‘We Don’t Know It Yet, but It’s Already the Future’: A Chat With Olivier Assayas

The acclaimed director talks about his career, his style, and “Cold Water,” the 1994 film that changed it all


Cold Water was Olivier Assayas’s fifth feature, but he sometimes refers to it as his “other first film.” The reasons for this are both practical and spiritual. “Most people think it’s my first film, so I kind of adopted the notion,” he tells me, with a chuckle, before adding that the 1994 picture also “completely redefined my approach to filmmaking at a point when I really needed it.” Indeed, the French writer-director — responsible for such notable titles as Personal Shopper, Clouds of Sils Maria, Irma Vep, and Carlos — traces the origins of his freewheeling, dreamlike cinematic style to this low-budget, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale about two troubled teenage delinquents in a small town outside of Paris, in the early Seventies, contemplating escape from their families. So it’s probably a good thing that the film, originally made for an omnibus French TV miniseries, is finally coming out in the United States. For years, a legitimate release has been impossible, partly because the movie’s rock soundtrack had remained uncleared. Now newly restored, Cold Water — quite possibly Assayas’s most moving effort, and certainly one of his best — is coming out in theaters from Janus Films, with a Criterion home video release to follow. The director recently sat down with us to talk about the film, the importance of music, and what he sees as the essence of filmmaking.

You’ve said you became a slightly different filmmaker after Cold Water. What did you mean by that?

I suppose it was my “Dogme 95” moment. It was a few years before “Dogme,” but at the time I was functioning within the framework of French independent filmmaking — even if my movies were slightly different. Eight-week shoots, middle-sized budget, 35 millimeter.… And I felt I was limited within that format. It was not about not having enough money, it was possibly about having too much money. I never made movies that were rich in any sense, but Cold Water was different: non-professional actors, super 16mm, 24-day shoot, and zero money of any kind for re-creating the period. So you have to rely on something else, and open up to different influences in terms of your inspiration. I’d always been a great believer in concision — in telling your stories fast. But when I was doing Cold Water, I slowed everything down. I was kind of entranced when I watched the film again. I had been restoring it, and was really just focusing on the technical side. But the other day there was a screening and I sat back and I watched it, and I was really surprised at how much I was concerned with extending the time, and ultimately how much I enjoyed watching that.

I feel that extending time in that way has become one of your hallmarks. With most movies, there’s a proportionality to everything: Scenes should be this long at a certain point in the film, and that long at a different point, and so on. Your films upend that. They often start off with a regular rhythm, and then at some point something else takes over and suddenly we’re watching the same scene for thirty minutes, and the whole structure’s upended.

Yeah, Cold Water became the template for that. I think the main thing for me was accepting the loss of control. All my earlier films, they were very Robert Bresson–influenced; I was concerned with some sort of control. When you’re a young filmmaker, you want to feel that you control your tools, you control the medium. The actors more or less say the lines I had written; I would design these really complex shots and we would shoot them more or less the way I had designed them. It was all very elaborate in many ways.

Here, I gave space to the non-actors to somehow reinterpret the characters, the screenplay, the storyline. And I kept open to what was going on around me on the set. Sometimes when you make films in the classic way, you see something great on the set and you don’t have really the tools to absorb it, to fit it into the film. There are things that are really exciting around you that are going on thanks to the very process of shooting — and you let them go because, you know, they’re not part of the narrative. In Cold Water, I didn’t want that to happen. I was keeping myself aware of what was around me in the space, of how I could integrate the space, and put this or that element into the film. I could let myself be carried away by my own imagination, my own feelings. I had more of a musical sense of the narrative, of the dramatics of the film. It’s something I would extend when I did my next film, Irma Vep.

How did you know you could get away with this?

Oh, I didn’t think I could get away with it. No. I genuinely thought I was making an experimental film. At the time, this was a commissioned work — even if the commission involved it being autobiographical, which is, like, the strangest kind of commission. It was supposed to be a fifty-minute movie for TV. I liked the concept very much, but I was not interested in TV, in the sense that TV doesn’t stay. I mean, at least, you know, it didn’t back then. I didn’t like the idea of making something for the small screen. So, I said, “OK, I will do it, but give me very little money to do it; I will do it with even less money because I will keep part of the budget to make a feature version, a longer cut.” I decided to kind of extend everything in a certain way — in a mood reminiscent of Seventies filmmaking. So, the concept was to make a Seventies film. Which could have been something along the lines of what Andy Warhol was doing. In the best case, I thought, it could have been shown at a few film festivals. That’s what I had in mind. I had no idea that I could actually shoot something that would correspond to the format of a feature film in 24 days. I had no idea. And once I had done it, of course it gives you huge freedom — because all of a sudden you realize you actually do not need money to make movies.

It’s funny that you say you wanted to do it as more of a Seventies film because as I was watching it again and a Leonard Cohen song came on, the first question in my mind was, “Did this come out before or after McCabe & Mrs. Miller?” Which is of course the dumbest question, because Cold Water was made more than twenty years after McCabe & Mrs. Miller! But somehow, I was totally in the space of thinking the film didn’t just take place in the Seventies, but that it had somehow been made then, too.

[Laughs] For me, I would say those lines blur. I’ve said this a lot, but to me, this movie is like a strange screen between myself and my own teenage years. I was reliving my teenage years, in a strange way. It’s a sensual film, in the sense that it’s about emotions, feelings, it’s non-verbal in many ways. Those emotions are really my experience of being a teenager in a context that’s very similar to the context of the characters in the film. And I like the idea that all of a sudden, with added perspective, this movie might belong to the Seventies. If I had had the skills, this is the kind of movie I would have made in the Seventies.

More time has passed between now and the time when you made the film, than from the period between when you made it and the events in the film. That must add a whole other layer when you watch it now.

It does. When I was making it, it was a bit different, because I really felt like I was reliving my teenage years. I had this notion that when you are an artist — a filmmaker, a novelist — and you tell stories about your own experience, you live things twice. Once you live them for real, and then you live them again as a memory…and then it’s gone. So, I had this sense that I was going through my teenage years again for the last time. It was a way of leaving that part of me behind.

But you didn’t. Because years later, you made Something in the Air, which is again about these characters, and revisits aspects of this story.

Yeah, I did not. That’s the way I kind of analyze it now. The idea of dealing with myself as a teenager at the time was a way of reconciling with myself. The teenager I was in the Seventies, and the would-be filmmaker that eventually started making short films, were in completely different worlds. There was this really clean break between, like, the political-slash-psychedelic era and punk rock. I kind of reinvented myself as a filmmaker in the late Seventies or early Eighties — rejecting the hippie culture, which we despised. So, I suppose that the part of me that was connected to the Seventies, it’s something I rejected — and Cold Water gave me the opportunity to reconnect with it, even if it was in poetic terms. I think it was a big step for me also in terms of my inspiration for filmmaking, because I was reconciled. That was extremely important. That opened the door to doing Irma Vep, which was going again one step further in that reconciliation — in the sense that [the subject of Irma Vep was] a silent film serial, which was something that attracted me as a very young man; I wrote my master’s thesis about serials. Again, it was something that I had left behind. I had left film theory behind, film writing behind. It all came back through Irma Vep. But it was Cold Water that opened the door.

Why has it taken so long for Cold Water to be released in the U.S.?

It has to do with the initial approach. We had no idea how far this film would go. Back then, buying synchronizing rights for songs was not as common as it later became. So, there were no rules, and at the time it was done very clumsily by some assistant in the production company. Negotiating those kinds of rights was not taken that seriously. Basically they negotiated the rights for TV, and some sort of theatrical use, but very limited in space and very limited in time.

Then the rights of the film were frozen because the international sales company went bankrupt, and its parent company went bankrupt again, and they were absorbed by Universal, and Universal sat on it for, like, ten years, twelve years or something, until the rights expired. So, when finally the Universal contract expired, when we got the film back, the French production company was not there anymore — it had gone bankrupt. The music rights had expired. And it’s not like the film had huge commercial prospects, so we had to renegotiate ultimately a very expensive soundtrack for a movie that didn’t have a commercial potential to match it. So, it really involved the help of a lot of people, including — first and foremost — Criterion.

The music plays such a huge part, especially in the big party scene near the end, which pretty much takes over the film.

It was the script! At some point, the songs became the screenplay. I structured the party scene around the songs — always those specific songs. They were built in. I envisioned this really fairly complex set piece. I had no idea how I would do it, but in the four-week shoot we had, I protected one whole week because I thought I needed the full week, or the five nights actually, to shoot that scene. I picked every single extra — all the kids. I went through this really long casting process. I knew every single kid, I knew exactly where he was at what point during the party. So, it was all extremely choreographed, and the rhythm was defined by the songs. I saw the songs as bringing a kind of base to the scene. When it’s faster, slower, when it shuts down for a minute, when it comes back, the level — very loud, not so loud. It had to feel very organic, and the base of the music brought that.

In film school, if you wrote in actual songs in a screenplay, they’d probably kick you out.

Yeah, yeah, I know [laughs]. It’s because there is such an oppressive ideology of screenwriting. I loathe it. People have been writing stories for over two thousand years, and all the other arts have a very sophisticated relationship to form, to what you can do and can’t do, and why should movies be so limited? Why should movies deal with such simplified dramatics? I think a lot of movies are opening that up. I’m certainly very far from being the only person who does that.

The Leonard Cohen song “Avalanche” specifically jumped out at me because that moment is so fascinating, when they’re finally embracing. Yeah, it’s folky acoustic guitar, Leonard Cohen singing softly — but it’s actually a very violent song. The squeaks are louder than the actual notes on the guitar. His voice is kind of angry, full of contempt, almost. And onscreen you have the kids building a bonfire; the flames give off warmth, but they also suddenly feel incredibly dangerous. The relationship between these two kids is both tender and self-destructive.

I think it has to do with the nature of youth, and specifically those years when you’re seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. It’s both the end of something and the beginning of something else. Meaning something is dying and something is reborn. It’s the end of childhood, it’s the end of innocence. When I was structuring the scene and choosing the songs, I realized that the moment was about the end of something and the beginning of something else. In terms of Leonard Cohen, it’s from his third album, Songs of Love and Hate, and it was not as popular as the first two because it’s much darker. It’s an extremely melancholy, dark album, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s the end of an era. It’s the same thing, for instance, as Cosmic Wheels, which is Donovan-post-Donovan. It’s not like the psychedelic glory of the early Donovan. Again, it has to do with something finishing, whereas when you have “Virginia Plain,” the first single by Roxy Music, it’s already the late Seventies. It’s announcing punk rock. We don’t know it yet, but it’s already the future.

The film’s depiction of these kids’ families is quite complex. They don’t come from one generic type of troubled background. The girl’s family is abusive, but the boy’s family is doting. He has a tender relationship, it seems, to his Hungarian nanny. Even in the closest families, there is this danger.

The film certainly echoes something that was extremely present in the Seventies — generational conflict. It’s something that for some reason is kind of gone now. Today, there may be a generation gap, but there’s very little conflict. Even if you loved your parents, they were still connected with the oppressive nature of society, which loosened up a lot. As much as we keep repeating that the late Sixties, early Seventies revolutions were not successful, well, you know, we kind of changed the world. They made possible things that felt impossible before, and much of the repressive structure of society loosened up. At the time, it was extremely present, and obviously we resented it a lot.

As for the [nanny at the] beginning of the film…like so many things in Cold Water, it’s not so much about how things connect or how they make sense. It all has its own poetic logic. I grew up in that kind of house in the countryside, with a Hungarian nanny who kept telling me those horror stories of the Second World War, and about the gloom of those post-war years. It was not that far. In 1972, 1945 was yesterday, you know. I didn’t realize it at the time, because it felt extremely far away. And I wanted — I needed — to hear the Hungarian language at the beginning of the film. My mother was Hungarian. She fled communism in ’46, after the war.… My father was not Hungarian, even if I use a Hungarian actor, László Szabó, to represent him in the film. [Laughs]

How autobiographical is the film?

The emotions are completely autobiographical. I filmed in the woods near the place I grew up, in a house that’s not my house but fairly similar to my house. The father is fairly similar to my father. It’s the kind of conversation I would have with my father — it’s like the ghost of my father in many ways. I stole records, like we all did. It was not that difficult; there were no alarm systems or whatever [laughs]. I went to parties I suppose fairly similar to this one. But I never fled home with a girlfriend. But I also remember how teenage rebellion was considered some sort of mental illness. Now they give kids Ritalin or whatever. At the time they would put kids in institutions, and eventually they would give them shock treatment. That was a fear kids had. There was this Ken Loach movie Family Life that was hugely successful in France at the time; I was very impressed by it. So, there was a fear of the mental institution and of what will happen there. Especially because teenagers are very fragile.

Something struck me about what Jean-Pierre Léaud’s director character says in Irma Vep: “Distance is everything.” I find that that’s something you have always been very good at — establishing just the right distance to put between the camera and the actor. And the more films I see, the more I realize how hard it is.

That’s what filmmaking is about. But a lot of people would not acknowledge it. For some reason people consider film theory to be a dirty word or something. But ultimately, if you have to sum up exactly what filmmaking is about, it’s sculpting space. Every single thing is about structuring a singular, original space, which is defined by how far you are, what kind of lens you are using, how your camera moves, how the different shots and movements interconnect. They define a perimeter that is always something original, and you have to take that into consideration. That’s why I have this obsession with the work of David Hockney. He’s the one modern thinker of the notion of perspective, and his work is defined by questioning our relationship with perspective. For me, he touches the raw nerve of what cinema is about — even if he is actually talking about painting.

I feel like Abbas Kiarostami also really understood perspective and distance in a fundamental way.

Yes. Absolutely. Or Hou Hsiao-hsien. Artists who have a very deep understanding of their own classic culture. Hou Hsiao-hsien is a modern filmmaker by any standards, but he also has roots in the classic issues of representation in Chinese art. The same goes for Kiarostami, who belongs to a tradition. He’s super modern, and at the same time he’s not defined by cinephilia; he’s defined by art theory. The same way Hou Hsiao-hsien is defined in many ways by Chinese art theory. If we start discussing those issues, we realize how much modern cinephile culture is limited, and how it’s important, I think, to reconnect with art history — to have an understanding of what is actually going on in terms of filmmaking. But ultimately the one filmmaker who understood that the best was Stanley Kubrick. You can consider every single Stanley Kubrick movie to be an exploration in a specific space. And I’ve always been conscious of those issues. I try to deal with them my own way in my own films.