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Unlimited Potential: Olivier Assayas on “Personal Shopper”

Kristen Stewart had proven herself to be a remarkable talent long before she was cast as Bella Swan in the widely maligned “Twilight” franchise. Though her character was deeply flawed, Stewart infused it with a palpable angst that any heartsick adolescent would find relatable. Yet many critics remained skeptical of her range until she portrayed the assistant to an aging actress (Juliette Binoche) in Olivier Assayas’ richly enjoyable 2014 feature, “Clouds of Sils Maria.” Her chemistry with Binoche was a joy to behold, as was her scenes opposite Chloë Grace Moretz as a young Hollywood starlet. This role proved to be a turning point in Stewart’s career, resulting in her becoming the first American actress to receive a César award. Now she has re-teamed with Assayas for “Personal Shopper,” an entrancingly spooky picture that casts her as another assistant (the titular shopper for a celebrity), only this time, she is placed front and center. Coping with her brother’s recent death, Stewart’s character of Maureen begins to receive text messages that appear to have been sent from her deceased sibling.

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Assayas won the Best Director prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, tying with “Graduation” director Cristian Mungiu, while Stewart received more glowing reviews. During last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, Assayas was in buoyant spirits when he spoke with RogerEbert.com about the poetry of texting, the beauty of the film’s much-publicized nude scene and the “unlimited potential” of his leading lady.

At last night’s Toronto premiere of “Personal Shopper,” you said that the picture is as much Kristen’s film as it is your film.

There are some movies, even great movies, that have a lead role that you could imagine being inhabited by another actor without it affecting the core or the fabric of the film. In the case of “Personal Shopper,” whatever this film is about is defined by the way Kristen appropriates it. “Clouds of Sils Maria” is a movie about the interaction between two characters, so it’s defined by the dynamic that is created between two specific actresses. As a filmmaker, you have to somehow frame that dynamic, and you have to channel it. Here, Kristen’s on her own, so it’s not so much about channeling. It’s about being in sync, about being completely aware of her instincts, and being able to adapt to the way she is appropriating the material. She is the one person who is there within the shot, and she’s determining her own pacing as well as the way that the emotions build up within her. 

Was the story fully formed to an extent prior to filming, or did you find the narrative during production?

I was finding it as I was going along. Usually the one question you get asked when you make movies is, “What were you trying to say? Why did you make this film?” Usually I don’t have an answer because I have no idea. Yet I often have some kind of premise that I stay faithful to throughout the process of making a film. In this case, I wanted to make a movie that had to do with the tension between the world we live in—our jobs and the material world—and the world of our imagination, the world of our dreams and fantasies. We live in such a materialistic world, and because of that, we think that the important part of our lives is the material world. But in reality, we experience life to a stronger extent in our imaginations, even though we can hardly verbalize or represent what it is that we envision. Movies can help capture that experience. I was not sure how I would get there, but I knew more or less where I planned to get. 

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I’ve never seen ghostly apparitions visualized in quite the way they are here. You get a sense that we are seeing a mental projection of what is going on in Maureen’s mind.

I was not sure how to do it. It was my first experience working with CGI, which is not my world at all, so I kind of had to feel my way into that. My visual reference was the spiritualist photography of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Mediums were commissioning photos of whatever they imagined was happening during seances. According to the transcripts of seances, mediums did experience visions, and through the superimposition of photographed images, they found a way of representing what they imagined they had seen. I thought that was a good model for the spirit images in this film.

I was especially struck by the shot of an apparition moving stealthily behind Stewart in the garden.

That shot was totally essential. I rarely have a notion of how I am going to shoot a specific scene when I am writing it, but in this case, I knew exactly what I wanted it to look like. We ended up building the entire house and garden according to my needs for that specific shot.

The sound design greatly enhances the film’s psychological study of its protagonist, bringing us closer to her sensory experience. 

Oftentimes in genre filmmaking, you make a ghost film and it’s covered with music, particularly electronic music conveying a sense of menace. I knew I would never use that because it would obviously reduce the film to its genre elements, which are there, but they are merely one aspect of the film, and certainly not the most important aspect. Since I was not going to use music, noises were going to be even more crucial. What I realized during postproduction is that when you take away music, the tiny, more nuanced sounds are the scariest. You shouldn’t make them too precise or too loud. On the contrary, the eeriness is heightened when you hear small things that give you a hint of what’s potentially going on. You end up feeling like Maureen in that sense. 

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The scene where Maureen changes into her boss’ clothes has a rather beautiful quality to it, in part because of the Marlene Dietrich song, which is heard in its entirety. 

Yes, twice! I think all filmmakers are always a bit shy when they are dealing with nude scenes and with how an actress is going to react to them. There is always some kind of voyeuristic dimension to those scenes, whether you want it there or not, and that is not what my movies are about. My movies are hopefully about reality, about giving as much flesh and blood to a specific situation. Kristen understands that entirely. I would’ve understood if she had told me, “This is weird ground. I don’t feel comfortable.” I would’ve respected it. But throughout the process of making this film with Kristen, I knew from the first day onward that she wasn’t going to be shy and that she was going to go all the way. Even when I was like, ‘Are you sure you know where we’re heading?’, she would take the leap. 

In regards to the scene where she takes off her clothes and puts on her boss’s dress, she was always going to do it. I was a bit scared that the scene would be too long, but Kristen is such a dancer. She has such an incredible sense of body language that makes her movement in a scene fascinating. I thought I was going to cut the scene, use a few bits and pieces and patch them together. Eventually I realized that if I keep it in real time, it’s actually beautiful. She has a way of occupying space that is unlike any other actress. If you give her something like this where she has a million practical things to do, she’s going to absorb them and she’s going to make something astonishing out of it. The beauty of that shot—which is extremely long—is really a tribute to her skills.

With the inclusion of music, the scene is like a dance, in a way.

Absolutely. To me, music is a process of trial and error. I had no idea if I was going to use music at all—to be honest, I did not think I would. I thought music might spoil the scene, and then just for the sake of trying, I sampled various tracks which totally did not work. All of a sudden, I bumped into this Marlene Dietrich song, “Das Hobellied,” which I had wanted to use in the film back when I was writing it. I had no idea where I would use it, and it suddenly made complete sense for this scene. It gave the moment its meaning, and through the collision between images and music, you can’t even imagine the scene without that song.

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On several occasions, the film utilizes fade-outs instead of cutting to black.

I’m attracted to fades because of their musical quality. It gives the audience a sense that they are moving to another chapter. It provides them, and the story, with breathing space. I like to have that kind of chapter-based structure visible in my writing. 

Just how difficult was it to direct in-camera text messages rather than simply animate them?

It drove me nuts. After every single screening of the film, I changed the text messages. The audience reacted to such subtle details that cutting five or ten frames would completely change everything. We ended up redoing and fine-tuning a lot of the text messages. Though we shot everything live, I changed some of the wording, I cut some things out and I injected new ideas. I’m very happy with the result because it confirmed my belief that the fascination regarding texting could translate to the screen. I was not sure it would work, and I got what I wanted. But it was a very, very difficult process. What also made postproduction a nightmare was the many special effects shots. There are a lot of them, though you can’t really tell in the final cut. We initially had to rush the film in time for the Cannes deadline, but we eventually nailed it.

Though technology has arguably infantilized our communication skills to a degree, you’ve spoken of how there’s a poetry to texting.

I think it creates a very intense relationship with words, it’s really as basic as that. The words are very charged. They are not charged in the same way when you are Skyping, and certainly not as charged when you are e-mailing. Writing an e-mail is more like writing a letter, whereas the concision of text messaging is brutal. It forces you to go straight to the point. The time it takes you to type every word and punctuation mark, as well as the time it takes you to send your message and the time you must wait for an answer, is very complex and extremely fascinating. It has an intensity that is very specific to that form of communication. 

The texting really pays off when the messages start to pile up in suspenseful fashion.

That moment came out of the writing, and it plays pretty much as it was written in the screenplay. The problem, of course, was getting it right, and I was never happy with the pacing. In the end, there is one shot of the phone screen that had to be slowed down, and there’s a vibration that comes from the slowness which adds to the intensity.

I find the reports of booing at Cannes annoying, especially when they are aimed at a film because of its ambiguity, such as Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” John Sayles’ “Limbo” or this film. What you, Malick and Sayles understand is that a sense of closure often must be sacrificed in order for a story to resonate.

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Oh yes, totally. Cannes is very hysteric. I’ve been going to Cannes for a long time and it’s the one festival where there are those tensions. They can be extremely positive, they can be negative and they can be mixed, but it’s alive. You make movies to make audiences react. Part of you wants your movies to be a huge success and connect with everybody, but when I make a movie like this one, I know that I’m taking risks. The thing is, I grew up in a world where people were grateful when artists took chances and tried difficult things. Risks were respected, but now it’s the opposite. You are resented for taking them. “Why don’t you make a conventional story? Why do you feel you’re allowed to tell this story in such an unexpected way?” It’s so strange to get those reactions, because risks are so much a part of what Cannes is about. In the end, we got a great reaction and a prize, so I’m not really allowed to complain.

I have a confession to make. I attended the Cannes premiere of “Boarding Gate” in 2007, and embarrassed myself by laughing loudly at Michael Madsen’s performance, particularly his delivery of the word “vortex.”

You are always allowed to laugh at my movies! Maybe I have too much of a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, so sometimes people just don’t get it. But yeah, you are allowed to laugh. 

People seemed scared to laugh out loud during the Toronto screening of “Personal Shopper,” though I did hear some suppressed chuckles.

This is a lot of humor in this film as well. When I was shooting the Victor Hugo scene, I was just having fun. I also hoped the scene where Nora von Waldstätten, who plays Maureen’s boss, discusses her gorilla foundation would come off as comedic.

Has this experience made you want to have a third collaboration with Kristen?

Yeah anytime—tomorrow! My experiences with many great actors leave me feeling that we haven’t exactly gone all the way, but we’ve covered a lot of ground. Actors are excited by the opportunity to do something they haven’t done or that you haven’t done before, because there’s always a risk of repeating yourself. I think I could make another movie with Kristen that would be completely different, and I hope I will have the opportunity. I’ve always loved and admired her, and I thought she would be perfect for the part in “Clouds of Sils Maria.” But when we were shooting the film, it felt like she had unlimited potential. I was left with the feeling that there was potential to go much further in our collaboration and try many other things. “Clouds of Sils Maria” was more about the dynamic between the three actresses. I knew that if Kristen was on her own and had a fully fleshed character to create, she could go to some pretty exciting places. That’s what drove us.

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I think that Chloë Grace Moretz has a great amount of potential that was utilized marvelously in “Sils Maria,” yet is often frustratingly squandered in Hollywood.

I’m happy you mentioned her because Kristen is the one that got all the recognition. I think that Chloë is brilliant. She’s so young—she was 17 when we were shooting—and has such a witty sense of humor. I was so happy that she wanted to be a part of the film. The one thing that scared me was how young she was. We had a Skype meeting and I liked her very much and thought she was perfect for the part. Then I looked her up on IMDb and saw her birthdate. I went, “Oh my god!” At that point, I decided that I couldn’t make the film without meeting her in person, because over Skype, I thought I was speaking with someone who was in her early 20s. She was 16 at the time, so we had a meeting here in Toronto.

You need to have an actor who is totally on the same page. It has to be funny but it shouldn’t be a farce. She’s playing someone who is also playing a role, and I think part of the fun is having her really believable in all of the layers of the character. That’s what makes it complex, and I think she got it. She had such a clear understanding of the potential of the part and what she could do with it. I was extremely grateful for her performance.

Critics have often compared the film’s satire of Hollywood and aging with “All About Eve.”

If that film served as influence, it was subconsciously. It’s a movie I love, of course. I saw it when I was a teenager, so it’s kind of a distant memory. The movies that stood as more straightforward influences were very obviously Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” as well as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” which inspired the play within the film. Those were conscious inspirations.

“Clouds of Sils Maria” must’ve reflected some of Juliette Binoche’s frustrations with the industry as well. I still don’t know why a director would hire one of the world’s greatest living actresses for “Godzilla” just so that she can get promptly fried.

[Laughs] For each of the actresses, “Clouds of Sils Maria” kind of echoed their own world, their own questions, their own issues with modern filmmaking. We had a lot of fun making it.


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