looking at her, like, Who is that? And then she was friends with my producer Charles Gillibert who produced On the Road, the Walter Salles movie, and I saw her in social situations in Paris. It’s totally impossible to connect with anyone at parties like that, but just watching her move and how she functioned, I thought she had something that was just so raw, so authentic, and so cinematic. I always felt there was more to her than whatever I had seen in the movies. To me, that’s the key to really having the desire of working with an actress. I did not know her, but I had the fantasy of her.
The next time we really met was when she had read the screenplay for Clouds of Sils Maria and she wanted to do it. When I wrote Clouds of Sils Maria, I wrote it for Juliette Binoche, and she had this American assistant who was a no-nonsense, really grounded young girl. It could have been another actress — Kristen was certainly top of my list because I thought she was a great actress and I was curious to work with her — but I think I really discovered Kristen when we were making Clouds of Sils Maria. I realized that every single tiny thing I gave her to do, she would invent something: She would make it interesting, she would make it sexy, she would make it weird. It ended up being a bit frustrating because her character in Clouds of Sils Maria is written as less multilayered than Juliette Binoche’s character, and so to me the question stayed with me, “What would happen if I gave her a bigger part?”
Not every actor is the same in real life as they appear onscreen, but to know Kristen through her roles is to get a strong sense of what she’s actually like. She has a very grounded center, both as a character and as herself.
Yeah, that’s true, but that’s truth starting at a certain point. I think that for some reason, a lot of people had a very wrong notion of Kristen being distant and aloof, when in real life she’s the most simple, likeable, generous person. What I was happy about in Clouds of Sils Maria is that I kind of encouraged her to let this fun part of her come across, and Juliette was incredibly generous about that in many ways. There were a couple of scenes where Juliette would say, “You know what? Kristen, Olivier, why don’t we make this more funny? We don’t see these characters laughing enough.” I think a lot of people who love Kristen were really happy to see her laugh and be funny in those scenes in the same way that she can be funny in real life.
What has been fascinating in working with Kristen is that, in a way, it’s strangely similar to the way I functioned with Maggie Cheung. Like with Maggie, I wrote Irma Vep for her where she was playing an archetype, and then once I had done that, I had the desire to give her a part which was more layered, more like the real-life Maggie. I think it’s a bit similar with Kristen where I gave her this kind of one-dimensional part in Sils Maria and it generated the desire to write something more human, more complex, and closer to her in many ways with Personal Shopper. But the thing is that, even when I was making Personal Shopper, I had the feeling like I was experimenting: “Where are her limits? How far can she go?” The answer is, “I don’t know.” I haven’t really seen the limits yet and so I hope we have the opportunity of working again together.
Personal Shopper is terrific, yet it was booed at Cannes. Do you think that’s because you and Kristen had just come off this major moment with Clouds of Sils Maria, and the French press was trying to cut you down to size?
Yeah, you never know. Cannes can be tough, so you have to be psychologically prepared. Anything can happen in Cannes, especially with movies where you take risks. Cannes is not that risk-friendly, you know, and I like to take risks with my films — I never go for the obvious next step. I think that for some reason, the tension in Cannes can be a bit hysteric, a bit excessive. People overreact. I have a long history with that specific festival and it’s been very good to me, so I’m never going to say anything bad about Cannes, but Personal Shopper is not tailor-made for Cannes, I’ll put it that way.
The Cannes jury liked it, though.
For some reason, I was more surprised that the reaction to Clouds of Sils Maria there was a tiny bit more minimal than what I would’ve imagined. The film was very successful all over the world, but I thought the reaction in Cannes would’ve been stronger. I mean, in terms of getting a prize, I would have bet on Clouds of Sils Maria as opposed to Personal Shopper, but then the crazy thing is that we got a prize for Personal Shopper.
You were supposed to shoot a different movie right before this and it was shut down right before you began. I wonder if somehow you were able to channel that sense of interruption into the character of Maureen, who is shell-shocked after this important part of her, her brother, has been ripped away.
Yeah, I suppose I did. The mourning aspect of it maybe had to do with that. It was a very violent experience, because it kind of never happens, to have a movie shut down right before the shoot. The sets were built, the costumes were there, the actors were there, the trucks were loaded with the equipment. What can I say? The film was literally happening and then all of a sudden, the financier pulled the plug … which is crazy, because he had more money to lose by doing that than by actually making the film. So I was in shock and I came back to Paris and the question was, “What am I going to do? What’s my next move?”
And I decided that the only way to get over it was to start from scratch, not to try to revise the other project. I always have a couple notes scribbled here or there about movies I eventually would love to make, but here, I just wanted to start from the blank page. Yeah, that moment was kind of defined for me by mourning but I suppose that the energy I found was positive, and connected to Kristen. And I wrote it real fast. I came back to Paris in November and I had a finished screenplay by February and if I could have shot it by June, I would’ve been ultrahappy, but I had to wait until Kristen was done with the Woody Allen film [Café Society].
Does it give you pleasure to watch some of the most tense scenes of the film with an audience, to feel how they’re responding to it?
I think it’s more striking with comedy, actually. I’m not exactly a comedy director, but once in a while I make a movie that can have funny elements and it’s really great to hear the audience react — to have them actually laughing is thrilling, it’s exciting. With scenes that are scary, you can’t see the audience reacting so you don’t exactly have an instrument to measure it. Also, in terms of editing and making the film, it’s very difficult to fine-tune those shots, those things, because after a while you don’t react the same way yourself, you know? You’ve watched those shots a million times in the editing room and after a while, you don’t get the same thrill. So you have to assume how the audience will react. It’s a very good question that’s hard to answer.
Maureen is repulsed by this false world of celebrity, but at the same time, there’s a real allure to those clothes she puts on, almost as though she’s donning a new identity. Do you have the same push-pull relationship to fame?
I’m very ambivalent about a lot of things in the modern world. We live in an extremely materialistic world and that’s frustrating but at the same time, there is something very vital about it. I am not puritan in that sense, to put it that way. I set the story within the fashion world, which is like the most material version of whatever the material world is about, but simultaneously, there is something artistic about it. My mother was a fashion designer, so I suppose that whenever I’m dealing with the fashion industry, I have that influence. The art world is the same way: We can be freaked out by the art world and the way it has become spoiled by industry, but at the same time, we do see the beauty of it. We can be fascinated or excited by art beyond what is very superficial about it. I think I have, in that sense, a very dialectic form of mind. I’m always interested by the way that opposites blend.
Seeing Personal Shopper and Irma Vep (1994) in close succession at the Toronto Film Festival made me curious about how conscious you are of your past work when creating something new.
I’m really interested in this dialogue between my movies. It’s important for me to have a notion of how my movies echo one another. I’ve been lucky to write all my films and more or less make movies with the same freedom of a novelist writing his novels. Every single movie I’ve made is like a part of this one movie, which includes the present, the past, the future—mapping the world in its own way. What excites me when I’m making a film is that it covers ground I have not covered before. It’s part of the same energy, but I’ve moved the stage somewhere else.
How did you approach the supernatural elements in Personal Shopper?
I wanted to take the subject seriously. I didn’t want to make it a genre element or something weird or far-fetched. I wanted to make it feel like part of everyday life, to set the film in a world where people do believe in the existence of ghosts, where no one questions it. And for so many people it’s not a strange thing. We all have our ghosts; it’s not a matter of belief. We live with our own ghosts, and we live with our imaginations, our fears and anxieties, and what we call ghosts are a mixture of thedeparted and how they connect with our own inner world.
To me, “ghosts” is a code word. We know there’s much more to reality than what is actually visible, and that’s proven by science—it’s not some kind of weird fantasy. So we certainly have some relationship to forces that we don’t completely comprehend.
In many ways, the film is a companion piece to Clouds of Sils Maria. How did your experiences making the two films differ?
It’s a bit different in the sense that Clouds of Sils Maria is a sort of comedy, a comedy about aging. I don’t think it’s a lighter film than Personal Shopper, but it’s different because it’s a movie about the dynamic between two characters. I think that Personal Shopper is like a continuation of the darker undercurrent in Sils Maria. When I was making Sils Maria and when I was making a movie like Irma Vep, I was pretty conscious of the invisible forces that drove the characters, even though in the films they are beneath the surface. I think I needed at some point to make a movie where I externalize the inner process. Strangely, Personal Shopper is a much simpler film than other movies I’ve made, but in many ways it’s also a film that touches on something very personal and also represents how I work and how I function as a filmmaker and a person.
Kristen Stewart is terrific in the film, and so much of its momentum is dictated by her physicality—which is remarkable, considering a lot of the action is happening on a phone screen.
I knew I could trust Kristen with that. It was so difficult to find the right balance and to structure it. It’s a movie where every single nuance echoes within the whole film in ways that I did not expect. I also didn’t realize the complexity of what I was asking Kristen to do. I think she was possibly more aware of it than I was, because when you’re an actress and you read a scene, you visualize it or embody it in the preparation process. But when you write, you have another perspective, and you don’t discover the practical aspects of it until you’re working and shooting. Kristen has this unique way of inhabiting the screen, of using her body within the shot. She has this extraordinary way of blending into the shots like a dancer, even if it doesn’t look like dancing.
Can you talk about your approach to technology as a means of storytelling in the film?
I use my phone like everybody else. It’s an extension of our memory, of our imagination. I’ve made a couple movies that were more like period pieces—even a film like Sils Maria is in a time zone of its own—but this film was an opportunity to deal with modern characters in the modern world. Looking things up on the Internet when you’re doing something else—it’s so much a part of how we function. It’s part of our world in ways that are getting stranger and stranger; it’s a visualization of our thought process. So from the moment I started making this movie about someone who’s alone, someone who’s lonely and in the process of reconstructing herself, that reconstruction was part of her inner dialogue, and part of her inner dialogue is externalized on the Internet and in images on a phone.
What were your early movie-watching experiences like?
I grew up in the countryside, and I watched movies on TV. A lot of my education in classic cinema came from stuff I saw on a small black-and-white screen. I would go to the suburban Parisian theaters and watch mainstream movies. I remember all the kids of my generation discovering Cinerama movies like Ben-Hur. I think my first memory of cinema must be of seeing Ben-Hur when I was around six; it was very impressive and was on such a grand scale. When I was a teenager, I could relate more seriously to what I genuinely loved in cinema and what genuinely attracted me. It had to do with independent American films of the seventies that were connected to the counterculture, a lot of post–Easy Rider stuff. They had a sense of freedom. When I was a teenager, the energy of the French nouvelle vague had already passed. When I was growing up in the seventies, it was a different world, and what captured those times was that kind of cool, hip, semi-experimental independent film.
You transitioned from writing about films as a critic at Cahiers du cinéma to making them. Was that always your goal?
Writing about films was an accident. I always wanted to make films. I didn’t go to film school; I studied French literature and painting, but cinema I discovered on my own. I started making short films, and I started thinking there was something not completely mature about my understanding of cinema. So the opportunity of writing about films forced me to think about cinema and learn about it in a deeper way than I hadbefore. In that sense, I’m kind of self-taught when it comes to theory and history.
How do you think about filmmaking in relation to other arts?
My filmmaking is generated by my relationship with other arts. The reason I’ve chosen cinema, as opposed to painting, which could have been an option, is the way it records human emotion and its collective nature, which is extremely important to me. Also, the documentary aspect of cinema: whatever story you’re telling, it needs to be some kind of reality in front of your own eyes.
Do you have a favorite part of the filmmaking process?
My favorite part must be editing, because it has the essential qualities of writing but without the doubts or the sense of being out of focus. When you get to the editing room, it’s done, it’s finished, you have all your material, and you can write with it. I just love it. And gradually the film takes shape like a painting in front of your eyes, but you don’t have the pressure of finishing on time or getting the shot or losing the light or the crewbeing on strike.
What was the last movie you saw that you loved?
A recent film I really like is Toni Erdmann. I’ve always loved the work of Maren Ade. I’ve seen her previous film, which I loved, but I think Toni Erdmann is onanother dimension. Once in a while something comes up that has this strength and originality and is daring. That’s what keeps movies exciting.
I read that you worked on a new film with Roman Polanski. How was it collaborating with another filmmaker in that way?
I thought it would be difficult, but it was actually extremely pleasurable. I really liked the process. I never function with cowriters; I don’t like the dynamics of it. But here, with Polanski, it made complete sense. He had a very clear idea of what he wanted, and he listens. It’s his way of working, so he’s familiar with the process, and it was very simple, obvious, and pleasurable for me. I don’t think I would do it again any time soon, but this one time I loved it.
Q: Maureen doesn’t like her job which is a universal chord, so many people are unhappy in their job.
STEWART: Maureen is in the midst of an existential crisis brought on by striking loss. She is busying herself in a sort of very mundane way with a job she doesn’t like very much because it gives her an opportunity to stay in Paris and… the contrasting world that she’s subjected to every single day couldn’t be more empty. Or couldn’t be contrastingly – you know – superficial. There’s a resentment put towards those things that really don’t matter and she criticizes herself for that as well -- because ultimately she’s very attracted to those things. Like beauty and aesthetic, the artful aspect is something she loves – but she kind of hates herself for loving.
Q: Is that the attraction then for her to put on the clothes of the woman she works for – because they’re forbidden?
STEWART: I think there’s an attraction to things that are forbidden. I think there’s an attraction to things that are unknown. I think there’s effort on her part to fill gaps that were left by the death of her brother… The real feminine, sort of more feral aspect of her which is innately animalistic and her as a woman is being denied because the most essential, base version would be really comforting to live in because it’s easy to understand. It’s just who you are and how you were born. But that’s just too simple a notion for her.
So I think when she does allow herself to be an individual, and allow herself to be herself, she’s only able to confront that thru these clothes. She’s almost trying to access, just for a moment, something simple, something primal. And other than those moments she’s just trying to be him – she misses him. Q: Is it super significant that they are twins and not merely siblings?
STEWART: Absolutely. I think they function like if their lives were a movie it would be a two hander. And all of a sudden that person doesn’t exist anymore and you’re half of a person.
Q: I found it easier to accept the medium aspect of trying to connect with this vapor – and those effects are beautiful – than this texting relationship Maureen carries on with someone she doesn’t know. Even to the point of sending a photo of her wearing a forbidden dress which could get her fired if her boss saw it. Why is she doing this?
STEWART: The thing is she has no idea who she is talking to. So if you have such little grasp on reality, or how to define what that is, then you’re going to look absolutely everywhere and believe everything and simultaneously not believe in anything. The possibility there is – it could be her brother, she could be having a dialogue with herself, she could be having a dialogue with, like, existence itself. Maybe there’s a god-like presence there or something more threatening, like an evil spirit. Basically she has such little frame of reference for what’s real – because that in and of itself is impossible to define – that when she starts getting these messages, she’s willing to engage because all she wants is answers.
Also all she wants to feel is alive – and a part of anything! Because she looks up and sees the normality default that everyone dwells in quite comfortably and she just cannot access that at all. But she would love to. It’s just not something she’s capable of. So when these messages start coming in I think it’s a gauge. It’s like she’s using it as a gauge for any foothold on anything that could be real.
Q: So she’s someone who you said was having an ‘existential crisis’ but it seems like she’s heading for a walking nervous breakdown.
STEWART: Yeah, that crisis is leading her to a breakdown absolutely.
Q: When you hosted SNL and did that opening where you dumped on Trump and declared you were gay, I wonder if you had any kind of feedback about being political and being out?
STEWART: It really was not very politically driven. It was just a very fascinating occurrence in history [Trump’s tweeting to her during the TWILIGHT mania], one that was definitely worth mentioning and highlighting, just because of the strangeness of it. It was so surreal -- and still continues to be so bizarre when I think about it. The like ‘proclamation’ was really more of a punchline. I’ve been really open about, not necessarily my personal life, but what I stand for in terms of people being themselves and being okay with not hiding it for a really long time. It was just those words were, you know, something that unfortunately get under certain people’s skin. One of them being that guy. And it was just a good punchline.
And also like live by example for sure but to say it in words is powerful. And I’d never really done that because to be honest it’s too defined. I’m still -- I really live in the ambiguity of things and I don’t make promises because people change. Certain blanket statements I find to be a little simplistic so I never wanted to do that. But in this circumstance it was the best way to go: Bam!
Q: You are Maureen Cartwright in PERSONAL SHOPPER and I wondered is that a reference to Veronica Cartwright the child actor in THE BIRDS and who as an adult was in ALIEN?
STEWART: Oh wow I don’t know. I never thought of that. I could ask Olivier because Hitchcock was his man.
Q: You’re doing a movie about the Lizzie Borden case – what was the attraction there? Is it a real horror movie?
STEWART: I’ve finished that. It’s someone’s interpretation of what could have happened that day and what could have led up to those events based on the very few facts we have surrounding that case. It’s sort of a glimpse into what a young subversive woman’s life might be like in that time with a conservative and very domineering father. So it’s that.
Additional Quotes from the Boston Herald interview:
In “Shopper” her character Maureen Cartwright copes with “an existential crisis brought on by the death” of her twin brother, who as a medium was in touch with the spirit world.
“She’s a very fractured person. She misses him so much she’s kind of trying to be him,” Stewart, 26, said.
As a personal shopper, Maureen is trapped “with a job she doesn’t like very much because it gives her an opportunity so that she can stay in Paris and ask basically an unanswerable question: Are we really alone in this life?”
Maureen, heading for a full-blown nervous breakdown, was a tricky balance for Stewart.
“I never stepped out of her. The shoot was six-day weeks, 16- to 18-hour days. On Sundays I worked for Chanel, a photo shoot or flying to Rome for a show.
“The schedule was so condensed and insane because no one thought or talked about this stuff before we pulled the trigger and said ‘Go.’ So I had no opportunity — nor was it productive for me — to step out of it.
“But as an actor approaching something like this — I’ve had moments at night where your heart starts pounding a little harder and you can’t catch your breath because things don’t necessarily make sense.
“But you have to carry on living and connect with people. So I have these anxieties but I’ve been able to breeze through them. Where this person — it never goes away.
“One thing I definitely took from the movie: I was very thankful to be functional. Because I do know what it is to have little creeping thoughts that could take that functionality away. This girl is just the worst case scenario of that.”
Is it true you wrote Irma Vep in nine days, and shot it in four weeks?
Olivier Assayas: Yes.
Do you still have that kind of spontaneity? Olivier Assayas: I still write with spontaneity, but the problem is, because I’ve got recognition, my films are easier to finance on a higher scale. When I was making Irma Vep, it was because I had a bigger movie that wasn’t happening. We shot Irma Vep in four weeks for no money because, well, (laughs) we had no money. No one was ready to put any kind of money into that film. It was just too weird. People laughed in our face. It was unlike anything that had been done in French cinema.
Even with Demonlover a few years later, I wrote it as an experimental film, and all of a sudden, we raised more financing for it than any of my other films. All of a sudden, this small experimental film became something bigger and different. Was it the same with writing Personal Shopper?
Olivier Assayas: I think I’ve kept on writing my films the Irma Vep way. I wrote Personal Shopper really fast. Not nine days. Possibly two months, maybe a little more. But it was fast. I managed to do it with the same energy. We moved from writing to preparing the shoot with a very small lapse. Did you write it around the time of Clouds of Sils Maria, and that’s why it’s got Kristen?
Olivier Assayas: In the end, yes, but I didn’t see it like that at the time. After Clouds of Sils Maria, I had another project which was supposed to shoot almost back-to-back.
Was that the Robert Pattinson film?
Olivier Assayas: Yeah, Idol’s Eye. And the film fell apart at the last minute – 24 hours before shooting, which was a nightmare. So I came back to Paris and started working on something else from scratch. That meant using the energy of Clouds of Sils Maria. I wasn’t writing specifically for Kristen at the time. I was writing for someone like Kristen. I had no idea if she would want to make another movie with me right away. I had no idea if she was available. I had no idea if she would be interested in this kind of film. But then, looking back, I don’t think I would have written a character like Maureen if I had not had the experience of working with Kristen. She inspired that character. Kristen said recently she’s not a character actor.
Olivier Assayas: No, she’s not. Could you expand on that, and also what makes her unique as a performer?
Olivier Assayas: Kristen is incredibly authentic. She has to find the truth of the character within herself. She has a hard time playing someone that’s too far away from her. She needs to have a sense of truth of whatever she does and the way she says things and the way she interacts with the other characters. That’s something that can only come from inside.
What’s unique about her is she’s a completely intuitive actor. She’s so attuned to the vibe of the moment. She likes doing thing once. When she starts doing something for the second or third time, she becomes insecure. It’s really like a flash. She also has a very unique way of interacting with the camera. She has a way of using her body – her pacing is unique, and her body language is extraordinary.
There’s very accomplished thumb acting during the text messaging sequences, the way they tremble with fear. Were those Kristen’s thumbs?
Olivier Assayas: Yeah, it was her. She said, “My thumbs are the co-stars of this movie.”
Why does she always add a space before each question mark?
Olivier Assayas: I didn’t ask her. That’s the way she types. That’s how you would do it in French. So I suppose it’s the French culture that rubbed off.
A lot of filmmakers complain that the convenience of mobile phones ruins storylines, but Personal Shopper uses them to create a new dramatic dimension.
Olivier Assayas: I don’t know why they wouldn’t make narration easier. They’re part of real life. You can’t make movies that are detached from real life. Maybe it’s disturbing for an older filmmaker who is attached to an older world view. Yes, the use of cell phones has distorted that world view. But they are nonetheless part of our life. It’s like saying it was more exciting when there were horse carriages around, as opposed to cars. It’s the way the world changes. Cellphones don’t simplify the world. They complicate it. If you deal with them, you deal with this network that didn’t surround us before.
Is that why you’re moving between period pieces and modern movies? In Clouds of Sils Maria, there’s also a lot of anxiety over technology.
Olivier Assayas: Yeah. After doing two period pieces – meaning Carlos and Something in the Air – I needed to go back to the modern world. But Clouds of Sils Maria was kind of halfway. It’s in this abstract time warp. Whereas Personal Shopper is pretty much today, and defined by the tools we use to communicate and work. They’re an extension of ourselves, and it defines modern characters.
Why is Personal Shopper set in the fashion world?
Olivier Assayas: For two reasons – and they’re conflicting reasons. One reason is, I wanted Maureen to have… not exactly a stupid job, but a very mundane job; a frustrating job that has to do with surface. The fashion world is to do with surface, and it’s not even her surface; it’s the surface of her boss. She doesn’t like her job, but she needs to do it to make a living. She finds solace and comfort in her own dream world, in her imagination, in ideas and art – like we all do.
But the thing that makes her ambivalent is that there’s also art in the fashion industry. It attracts her, like a magnet, because it’s also part of her own inner conversation; she’s questioning her femininity, and her femininity is connected to her attraction to fashion.
In the credits, you thank Thomas Bangalter from Daft Punk. What role did he play in the film?
Olivier Assayas: Thomas is a friend. At some point I asked him to score the film. We had long discussions about the film. He was one of the first spectators of an early cut, and he made a few suggestions that I used.
Oh, really? Because apart from Sonic Youth in Demonlover, you haven’t used a score since the early 90s. What nearly changed your mind with Personal Shopper?
Olivier Assayas: For the wrong reasons. The thing is, I love the work that Thomas has done with Gaspar Noé. The movie scores he’s done are really brilliant, and he’s a very smart, talented guy. And because it has genre elements, I thought it’d be interesting to at least have a dialogue with him about it. I showed him the film, and I was pretty sure of my musical choices. He agreed with me. He liked what we did.
You’ve mentioned “lightness of camera” as something important you discovered on Cold Water. Could you explain that philosophy with regards to Personal Shopper?
Olivier Assayas: With “lightness of camera”, it’s “lightness” in general, I would say. What I’ve always been struggling with is the weight of cinema. Cinema is too many people and too much heavy equipment. Ideally, filmmaking should be made in conditions as light as when impressionist painters were painting outdoors.
You have to forget about the weight of cinema. Whenever I can, I want as few people as possible on the set. I need to have a sense of freedom. I don’t like rehearsing. I like to go straight into a scene and into the action of creating a shot. It’s for me, but it’s also for the actors. That’s the way they concentrate. If they feel the weight of filmmaking, they have a different approach to acting.
How did Kristen react to the lightness?
Olivier Assayas: I think it created a whole new space for her. I think she loved it, and that’s the reason we’ve been working together. She realised when we were shooting Clouds of Sils Maria that it opened up a new space for her. The reason she was eager to work with me again was she knew she could go even further in the process. It’s completely different from what she’s been doing in the US. Some actors need the framework, but other actors are inventive and need the space to expand. And she’s been expanding.