[Editor’s Note: This interview originally ran in 2014. "Clouds of Sils Maria" opens in select theaters Friday, April 10.]
In "Clouds of Sils Maria," French director Olivier Assayas explores the ups and downs of celebrity culture with a complex dynamic. Juliet Binoche plays a once-great actress struggling to recapture her fame while engaging in soul-searching conversations with her young assistant (Kristen Stewart). Eventually cast in a play opposite the hot young star of the moment (Chloe Grace Moretz), Binoche’s character must come to terms with her evolving identity. The English-language drama premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May and screens in Toronto this week ahead of dates at the New York Film Festival. IFC Films will release it early next year. In August at the Locarno Film Festival, Assayas spoke to Indiewire about the inspiration for the story, working with Stewart and Binoche, and why he’s afraid of directing movies with bigger budgets.
Your last two films were focused on strong male characters. What was it like to switch back to a female-centric story?
I’ve always made movies centered on women, but it’s true that the last two were different — "Carlos" and "Something in the Air" were different. But otherwise, I have always preferred to have strong female characters at the center of my films. In this case, the logic of my film is slightly different, because it’s built from within in a slightly different way: It starts with Juliette. So I’m building something in a slightly different way. There’s a certain inner logic to the process. When Juliette calls me and says, "Why don’t we try and make a proper movie together?" — meaning not a movie where she’d be one of several characters in an ensemble piece, like when we did "Summer Hours" —my reaction instantly is "Yes," in the sense that we have history together.
I wrote "Rendez-vous," which was directed by André Téchiné, in the mid-eighties — and that made her famous. It also kickstarted my own career. I made my first feature the year after. I knew that I’d have a different approach than Abbas Kiarostami or Hou Hsiao-hsien did, because they don’t know her…I mean, they don’t speak the language, they don’t have the background, the relationship with her. I do, so I can approach it from a different angle. I knew from the start that I would write something for Juliette — that I’d write something based on Juliette, using the person she is, what I know of her, what I fantasize of her.
Did you feel like you could push her harder than other filmmakers?
I don’t know her well enough to be that intimate. I know her superficially. We’ve been friends, but not that close, for years. What I’m saying about this being both what I know and fantasize about her is more that this is the way I see her. What I know of her but also what I imagine of her. But also she can play it her own way — part herself, part her own irony towards her status as a famous film actress.
You’re saying the film is a dialogue between her actual self and the way people think she is.
I think so. At least I gave her that space so she can play with celebrity culture, how she sees herself as a movie star and also has a distance from the whole paraphernalia of being a film star. I knew that I wanted to represent her as an actress who works. Juliette is an actress who needs to work, to fight with her characters, to find the emotions within herself. It’s a process. So I wanted to represent that. I knew I would deal with a dialogue between her and an assistant, who will help her rehearse the part. Because we had a history in common, I wanted to use "Rendez-vous" as a landmark. That’s where we both come from — French independent filmmaking — whereas today, both Juliette and I have struggled to get somehow out of the orbit of French independent filmmaking. So it’s also an homage to where we come from. Also, I imagined the film as a dialogue between her and myself. That’s Chloe Grace Moretz. All of a sudden, I have three central characters who are all gravitating around Juliette. I didn’t even think of it.
What do you mean when you say that you’ve struggled to get out of the "orbit of French independent filmmaking"?
I mean it in the sense that I’ve been making movies that look outside of the borders of French cinema, and also are not dependent on the economics of French independent filmmaking, and are also somehow independent of its system. French independent cinema has become, to my tastes, extremely insular. There are only a handful of French filmmakers who I feel are having a genuine dialogue with how international society is changing, the way the globalized world functions.
I think that Claire Denis is pretty much the better example. Or, in his own way, Arnaud Desplechin. Arnaud has been trying to open up to other ways of filmmaking. I think that, today, it’s something that’s so vital. You can’t be dependent on the logic of French filmmaking, because it’s so insular.
In terms of what?
In terms of its influence. But that’s not an issue. It’s more about the dialogue. It’s having less of a dialogue with international filmmaking, I think.
So that’s why you’re making more films in English now?
Yeah, I’ll go back to French. The previous one was pretty much a French film. The next one is pretty much an American film, but certainly the one after, I’ll want to go back to French. I’ve never been really cut off from my roots, but in the case of "Clouds of Sils Maria," it’s also because I think that making the film within some kind of English-speaking celebrity culture gave more of a broader scope to the story. If I’d shot it in Paris with Juliette being a French stage actress, it would have been a smaller film. Somehow, celebrity culture is a global phenomenon, so you have to deal with it on a global scale.
To what extent is this story personal to you? At the end of "Something in the Air," a young man based on you turns his back on an awful science fiction film, essentially shunning the commercial industry. Yet the characters in "Clouds of Sils Maria" are trapped to some extent by the same system you rejected.
Juliette’s character, Maria, is going back and forth — doing mainstream projects but becoming increasingly fed up with the bigger stuff she’s doing in this movie. Here, she goes back to doing some stage work, which she finds more satisfying and possibly serious. So she’s been trying to keep a hold on her ethics.
But there’s another layer to this narrative: You’ve got Kristen Stewart coming off of "Twilight," and Binoche appeared in a bit role in "Godzilla" earlier this year. What are your thoughts on the contrast between their experiences in such a different filmmaking arena?
When you’re an actress, you may have some control over your career, but not total control over where your career takes you. So you are fairly dependent on the environment. Today, being a famous actress means that you get offered parts in blockbusters that are eventually more serious, in character-driven filmmakers. You may get offers from indie filmmakers. And you get offers for stage work. Plus, your life is all over the place on the internet. So you have to make your choices to build something that has some sort of coherence out of all that comes to you, and it’s very difficult. I think that often, the movies that are the most difficult are also the most rewarding for an actress.
In light of that observation, what’s your take on Kristen Stewart?
I’m extremely grateful and admiring of Kristen, in the sense that she can do more or less what she wants — I mean, she has a lot of options. That’s the least one can say. And she’s doing indie films. She wants to remain part of that world. She’s taking risks, trying things, and when she spends two months in Europe with a bunch of weird French filmmakers, she’s completely cut off from her world. You know, we’re shooting in Leipzig, it’s not like you can just go home for the weekend. I mean, you’re stuck there. She’s there because she thinks she has something to learn — not so much from me but from Juliette, specifically about how she’s been able to keep some sort of hold on what she’s been doing and how she’s been asserting her freedom and her own weird choices. I think that she works in a slightly different space and has the intuition that there is something there for her.
Your next movie will co-star Robert Pattinson. Do you feel similarly about him?
I met him in London at a very early stage before I shot "Sils Maria" while I was still working on the screenplay for my next film, but I knew I wanted him for the leading role. We had a long conversation in London about the project. That’s also one of the first times I met Kristen. She was around.
Does working with these younger, well-known U.S. actors make it easier for you to get your films done?
No. You know, a movie like "Sils Maria" functions pretty much the same way as my other movies in terms of how I build it. I have a similar budget. It’s a small film. We shot in 32 days, six weeks.
But Kristen Stewart alone brings a whole new audience who hasn’t seen your other films.
Yeah, of course. Those things fall into a place based on a logic you have no control over. I really do think that, for this movie, Kristen is the best possible choice alongside Juliette. I don’t think that there’s an actress who would have been more to the point, more of what I had in mind when I was writing this film. So in that sense, she’s a big star, but it makes complete sense. It just happens that I wrote that kind of part. I have no plans of writing another part like that. It certainly doesn’t change the dynamics of the film. For instance, when Kristen came onboard for this film, the financing was there for another actress to play her part. It was Mia Wasichowska. Then she couldn’t do it because she had a studio contract, which basically didn’t allow her to shoot within our schedule. Initially, Kristen had not been available because she had another movie happening in the same time. So things changed and all of a sudden she was available. But what I’m saying is that in terms of the financing for the film, it didn’t change a thing.
Most of the financing came from ARTE, right?
It was ARTE, which was our first financier. They were the first to trust me with this project, and then the usual suspects got involved — Canal Plus, some foreign pre-sales, and so we ended up doing the film for like $4 – $5 million.
And for the next one?
No. It’s a different system of financing, American financing. That’ll be the first time for me.
How’s it going so far?
Honestly, I’m a little nervous about it at this stage. You have to deal with business types — movie business types: lawyers, bankers, accountants, all these kinds of other types you just don’t want to spend five minutes with. The thing is, I make movies because I can choose the people who I spend time with. I don’t have to deal with the bullshit of everyday job stuff. So I don’t want to end up making movies with people I’m not interested in. People I’m bored with who don’t share my values and so forth. So I’m just trying to structure things in ways that I have to deal with the producer of the film and that’s it. I don’t want to have conversations with anyone else.
Your wife is much younger than you. What do you make of that generation of filmmakers? Is it harder to make movies now when you’re at an earlier career stage?
I’d say it’s possibly a little easier. It’s always been difficult to make movies. When I made my first film based off the success of "Rendez-vous," it opened the door. But we’re talking about a movie that was big, did big business, was profitable. So all of a sudden, I was the kid who was associated with this screenplay — so, sure, that opened doors for me for basic reasons. Something similar could happen today. But then with my second film, the door was already closed, even though my first film was very successful in its time. The logic of French financing had changed, people didn’t want indie movies, and all of a sudden things were becoming difficult. It’s like like the clouds of "Sils Maria" — the clouds change. Now you have marginally more money to make movies. I mean, Mia’s film was extremely difficult to make. It took her like three years, but it was initially a much more complex film. Initially she wrote a film that was like four hours or something. In any culture, at any time, you will have difficulties making movies.