Unconnected to SXSW, the Austin Film Society is in the middle of an Olivier Assayas retrospective this week, but SXSW also seemed like a good time to get the legendary French filmmaker, one of the greats of the ’80s, ’90s and today (“Irma Vep,” “Demonlover,” “Something in the Air,” “Cold Water,” “Carlos,” “Personal Shopper”) in conversation with Richard Linklater.
Here are a few things we learned:
Like many of his era, he thought the May ’68 demonstrations in Paris meant the old world was over. “I was 13 at the time,” Assayas, born in 1955, said, “but I sensed that the world was shaking on it4s foundations and (in the years that followed), there was this absolute conviction the old world was finished and it was the beginning of a new world. I grew up in a context where you were not thinking about a career or family or studies because all that would be rendered worthless. Gradually we realized that was not happening.” But as Assayas notes that while political revolution did not happen, the 1970s did see profound social upheaval in societies all over the world.
1970s French teens thought A LOT about political theory. “We had this absurd political maturity,” Assayas said. “I remember being in high school and discussing the fine print of the political history of the 20th century,” which meant lots of discussions about what kind of Trotskyite you were, what kind of Maoist you were, what “nuance of an anarchist” you were.
A film set can be a locus of freedom. “At some point, I felt what was happening on the film set was a continuation of the utopia of the 1970s, a validation of non-alienated work,” Assayas said. “You could work with a film crew, they would share your ideas and your ideal. We were a bubble of freedom. I don’t want to be the boss of a business, which is how you can feel sometimes when you direct a film. I want to be part of a collective that is basically enjoying itself doing something that has to do with their ideals.”
His five and a half hour 2010 mini series “Carlos” on Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, aka the revolutionary/terrorist Carlos the Jackal, was a reflection on the politics of the 1970s. “What excited me about him is that he embodies the whole arc of political involvement of the 1970s,” Assayas said. He started as a Latin American idealist who decided to “go all the way” and gradually became a “professional militant and terrorist” expelled from the Palestinian movement and worked for some “very ugly governments…he was morphing with the time and you follow the arc, it’s the arc of those years. European terrorism reflected the decay of leftist revolution.”
Assayas shot “Carlos” in 92 days. It was essentially three full-length movies with about 30 days for each. “We didn’t rehearse at all,” Assasyas said. “We created the set, the ambience and threw the actors into the scene,” which is actually a pretty good way to make a movie about a terrorist.
Genre film was a huge influence on Assayas. John Carpenter, Wes Craven and especially David Cronenberg were all big. “Those films are so powerful,” he said. “Sometimes I think indie filmmaking misses connecting physically with an audience.” (AMEN, BROTHER.)
Linklater: “‘Demonlover’ was your ‘Videodrome.”
Assayas: “I am not ashamed to say ‘Videodrome was a major influence — so daring, so strong. It was mind-blowing.”
He is not sure entirely how the Internet is changing everyone, but he’s sure it’s happening. “The way the Internet creates access to fantasy and make it accessible to everybody all the time…I don’t know if it is good or bad but extremely important in the transformation of the human experience.”