Thursday, May 14, 2015

"I like to film reality when it's beautiful, when it's ugly, when it's unpleasant, I don't care." - An Interview with Olivier Assayas

André Téchiné's Rendez-vous was a breakthrough film for both screenwriter Olivier Assayas and star Juliette Binoche in 1985, but over the course of the subsequent three decades the pair only collaborated on the 2008 masterwork Summer Hours. In 2013 Binoche decided to take the initiative and called Assayas out of the blue, asking him to write something that they could make together, and he responded by creating a complex study of fame, ageing and culture in the 21st century. Clouds of Sils Maria stars Binoche as Maria Enders, an actress plunged into crisis as she prepares to star in a new production of a play she last performed in twenty years earlier, but this time she is playing the older characters who is seduced and destroyed by a younger woman. As she rehearses the play with her assistant  played with great wit and understatement by Kristen Stewart – the lines between truth and artifice become increasingly blurred, and Assayas's typically adroit, intelligent, fluid filmmaking ensures it is an engrossing, stimulating experience. I met him in London last week to discuss it.

This project began when Juliette asked you to write something that you could make together quickly. After she had made that request, did this story come easily to you? Do you usually write quickly?

Sometimes it does come easily and sometimes it does not. In this case, I felt confident that I had the elements to build a film fairly early in the process. I spoke with Juliette and called her back a week later and said “OK, Juliette, I will try to do this”, but I only called her back because I sensed I had two or three elements that I could articulate. It was a bit of a surprise, because it happens once in a while that you discuss possible films with actors and say things like “I would really like to work with you...I admire you so much...I would love to write something for you,” and it never happens. With Juliette it was based on the fact that we had history, that we had known each other for a very long time and had strangely parallel careers, in the sense that we were both attracted by the notion of stepping out of France and making movies that had a richer dialogue with international film culture. We did it coming from completely different places but that's where we ended up.

What about writing something for a specific actor, is that something you have done often? How does that change your process?

I did it a couple of times. I wrote Clean for Maggie Cheung, I wrote Boarding Gate for Asia Argento, but that's pretty much it. Oh, and in a certain way I wrote Irma Vep also for Maggie. But Clouds of Sils Maria is specific in the sense that I feel I am going further, while the other movies were a bit on the surface. I mean, Clean is a melodrama written for Maggie but ultimately it could have been another actress playing it, and Irma Vep I wrote for her but I hardly knew her at the time and I had a very abstract notion of who she was. With Asia, I hardly knew her and I wrote this kind of action movie B-thriller – or Z-thriller, if you like [laughs] – around her. Here I am just dealing with it. I'm not just using Juliette or just being inspired by her, I'm trying to understand her, to explore what she is doing and understand the process. I'm trying to articulate my fantasy of her with something that's universal, one person trying to connect with emotions we all share. It's a complicated question and it's not something I've ever really thought about, but I do think there's something different going on.

If you are writing your fantasy of Juliette's life, does she then have to push back against some of those ideas to bring her own perspective to it and make it a more rounded character?

She had to appropriate it, and she started working very early. I gave her the screenplay as soon as I had finished it and she was very quickly calling me and saying “On page 32 there is this line, I don't think she would say this...I think this is wrong...I'm not sure what she is saying,” and I would tell her that we will change stuff a million times when we start shooting so please do adapt it however you feel comfortable. She has to appropriate things very early in the process, and what I knew of Juliette from my previous experiences is that sometimes she can feel a bit stuck within what she has originally envisioned. It is not her first language so I thought she would be scared of moving away from what she had memorised and the work she had done with the dialogue coach. I didn't know if she would move away from that comfort zone, but what made the film work is that I saw on the very first day that she did not care and that it was a completely different Juliette than I had known before. She was incredibly open and patient, and happy to be trying new things and taking risks. I believe in instinct in movies, I hate rehearsing and I don't like table reads or whatever, but I think everything should be focused on bringing the actors to the point where they can make something happen in the smoothest and least-directed way.

I know you prefer to have minimal screenplays and to allow a lot of freedom for the film to develop as you shoot, but in Clouds of Sils Maria you also have this play within the film, and that text has to be very specific as it comments on the central relationship.

Obviously it's a play I wrote, but you're right, in those scenes I can't really play around. There are long moments in the film when they are rehearsing the play and they have very little room to reinvent. Still, between those bits they have ways to adlib, rephrase things, adapt it and...again, I don't think there's a better word than appropriate. It's just about making it into spoken language as opposed to a wooden script.

Is working in theatre something that interests you at all? It seems to be the anithesis of the way you like to work in film.

Yes, you're right. I have never been attracted to working in theatre because it is ephemerous. You do it and after three months it's gone, and only a few people remember it. “Oh yeah, I saw that, it was great...” I think the only way I could relate to theatre is to write for theatre, why not.

I know one of the reference points for you has been The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, but I think that film is so cinematic and so much about what Fassbinder and Michael Ballhaus do with the camera, it's hard for me to imagine it working on stage. So it still feels like you are approaching theatre through cinema.

Yes, I only know it as a movie. I had the book and at some point I wanted to use elements of the play but it did not work, possibly for the reasons that you are describing. I knew I wanted the dynamic from that story between an older woman and the younger woman, but it did not connect with the situation I was imagining so I re-wrote my own version. You know, it reminded me of the great Italian director Carmelo Bene, who was an underground filmmaker in the '70s and would be doing really weird stagings like Macbeth in 25 minutes. Straight to the essentials! [laughs]

It has been suggested that the playwright in the film is inspired by Fassbinder too.

Not really, it's a mixture. It's part Bergman, part Fassbinder, part Thomas Bernhard, he was just one of those radical central European artists.

Are these all figures who you are inspired by?

Fassbinder was a big influence for similar reasons as Ingmar Bergman, because he was a great playwright who happens to also be a great filmmaker, and I've always been a bit obsessed with this connection between writing and filming. I've been obsessed with how words become flesh, which is something that's also beautiful in the writing and filmmaking of Pasolini. So to me, all the writers who have become filmmakers based on the process of incarnation or embodiment of the imagination of the poet are the closest to what fascinates me in cinema.

There's a sense of poetry in your location too. Although your film is very much rooted in reality, it seems the clouds and the isolation of the mountains gives you the license to introduce a sense of mystery into the film.

Oh yes, absolutely. What was exciting for me was the fact that the thing that should be the simplest aspect of the film was bringing the most strangeness, mystery and menace to the story. Because this landscape has inspired writers, poets, philosophers throughout the 20th century and the end of the 19th century, it is filled with ghosts, and the ghosts are very present in the story. It's kind of a ghost story, you can put it that way. It's not so much the ghosts in the story, in the house, the ghost of Wilhelm, or whatever, it's the ghosts floating around this beautiful and peaceful landscape.

This is the first film you have edited with Marion Monnier, someone whose work with Mia [Hansen-Løve] I have admired in the past. How did you work with her to establish the rhythm of the film?

The thing is, Marion was the assistant of Luc Barnier, who had been my editor since I started making films. Luc was like a brother and he died a couple of years ago, but when he died I had already worked a couple of times with Marion. I introduced Marion to Mia, actually, because they are of the same generation. When we were doing Carlos, Luc was not available full time because it was such a big film and he had another project going on, so I really edited half of Carlos with Marion. Because she was taught by Luc and has been involved as a co-editor and assistant on many of my films, really she has learned filmmaking on my films, so we have this very easy relationship. At first I was scared of the process on this movie because Luc wasn't around, but it was so simple and obvious, and the thing is that I have always edited my own films, I mean, I was working with Luc but we were really co-editing and that's what I was doing with Marion. It was very simple and efficient and fast.

I liked the way the film flowed through these fade-outs and ellipses that link the scenes.

Yes, that has to do with the way I write. I like the rhythm of books when you have a sense of the chapters. Something ends and you have a chance to restart with some kind of new energy, so that's something I try to reproduce, and I love those fades because hopefully they will renew the interest and energy of the viewer.

You spoke earlier about your desire from the start of your career to step out of French filmmaking and engage with a more global view of the world, and in this film you look at global cinema through the dominance of Hollywood blockbusters. Are those films something you look at with any kind of curiosity or envy?

[laughs] No, It's another world, it's completely another world. I mean, it's a world where I am very happy to be a viewer, but I have no envy or anything like that. It's not the same job, I mean it's genuinely not the same job. To make those movies you need a knowledge of the cliques of special effects and having actors on green screens, and it's a much more technical job that requires skills I don't have. You end up working with a thousand people but you only know maybe 50 or 60 of them. When I see those movies I hardly know what the director has been doing, I mean, he has been giving some overall mood and supervising various crews. It's just a different job, and far too technical for me. I would get bored instantly. I'm not idealogical about it, in the sense that I can break realism if it works for me, but basically I like filming reality. I like filming real people, I like to film reality when it's beautiful, when it's ugly, when it's unpleasant, I don't care. I think when you make movies you capture something from the present that belongs to the present, and it's precious because movies are also time capsules. Not that blockbusters aren't time capsules in their own way. With those movies you can hardly pinpoint where the creative moment is, and because of the vastly collective ambition of those endeavours they end up capturing some kind of collective subconscious. Those movies do tell us something about the world we live in, often in deep ways, but no I don't think I could work in that world.

You did come close to making an American film recently with Idol's Eye. Has that bad experience put you off working in the US?

That was just a nightmare experience, it was horrible. The thing is that it's just about being associated with the wrong people and making bad choices of collaboration, not on my side but on the producer's side. He just got involved with the wrong people. We haven't put the last nail in its coffin so it still could happen, but it's still happening in the sense that you can still get a signal from the black box, or something like that. [laughs]  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Fuller Life

Before he had ever stepped behind a camera, Samuel Fuller had led a life that was worthy of being documented. A newspaper boy at the age of six, Fuller followed his passion for print to become a copyboy on Park Row when he was barely a teenager, and he was working the crime beat just a few short years later. For Fuller, death was a daily occurrence as he reported on murders and executions in New York, but that was nothing compared to what he saw on the front lines of the Second World War, earning a Silver Star for his actions on Omaha Beach, surviving a bullet in the chest, and taking part in the liberation of Falkenau concentration camp. These experiences haunted him for the rest of his life, leaving him with nightmares that he couldn’t shake and images that he felt compelled to revisit on the big screen.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Louder than Words: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy on The Tribe

“Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothing yet!” When Al Jolson startled cinemagoers with that epochal line in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, he didn’t know how prophetic his words would be. In the decades that have elapsed since sound entered the movies, the chatter has been near-constant. Whether through spoken dialogue or voiceover, subtitled or dubbed, the sound of people talking has become such an integral part of the cinema experience that its occasional absence can have a bracing effect. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe is a film in which we don’t hear a single word uttered, and yet its characters never stop communicating with each other. The entire film is populated by deaf actors whose lingua franca is Ukrainian sign language and none of what they say is translated for viewers, so unless you’re part of the small subset of people who can understand their gestures, you’ll need to find other means to decipher this story.

Read the rest of my interview with Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy at The Skinny

Monday, March 16, 2015

Dreaming Bigger, Screaming Louder: Xavier Dolan on Mommy

In May 2009, a young man named Xavier Dolan arrived in Cannes to present his new film, the story of a troubled relationship between a mother and her son. In May 2014, a young man named Xavier Dolan arrived in Cannes to present his new film, the story of a troubled relationship between a mother and her son. Just five years passed between the release of Dolan’s debut feature I Killed My Mother and his latest film, Mommy, but the difference we can see in the artist who made them is extraordinary. What looked like raw potential in 2009 has since been brilliantly realised.

Read the rest of my interview with Xavier Dolan at The Skinny

Friday, January 09, 2015

"For a film to work I think it has to work on both a literal and an abstract level." - An Interview with Frederick Wiseman

In a career spanning six decades, Frederick Wiseman has established one of the most eclectic and vital bodies of work in cinema. Wiseman's interest in how institutions operate has led him to document an incredible array of subjects – from schools and hospitals to dance companies and meat-processing plants – and each of his documentaries is distinguished by his clear, unadorned filmmaking and his keen eye for revealing details and human drama. National Gallery is his latest film, and it's one of his very best, offering an illuminating, engrossing and stimulating tour of the iconic gallery's public and private spaces. Frederick Wiseman was in London this week for National Gallery's UK release, and I was I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet him to discuss it.

Before talking about National Gallery, I want to go back to the start of your career. I've recently discovered the films of Shirley Clarke, and you produced The Cool World with her.

Yeah, but that's really Shirley's movie, not mine.

But I believe that was the first thing you did in film. Did you already know you wanted to be a director at that point, or were you considering producing?

I had the idea for the movie but I didn't have any experience. I liked The Connection a lot, so I asked Shirley if she wanted to direct it. Working on that sort of demystified the process of filmmaking for me, and after that I never worked on a movie that I didn't direct and produce myself.

And when you did make your first movie Titicut Follies, it ended up getting banned. Did you ever have any second thoughts about what you were getting into when that happened to your debut film?

Oh no. I just thought the banning of Titicut Follies was a sick joke. It bothered me but if anything it was an incentive to continue. I thought the politicians of Massachusetts who opposed Titicut Follies were essentially crooked hacks who were only interested in protecting their own career. The legal problem about Titicut Follies was primarily a consequence of the betrayal of me by the people who had given me permission to make the movie, because the people who sought to ban the movie were the Commissioner of Correction, who had been my ally in getting permission, and the then-Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General. The Lieutenant Governor had made the decision to let the movie be made, and he turned against it because he thought his political career was going to be damaged when word got out that he had gotten me permission. So the banning of the film was from my point of view an act of political cowardice, and not that I didn't take it seriously – I had to take it seriously – but I thought the people who did it were essentially weak, fearful people who didn't have the courage of their convictions.

A lot of your films have been funded by PBS.

Well, they're partially funded by them.

Public television in the US has strict guidelines. Has that ever impacted on your work?

I have never encountered any censorship problems – well, maybe once. In the movie I did Basic Training, that came out in 1971, there was one scene early on in the film where a recruit describes a visit to a whorehouse, and PBS was upset about that. Then in Law & Order, the film I did about the Kansas City Missouri police, there was one scene where somebody had been arrested and he told the police to "fuck off" and he used the word "fuck" about 19 times. They cut that on the day of the broadcast without my permission, but I made them go on air and apologise for doing it. But those are the only two incidents I've had. PBS has been very generous to me; they give me about 15-20% of the budget for each movie and they run the film at whatever length I give them, and the films have varied in length from 73 minutes to six hours.

Well even at three hours I was almost disappointed when National Gallery ended. I felt it could have been longer.

Good, that's the right reaction.

But when you start these projects, I guess you have no idea how long the finished film is going to be.

I have no idea what I'm going to get. The only assumption I started with in the case of the National Gallery was that it's a good subject for a movie, and if I hung around long enough I could collect enough sequences to cut a good movie, but that's the assumption I make on all the movies. I deliberately feel the shooting of the film is the research. I don't like to be around watching and not prepared to shoot, because there may something spectacular going on that you're watching, and you've missed it. At least if you're not there you don't know what you've missed.

And real drama can often be found in moments that might initially appear to be banal.

Sometimes it's great drama and sometimes it's drama that looks banal. The scene in Law & Order where a cop strangles a woman accused of prostitution is high drama. When a doctor is talking to a man and woman and telling them there's no hope and they have to withdraw life support, there's obvious drama in that, even though the conversation is very direct and straightforward. The implications are life and death.

On that subject, while shooting in the National Gallery must be a pleasure, you've also shot in very difficult circumstances, with people who are in great pain or distress and facing tragedy. Do you have to divorce yourself from the emotions of a situation like that as you film it?

You do, but the fact that you're working is the principle way you divorce yourself. You're not just sitting around watching. For instance, I did a movie about people dying in an Intensive Care unit of a hospital in Boston, and we were in a room with a woman who was dying and we saw very sick people every day. But the fact that you're working is a defence. I'm not suggesting that filmmakers are doctors, but in the same way doctors and nurses get used to it, it's amazing how quickly you get used to it because you have something to do, you want to get it on film.

You've said that your goal with these films is to reflect your own experience of being in each place.

The final film in each case is a report on what I've learned as a consequence of being in a place for a couple of months and spending a year studying the material. For example, at the National Gallery I was there for three months, I shot 170 hours of rushes, the film is a mere three hours, so I used approximately 1/60th of the material. In order to make the choices involved in reducing 170 hours to three hours, you have to try – whether successfully or not, it's not for me to judge – you have to try and think through the material and what it means, or what I think it means. For a film to work I think it has to work on both a literal and an abstract level. By literal I mean it's about who says what to whom, but on an abstract level it's about what's suggested by who says what to whom, and what is further suggested by the placement of the sequence in relation to other sequences. Very often there are more general ideas suggested by the choice and placement of specific sequences, and the real film is in this parallel track of the abstract and the literal, and where they cross.

You made a number of films in row that seemed to be defined by movement – La danse, Crazy Horse, Boxing Gym – but At Berkeley and National Gallery have a different rhythm. They feel more contemplative.

Well, that's just chance. It depends on what I want to do and what I get permission to do. Some people feel that because I've made films about cultural institutions I've abandoned my true calling, which is to show poor people. But people that feel that way don't really understand what I'm doing, because what I think I'm doing is trying to make films about as many different aspects of contemporary life as I can. The fact that I've made several films about cultural institutions doesn't mean I've lost interest in so-called social institutions, it just means I wanted to do cultural institutions. I may or may not go back, it depends on what I want to spend a year on when I decide to make a new film.

Do you feel your films have a long-standing educational value as well?

I hope so. Not educational in the sense that they're good for people, but educational in the sense that they show these institutions, many of which are important for a functioning society, or any society. All societies have armies, police, hospitals, museums, dance companies, etc. As I mentioned earlier on, what I think I'm trying to do is make movies about as many different aspects of human experience as I can.

One of the things I enjoy about visiting galleries is people-watching as well as looking at the art.

Yeah, it's great people-watching. You see that in the film. There are different levels of watching. You've got people in the national gallery looking at the paintings, the paintings are looking at the people, and people are looking at the movie.

What was your approach to shooting the paintings in National Gallery?

I work with a very good cameraman, John Davey, and I decided early on that I would shoot the paintings as much as possible without showing the frames. I felt the paintings would be much more alive and vibrant if you didn't see it as an object hanging on the wall, you didn't see a little plaque identifying the artist, or you didn't see it in relation to other paintings. You could also make a sequence out of the paintings by shooting parts of it and cutting them together into a mini-movie. Most paintings up to the end of the 19th century had stories, it was before abstraction, so one of the things that interested me in the movie was the different ways you can tell a story. You can tell a story differently in a painting, in a movie, in a poem, in a ballet, in a novel, etc. The issue of comparative forms became one of the themes of the film.

You mentioned John Davey there, and he's someone you've been working with for a long time.

Yeah, we started working together in'78.

You must have developed a real shorthand with him. How do you work together on location?

We have a very good collaboration. We're constantly looking at each other and we have little signals and looks that we give each other. I decide what we're going to shoot, and we look at rushes together every night and discuss different ways to shoot them or get different things. It's a very close collaboration.

There are a number of beautiful shots in the film. When you saw the dance performance, did you instantly know that you had your ending?

Yeah, I did in that case. I knew it would be close to the ending because from my point of view it summed up so much of what I thought the movie was about. I didn't think that at the time because at that point I didn't really know what the movie was about, but I knew it was a beautiful sequence linking two art forms.

When you're in the editing suite and you're about to start piecing the film together, do you have a mental inventory of standout sequences like that to begin with? What's your entry point into this huge amount of material?

The entry point is that I look at all the rushes. In the case of National Gallery it probably took me a couple of months to look at all the rushes and make notes. Then I put aside roughly 50% of the material and it takes me 6-8 months to edit the sequences that I think I might be using close to final form. It's only when I have those so-called candidate sequences close to final form that I begin to work on the structure. Some people can work on structure in the abstract, but I can't. I have to make some assessment of the consequences of starting a film this way, having a second scene that way, ending it this way, trying to figure out what the relationship is between the end and the beginning. Ultimately, no matter how I've arrived at a cut – whether I've dreamed it, thought of it in the shower or walking down the street – I have to be able to rationalise in words to myself why each cut is there and what its relationship is to what precedes it and what follows it. If I can't do that, I'm in trouble. I mean, I may be in trouble anyway, but I need to convince myself. Editing is talking to yourself, and I find it very interesting to talk to myself.

And you always do it alone. Don't you ever find yourself going a bit stir crazy?

If I do, I go for a walk. I like it.

You never feel that you need a fresh pair of eyes on the material?

No, I don't. When I started editing digitally I had an assistant, but when I was editing on film I was always alone. I find it difficult enough to make up my own mind, and I don't like to talk about it. It's the usual cliché of if you talk about it you dissipate it, and it just doesn't help me. I'm not saying that's the correct way to do it, but it's my way.

I've always been interested in your rejection of captions, music, voiceover and other tools that many documentaries use for contextualising their films.

It's not that I don't contextualise, I just contextualise in different ways than through narration or voiceover. I like to think that I provide enough information in the exchanges that I include in the sequence that it provides the context, so in that sense my approach is more novelistic than journalistic. My personal models were fiction rather than journalism.

And are books more of an inspiration to you than cinema?

Well, I don't go to the movies much. I used to but I don't have time anymore. I liked to read a lot, and at the risk of sounding pretentious the two best books I ever read about film editing are Flaubert's letters to George Sand and Ionesco's essays on playwriting, because while they are not specifically dealing with film, the issues they are writing about are applicable to film. There is no 1:1 relationship, but because they are dealing with abstract issues, they roll around in my head and are useful not so much for solving a specific problem but in thinking generally about things.

When you're trying to raise money for a film, how do you pitch it to potential backers? Do you have a process to secure funding?

Well, I have a favourite department store in Paris and every Saturday afternoon I sing and sell pencils.

Ah, the old-fashioned way.

I mean, while I like to think I've earned the right to make the money easily, the moment I really think that I should stop. I have to act as if it's my first film. The moment I think I should take it for granted, I'm done. It's hard to make money, and people think it's easy to make money because I make a lot of movies, but it isn't.

I suppose people think it's easier to make a film because of new cheaper technologies.

It's bullshit. There are just more people going after the same pot of money.

Do you have another film lined up?

I'm thinking about one. I'm doing an 80-minute radio programme for French radio on Emily Dickinson. I did a play based on the life of Emily Dickinson and now I'm doing this radio programme based on her letters and poems.

And I understand you're working on a ballet based on Titicut Follies. Is that in progress now?

We just started this fall and it's not going to be on until the fall of 2016. I'm working with a very good choreographer, James Sewell, who has his own dance company in Minneapolis. We're cooking along with it.

Well, I'm certainly intrigued by that.

Me too.

National Gallery is in UK cinemas now.