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“Whenever Cinema is in Chaos, You Can Do a New Irma Vep“: Olivier Assayas on His New HBO Series

Alicia Vikander in Irma Vep

In the early 1990s, French director Olivier Assayas was invited to develop a remake of a classic work of French cinema for television. “I hadn’t known where to start until I remembered [Louis] Feuillade’s Vampires,” he remembered in 1996, referring to the 1915 silent serial in which Musidora played the costumed criminal Irma Vep. “I spent a few weeks considering the possibility, then I decided that, attractive as it was, I couldn’t take it any further. Somehow, my heart wasn’t in it.” A few years later, another invitation: this time to join Claire Denis and Atom Egoyan in the sort of international co-production portmanteau film that was popular at the time, with each director shooting a story about a foreign woman checking into a French hotel. Remembering the character of Irma Vep, Assayas quickly came up with a story of a Hong Kong actress arriving in Paris for a shoot but, soon, as often happened with these multi-headed projects, the directors all drifted away to work on their own features.

Then, one day, “finding myself alone in Paris, I decided to write it up as a screenplay – almost just for the fun of it,” said Assayas. “I completed the script within ten days (not the kind of thing one usually advertises). I found myself writing quickly, evenly and with pleasure. All kinds of different ideas and concerns which had been milling around my head for quite some time, now seemed to come together and find expression spontaneously.” The shoot itself was harder. “The project was not devised in terms of production logic. Working conditions were tough, facilities minimal. The budget—with hindsight— seems laughable. We shot on Super-16, in four weeks. The cast and crew were largely paid on profit-share deals. All this meant finding ways of working fast, very fast, knowing there was no safety-net. No going over schedule. No re-shoots. No contingency whatsoever.”

Maggie Cheung in the 1996 <i>Irma Vep<i>

Irma Vep, Assayas’s 1996 feature, in which Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung — who Assayas would later marry —plays a Hong Kong star making a French independent remake of Les Vampires, was the writer/director’s international breakout film, bitingly witty about the vicissitudes of the movie business while possessing a sort of hip dreaminess — exemplified by the now-iconic scene in which a latex-catsuited Cheung prowls Parisian rooftops to blasts of guitar noise from Sonic Youth — that was lo-fi counterpoint to both the mustiness of the decade’s French commercial cinema and the beginnings of a spectacle-laden international production. Jean-Pierre Léaud, who played a young movie star in Francois Truffaut’s own ode to the moviemaking, Day for Night, played the director, Rene Vidal, a kind of once-cool figure trying to revitalize his career by audaciously updating a silent-era classic.

But while Vidal in the 1997 was somewhat hapless, an object of satire, he may have been on to something, because strip-mining cultural history in all its forms became standard operating procedure in the decades following Irma Vep. Indeed, self-awareness of the business and cultural forces that have led to its existence move from subtext to text in Assayas’s new version, an eight-part HBO series in which middle-aged French director Vidal (this time, played by actor and director Vincent Macaigne) aims to reboot his creative energies by remaking his early-career hit, Irma Vep, as a television series. Clad in designer sweats and woolen caps, the lead this time is Alicia Vikander, who plays Mira, a star of a critically-acclaimed Marvel-type picture, and for whom working with Vidal is a reconnection to the sort of auteur cinema she was inspired by while in film school. As in the original Irma Vep, there’s much on-set romance and comedy of dysfunction. Adapting the story for the cliffhanger demands of the limited series form, Assayas dangles narrative land mines — an early one in which Robert (Hippolyte Girardot), the crack-addicted German co-star, engages in a sort of performative racism in a podcast interview will surely detonate later — and creates engaging subplots around Mira’s off-set life, including one involving a possibly rekindled romance with former lover and fellow superstar Eammon (Tom Sturridge) and another involving the kink-inflected fumes of her breakup with actress Laurie (Adria Arjona). 

But if, on a narrative level, Assayas’s new Irma Vep is full of cliffhangers and TV’s requisite rising and falling action, it also has two larger goals, the realization of which, particularly for fans of the director, give the series its kick. The first is its depiction of a cinema world that has changed much since the time of the original movie. Ask many if not most of the young filmmakers we feature in this magazine what they’d like to do next and they’ll speak to wanting to — or perceiving that, career-wise, they must — work in television. The resulting anxiety over the project of cinema in the 2020s hangs over both Vidal’s efforts as well as Assayas’s. And for the latter, the new Irma Vep has become, unexpectedly, as we discuss below, a very personal project. In episode three Vidal is revealed to be a director who is not only remaking his original Irma Vep into a series, but one for whom that effort is emotionally fraught as it was on the earlier film version that he met his former wife, Jade Lee (Vivian Lu). Channeling his own feelings about the ending of his marriage to Cheung, Assayas gives these scenes an eerie mournfulness that cut through the series’s speedy comic rhythms like a knife.

Below, in an interview that took place at the Cannes Film Festival before the series premiere on HBO, Assayas and I talked about the origins of the A24-produced project, the project’s relationship to current cinema culture, and what he’d be doing if he was beginning his directing career right now. But we began, as I turned on the recorder, by discussing the production’s accelerated timetable. Irma Vep is now running on HBO and HBO Max.

Assayas:  I’ve had a lot of freedom doing this project. I’ve been working with great people. The downside is that the schedule was nasty. Not just crazy, nasty. I love to work fast. That’s the way I’ve done most of my movies. This is too fast.

Filmmaker: Was that just because of the nature of the TV business, or because of COVID, or something else?

Assayas: From what I understand, it’s basically because a lot of productions were stopped during the COVID lockdown. This was late 2020. Slots opened in 2022 and HBO gave us one of the slots on the condition that we do it in a crazy, super fast way. They realized it was a pretty crazy schedule, and they said, “If you’re not comfortable with that, we can do it in 2023 or ’24.” I’ve made movies, and I know the language. If it’s “2023 or ’24,” it will not happen! [laughs]. So I either had to make it right then, or it was never, and I chose [to make it], but, honestly, I had no idea of what I was getting myself into. I wrote it fast, prepared it fast, shot it fast, edited it fast, which somehow can also be a good thing — all of a sudden you’re on a motorway, and it’s full speed ahead. By the end of next week, I’ll have finished locking the image of [episode] eight, and that will allow me to go back and be a bit more present in the sound mix of the earlier episodes. And I’ll have a solid notion of the whole arc, which, at this [moment], is a bit up in the air. 

Filmmaker: So you’ll be finishing as episodes begin to roll out. Are you expecting to be looking at reactions while you’re finishing the other episodes?

Assayas: I’ve never been through this, so I have no idea. 

Filmmaker: How long ago did you have the idea of revisiting this older work of yours in series form?

Assayas: [Manager and producer] Stuart Manashil has been pushing me to do a series. I said “Stuart, I don’t have an idea for a series, the process is long and complex. and my experience of working in the framework of Hollywood is that it’s something that is not for me.” He said, “Well, then why don’t you generate your own material, something that could connect to things that you have been doing.” And all of a sudden, it just gave me this notion that Irma Vep had potential. The movie has this kind of cult status — the name is like a brand, and I thought I could make something else with that material. Whenever cinema is in chaos, you can do a new Irma Vep, and I felt pretty much that cinema was in the moment of chaos. There was a lot of soul searching, people trying to figure out what’s going on — what’s the cure and what exactly is the malady. So I agreed with Stuart that Irma Vep could be an exciting starting point.

Filmmaker:  And then you went through this sort of development process? You wrote a bible —

Assayas: I did everything. Stuart sent me bibles from series just so I had a notion of what was expected from me, but I had no idea of how you wrote a pilot. At an early stage, the whole thing felt overwhelming. I thought I would subcontract some of the screenplay, some of the episodes, maybe ask Claire Denis to do a couple, maybe ask Arnaud Desplechin — I saw Irma Vep as something that had potential to be interpreted in various ways. And then I started writing and all of a sudden I realized there was a logic — there were characters and a story — so instead of something that would be more fragmented and collective, I was kind of stuck with writing the whole story. I wrote the first episode, I wrote something they call a bible — I explained more or less who the characters were, where it was heading — and I did it as clearly as possible. I wrote the pilot, I wrote the bible, I sent them to to the A24 guys, they had some remarks, some notes, but basically they were very happy. And then all of a sudden things started speeding up.

Filmmaker: Did you find yourself having to adapt your process in any way to the different manners in which television is made?

Assayas: I just function the same way with the same people doing very similar things. So to, to me, [the distinction between film and television] is kind of strange. In the back of my mind, I am always working for the big screen, but people have bigger and bigger screens at home. I suppose the difference between this series and other series is that cinema is the subject [of Irma Vep], and that is what reshuffles the cards. It’s not about having a debate of whether Irma Vep is supposed to be a movie, it’s a contribution to the questioning of what cinema is exactly about.

Filmmaker: Which is kind of the subtext of the earlier episodes and then becomes very personal as the series progresses for both the character of Rene and you.

Assayas: It’s kind of intimate. I see it the same way I saw Cold Water when I made it, which is that basically it’s a commissioned work — it was part of a series — and it gave me the opportunity to do the most personal movie I had ever made at that time. I think that doing Irma Vep and specifically [as a series] and it being a comedy in a certain way allowed me to somehow use autobiographical elements that I would not have used in a different context.

Filmmaker: How do you see Rene as relating to yourself in Irma Vep the series as opposed to the character in the original movie?

Assayas: That’s the interesting question really? It’s what I’ve been asking myself. I think that when I was making the original Irma Vep, Jean-Pierre [Leaud] played a director from another generation who already had a life, or many lives, in filmmaking, and who was also a nervous wreck. I was looking at him with love, admiration and a little bit of a grin. I feel that now I am in the position that Jean-Pierre was when I did the original Irma Vep. I’m a nervous wreck, and I often identify with Rene — not all the time because it’s a comedy and obviously an exaggerated version of myself. But, while I was looking at Rene in the original one, I am somehow being Rene in the new version. I mean, I would not leave a shoot or do some of his crazy antics, but he’s become my double, in a certain way.

Filmmaker: In episode three, in the psychiatrist scene, there are specific autobiographical references, and those functioned as a kind of reveal for me. In the first two episodes I wasn’t sure how much you were riffing on your own past, and then in three you’re referencing your marriage to Maggie Cheung. When did this idea of interjecting more direct references to your life while making the original Irma Vep arise?

Assayas: There are really two answers to your question. One is that Irma Vep is a movie that has been discussed a lot. I traveled with it, I spoke about it and theorized around it a lot. Because it’s a movie about filmmaking, it raised issues about filmmaking. I don’t think I was that self aware when I made the film, but I certainly become self aware afterwards, when I was discussing it. It has a very specific position in my work also, because it was the movie when I reconnected, somehow, with film theory, which I had left behind after leaving Cahiers du Cinema and going on to filmmaking. That’s one thing. The other thing is that the character of Irma Vep beyond Feuillade’s movie has a life of its own. I’ve always kind of played with this notion that it’s a ghost that has been handholding cinema ever since, and my movie is part of the story of Irma Vep. One of the many layers of [the character of] Irma Vep became my own film, and so, obviously, there had to be reminiscences of my own film. And if I’m thinking about Irma Vep, I had to deal with things that were important in Irma Vep, which is the way it changed my life. I met Maggie, got married to Maggie, lived with Maggie, and that became part of the story of Irma Vep. I think it would have been dishonest to remake or reinterpret Irma Vep a lifetime later [and not include this]. So, I had to deal with Maggie, my relationship to her, and how all of a sudden she disappeared from my life. It would have been wrong not to mention that. 

Filmmaker: This was a realization that happened early on?

Assayas: During the process of writing. You know, for something this complex, you don’t really write a full arc. You discover the film as you are writing it, and so it was in the process of writing gradually. You know, when you write something that is eight hours long, you want it to expand. A lot of series are very repetitious. For me, it was like writing a big novel when I had only been writing short stories before. I wanted an arc where things would be growing in complexity, growing in ambition, and I had a space to expand whatever I thought needed or deserved expanding. It’s a movie that functions [using] layers, and when I went all the way with one of the layers, I could move on to the next, and eventually go back on that thread later, which was one of the pleasures of writing something on that length.

Filmmaker: One thing that strikes me as different in this Irma Vep is the series-within-a-series’s relationship to the world of capital. It’s a much richer world because of Alicia’s character is coming off, basically, a Marvel kind of film. 

Assayas: Yes.

Filmmaker: You have an amazing scene where the financier comes to set and all production stops, and you realize that Rene’s film, or series, is secondary to this much bigger deal, a fashion or cosmetics contract. I’ve had a similar moment as a producer, and I’m sure you have too.

Assayas: I’ve just seen movies change. All of sudden the money was not with the movies. They became brands, franchises, and they were sponsored by the fashion industry. Obviously it’s something that changes the way you function, because all of a sudden money is not an issue. And it’s obvious that I’ve learned a lot of things from my experience of making movies with Kristen [Stewart]. I love her because she’s rebel, genuinely — there’s nothing fake about her. She’s the bravest person I’ve ever met. She lives in that world. and I’ve been observing it somehow through her eyes or, at least, looking at her [navigate it].

When I was making [the new] Irma Vep, I never really discussed budget with anyone. I hardly know how much it costs. Every single movie I’ve made before, I have been extremely aware of how much it costs, and how we could spend to have as much money on the screen as possible. That’s my culture, the European indie film culture. Here, money was never a problem, and neither for the actors, because, you know, the actors now make their money with the brands, hardly with the movies. It’s a fact of life. Again, if I was to represent the present tense of cinema that had to be part of it, because, it kind of drives filmmaking. It’s what you see every evening, when you watch the film crew walking the red carpet. The red carpet has become so much part of film culture, and when I did the [original] Irma Vep, not that much. Actors were not sponsored, or very few of them were, and the fashion industry had not taken over, and Hollywood in a certain way was still alive. Now what is in major crisis is the movie as an end in itself. They don’t allow you to make movies, which don’t have the potential for a franchise  or series. And that’s fairly disturbing. I think indie movies have been kind of somehow protecting the identity of the filmmaker, which is getting lost in the evolution of Hollywood. You know, I’ve met so many executives who have an amazing [knowledge of] film culture, who know every single experimental film ever made. And in the end, they make Black Widow 5!

And if you are dealing with images — and I’m trying to use a neutral word — you have to talk about social media, because that’s where people watch the most images. Most movies are marginal in a certain way. Movies were beautiful and had a fascination for many people when there were few images around. You had a TV, a small screen, and sat there watching whatever with your parents. And then movies were a way of transcending that. Now you are attracted by TV because on TV you have platforms who do a lot of stuff that is adapted for kids, teenagers, young adults, and images don’t have any fascination anymore because people are kind of lost in terms of what they are. Once in a while, just for myself, I try to define what cinema is, and the best I’ve come up with is that movies are images that have the potential to look at images. They can represent a world of images, and they protect some sort of freedom. It’s not about judging — they can represent the world of images and the interaction of images by taking a step back and having some perspective.

Filmmaker: Where would you be if you were starting today as a filmmaker or as a maker of some sort of media?

Assayas: I would do the same thing. [laughs] I would be doing indie movies somewhere. They would be certainly different, but I would be doing indie movies. That really hasn’t changed. For me, filmmaking is independent filmmaking, and then you move on. You learn your values, and you know where you’re standing based on what you learn in making indie movies, and then you can play with this, play with that, go in that direction, try not to repeat yourself, try to reinvent yourself, etc. But you first need to have your values, and I got my values from writing in Cahiers du Cinema, from working with Serge Daney, from many things that I did as a very young man, or when I started painting and drawing and so on and so forth. It all nurtured whatever my first feature became. And I think today I would do exactly the same thing.

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