Interview: Olivier Assayas Talks “Personal Shopper” and Kristen Stewart

Olivier Assayas. Creidt Carole Bethuel. Courtesy of IFC Films.
Olivier Assayas. Creidt Carole Bethuel. Courtesy of IFC Films.

The connection twins have with each other can cause envy in other people. The truth is, if something happens with one of them, or even dies, the one that survived will do anything possible to not lose that intimate connection. If for that the person needs to look around in search of, kind of scary to say it, spirit of a deceased one – that will be done no questions asked. As a person who has an identical twin, I am quite certain in that.

Olivier Assayas in his PERSONAL SHOPPER brings Kristen Stewart back to Paris, where he makes her character to go through the search of the soul of her twin brother and her true identity…

During the Toronto, International Film Festival, I had the great pleasure to sit down with the filmmaker of CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA and PERSONAL SHOPPER to talk about his moviemaking approach, Kristen Stewart and the train scene.

MOVIEMOVESME: The way you wrote the script it seemed like you have an identical twin. But obviously you don’t, so where did you get that inspiration?

Olivier Assayas: I figured it’s the reason why she could be mourning her boyfriend, a girlfriend, you know there were many options but to me it was more about someone who lost half of herself and who needs to become one again and possibly bring back her twin from the dead. It’s more like losing something that’s part of yourself as opposed to losing someone who’s a friend.

MOVIEMOVESME: There was no humor anywhere in the movie; was that a deliberate choice?

Olivier Assayas: No! I think my movies usually have a sense of humor, I think it’s a peculiar sense of humor which people don’t just get it. I think a lot of things in this movie is kind of tongue-in-cheek but you don’t have to read it that way. I had fun shooting the Victor Hugo TV movie but it’s not a comedy in that way. Maureen has openly comedy moments where you don’t have to laugh like the scene where the model who has this gorilla foundation we were having fun on the set shooting that. But you can take it seriously, right? This is a movie about mourning, communicating with the dead so it’s going to be a bit darker than the movies I’ve made.

MOVIEMOVESME: What is it about you and the characters who sort of serve the ledger of the rich and famous?

Olivier Assayas: What you’re talking about is two movies I’ve done that were a way for me to connect with the modern world because before that I had made two movies which were period pieces. Personal shopper is much more grounded and I think that it was inspired by Kristen in a way. So the question is why was I inspired by Kristen Stewart? I think that as opposed to big movie stars she’s incredibly simple, natural, easygoing and that’s what I like the most in her. She has this kind of media persona where she’s in the tabloid and looks like a nutcase but she isn’t! She’s great, she’s simple, she’s very protective of her intimacy and she’s not the girl next door. She’s really someone who’s just so here and now. I like her regular person, this everyday person and I like the idea of representing someone who has some healthy perspective on her celebrity culture!

MOVIEMOVESME: Are you attracted to the horror genre?

Olivier Assayas: It just has small horror elements here and there. I love horror movies, always have been fascinated by them for many reasons, one of them being that they communicate with the body of the viewer. They deal with something physical and that makes them superior in a certain way. I have always been obsessed with the notion of making movies that connects with the body of the viewer. Horror movies also deal with our subconscious, our fears, with something very intimate. If I had to say filmmakers who have had an influence on me a lot of them would be genre filmmakers like John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Dario Argento; they are to me great modern filmmakers.

MOVIEMOVESME: How much of a challenge was it to present the ghost in the film in the way it was; something we hadn’t seen before?

Olivier Assayas: I didn’t want to show it initially and I was kind of dragged into it. But if you’re playing with something, you have to give it at some point. My inspiration was spiritualist photography of the late 19th century because it was important to reconnect with the moment when people actually believed they were for real. It’s really exciting when you see spiritualistic photography because they are genuinely scary. Somehow they made an imprint and it kind of stays with us. I wanted to use the texture of spiritualist photography and it was a long process but that was really what fuelled it.

MOVIEMOVESME: What made you film the train scene again in this movie, what makes you keep coming back to it?

Olivier Assayas: I don’t know why I got myself in that mess again, it’s still difficult to get it right! This train scene was even more complex; it’s really challenging to shoot it right because when you try shoot something complex in a train, the problem is you have to train staff, it’s expensive and complicated to rent your own wagon. We ended up doing this in a garage, so it’s completely reconstructed. So the feeling of movement is a recreation, the backgrounds are recreations but I like the energy that the train gives to scenes. In this movie, it was more about two parallel realities, someone who is texting while doing something else i.e. traveling.

MOVIEMOVESME: In the movie, we see her texting and webcam-ing her boyfriend. Were you concerned that in a couple of years that might be dated?

Olivier Assayas: The past does not vanish, it’s still there. We don’t live in the present, we live in a present that is defined by the past and a lot of the past is still around, even inside ourselves. We are not just the person we are at this moment, we are also the person we were 5-10-15 years ago. I like the juxtaposition, it’s what ultimately defines reality.

MOVIEMOVESME: Were you basing something out of the era of the 70s?

Olivier Assayas: No. I just like the idea of the slightly kind of cheesy recreation of Victor Hugo of the 70s film. I thought it was important because I liked the idea of embodying a moment when people actually believed in communication. It was important in kind of giving something tangible reality to that moment and also at the same time I thought it was funny.

MOVIEMOVESME: Is there any particular misconception about your work that sort of shuts you up?

Olivier Assayas: I think there’s no misconception. There can’t be misconceptions; I think every viewer, every person has his own inner world, so every single individual is going to watch the film in a different way and for some people it would push the right buttons but for some it will push the wrong buttons. But I think whatever they see in my film has to be there.

MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about the tension in the movie between the materialistic side and the spiritualistic side?

Olivier Assayas: Especially in the world today which is extremely materialistic and more and more suspicious of the spiritual world, I think that tension is within all of us because the reality within us, the world we live in and our own fantasy world whatever it is, it’s more real than this table. Who cares about this table? That’s more solid and real and profound than this table. In the film I created the character in Maureen as someone who found some sort of salvation from this material world she has to struggle with in her own inner space.

MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about the approach of how Maureen finds something about herself while texting?

Olivier Assayas: It’s some sort of seduction scene, she’s seduced including in some weird sexual way by someone who’s not there and she hardly knows who it is but it also has to do with the power of the words. What’s really exciting about text message is they are very short and yet supercharged. The words are not diluted and they end up hitting nerves. They are very powerful and in the case of Maureen it opens a kind of jar, a door which she could’ve opened but never really did.


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