The Director's Chair Interviews
for Olivier Assayas
by Mark L. Feinsod
Olivier Assayas is the director of "Irma Vep", which screened at the 1996 New York Film Festival. An intriguing comment on the state of modern cinema, and about how certain artistic quandaries are better left without definitive answers,"Irma Vep" is a stylish romp through a fictional Parisian movie set. Mr. Assayas spoke with indieWIRE via telephone from his New York hotel room, where he was on hand for the festival.
indieWIRE: Does "Irma Vep" belong to an aesthetic tradition?
Olivier Assayas: That's tough to answer because for the first time I've made a film which fit into a genre, which is movies about movies. I knew that I was on ground that had already been covered so that encouraged me to be as radical as I could, to invent my own way of thinking about cinema and not do it like Truffaut when he did "Day For Night". I tried to make something I'm not used to doing, which is comedy, but at the same time I thought this could be a comedy about an ambitious subject-- the creative process. It's like an exercise in film schizophrenia, and in that sense the film tries to move away from looking like anything else.
iW: Who are your aesthetic influences?
Assayas: I belong to a tradition in French filmmaking, but there's no stylistic unity there, it's just a basic idea of making films in the kind of freedom you will write a book or paint a canvas. I don't think I have stylistically much in common with even my favorite filmmakers. I can be inspired by the masters, I can be inspired by painters, I can be inspired by modern photography, but it's a patchwork in my mind, a complete mess.
iW: Do you think american films have suffered from being controlled by Hollywood and the marketplace, and from filmmakers not having room to experiment?
Assayas: There are many differences between the way people start making films in Hollywood and (the way) people start making films in Europe. In France, a lot of people start being directors by making their own short films and then moving on to features. They're not getting any help in the sense that the Hollywood system-- which is not very interesting-- helps people to make films. In French films, the system doesn't help you.
iW: What's your impression of the american indie film scene?
Assayas: The American independent film scene is the most exciting thing in cinema in recent years. I get the feeling that communication exists between European filmmakers and the American independent filmmaker because they're facing the same problems. They're working on the same kind of budget, they're dealing with the same subjects-- which are outside mainstream-- and have the same relationship with the industry, trying to remain on the fringe of it and trying not to become absorbed by the ugliest part of it.
iW: Could you talk about the conclusion of "Irma Vep", wherein the viewer sees what Rene Vidal has edited?
Assayas: I always had this problem that I never liked the films within films. For instance, in "Day For Night" they are shooting a stupid movie that nobody would want to see. I thought that the important thing is to make a movie that would give meaning to what I'm telling. I take seriously the questions he's asking himself. Lots of those questions are questions I am asking myself. I think the validation of those questions in the context of modern cinema was connecting experimental filmmaking with some kind of narrative. He's proposing that the trouble he's having with the material is that he's not finding the modern way of expressing it. I think it's important that movies recreate the relationship with experimental because everything in Europe which used to be avant-garde has moved into video.
iW: i was wondering if you could talk about how Zoe's story ends. Is this supposed to be a vindication of what the assistant director had said about her?
Assayas: Zoe is one of the characters in the film I care the most about. She expresses my own views on filmmaking, the way things should be done. I like throwing confusion into the process of filmmaking, and she represents that. She is the only person who is sad that the film has stopped, so she's left alone, but it is really the spirit of the film they were making that is left alone.
iW: is "Irma Vep" being theatrically released in America?
Assayas: Yeah, it is in discussions with different distributors. Obviously it's not my decision who will have the film, but there is discussion in how the film will be distributed, yes.
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