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“You Really Had to Struggle to Get Your Music”: Olivier Assayas on Cold Water‘s Long Journey to American Screens

Cold Water

In the opening minutes of Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water, two boys huddle around a radio like it was a small fire in the woods. The year is 1972; the place, just outside Paris. They madly fumble for reception. Finally, success! They get a decent (though still fuzzy) signal, just in time to bob their heads to Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain.” It’s a moment that must seem alien to anyone who grew up pre-Internet, who have no idea what it was like when everything (if not everything) wasn’t a click away.

For ages, you had to fight to find Cold Water too. The director’s fifth feature played festivals and retros, but it was never theatrically released outside of France. This spring, Cold Water is making its beyond truant appearance in American theaters. It’s been a long, strange, headache-inducing journey to get it restored and get it back on screens. Even its making was convoluted. It didn’t start as just another film, but as an episode in a monumental (and, sadly, semi-forgotten) French TV series called Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge. Airing on the station Arte, it tasked a murderer’s row of fab native filmmakers — including André Téchiné, Claire Denis and Chantal Akerman — with making hour-long films about when they were 16 years old.

For Assayas, that meant journeying back to the early ’70s. Cold Water follows 16-year-old Gilles (Cyprien Fouquet), a troubled but sensitive teen in love with the far more troubled Christine (Virginie Ledoyen). The first half details their run-ins with the law, with authority figures, with parents. The second half has them running off to a bacchanal in the woods, featuring hashish, rampant furniture destruction and a killer playlist of dad rock titans. (This film was made to be played loud.) Assayas wound up with a 92-minute cut he was reluctant (but required) to hack down to an hour.

Filmmaker sat down with Assayas right after he’d shown his quarter-century own classic at SXSW and just before he returned to France to tend to his next film, Non Fiction.

Filmmaker: Making a film about your teen years in your 30s must have been disorienting. What is it like to watch Cold Water now that you’re in your 60s?

Assayas: When I made it, technically it was a period piece. But when I was shooting it I really had trouble seeing it that way. For me, it was like normal. [Laughs] It was part of my world, my life. Even when we were restoring the film, I realized we had shot [the supermarket scene] in a real supermarket. We didn’t even bother to change it — we had no money — but it works perfectly. When I look back on it with the perspective of time, it’s strange how it kind of blurs with my own memories of that age. It’s like a screen between myself today and the teenager I was. I didn’t capture so much the specificities of that time but the poetics of it, the energies. I’m kind of disturbed by how real it feels looking back.

Filmmaker: That’s interesting that you didn’t have money to make the locations look twenty years older. I guess parts of France still look very 1972.

Assayas: This movie was made on the budget of a 50-minute TV drama for French TV. We had no money at all. We shot it in 24 days, meaning six days over four weeks. We didn’t have money for recreations. We had a bunch of ’70s clothes — that was pretty much the only luxury we had.

Filmmaker: I imagine the music, which is a lot of American music — Janis Joplin, Alice Cooper, Bob Dylan — ate up a lot of the budget.

Assayas: The music was the most expensive part of the film. [Laughs]

Filmmaker: Did the rights become a problem?

Assayas: Yes, but only because of the weird way this film got made. The guys who were negotiating the rights for the music did an uninformed, bad job. They had no idea what they were buying and for what time. They ended up spending a lot of money getting very little rights. Because it was so badly negotiated from the start, later it became a problem — but much later. We had the rights for ten years, which is ridiculous; we should have had it for longer. What happened was when the film was finished, the sales company that owned the film went bankrupt after like three months. They got the film in May, and by September they were gone. They were some branch of an indie label for Polygram, which was a European mini-major financed by Philips. After a year, Polygram was gone. Their library was then swallowed up by Universal. So the rights ended up in a library at Universal in Hollywood, and the guys who had it didn’t even know they had it, or if they did they didn’t care. We had to wait until they lost their rights to get the film back. But once they did, the music rights had expired. [Laughs]

Filmmaker: On top of this, Cold Water never opened theatrically outside of France. What were the reasons for that?

Assayas: After the screening in Cannes, the film had great reviews, but the guys who owned the rights started asking for absurd amounts of money for the film. So it made no sale. They thought they would lock a sale in Toronto; the problem is by Toronto they were gone, the company did not exist anymore. So basically nothing happened. After we were released from the Universal deal, the French company was gone, so it was absorbed by a French mini-major, Orange. Finally, there was someone who was in charge of the movie rights at Orange who got interested in the problem, thanks to Criterion. Criterion kept pushing, pushing, pushing. So, much thanks to them.

Filmmaker: Going back to music rights, there’s a history of films that wind up going AWOL because they contain a song that they no longer have clearance to use. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep was missing for ages for that very reason. But he had to stand his ground, because the music is so key to the film’s power. The same thing with Cold Water.

Assayas: It’s not like I could put other songs in. The songs are built in to the screenplay. The whole party scene was five or six or seven pages max in the screenplay. And it turned into this 25-minute, half-hour sequence because I completely reimagined it based on the songs. I decided very consciously to use the complete songs and build the pacing of the scene around them.

Filmmaker: So the party scene wasn’t initially supposed to be that long?

Assayas: No. When I was preparing the film, I realized it would all lead to that sequence. Out of the four weeks we had, one week was fully devoted to that scene. I wasn’t sure how I was going to shoot it, but I really needed the time to absorb the space, to use as well as I could the kids we had. I knew it would be fairly complex, and it was what the film was about.

Filmmaker: Speaking of complete songs, I’ve always loved the part where Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend” plays. It’s about to end, but then you hear someone move the needle back to the beginning and start over again. You rarely hear the same song twice in a row.

Assayas: It was partly because I love the intro so much. It’s one of the greatest intros ever. [Laughs] And it shows how there was a different way of listening to music. Now, when you have kids playing music at a party, it’s kind of seamless. Back then there was no one specifically DJing. Someone would pass in front of the record player and say, “Oh, this is boring, I want to hear this.”

Filmmaker: There’s something Proustian about the film, not just in the specific songs you hear but in the way they’re played, the way they sound in certain spaces or coming out of certain kinds of speakers. I’m thinking of the two different ways you play Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain”: once through a tiny, tinny radio in the beginning, and the second full-blast at the party.

Assayas: I care very much about the tiny “Virginia Plain” moment at the beginning, because I wanted to show how difficult it was to have access to music at that time, especially if you were living in the countryside in France — not far from Paris, but still, not Paris. There was no rock ’n’ roll or indie rock or prog rock on French radio. No way. The same thing on French TV. If you wanted to access that music, you had to fantasize about it by reading the British music press, which I did — Melody Maker, NME. You had three record shops in Paris that sold it. The way to access “Virginia Plain” when it was first released was there was this radio channel from Luxembourg, in English. They were transmitting for England from Luxembourg, so in France you could catch it. At the time you really had to struggle to get your music.

Filmmaker: I couldn’t verify this in my research, but was there actually a shorter cut that played as the TV version?

Assayas: There is. There’s a shorter cut that was supposed to be 52 minutes and ended up being 65 minutes, because I had no way of making it that short. But I was not happy about cutting it down. I think movies have one version. But the thing is, the Arte TV executive for some reason got jealous of the recognition the features versions had. He wanted to appropriate the project, even though he didn’t develop it. That was Chantal Poupaud, the mother of Melvil Poupaud. She was their publicist, and she was the one who carried that carried that project from the start. She’s the one who brought it to Georges Benayoun, who brought it to Arte. But Arte was not instrumental in making this, which made the Arte guy not too happy. So he had us cut the negative of Cold Water, so he could have a blown-up 35 negative of the short version, absurdly. That meant the restoration had to be from the internegative.

Filmmaker: I can’t imagine what you could have cut. The theatrical version is very tight.

Assayas: I did it very artificially. It’s like the short version of Carlos. I did that because I had to do it. It made no sense to me.

Filmmaker: So, it’s not like another version of the same material, like Out 1: Spectre, the shorter version of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 that “only” runs four hours, as opposed to nearly thirteen?

Assayas: No, no. It’s not another film. It’s just a much inferior version of the same film. [Laughs]

Filmmaker: Cold Water has been one of those films most people could only read about but probably not have a chance to see. I read about it for years before I saw it, and I only saw it because it was randomly playing on IFC, back in 2006. And the other films in the Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge series are even harder to find.

Assayas: They should do a series of those films, because it’s a series of really exciting movies — some better known, some lesser known. People are aware of Téchiné’s film [Wild Reeds], but Téchiné’s film had a U.S. distributor. Or Claire Denis’ [US Go Home]. Everyone knows about Claire’s film, but no one’s seen it. Patricia Mazuy’s film [Travolta et Moi] is really good, Cedric Kahn’s film [Bonheur] is really good, and so on and so forth. It’s one of the best TV series in France ever.

Filmmaker: I know each filmmaker worked independently of each other, but how much were you talking? I only ask because both Cold Water and Denis’ US Go Home feature a Nico song. Cold Water plays “Janitor of Lunacy” towards the end while Denis’ closes with “These Days.” Maybe there was something in the air in France in 1994.

Assayas: Of course we talked. Especially with André, who’s been a friend forever, I wrote a couple screenplays with him [including 1985’s Rendez-vous]. And Claire, we’ve always been very close. And we were making other films with the same company, Arte. It was a very exciting time, because the series was [technically headed] by Georges Benayoun. He produced very mainstream films, but he had this assistant, Françoise Guglielmi, who was really in charge, and she was really into indie movies. We had no money to make the films, but we were making the films in a situation where we had freedom. Claire made movies with them, I did Irma Vep there afterwards. I also made Late August, Early September with them. Catherine Breillat was making films with them. We were all working together. Our offices were next to each other. There was a sense of community, something collective about it. This was the one moment in my filmmaking career that I sensed I was working in an environment where the filmmakers had the same goal, had the same sensibility.

Filmmaker: I read someone describe the Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge series as a continuation but departure from the French New Wave. In other words, every filmmaker was building on what their predecessors did, but going off in a new direction. There are no direct homages to past films.

Assays: No, no. I don’t like that. Cold Water owes a lot to Philippe Garrel in a certain way. He really captured the 1970s, in real time. I don’t do homages at all, but Cold Water has one specific shot that’s an explicit homage to Garrel. It’s when it’s dawn and the kids run out and pee on the lawn. That’s a shot from L’enfant secret.

Filmmaker: I saw that recently, and I don’t think I remember exactly where that shot is.

Assayas: It’s somewhere in there. [Laughs] Or maybe I fantasized it, I don’t know. Sometimes you invent your own scenes in the films you love.

Filmmaker: Garrel gets another shout-out in Cold Water: when you play Nico’s “Janitor of Lunacy,” which was in Garrel’s The Inner Scar. But that’s as explicit as you get with homages. It’s more that you’re channeling something in his approach yet making it your own.

Assayas: When I was making Cold Water, I thought I was making some sort of experimental film. I genuinely thought at the time that this would have some kind of festival life, and that was it. No one had any notion that it would have any kind of commercial value whatsoever. But I was thinking of Garrel, because usually when you make movies it’s about doing things faster and faster. Here, I had a very short screenplay. I kept on expanding things. I had the space to expand everything. Ultimately that’s a very exciting way to make movies. I should try that again, because it works.

Filmmaker: I recently read that Tarkovsky’s The Mirror was also a big influence. I hadn’t thought of that before, but on reflection it seems like a good film to unlock part of Cold Water, particularly the way it presents memory. It’s not about recreating events as much as certain sensations.

Assayas: Yes. And it has to do with nature, cold, fire, water, stones. There is something very elemental about [Cold Water], that it’s a form of poetry that very deeply connects with what Tarkovsky did. When I was filming Gilles walking in the woods, reading the poem by Allen Ginsberg, I had Tarkovsky in mind.

Filmmaker: That scene seems like both an invocation of the party to come and a kind of a palate cleanser, a buffer separating the two very different halves of the film.

Assayas: It was also a way of reminding myself that poetry was important. As a kid, I was listening to Bob Dylan, but not understanding a word he was saying, or only a fraction of it. But I was still in awe. It’s because music is a universal language. Reading the poetry of Ginsberg, reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti, reading Gregory Corso when I was 17, it meant the world to me. It was the most accurate way of expressing whatever way I felt as a kid. I’m not sure why. In that sense, Cold Water is an homage to that period, because it’s dealing with that period in poetic terms.

Filmmaker: I confess I often don’t pay attention to lyrics when I’m listening to music. And if I do, I don’t tend to take the words literally. Even the words sort of go beyond words, if that makes sense.

Assayas: Sometimes I pay attention. When it’s Syd Barrett or Nick Drake and it’s very simple, I do. I’m a fan of Shane MacGowan, I think he’s a genius. He’s a great writer. There are songs I love that are just so dumb [laughs]. But I don’t care. Sometimes there’s a very deep, profound beauty in the words, in the poetry.

Filmmaker: It seems like your 30s are a good time to make a film on your teens. At that point, your hostility to your younger self has died down a bit. You can be critical of that age, and yet you still have that yearning to be that young again.

Assayas: Yes, that makes complete sense. Especially because I grew up in the ’70s. I felt like the ’80s were built against the ’70s. When I started being able to approach filmmaking, make short films, in the late ’70s and beginning of the ’80s, I was so influenced by the energy of punk rock, which was so much the opposite of what the ’70s were about. Looking back on it now, it’s kind of seamless. But at the time it felt like a clean break. I defined myself in opposition to the ’70s. The ’70s were about waiting for a revolution that never happened. All of a sudden, the ’80s were about actually changing the world. It was a kind of rush ahead without ever looking back. At some point, I felt I did need to look back. To me, Cold Water was the opportunity to do that.

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