Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker: Olivier Assayas

Some 40 years into his moviemaking journey, Olivier Assayas shares why he’s still asking questions, trying new things, and messing things up—and why you should, too.

Marked by enviable creative independence, Olivier Assayas’ career has followed a winding path that has led him to craft a body of audacious cinema. From his start as a trainee on sets and in editing suites to his journalistic tenure at revered publications such as Cahiers du Cinéma, to working as a painter and studying French literature, each experience helped Assayas build his own artistic tapestry without ever having received a formal film education.

The French auteur behind such genre-defying narratives as Personal Shopper, Clouds of Sils Maria, Irma Vep, and Summer Hours is fascinated with Tarkovsky and influenced by English painter David Hockney. Yet, as much as he loves visual art, Assayas’ most significant source of ideas is reality, whether he’s making a modern ghost story starring Kristen Stewart or an ambiguous character study about an internationally renowned actress with recurring collaborator Juliette Binoche.

On the occasion of the 4K restoration and first ever U.S. theatrical release of his semi-autobiographical 1994 feature, Cold Water, Assayas shared some knowledge gleaned over four decades and counting spent in film.

As told to Carlos Aguilar

Virginie Ledoyen as Christine in Assayas’ Cold Water. Image courtesy of Janus Films

1. Directing is about creating disruption. It’s about not making things the way that they’re supposed to be done; it’s about questioning your received wisdom, and putting yourself on the line.

2. Don’t try to make it the way the other guys did. Trust your vision. What they have done is done, and good for them; what you need to bring is your own sensibility. What is specific to your talent?

3. Some movies could have been made without the director, because everybody knows how it “should” be done. And if you do it the way it should be done, you end up with a standard movie.

4. Your mistakes are a part of your art and a part of your style. Mistakes will reveal something more profound, deeper, and more specific. They are more interesting than your successes.

5. Don’t be shy to try new things.

6. The issue with moviemaking is not so much technique, but having something worth expressing, worth sharing, something that can only happen through your life experiences. You can learn the basics of moviemaking in three months. Moviemaking is not any more complicated than learning how to draw or write music. What’s essential is to have something to say.

7. Maintain old working relationships, but sometimes, to move forward, you’ll need to discover new, younger actors and technicians who will bring their own sensitivity. When you find the right people or the right actors who understand how you function and contribute so much to your art, you want to go further. They become your family. They can be involved in various capacities of filmmaking, but it’s always about the same thing: They understand what they are doing, and what you are doing.

8. Try to sleep. It will make you more relaxed and more focused on what you’re doing. Otherwise, you’ll burn your energy, you’ll be nervous, and you won’t have the necessary focus or perspective on the job.

Cyprien Fouquet as Gilles and Ledoyen as Christine in Cold Water 

9. Two incredibly relevant books that every film student should read: Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time. Each contains the thoughts of great moviemakers who somehow manage to explain the way they approached the medium in very simple terms.

10. When it’s time for preparation, you need to be patient. It’s when you have to deal with all of the problems, such as: There’s not enough money. You have to cut this. This location is not available. This actor is already booked. It’s the moment when you have to make a million compromises between your imagination and reality, and you always feel like you will never make it because it’s so complicated and everything  is resisting. It’s not a pleasant moment in the moviemaking process.

11. There are no answers in moviemaking, because you’re always looking for answers. What is essential is to have the right questions. Cinema is more about questions than about answers.

12. Move, change, travel, and open new spaces. Moviemakers are privileged because they have the opportunity, through cinema, to share experiences that audiences otherwise wouldn’t be acquainted with, because most people live their own lives in their own environment. That’s what I’ve been trying to do my whole career. MM

A brand new 4K restoration of Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water opened at IFC Center in New York April 27, 2018, and will be followed by a nationwide rollout, courtesy of Janus Films. All images courtesy of Janus Films. 

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Spring 2018 issue.

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