Over the course of eight feature films, Olivier Assayas has built a solid international reputation as a director of stylish, naturalistic thrillers and social dramas that team with sensuality. Assayas is a boundlessly resourceful director and in his most recent film, Boarding Gate, a lower key, appealingly absurd riff on the same erotic, globalization-era techno thriller he first brought us in 2002’s explosive Demonlover, the fifty-two year old French filmmaker uses his signature loose, montage-y style to tell what is essentially a lurid and oblique crime story, full of people with secrets and double agendas, whose longings to fulfill the need for human intimacy and love come smack up against the system of international capital and wealth distribution that binds all of us to a sick and untenable game of craps, where we’re compelled to behave as both needy human actors and mere commodities to be traded or disposed of.
Featuring a dynamite performance by Asia Argento, Boarding Gate was made in an even more off-the-cuff manner than Assayas normally works. Shot quickly on a low budget with largely foreign crews and without either of his usual d.p.’s, Eric Gautier or Denis Lenoir, Assayas’ film is perhaps the only film I’ve seen that simultaneously harkens back to the skid-row auteurs of the post-war Hollywood (whose work was ironically first heralded by Assayas’s ’60s forefathers at Cahiers du Cinema, where he cut his teeth as a journalist and critic in the early ’80s) and the heady, global-minded concerns of our most rigorous contemporary filmmakers.
Filmmaker caught up with Assayas at his home in Paris to discuss Boarding Gate, his working method, the effects of the internet on modern sexuality and just how much the Asian economy impacts all of us.
Filmmaker: The film was inspired by an article you read about a similar incident in Switzerland?
Assayas: Yeah, well I suppose the initial spark had to do with this story that was in the press. It’s a famous case — there was even a piece in Vanity Fair a couple years back. It was about this big-time French banker who had been involved in major deals in French industry. He been involved in some shady deals, especially in Russia, and he had moved to Switzerland, and one day he was found shot dead with this kind of S&M latex suit on him. Obviously the moment he was murdered he was involved in some kind of sex game and the woman who obviously shot him in the back of his head had been his girlfriend for ages. She fled from Switzerland to Sydney, Australia, stayed there and locked herself up in a hotel room for a few days and then freaked out, flew back to France or to Switzerland and was arrested when she got back. I still don’t think it has been to trial, so it’s kind of hard to figure out. But when I was writing I didn’t want to know too much about [the case]. It really just started me going, and then I moved in another direction. What was interesting about it was the questioning of [whether the murder] was about their relationship or about business, [whether it was] some kind of contract murder. I thought it might be part both, which is the option [the press didn’t explore]. And what really shocked me is that I felt it was like a story out of Demonlover. It was like reality had stolen from something I had staged in one of my films, which I had staged as something kind of abstract and all of the sudden it was very flesh and blood. I suppose that’s what got me going.
Filmmaker: What was the process like developing and putting together Boarding Gate, and how do you think it was different or similar to your other recent films, which were also multi-national, multi-lingual productions?
Assayas: It has a slightly different dynamic in the sense that there were two prerequisites. I started writing at a stage when I had a lot of trouble getting projects happening in France for some reason. It was kind of absurd because at that point Clean was my biggest hit, and I thought that after the French success of that movie I would have open doors, but it was absolutely the opposite. I started working on a couple of projects, they were not happening, so I thought I might as well do something much more radical, but maybe within a framework where I had some minor security that the film would happen, meaning that it would be a straightforward genre movie in English. I had met Asia Argento at the time, had wanted very much to make a film with her, and I thought maybe it would make sense if we made that kind of film. The whole notion of some kind of weird English language film halfway between a European independent movie and some kind of international B-movie made sense. I knew I would have to be working on a small budget so the logic of it was to shoot the western world scenes in very few locations and then shoot in the streets in Hong Kong in a semi-documentary style. I also wanted the film to be partly about something Asia has had very few opportunities to do — more elaborate dramaturgy, something [that brings together] her inner emotions and the action things that she loves to do.
Filmmaker: Your female leads are always fantastic as Asia is in this film. She seems to be for me the only person I can think of who could have played this role with such gleeful abandon.
Assayas: I think I would not have made the film without her. I could not imagine a French actress who could have dealt with both sides of the character. There are, I suppose, a few actresses who can feel at ease with the action parts, and I suppose there are many actresses who could feel at ease with the more interiorized aspects of the character, the deeper emotions of the character, but I think the only person who could be completely at ease with both sides of the character, someone who has this magnetic, physical presence and at the same time this incredibly likeable personality is Asia. To me, this film as it is, is completely dependent on her.
Filmmaker: The first half of Boarding Gate seems to be a series of chamber set pieces in these sterile modern environments that you ofte like to film. I couldn’t help but think of the scene between Bridgitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli in Contempt or the scene in the center of Breathless with Belmondo and Jean Seberg. Were those things that you consciously devised beforehand, these scenes where you sort of stop the film and we see this intimate dance between these two people?
Assayas: I had wanted for a long time to have space to go further into… relationships, and in a way that filmmakers I admire, like Bergman or Fassbinder did. I always thought it involved giving myself more space, more time, even if it’s not within the logic of contemporary storytelling. The murder scene in Boarding Gate is 25 minutes, almost half an hour. It’s something you don’t do in film, but of course it has to do with things that theater can do. Recently cinema has been very scared of that texture, but it’s stuff that Godard and the great filmmakers of the ’60s were not afraid of. We shot that scene in four nights, and I had no idea Asia or Michael would ultimately go that far in terms of the way they inhabited the characters.
Filmmaker: Do you allow your actors to help shape the words and phrasing and intonations of the characters or are these pretty set in your mind before?
Assayas: Yes, especially when I’m working in English. It’s something I suppose I started with Nick Nolte when we were shooting Clean. I gave a lot of freedom to Nick to rephrase what I had written. What I discovered that excites me about the process is that I write in French, then I get it roughly translated in English, then I rewrite in English, but then I give it to the actors to change, so ultimately it’s not about the words or the phrasing, it’s all about the actual emotion I want to express with a specific line in a specific scene. More and more I consider my dialogue as indication of emotions I want to reach at that moment, and of course I’m incredibly happy when Nick and Michael [Madsen] can find ways of expressing them in rougher terms. Ultimately Asia’s [character] is closer to what was originally written, but she has this kind of genius to make anything sound spontaneous and natural.
Filmmaker: How do you know you’re ready to shoot a scene while your rehearsing?
Assayas: Ah…[laughs] I am ready to shoot a scene exactly when I am not ready. [laughs] I almost never rehearse. I don’t like rehearsing. Usually what I do is sort of roughly explain to the actors what we’re going to do so that they’re comfortable with the fact that at this point they’re sitting or standing or walking from here to there, that it all makes sense to them. If for some reason they’re not comfortable with this or that I kind of change it to fit what they feel will be better for the character and their acting. Then I explain to them what the shot will be, the way I will structure it and then we do technical rehearsals to make sure the guys with the camera, pulling the focus, have a notion of where we’re heading. But I ask the actors to not rehearse anything that has to do with acting, just to rehearse the positions and the specific movements from here to there. Sometimes I don’t even do that. On Boarding Gate, I’d shoot without even doing any technical rehearsal. Usually when I work with actors who are not familiar with that way of working I’ll tell them, “Don’t worry, I just like to shoot the rehearsal, it’s normal.” [laughs] And most of the time, it’s the first take that I end up using. Sometimes I shoot 15, 20 takes, but very often, when we don’t fuck up, which also happens, I will keep the first take, because the first take, before it has been rehashed, before the actors have gone through their lines too many times, when there is something completely virginal about their relationship between the words and the positions and that specific moment and the partner they’re working with, there’s something unique. You can struggle and [redo] the scene so many times just to get back to that initial point when there is this kind of spontaneity to their emotions and to their acting. So to me its essential that the actors are not ready, that I am not ready, that the crew is not ready and we still go for it [laughs].
Filmmaker: Your films exhibit this lovely stylistic fluidity and looseness while still suggesting the breathless pace that people seem to live at today. In Boarding Gate the camera is constantly twisting and turning around the characters in very elegant and almost mysterious ways. How do you think about the camerawork for each film? Do you impose a style beforehand?
Assayas: I think I invent the films while shooting them. I never start making a film knowing, this is how I will make the film, this is how this film will look like, this will be the style of the film. I have a vague notion of the framework I’m working in, and I think that somehow I kind of adapt to the specific energy of the scenes as I’m discovering them day by day. A movie like Boarding Gate took me a bit further than usual in this direction of just using contemporary energy, of using a mixture of realism and abstraction, of mixing documentary and completely poetic abstract moments. I think with Boarding Gate, because I was working in some kind of genre framework where it’s all about life and death, there is also something slightly cartoonish about it, and that gives you a huge amount of freedom in terms of your visual style. I wanted to capture this kind of electricity that emanates from Asia, and I wanted to find the right style to capture it. I think the same way in which I pushed her further in many directions, in return what she gave me kind of encouraged me to go further in terms of the style of the film. Also of course it has to do with the way you function with the cameraman. Boarding Gate is the first film I shot with Yorick Le Saux. Yorick is a great cameraman, I’ve known him for ages, he was doing second camera on many of my films, I think starting with Late August, Early September. He did a lot of second camera work on Demonlover. We just get along really well, especially when it has to do with the really rough, abstract stuff. So I think I was very happy to be working with Yorick because we get along on in terms of energy. For me the best way to sum it up, Clean is a movie that has some kind of rock & roll background, whereas Boarding Gate doesn’t have a rock & roll background, it’s like the movie is rock & roll in its own way.
Filmmaker: How was working with a Hong Kong crew different than your experiences elsewhere, particularly in France?
Assayas: I suppose that working in Hong Kong is pretty much part of what we’ve just discussed. The modernity and energy and abstraction [in the film] has also to do with Hong Kong. Hong Kong I knew from the start would just take me in that direction. I’ve been traveling to Hong Kong since the mid ’80s. I think that something about the energy of Hong Kong, about the beauty of the modern architecture in the city, the pace of the city, has always been an inspiration because, even for my early French films. It was something that you did not sense at the time in Europe. For me at some point it was just vital to be there, to deal with the real thing and to make a movie that would be in the streets in Hong Kong and that would just get at the core of something that has been an inspiration for me for ages. So yes, Hong Kong is not just a city in the film, it’s like the core of what cinematically animates the film.
Filmmaker: The protagonists in some of your recent films have been women in trouble who frequently find themselves culturally displaced and antagonized and in with very bad and complex men whose violent, sexual natures in some ways may represent the dehumanizing effects of capitalism. What draws you to these types of tales?
Assayas: It’s difficult to answer. I suppose it’s a matter of an affinity, a proximity with those characters and those emotions. I think it also has to do with specific individuals. I think it’s also about being lucky to meet the right actresses to depict those emotions. I suppose that Maggie [Cheung] has been an inspiration, not just for the films that we made together, Irma Vep or Clean. As a modern Chinese woman, as the person that she is, she has been a big influence, and I suppose, for completely different reasons, in completely different ways, I can say the same with Asia. And I suppose the last few movies I’ve made, Demonlover, Clean, Boarding Gate, they are, of course, movies that deal with my own preoccupations, that have to do with issues of the transformation of the world, globalization. They have, of course, also to do with the specific relationship with those two actress and I suppose Connie Nielsen also in a slightly different way. I mean, [hers is] a different kind of character. Demonlover is very specific — it’s slightly more abstract, it doesn’t have the same relationship to those characters, but in terms of my inspiration, I started making films after just writing about them for a few years at Cahiers du Cinema. I was lucky enough to be able to travel around, see the world, be acquainted with Asia and Asian cinema when people were not so aware of it, so all of the sudden, when I started to make films, I was completely aware of how the world was changing. I sensed that the booming Asian economy, the opening up of China, and the transformation of Russia were all huge events that were in the process of completely reshaping the world. I just felt there was some huge open space that no was even interested in approaching or dealing with and that I had been lucky enough to be aware of. I thought I was in the right position to handle and understand it. So yes, I think and still do think that what is exciting about film is representing the world and the energies that reshape it.
Filmmaker: You’ve talked about how capital and global commerce in some way predetermine the emotional lives of your characters. Could you talk more about that?
Assayas: I think that the life of individuals is determined by the society that they live in and the more obvious or darker aspects of the culture they live in. I think that today our very idea of ourselves is reshaped by the images we are constantly absorbing. I think our imagination is defined, reshaped by the space occupied by modern media. It can be Hollywood movies, video games, the Internet, comic books, whatever. I think the geography defined by modern images is incredibly broader than whatever previous generations were acquainted with. But not only in terms of how it gives some kind of broader space for our imaginations — I think it’s also going much deeper, much further within individuals, within the more hidden layers of individuals that were not accessed by images before that. I suppose one of the things Demonlover was dealing with was [the way] new layers of images available to individuals on the Internet completely transform not only their imagination but also their own sexuality. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing, but I think, I would say it is a bad thing, not on moral terms, but in the sense of the fact that I perceive it as the progress of alienation. I think people were somehow alone with their own inner imagination and their sex life. Now, somehow, their sex lives are connected to specific images and specific networks within the Internet. To me, it’s like the most private, inner impulses of individuals are commodified by this modern materialism that is incarnated by the Internet and the modern layers of images.
Filmmaker: Does making films in the States or North America interest you at all. Is that something you’re planning on doing?
Assayas: I’ve always been extremely curious to do things I have not done before so every single movie is basically defined by the fact that it’s something that I have not done before. I’m always open to a lot of new things, including making films in the States, but then the problem is more about what kind of freedom I can have. I have been completely spoiled — since I have been making films I’ve had this incredible liberty of how to make them. It’s always very difficult, it’s always horror stories how films are financed, but of course [filmmaking] would not be fun if they were easy to make. Still, the bottom line is that I’ve been able to make the movies I wanted the way I wanted to in Europe, and so freedom is the most precious thing for me.
Filmmaker: What among your films was the biggest learning experience in terms of your filmmaking process and which film do you think you took the biggest leap with?
Assayas: I think that I’ve been learning constantly making films. When I shot Cold Water in four weeks, I had never done that before, I had no idea you could shoot a movie in four weeks and that somehow opened the door for me to make Irma Vep, which I also shot in four weeks, which also had to do with so many complex, different layers of cinema and again something I had never done before, this kind of meta-cinema movie. And again it was something completely new when I made La Destinees Sentimentale. It’s the same with my more autobiographical movies, like Late August, Early September or the latest one I just made, Summer Hours. I think it’s no fun if you’re not learning. I’ve never started making a film thinking, “Oh, I’ve learned how to do this now, so now I can do it.” I’ve always started films having in the back of my mind that I have no idea how I’m going to get away with it. I have no idea how to visually deal with them, I have no idea what the right visual style for them is and I just figure them out on the way.