Olivier Assayas: "There Is No Rule"
President of the Concorso internazionale Jury
This year you have come to Locarno as president of the Jury of the Concorso internazionale, playing an important role in the assignment of the final awards. What, if any, are the cinematic coordinates that the 2017 Pardo d’oro-winning film must have?
The rule is that there is no rule. I have neither preconceived idea nor dogma. The beauty of cinema is its diversity, its capacity at being both high and low art. At generating late masterpieces and early visionary works.
I still think it is essential, if we are talking film and not industrial fiction, to constantly be in touch with cinema’s experimental dimension. I am convinced the role of independent filmmaking is not to repeat ancient formulas, bow to old theories, old stories, conventional morals, but to explore the infinity of cinema’s grammar, being either in search for the purity of its language, or the laboratory for the visual narratives to come. And in that sense to be fiercely singular.
What memories do you have of the last time you sat on the Locarno jury?
Udo Kier blackmailing the Festival director into having watches from a sponsor given to all the jury members.
I’m joking. It was 2004 and we gave the Pardo d'oro to a film by Saverio Costanzo that I liked very much, Private. It was the last time an Italian film won that Prize.
Your films have always been welcomed at many major festivals. Given a film market that often grants little visibility to more marginal, off-the-beaten-path works, what significance do you think film festivals still have these days?
I’m not sure I agree with you. Compared to times not so far away there is more independent filmmaking visible, and coming from more diverse cultures. Thanks to the job done by journalists and film festivals, but of course also the progresses in connectedness, and generally speaking, modern globalization. I am impressed by how fast nowadays we can become aware of challenging, bold, experimental filmmaking coming from the remotest outposts and that would have been very much under the radar in other times.
It is a vital dimension of film culture, and the role of festivals is to protect it, and build up on the job they have been doing fairly successfully.
For the record, my first film to be shown in competition in a major film festival was Fin Août, début septembre in 1998, in San Sebastian, it was my eighth feature.
Platforms like Netflix and Amazon have changed the landscape of film production, and particularly distribution. Do you see an opportunity or a threat for arthouse film?
Have they changed the landscape? I may be ill informed but I don’t think so. I do not see the issues they generate as radically different from earlier debates about television-financed movies, like for instance Elephant by Gus Van Sant, an HBO production that was awarded the Palme d’Or in Cannes. I have been involved in such a discussion when I made Carlos, almost fully financed by French TV channel Canal+. What is TV, what is cinema? As far as I’m concerned, the film may be 5 ½ hours, I shot it the same way, with the same crew, the same freedom as my other films. The difference is I had more time, more budget and a material that was visually and dramatically more intense. So was it less of a movie, or more of a movie? Film financing would never have supported a movie as singular as Carlos, for many reasons; length, lack of stars, controversial political issues, multiplicity of languages. I see it as a movie that was made possible by TV financing. I am sure that’s how Bong Joon-ho sees Okja.
It is a mistake to mix-up Netflix and Amazon. Amazon at this stage is another player in film financing. They produced works by Jim Jarmusch or Kenneth Lonergan, and those movies had a completely normal film cycle. They premiered in film festivals and were shown in theatres all over the world.
The last time you came to Locarno was for the screening of Clouds of Sils Maria, in the company of the great actress Juliette Binoche. You then worked again with Kristen Stewart, and in your next film you’re directing Sylvester Stallone. What criteria do you use to choose your actors?
I do have a project with Sylvester Stallone but my next film will be in French and mostly shot in Paris. I have no criteria at all except I need to have a sense that we speak the same language, in terms of how we relate to cinema as an art form. I also need to feel that that specific actor can bring to the part a dimension that was not necessarily present in my original view of the character. That additional dimension is – to me – the essence of how life irrigates cinema. In that sense I have filmed indifferently major movie stars and non-professionals. I don’t direct actors. I collaborate with them.
You have a solid grounding in film history. The retrospective dedicated to Jacques Tourneur has an important place in the Locarno70 programme. What contributions has Tourneur made to the history of film?
I have always admired Jacques Tourneur who was an exceptional stylist with a deep understanding of the mystery, and the poetry, of genre filmmaking. His films that have had the more lasting influence on me are Cat People, Out of the Past and Anne of the Indies. On his best days the cartoonish clarity of his style was reminiscent of the genius of Fritz Lang. I must say I am extremely excited to be in Locarno this year and have an opportunity to fill in the blanks in my knowledge of his extraordinary body of work.Lorenzo Buccella