Cannes: Olivier Assayas Talks Returning to Competition with 'Sils Maria' (Q&A)

Olivier Assayas P 2014

After his "Carlos" was controversially plucked from competition in 2010, Assayas returns to the festival with the buzzed about Juliette Binoche starrer, which will premiere on the fest's penultimate night.

It's been a decade since French director Olivier Assayas had a film in competition -- his epic Carlos was controversially plucked from a competition berth at the last minute in 2010. He's known for his masterful work with actresses: Clean took home the best actress prize for Maggie Cheung in 2004, and his Sils Maria is one of the most anticipated films of this festival, with what early buzz is calling masterful performances from Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. He spoke to THR about returning to Cannes after the controversy, independent filmmaking and the French funding system.

How does it feel to return to Cannes after the controversy of Carlos being pulled out of competition in 2009?

Carlos was supposed to be in competition and until the last minute it was in competition. Basicallym it was Thierry Fremaux's choice at the time, but then his board, which has many representatives of unions, blocked the film because it was mostly TV money, and they thought that if Carlos was allowed to be shown in Cannes, the following year you would be flooded with TV product from all over the world. That of course would never have happened because Carlos was a very specific project. It just became too political. So in the end, we showed the film, and it was extremely successful, but we were not in competition. It was extremely frustrating. It was frustrating for me, and I think it was also frustrating for Thierry Fremaux, so I'm happy that we can move on.

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How did the idea of Sils Maria come about?

It started with Juliette Binoche calling me. We share a long history. We started together more or less with Rendez-vous. It was my first screenplay and her first big part. It was shown in Cannes, and we were the kids in the group. But somehow it never took the shape of working together on something centered on her. So she called me up two or three years ago and asked, "Why don't we do something?" Usually when I get those calls it's, "Yeah, sure, but I'm working on something else right now," and it's awkward. But this time something told me that there was something more to it. The movie took shape and it became a story of reinvention, and I thought I would use Juliette really as herself. She's a more interesting actress when she acts in English because she is somehow less self-conscious than when she is in a French-speaking part, and so it started to evolve and became something I would never have imagined.

How did Kristen join the project?

It was a fairly long story because originally she couldn't do it because of scheduling conflicts. She loved the screenplay, but the timing wasn't right, so we moved on and had Mia Wasikowska; but then she had a contract with Disney for the Alice sequel, and the minute the movie got moving, she was not allowed to be in any other projects during that time period. By then Kristen's schedule had cleared, and so instantly we sent it back and she was able to do it. That's the technical side of it, but the more exciting and human part of it is that she's amazing. I hope everybody will share my enthusiasm of what she did with the part, the freedom she found in her acting and a humor that we hadn't seen much of just came out -- I don't know how or why. It's really very exciting when you are filming a young actress and see her respond to your material and grow right before your eyes.

So the shoot was collaborative. What was the schedule like?

We had a fairly short shoot and fairly intense because of the schedules of the actress, and we had to squeeze things and shuffle things around in weird ways. When you have those really tight schedules, it gives an intensity that can be nerve-wracking because you don't really have a safety net. You fuck up a scene and you're dead basically. You don't have a chance for an additional day because the day doesn't exist. I think the film benefited from it because it's so much an actor's film. I think that the actors somehow reacted in strong and positive ways to the tension. Your job as a director is to somehow channel that the best you can, and somehow I think that they took on that energy around them.

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What was it like working with two very strong actresses on set?

It's really a danger zone and in the end I was just amazed. Kristen was very much a fan of Juliette. She loves her work, and she felt that she had something to learn from her, and I think Juliette loved that position of being able to pass on something to another actress. Juliette has invented a style and her own way of transforming into a character that is spontaneously part of her language. Kristen watched her a lot and learned a lot from her and used it.  It was absolutely not competitive; it was something symbiotic.

Are you trying to say something about how Hollywood treats actresses and aging?

I'm not good at discussing what my films are about. Films are about representing the world as you see it. I never feel my movies are ever really about making a point. My ambition is that when we make movies about acting and theater you're not making a movie about the trade. You're making a movie to put things in perspective with very universal human issues, and I'm essentially concerned that people will care about the characters, they will love them and essentially identify with them and their humor and their sadness. It's all about the human emotion. The film deals with time passing and aging, but in many ways it's a comedy. I'll be happy if I hear people laughing in the premiere.

What is your take on Hollywood?  You have never made a big American film.

The industry makes movies that are pretty much standardized, which are not about their quality but functioning on fairly similar notions of what a movie should be. If you make independent film, you will have a hard time getting them made. It was like that, it is now like that and it will always be like that. It would be no fun if it was easy. What you are making is prototypes. Independent films are like the research and development of mainstream filmmaking. So, you know, you try new things and you keep on trying.

The French are still very supportive of filmmakers in a way that the U.S. is not. What are your thoughts about the current debate in France on the funding system?

French filmmakers are spoiled. The debate about the French film industry is absurdly complex, but in the end, in France, cinema is such an important part of the culture and respected as an art that whatever comes out of it, the fact is that French filmmakers are privileged if you compare them to filmmakers in other countries, the cinema. It has support that is not a given in many other cultures. There's no comparison. You can shoot an independent film in France for 10 weeks -- in other places, it's 10 days. I shot this movie in 30 days, which is closer to the international standard because it's an international film in many ways. But look at the schedules of independent French films and they have it really good.

Having said that, any ambitions to get out of France and shoot a big U.S. or someday make a Hollywood film?

Actually, well I can't really discuss it much because it's not locked or finalized, but my next film will be in the U.S. We are shooting in Chicago, and it's a genre movie based on a real story called Idol's Eye, the name of a famous diamond. If everything goes according to plan, it should be shooting by late fall.