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“I Don’t Think I’d be a Good Militant”: Olivier Assayas on Wasp Network

Gael García Bernal and Penélope Cruz in Wasp Network

Wasp Network attempts to make sense of the anti-Castro groups stationed in Miami during the late 90s. Poised at the other side of the Florida straits, they coordinated terrorist attacks on the Cuban tourism industry, hoping to bring its economy to its last legs. The Cuban government retaliated by planting spies in Miami, the titular Wasp Network, hoping to scupper future attacks on the coasts of Cuba. 

Here’s a stage for the shadowy intrigue of a political thriller, but Olivier Assayas recounts the bulk of his espionage under the sun, outdoor bars and restaurants, shot reverse shot dialogue whilst drinking, smoking, eating. These are not necessarily Assayas staples, but they are the ubiquitous things some fidgety filmmakers might hide with shadows. Assayas’ spies do their business in broad daylight because they did—and because he had no will to fight against the sun.

At the same time, it’s clear Assayas has grown restless of shooting dialogue. His camera in Wasp Network creeps forward and back, left and right, over one side of the shoulder and back again. He subverts genre elements in places and maintains them in others. He focuses on domestic details and his political interest is broad. He considers Wasp Network a “historical drama,” not a “political thriller” as it has been sold and packaged. It’s a weird, mild film, bound to confound. Just before our talk, Assayas had finished a Screenwriting Masterclass with Kent Jones at NYFF 2019, where the film premiered its revised cut. 

Filmmaker: Are you interested in teaching, or have you taught?

Assayas: No. I hate it. I’m not good at it. I’m fine with meeting students and answering questions. But teaching is beyond me. 

Filmmaker: When Wasp Network pulls the veil on some of its characters’ true allegiances, I was amused that it ends up having little bearing on who we’ve come to know them as.

Assayas: That was part of this project. I like the idea, and it does function in the way you more or less described. In a sense, things don’t really change that much. There’s a hidden dimension to it while you’re watching, and the narrative becomes a bit different from what you expected. I’m not a big fan of conventional narrative, a linear narrative. I have a more kaleidoscopic vision of what narrative should be about. In this case I liked the idea, not necessarily of misleading the audience, but that they become comfortable with a fairly simple narrative. You have two defectors who are very different from each other, trying to rebuild their lives in Miami, but then the reality is a little more complex than that. These characters you come to think of as victims or bystanders are actually actors of the bigger picture, this weird and ongoing underground war between the Castros and Cuba. 

So yes, how we perceive them changes a bit, as they are more active than we thought they were. It does have, eventually, dramatic consequences. But in terms of the story I’m telling, it doesn’t change much, because the whole time it’s about a family who splits and comes back together. We never lose the thread of that emotion. The man who has been lying to his wife and lying to his daughter repents and tries to make up for what he has done. 

Filmmaker: Did you have to omit things from the book or that you shot?

Assayas: Oh yes! I just used bits and pieces from the book. The book is drowned in facts. There are so many militant anti-Castro groups who are at war with each other. It’s a very complex world, so you really have to a) Simplify it to the basics so that people know what’s going on [laughs] b) focus on the characters. To me it was really about following those individuals and their fate. The emotional core of the film had to be Olga (Penélope Cruz). She is the one person who is simultaneously a victim and the one that takes it upon herself to somehow save her life, fate and family. I obviously didn’t just use Fernando Morais’s book [The Last Soldiers Of The Cold War], I did as much research around it as I could. [Morais’s book] explains the complex dynamics of the relationship between Americans and Cubans and how it has evolved. That was just way too complex to deal with in the film. 

Filmmaker: But was there anything that narrowed the film’s political openness that needed to be removed?

Assayas: My [very] first cut was much longer, just that scenes ran a bit longer. But I knew that I needed the film to move fast. There was very little space to linger on this or that. So ultimately I did not change the structure much, there’s very little that has been left out. I changed some things in the [new] cut between its first presentation in Venice and now, because I felt I had sped the film up too much. Now the film is three minutes longer and I feel it has a much better pace. 

Filmmaker: Making Wasp Network sounded like a truncated process. With a short window to edit the film, did you edit as you shot?

Assayas: No. I don’t touch the edit until I’m finished shooting and neither does the editor. I have a very pragmatic approach. I start from the first scene and go forward from there—even on this, where there was pressure on me to edit the plane scenes because they were the most likely to contain the most special effects. I ended up using a lot less special effects than was anticipated. I felt that I did not want to edit [the plane sequence] separately, I had to get to it within the inner logic of the film.  

Filmmaker: Also unexpected: The film is refreshingly bright and sunny. Everything moves with clarity. No moody shadows. Of course the events all take place in Cuba and Miami, but I suspect you pushed it.

Assayas: I pushed it. I wanted that non-stop. I realized that every scene I could shoot outdoors I would shoot outdoors. It was not written that way in the screenplay, it’s something that I discovered when I was in Cuba because I realized that even the winter is hot and people are always outside. I also liked the idea of having as much of the tropical ambience of Cuba as possible. I’ve never really worked with that, so I was happy for every single palm tree or whatever that I could get in the shot [laughs]. 

Filmmaker: So you’re relocating these scenes impromptu while you’re scouting?

Assayas: Yes. I wrote the screenplay and knew very little about Cuba. I’d been there once just to look around but I wasn’t really familiar. It was in the process of location scouting that I could really find the scenes and reinvent them in completely different locations based upon what I found and did not find. 

Filmmaker: Have you reinvented scenes while scouting on other films?

Assayas: Yes, I adapt to the space. It’s not like I have some preconceived idea: I want this, I want that, it has to be this way or that way, and if it’s not it doesn’t work. It’s more like all of a sudden I find a space that’s kind of the opposite of what I had in mind and makes the scene work even better. I need to have a sense that the location adds something to a scene. Sometimes I have something very basic in mind, but then I find something that’s bigger and more interesting. It implies a few changes, but I’m happy to do them.

Filmmaker: And the characters really maneuver the space. They move to the bar for a drink, they go back to their table…

Assayas: [laughs] Because otherwise they’re just sitting and it’s boring, so you have to make it alive. A lot of the film is in restaurants and bars because that’s how spies function. They meet in popular and public places where they can blend into the crowd. 

Filmmaker: How was shooting digital for the first time?

Assayas: For me it kind of made sense. I kind of enjoyed it. Shooting film was too expensive. Or, it wasn’t before, but it has become expensive in the past few years. More labs are closing down and so it becomes more of a specialty. You have a few guys who do it but they’re more expensive than labs used to be. It does make a difference on a budget, and we had a very tight one here. We didn’t have security doing the film until 48 hours before shooting, which was a painful process to put it mildly. Everything we could save, we had to save. And obviously it would be very complicated to send film from Cuba.

Also, I have to say, Denis Lenoir, who is one of the two cameramen on the film, sold us on the idea of the Sony VENICE. It was completely the right choice, because it has a great dynamic [range]—you can shoot in a space, in an interior, and you can see through the windows. You can see outside. With a regular camera you would need a lot of light to see outside and to have that kind of background. With that camera, it comes naturally, so that was very exciting when you’re shooting in sunny places like Cuba, where there are big contrasts in light and shade. 

Filmmaker: How was the work distributed between Wasp Network’s two DPs, Denis Lenoir and Yorick Le Saux?

Assayas: Initially it was all Yorick. Denis is like a brother to me: we started together and made many movies together, so I was happy to have the opportunity to work again with him. But initially it was going to be Yorick’s film. He was shooting Greta Gerwig’s film [Little Women] which went on and on and on, much longer than anticipated. He had been away from Paris so long he was begging me “Please Olivier. I can’t do this. Don’t ask me to goto Cuba now for 4 months. My wife is going to kill me, I want to be with my daughter…” so I told him “Let’s do it the way we did Carlos.” Denis would do one half and Yorick would do the other and share the credit.

Filmmaker: I didn’t know they both did Carlos. 

Assayas: Yeah yeah, because Yorick, again [laughs] his first daughter was being born. So they split the film and I was completely fine with that. I was fine with that becausethey are both great friends, people I hold very close to my heart. They are both great cinematographers and I was excited about the combination.

Filmmaker: And you don’t notice a difference between their approaches. I was trying to pinpoint something.

Assayas: I myself don’t remember who did what on Carlos. Once in a while I try to remember who did what scene [on Wasp Network] and I have no idea [laughs].

Filmmaker: There’s a bit more movement here to the back and forth dialogue scenes, specifically a repeated shot that shifts the eyeline by moving from behind one shoulder to the other.

Assayas: At some point after you’ve made a certain amount of movies and filmed people having a million conversations you accumulate a bag of tricks to make it more lively. You change angles, you change background, so it’s not just about moving from one side to the other, it’s also because the background changes and makes the whole thing more fluid. It’s just a matter of not having people just sitting there—to lend it an energy, and in a way, an authenticity to those scenes. There’s a limit to what you can do. Like shooting in cars. There’s not a million ways to shoot people in a car, there’s like three [laughs] and you have to choose one of them. It’s very difficult to be creative when you’re doing that stuff. 

Filmmaker: You’ve talked about this before, but I don’t think you’ve had the opportunity to fully articulate it on record. You’ve said you’re not interested in this as a political thriller, as it’s been branded, but as a “historical drama,” and the idea that we can see people more clearly looking back at them.

Assayas: I think that with the perspective of time, things that are conflicted, contradicted or emotional can be looked at with an objective eye and eventually rid of the bias or preconceptions of the period. What I’m interested in is the process of politics, the cruelty of it, and how people are victims of their own passions and involvement with things they consider bigger than themselves. Those passions are transient. People are willing to sacrifice their lives for something that, 20 years later, they wonder if they genuinely cared about. That’s the extent of which I’m interested in politics—politics as one of the most powerful and deceitful passions of humans. I don’t feel I have to make movies that deal with characters whose passions I share. I’m more interested in characters with passions I don’t share because it gives me the distance to look at them in a simpler and clear cut way. Maybe I’m not a big fan of the person [laughs] but I think they went through something kind of fascinating. His life has become defined by his political convictions that are changing as the world is changing. That’s what made him interesting. 

Filmmaker: In our last interview you told me you felt guilty that you weren’t politically active. Do you feel any political obligation in your films, and is Wasp Network the extent of that? 

Assayas: No, not really. Like anyone else I have feelings about modern politics. I don’t really want to impose them on my audience ever [laughs] and it doesn’t exactly fuel my inspiration. If you gave me two hours I could rant to you about what I think of American politics today, President Trump, and how much I think it’s a nightmare, but who cares? The newspapers are full of that and everybody feels sort of the same way, so you don’t need me to overstate that. But also, when you have very strong beliefs, you think, once in a while, “I should be a militant.” I don’t think I’d be a good politician. I don’t think I’d be a good militant. All I know how to do is movies. Once in a while, I may do a movie that’s infused with some of my ideas. I’m less interested in my own ideas than in the chaos of the world. I insist on the world of chaos. I think we live in a world where we are not unified. I grew up in a world where things were more clear cut. You had young radicals, I was one of them, and you had a very repressive, conventional, conservative society. We were struggling against that and things were simple, extremely simple. Now it’s become much more complicated. We live in a world of discordant ideas where individuals have much more conflicted and complex relationships with society and each other. It’s because the world of images and communication has changed so much. People are trying to make sense of the confusion of the world. I don’t try to make sense of it, I try to represent it.

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