“This Movie’s Explicitly Nonvisual”: Olivier Assayas on Non-Fiction
Writers and publishers, politicians and performers deal with a changing cultural landscape in Non-Fiction, the latest feature from writer and director Olivier Assayas. A snapshot of Parisian society about to succumb to the digital generation, it’s also a surprisingly supple romantic comedy in which couples form and dissolve with distinctively French sangfroid.
Alain (Guillaume Canet), a publisher of “quality” literature, is facing the takeover of his house by a digital entrepreneur. His assistant Laure (Christa Théret) argues that books are obsolete anyway. Alain’s wife Selena (Juliette Binoche) feels trapped in her role as a “crisis management expert” (read: “cop”) in a hit TV series. Writer Léonard (Vincent Macaigne) has built his career on quasi-autobiographical accounts of messy love affairs. But his recent books haven’t sold well, and his wife Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) and lovers old and new seem fed up with him. Valérie meanwhile has committed herself to a politician who starts revealing unpleasant secrets.
Their stories become increasingly tangled as they fall in and out of relationships around TV production sets, radio studios, bookstores, cafés and bistros. Non-Fiction is a constant surprise, from its seductive visuals to its slippery story lines and witty dialogue. The Sundance Selects release opens May 3 in the U.S.
Assayas introduced Non-Fiction and several of his earlier movies, newly restored, at last fall’s Morelia International Film Festival (FICM), where he spoke with Filmmaker.
Filmmaker: Do you like seeing your movies again?
Assayas: No, not at all. Once they’re done, they’re done. But recently, because I did digital restorations of some of my work from the ’80s and /90s, I had to go through all those movies again. Disorder, Winter’s Child, Cold Water, Irma Vep and Late August, Early September, which was not finished in time to be here but is virtually done. I also did a restoration of Demonlover, which is a little later, 2002. There are still a few missing. What that means is I had to watch those movies again. Not just sit through them—I actually had to work on them again, scene by scene. Try to figure out what I could fix in the sound, what I could fix in the image. It’s a long process, and it’s a bit weird, because I’ve always been militantly against watching my movies again. And now I’ve been forced to do it. I ended up coming to terms with it, but it’s a strange feeling to look at stuff you did 20, 25 years ago.
When I did a book of interviews with Ingmar Bergman, he told me, “I think that for my sins I will go to purgatory and I will have to sit through all my movies.”
Filmmaker: You took a circuitous route to get to Morelia.
Assayas: I was in Massachusetts the morning before yesterday and so I traveled all day, but it’s okay, I like traveling. What’s great about the festival here is that it’s one of the few places where you actually do meet people, where you have youthful, warm audiences. That’s becoming very rare, in the sense that the audience for independent cinema seems to be aging. It’s something I’m struggling against. I’m obsessed with this notion that movies are for young people, it’s a young people’s art, and they are the audience you want to connect with. But independent filmmaking has developed its own academism. And its core audience is middle aged.
Filmmaker: There’s a typical Sundance indie film, a Berlin indie…
Assayas: That’s exactly what I mean by an aging audience. It’s painful, because I know very well that in terms of figures, when I am making a movie like Non-Fiction, it will have a middle-aged audience. I cross my fingers and hope that it will touch a younger audience. But I think that the core audience will be middle-aged.
But when I made Personal Shopper, I’m losing that middle-aged audience. I connect with Kristen’s [Stewart] audience instead, at least in the American release. In France, the Kristen Stewart audience didn’t really adopt Personal Shopper because it wasn’t what they expected from her. And the traditional indie audience thought it’s too “out there” for them.
Filmmaker: Hasn’t that younger audience already switched to watching shorts on phones or computers?
Assayas: They watch movies, but they watch the superhero movies. They watch the prequels and sequels and the universe and the origins.
Filmmaker: What do you do about the two tiers in the movie industry—corporate blockbusters vs. indies, which all seem to end up on Netflix?
Assayay: It’s become this kind of third-world type economy, with its own version of the one-percent. The gap between what’s happening in the corporate studio world, and what’s happening in indie filmmaking, has never been broader. Before the dictatorship of special effects, the gap between the budget of a middle-range studio film and whatever indie filmmaking was at that time was not that huge. But the problem now is mass entertainment used to be more exciting than what it has become.
I used to love mainstream American movies. I grew up on them, and watching them I’ve been admiring, excited, entertained. Now I watch these superhero movies and I think they’re horrible. They are just painful to watch. There are ugly, they are stupid, they are vulgar, they are pretentious. I really struggle to find a kind word to put on that stuff because they are gloomy, they are dark, they are negative. They are profoundly unpleasant to watch.
Filmmaker: The genre seems to be violence based on revenge, as your character Selena [Juliette Binoche] says at one point. Non-Fiction also deals a lot with an encroaching digital world.
Assayas: It applies to movies as well, but it applies to basically anything. I think the digital culture has changed everything. It has changed the job of everything.
When I was introducing this film at the New York Film Festival, that morning The New York Times had a story about two cab drivers who committed suicide because of Uber. Because all of a sudden the world for those guys fell apart. “Disrupted.” They had invested a lot of money on cab medallions, and all of a sudden they are left to themselves. All of a sudden something comes up that doesn’t play by the rules, that overthrows the table.
Filmmaker: In your movie you single out these issues, but you also argue for them at times, like when you compare Twitter to the bon mots of the ancien régime.
Assayas: That’s the way I’ve always seen Twitter, as a megaphone for guys making jokes in the salon. But now it’s also people who talk loudly when they walk out of a theater, who want every judgment to be heard. I had a friend like that: every single time he walked out of a theater he started talking louder than normal, because he wanted the people around him to share his insights. That’s more or less what Twitter is about.
I think one thing I remember from my time writing about movies is that you need a couple of days before you know exactly what you think about a film. Sometimes you’ve seen something that’s impresses you, and two days later you’re like, maybe not. Or vice versa. You didn’t like a film but you realize that it’s coming back to you in an interesting way. One of the negative aspects of the Internet is that people don’t give themselves enough time to reflect on their interaction with a film.
Filmmaker: There’s a lot more evil to the Internet than that. Facebook, for instance.
Assayas: People say it’s about narcissism, but I don’t think it’s only about narcissism. It’s about the narcissism of the consumer, consumerist narcissism. Meaning you identify with what you buy, with what you consume. You generate an image of yourself that is defined by what you eat, where you go on a holiday, what record, what CD, what music you are listening to, or what movie you like. I think it distorts the human experience.
Filmmaker: Your characters address all this in Non-Fiction, but you don’t pick sides.
Assayas: I don’t think movies should be about conclusions. I think in movies you can deal with serious subjects as long as you don’t preach, as long as you don’t promote your own perspective. I think the best you can do is show the complexity of the issues, and then it’s up to anybody to decide where to stand. Not that I don’t think anything, I have some convictions of my own. But I’m not going to impose them. A movie like Non-Fiction, I see it as the audience taking part in the conversation. In a certain way, your perception of the film is also about having a dialogue with it: agreeing, disagreeing with this guy or that guy. What is interesting in terms of filmmaking is opening the film to that dialogue, taking the risk of a dialogue with the audience.
Filmmaker: Your characters generally tend to be flawed. They all have problems that they don’t know or aren’t willing to accept.
Assayas: I relate to the notion of layers because that’s how I write. I create the characters layer by layer, which is part of the process of a film like Non-Fiction in an even more specific way than usual. Because I don’t know those characters, they don’t pre-exist in my writing. I discover them scene by scene. Every single scene is about surprising myself, surprising the audience by revealing the character. Where you thought you had him pinned, you realize not at all. It’s always a bit more complicated than what the appearances are. Like the character of the young actress Chloë Grace Moretz played in Clouds of Sils Maria, where you think you know what she is, then you realize she’s something else, and then you realize she’s something else again.
Filmmaker: You layer the conversations, too. The talk about books and digital platforms could be taken as sexual seductions as well.
Assayas: I suppose it’s a lot of what this movie’s about. There is always something else behind every single conversation. Often sexual, but also a bit more devious, like the interaction between Léonard and Alain, the writer and the publisher. They have their own game. It’s never completely straightforward.
Filmmaker: During your introduction last night you said this was a different kind of film for you.
Assayas: In my scripts I always follow my subconscious in one way or another. But still I usually have a structure, I have an arc, I know more or less where I’m going even if that may change in the process. In the case of Non-Fiction, I had no idea what I was doing. I sat down and wrote this really long first scene and had no idea if there was a movie there. I was struggling with the desire to make a movie centered on this publisher who is at a moment of crisis, questioning the modern world of print. Something like that. I had no idea if it was material for a film, or if it was something that would go away. Still, I ended up going back to it. Maybe something was there, but I had no idea the way to handle it. Every single time I started to develop a narrative, I rejected it. So at some point I started writing a long dialogue scene. And it was way too long, I was not sure who those characters were, and I didn’t have a second scene.
So I left it at that for months, until I picked it up and said, “Why not try to write a second scene?” But what could be that second scene? Well, there’s a writer, there’s a publisher, so the publisher goes home to his wife. And his wife is Juliette Binoche. So okay, already I’m one step further. There’s a dinner at home with guys he works with. So what are they going to do? They talk shop. So I wrote a scene of guys in the publishing industry talking shop. I had no idea whether it was a film, and I didn’t have a third scene.
I moved forward based only on the desire I had to write specific scenes, and whether I had fun with them. But I was honestly not sure there was a film there. At some point I had like forty, fifty pages—oh my god, I have written fifty pages, I have no idea what this is. But it all fell into place. At some point I realized I’m actually telling a story. There’s something going on.
I think the whole process of writing this film was to try to figure out what was exactly the dynamic between the dialogue in the first scene between those two guys. The hidden dynamic.
Filmmaker: That you didn’t know when you first wrote it.
Assayas: Absolutely not. I had no idea.
Filmmaker: That’s a scary way to be creative.
Assayas: Somehow with movies I have to have my back to the wall. It’s that I don’t have any other idea. That’s the one idea I have [laughing].
Filmmaker: So let’s talk about the first scene. Alain takes Léonard out to lunch. At the restaurant the balance of power keeps shifting between them—Léonard throwing out convictions but then losing steam, Alain almost cruel in the way he lets information slip out. You use reverse angle shots and cross-cutting in a way I haven’t seen much in your films.
Assayas: No, I didn’t do it that much. I’ve been forced to watch Late August, Early September again, which is the closest I’ve gotten to this movie. I remember at the time I made a point of not using this kind of shot/countershot system. There’s a couple of scenes that involve two cameras, not many, and I thought more about figuring out how to film long dialogue scenes without too much inter-cutting.
Here I was not shy about that at all. The thing is, this movie’s explicitly nonvisual. I never saw it as very flattering in terms of mise en scène. Very early I realized this had to be entirely about the dialogue, the actors, the dynamics. Because I knew everything was about the energy and speed somehow of the dialogue, I knew that I needed to have reverse shots. Because that allows me also to set the rhythm and keep the pace I want. The big thing about shooting with two cameras is that it gives you more space for improvising. When you use only one camera, the actors you are not filming eventually will give something you’ll love, something that generates a specific reaction. But they will have lost it.
Filmmaker: You can’t go back and say do that again.
Assayas: Exactly. Using two cameras in very specific scenes was part of the syntax of this film.
Filmmaker: So did the actors improvise in that lunch scene?
Assayas: No, not at all. When I wrote this film and even during the prep, I thought there would be much more improvising than what happened in the end. There is a very specific and easy to identify moment when there is some actual improvising. But for most of the film, because it is so dependent on the precision of the dialogue, ultimately I had to stick with what I had written. There was not that much space to play around with. At specific moments, yes, but much less than what I had anticipated. But it also depends on what we mean by “improvising,” because improvising also involves small distortions in the way the actors act, their ways of interacting. That’s also what I was trying to protect by using two cameras.
Filmmaker: Can you explain how you shot it? The restaurant they’re in is a big setting with a lot of extras.
Assayas: This was shot like all my recent films, in 30 days, which is very little. So that means even for a very long scene like this, it’s a one-day shoot with another scene to shoot after it. Also it was a tiny bit more expensive because of the extras, so we couldn’t keep them for two days. [10 seconds of silence] How did I shoot this?
Filmmaker: Did you have time to rehearse?
Assayas: I don’t rehearse at all. I needed wider shots here and there, I knew I had to pull back to have a sense of space, a sense of the restaurant. I used the waitress more than I had anticipated because she gave the scene some dynamic. And the rest was, yeah, it was two cameras, something that worked really well when confronting two actors as different as Guillaume and Vincent. They have completely different ways of functioning, come from completely different worlds, and ultimately something about their interaction was interesting. It was always interesting, so I had to use the two cameras. Every moment of confrontation between those two guys was interesting. I think they had a lot of fun playing with their respective situations.
Filmmaker: What specifically is the difference to their acting? How did you reconcile that?
Assayas: Guillaume Canet is much more technical, he’s very precise. He likes to be in control. What I like about him, he’s very interior. He doesn’t always use it in all his films, but I think that’s what is interesting about him. He’s one of those actors who doesn’t need to do much to have a very strong presence. For some reason he has a lot of authority on screen. He knows it, and he likes to play with it. I wanted Guillaume from the start, he’s the actor I had in mind when I was writing. So I was really happy that he liked the screenplay.
Vincent Macaigne comes from the stage. He’s a very good stage director, he’s done pretty impressive stuff, but it’s always about chaos. It’s too loud, too, there’s smoke everywhere, people screaming. But it’s exciting, it’s fun. Vincent needs the chaos, the confusion. If you structure him, if you give him focus, he has a brilliant instinct.
Juliette was also part of it from the start. When I was writing the screenplay I knew I wanted her. The others came during the casting process, but it was a very easy process. Nora Hamzawi [who plays Valérie, Léonard’s wife] was a bit of a surprise. I love her, she was an obvious choice for this part, but she bloomed in the film. She had never really acted before. Christa Théret [Laure, a digital expert who works for Alain] I met when I was casting Something in the Air. I really loved her, and I made a mental note then that I should remember her when I had the right part for her.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about your collaboration with director of photography Yorick Le Saux?
Assayas: Yorick has been around with me for a long time. When I was restoring Late August, Early September I realized that he was shooting the second camera on it. So we go way back. He also did a lot of second camera on Demonlover.
Filmmaker: So how does he approach a film that you said you didn’t want to be visual?
Assayas: He has to find a way of enjoying himself nonetheless. What I am saying is everything all the time on the set has to be for the actors. It’s all about getting the emotions right, the pace right. I think that Yorick, in that sense, has no ego. All his energy is for the film. I think that he understood exactly what this film was about. And that’s what I love about him. He has always a way of adapting to a specific problem. Obviously he doesn’t function the same way on this film as he did on Personal Shopper or on Clouds of Sils Maria. There he had more space for photography, the same way I had more space for designing the shots in those movies, as opposed to this one. Which is ultimately much more difficult. In terms of directing, a movie like Non-Fiction is super complex, because it’s very, very technical. You have very little to hold onto. You only have dialogue—you don’t have events, anything visual. The issue is to make it not boring. You have to re-invent your way of shooting with every single scene. But all those scenes are more or less about the same thing. So it’s challenging. Every single scene: what can I do that I have not done in the previous dialogue scene, and that way I won’t use in the next dialogue scene?
Filmmaker:You and Yorick give Non-Fiction a grainy look.
Assayas: Because it’s Super 16. I had not used Super 16 since Late August, Early September. Super 16 for Non-Fiction was an important choice because it was a way of not making things look too slick. It helps keep things raw. We used 35mm for the end scenes—no one notices it, but you feel it—in Mallorca.
I loved Super 16, I loved using it. There’s a few things I know now that I didn’t know back then, which is that you have very, very little space. There’s not much pracitcal difference between 35 and Super 16. But with 35, you have more room to adapt, to fix things. With Super 16 you have zero space. It’s not forgiving at all. What you see is what you get. If you try to adjust, it doesn’t work. You don’t get the nuances, the darker corners. I have a friend who was shooting a short film in Super 16 and he asked, “Do you have any advice?” Well, yes, I do have advice: don’t film someone who has a dark coat and a dark sweater.
Filmmaker: Why did you decide on 35 for Mallorca?
Assayas: Because I like the idea of leaving the city, opening up, having a finale of the film where you have a sense of nature, where you have the sense that you are in a different space.
Filmmaker: You gather four characters for a scene in Mallorca set on the terrace of a beach house. Alain, Selena, Léonard and Valérie are all hiding information, all missing information about the others, and they just ping-pong back and forth.
Assayas: That was super tough, because the space was challenging. It’s like a corridor. The terrace is really narrow. So you have this super long scene and you have to find a way to film it. Also, we shot it in December, and it was freezing cold. We had at most like three hours of sunshine. We maximized the little sun we had. Also, it was a bit miraculous for the last scene with Léonard and Valérie. The weather report was disastrous for where we planned to shoot, on the other side of the island. On our side, there was potentially a couple of hours of sunshine in the afternoon—with no guarantee, but at least no storm. So I had to decide to drop the location where we were supposed to shoot and figure out where to shoot the end of the film. Which was the scariest thing, because you know you don’t want to fuck up the last scene of the film. I ended up walking on my own and following the coast until I found some spot that had some sort of potential, and I had to decide that we would bet on that spot. Miraculously, we had a few moments of sunshine that we needed at the right moment and the actors were in sync with that. Sometimes you get very scared when you make movies.
Filmmaker: So it was just luck that white boat crosses the frame in the distance?
Assayas: Oh yes, absolutely, totally.
Filmmaker: Writers talking about your work tend to bring up globalization. Does that surprise you?
Assayas: Yes, I suppose so. But in the sense that I’m surprised that there aren’t more movies that deal with that subject. Globalization is something that’s been going on since the Romans, since the Neanderthals. History has always been about how populations move, and how every culture had a specific way of communicating with other cultures. There was this interesting book, The Silk Road. it put in perspective how trade routes have defined various cultures. In every period in time, every single culture, civilization is defined by the way cultures communicate.
Our present culture has such powerful tools in its hands, meaning the speed of traveling, the speed of communication, the synchronicity of everything happening everywhere at the same time. I think it’s a pretty interesting subject in terms of how it’s changing the way we function, the way we think, the way we perceive ourselves and the world. So yeah, I think it’s a very interesting subject to explore in movies.
But at the same time I don’t think I make movies about subjects. I make movies where individuals have to deal with those subjects, or are citizens of a world that is defined by those tensions. I don’t think I’m particularly interested in the digital revolution or globalization, it’s just that those things happened to me. I didn’t ask for them. It’s happening in the world around me and it’s become so overwhelming . They can’t be absent from the way I’m trying to represent the world.
I think that filmmaking, like any other art, is about representing the world we live in, in one way or another. Of course globalization or digital culture is not the totality of the world we live in, but it has certainly transformed our experience of the world. I make my movies in a very insular culture, which is the French film culture. The French film culture is really exciting, but at the same time can be a bit narrow-minded, or sometimes doesn’t exactly understand the issues of how the world is changing. French cinema tends to be protective of its own space, values, so on and so forth. I think it forbids itself from exploring areas that are both new and important and possibly more relevant than local insular French culture.
Filmmaker: Reviewers want to simplify your movies, “solve” them by reducing them to a plot or theme. But the themes in your movies aren’t as interesting as the movies themselves.
Assayas: It’s the difficulty specifically of Q&As after your movies. People want to discuss the subjects, ultimately it’s the one thing they can hold onto. But that’s not where the specificity of the movie is. This has to do with what we were discussing earlier. The Q&A questions are what you get from people who haven’t really had time to exactly understand their relation to the film. I also have a hard time sometimes thinking the discussion of the films can be relevant. I think that movies are so much about the way they echo in you. So you don’t want to discuss them when you walk out of the theater, it kind of spoils something about how the movie can or should echo within you.
Filmmaker: The film is the story. Those incredible tracking shots in Personal Shopper, for me they are a story in the film.
Assayas: The great thing about tracking shots is that if you get the basics right they are never boring. There’s something that flows. It’s one of the unwritten laws of filmmaking.
Filmmaker: Our eyes evolved to follow things as they move.
Assayas: Yes, movies have to be either about shots that are about movement or about transformation. I remember a veteran editor, Denise de Casabianca, told me something once, and it really struck me. Shots have to be about transformation; if you don’t have transformation the shot gets boring.
Filmmaker: Going back to what you discussed earlier about Super 16, you still intend to use film in the future?
Assayas: Yes. I don’t like digital cinematography. I think very few people get it right. It’s too bright, it’s too cold. You have some cameramen who get it right, and you have some really good movies that are shot on digital. But it’s not my thing.
Filmmaker: Technicians say you can’t tell the difference anymore, and almost everything in theaters is projected digitally anyway.
Assayas: But that’s something else. Now you have no choice about how you view a film. The 35mm print of Personal Shopper and the 35mm print of Clouds of Sils Maria and the 35mm print of Non-Fiction do look better than the DCPs. Absolutely. Obviously they benefit from digital post production and digital color timing and so on. But they just look better. They have more texture, they have more nuances. I’m fine with DCPs, I don’t have a problem with DCPs. And the digital restoration of my Super 16 films of the ’90s, I think they all gain something. But digital camerawork, I do see a difference. I honestly do. Maybe you can’t see the difference when it’s a good cameraman who somehow manages to make it alive.