Interview with Olivier Assayas

    Clean, the eleventh feature from French director Olivier Assayas, follows a widowed heroin addict as she tries to regain custody of her young son. It marks another departure in style for the French director, whose previous films have ranged from Demonlover, a caustic look at Internet pornography, to Les Destinées Sentimentales, a generational epic centered around a porcelain factory.
    Assayas wrote Clean for Maggie Cheung, the Hong Kong movie star who briefly married the director after appearing in his Irma Vep. Assayas considers Cheung one of the world's great actresses, but her roles have rarely shown her full abilities. "In Hong Kong films, she was like Jackie Chan's girlfriend, the girl next door. And even when I made Irma Vep, I hardly knew her. I used her as a Hong Kong movie star, not as the actual person she is. She's made a career being someone else, not herself."
    Cheung, who grew up largely in London and who speaks English fluently, may be familiar to viewers here for her work in Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love and Zhang Yimou's Hero. Assayas felt she deserved a different type of role. "She's always been split between two cultures. I thought she needed a part that would take her more into her Westernized side. She always complained that Nathalie Richard got the better role in Irma Vep, and I kind of agree with her. I owed it to her to make a film that would not look at her from the outside, but from someone closer to who she really is."
    Slight and soft-spoken, Assayas becomes passionate and voluble when talking about film. But he hemmed and hawed when asked about his current relationship with Cheung. "During the shooting, we were close," he finally allowed. "In terms of working together, we functioned much better than in real life." Cheung won the best actress award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for her part, but has suggested since then that she might give up acting in film.
    Instead, she has started to explore music seriously. Assayas gave the story an indie rock setting in order to allow Cheung the chance to play a musician. "Maggie liked the notion of singing, but felt it was totally out of her reach," Assayas said. "But we were able to work with David Roback of Mazzy Star, and she was so comfortable that she's thinking of making a record with him."
    "For me, music is our contemporary poetry. It expresses emotions faster, in a rougher way, than film," Assayas said. "But showing the music world in films is very dangerous because it's so easy to get it wrong. I kind of protected myself by deciding that every part of a musician in the film was going to be a real live musician."
    Assayas also shot the music live, a decision that kept his cast and crew on their toes. The dense, jittery scenes that open Clean capture both the excitement of performing and the drab, listless world musicians can feel trapped in. The director's next project, a Sonic Youth concert film, continues his long interest in rock music.
    Asked how he adapts his style to different projects, Assayas asserts, "I think you have to reinvent your way of functioning with every film. I never really know where I am going, or what style the film will be in. I usually start filming extremely scared." He credits his crew with helping him establish a comfortable working atmosphere. He has worked with the same editor, Luc Barnier, on every one of his films, and with cinematographer Eric Gautier on his last five projects. "I can't overstate the importance of their work, because I never rehearse the actors. I don't do readings. I'm trying to keep everyone totally spontaneous, to use the first take. But we rehearse the camera very precisely, we design the shots and then we adapt them to the actors."
    Despite its deceptively simple look, Clean turned out to be Assayas' most complicated shoot. "Finding the balance was very difficult. Finding the right cast, the right music, the right settings–every day was a new problem. For instance, Alan Bates was supposed to be Maggie's father-in-law Albrecht. But three weeks before shooting he had to drop out." (Seriously ill, the actor died a few months later.)
    Assayas sent the script to Nick Nolte, but with severe misgivings. "Call Nick Nolte three weeks before the shoot and ask him to play in your film, it's an independent French film, and you're not going to pay him any money, any relevant money? It was a miracle he agreed."
    The actors' differing backgrounds challenged Assayas. "Maggie's not a technical actress. She knows everything about technique, but ultimately she has to become the person she is playing, she has to find her character's emotions from the inside out. Meanwhile, Nick, he's very accomplished, very professional, but he is worlds apart from Béatrice Dalle, who's like this totally intuitive actress. Then there's Martha Henry, a great stage actress, but someone used to a certain style of direction. You have to find a slightly different way to speak to every single actor."
    Filming took place in Canada, Paris, and London, entailing three separate production crews. On top of shooting chronologically, Assayas staged several extremely complex shots, including a beautifully calibrated hand-held journey through three different levels of a rush-hour Paris train station. "Nick was in that shot, and afterward he asked the trainee who was giving him his cues how many assistants we had to control the crowd. We had to tell him, well, it's not exactly our crowd, we have like ten extras and that's it."
    Assayas could have staged the scene in an easier setting, but he would have lost the sense that his characters were trying to connect with each other and with the world around them. "Sometimes in film, the more difficult the logistics are, the more it helps or carries the actors. You put actors like Maggie and Nick in this kind of cinema verite setting that they've never really been in before, and it gives them extra concentration, perhaps extra emotion."
    Assayas needed almost a dozen production companies and distributors to finance Clean. "We could only find a third of the budget in France. The money there comes from TV, and you can't sell Maggie Cheung and Nick Nolte to French TV. They mean zero, nothing, to them it's like making a movie with unknowns, kids or something."
    The vagaries of an international co-production led to unexpected frustrations. "I was going out of my mind when we were in Canada. I'm staging a scene in a record company. It's an office, people are supposed to be on the phones, but if this guy speaks, he is no longer an extra, he becomes a part player, and it becomes very expensive. A ten-second pan would end up costing a fortune. The union people tell me, 'They are very good at lip synching, so just let them fake it.' It's awful. I could not understand the logic of it."
    Complimented on how discreetly he treated a scene in which Nolte learns about the death of his son, Assayas reveals that he actually shot a much longer version of it. "Nick was great, it was a great moment, and it remained in the cut for a long time. But movies are like music, and your instincts tell you when it has to be softer, when you need to slow it down. From the moment I took that scene out, everything just kind of flowed."
    The film is surprisingly ambivalent about drugs. Assayas is unwilling to condemn addicts outright, feeling that they are taking drugs because of an inner pain. "Drugs are anesthetics, they relieve you from something, but they also disconnect you from the world. Addicts shut themselves off, and if they're lucky enough to get the chance they then have to reconcile with themselves and with society." This empathy is the ultimate strength behind a film that easily could have turned sordid.
    Assayas' tolerance and discretion has been a hallmark of his films, as has his respect for his audience. It may be why critics tend to underrate his work, that and the fact that his films deliver such cinematic pleasure. The son of screenwriter Jacques Remy, Assayas started out writing for both television and the Cahiers du Cinema. He is keenly aware of the history of cinema, and is equally at ease with the classical style of Les Destinées, which was based on a famous novel by Jacques Chardonne, and the loose, improvised, hand-held look of L'Eau Froide (Cold Water). He's directed a documentary about Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien, and in Irma Vep managed to pay tribute to both Tsui Hark and Louis Feuillade.
    The director doesn't see himself as a moralist, but his films so far have addressed society's basic issues with concern and compassion. Demonlover drew criticism for its treatment of sex and violence, but Assayas says he was trying to represent the potential dangers in pop culture. "Sex and violence, brutality, it's not something I'm emphasizing or nurturing, it's something I'm struggling against every day. But studios, commerce in general, are using it as a kind of key to attract teenage boys. The way it's taking over is disturbing. It's not like we're immune to it."
    "Mainstream filmmakers do not respect audiences," he said. "When you make films, you only know one part of the world. I always feel that the audience knows more than I do, that they can be very receptive to complex films." Assayas' optimism is strikingly evident in Clean, a film that finds hope within the most demanding settings.


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