Olivier Assayas discusses the visual and aural aesthetic of Personal Shopper and how he shot that impressive texting set piece.
This is an excerpt of the interview which appears in our case study on Personal Shopper in the ebook Beyond Empowertainment: Feminist Horror and The Struggle for Female Agency, which is available for purchase here.
How do you describe a film that exists in a universe where ghosts and people who can speak to them are real, but it’s only casually a horror film? When Personal Shopper, Olivier Assayas’ second collaboration with American actress Kristen Stewart, premiered for press at the Cannes Film Festival last year, it was met with boos and cheers. I suspect critics didn’t know what to make of it, and not just because the CGI effects already seem dated. The film is more preoccupied with depression, modern communication, what it means to be seen by others, and constructing one’s identity. It’s part psychological thriller, part character study, part supernatural suspense film.
Assayas picked up the Cannes Jury Prize for Best Director (shared with Cristian Mungiu for his forthcoming Graduation), and it’s utterly deserved. When the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, I sat down with Assayas to talk about developing the film’s visual and aural aesthetic and how he shot that impressive texting set piece.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you approach the sound design of the film?
Olivier Assayas: The film has this abstract texture because obviously it deals with things we see and things we don’t see. The things we don’t see, we kind of sense them through the sound design. It’s something that we have to build very carefully. I really wanted the film to be as quiet as possible. In the end, in the process, there was some stuff we kind of pushed. But they are strong because we don’t use that during most of the film.
I didn’t want to use any indie rock. I’ve been using that in a lot of my films, and now, everybody is doing it in commercials. It’s in planes. It’s in elevators. There’s too much of it around.The things we don’t see, we kind of sense them through the sound design.Click To Tweet
At a certain stage, I wanted to use a score, which I have not been using since I worked with Sonic Youth 15 years ago. Gradually, I realized that using a score would give a genre texture, which somehow would sanitise the film. It can have here and there genre elements, but if I’m using genre music, all of a sudden, it’s become very superficial. You lose the reality of the situation. So that was out. After that, it was a process of trial and error.
At some point, I realized that what would work with this movie was baroque music. I shyly at first tried a couple of things here and there, I realized that’s really what I wanted in the film and broke the genre mould.
Read more: Breaking boundaries in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women >>
7R: How did you think about the perspective of the camera? It often feels a lot like we’re in Maureen’s headspace. At other times, you almost feel like you’re observing her as opposed to with her.
Olivier Assayas: I needed this kind of conflict between moments when we are in the city, when she’s on a train and interacting with a phone. What interested me was, in those scenes, was the tension between how text conversations, the obsessive relationship we end up having with our phones, somehow becomes a parallel text to our everyday life.'Text conversations somehow become a parallel text to our everyday life.' - Olivier Assayas Click To Tweet
What was interesting to me was someone who was just doing her job, doing the practical things of traveling, and at the same time, she’s involved in something very abstract that focuses her mind. I really like the dichotomy, the conflict between those two layers, the way you end up doing two or three things at the same time.
It’s something that movies have a hard time representing. It’s so much part of our lives. I was looking for that in those scenes that had to be, you needed to have a feeling of the energy around her. At other moments, she’s on her own, and she’s trying to connect with something that isn’t there. It’s a completely different style. It has to be dreamlike.What interested me was the obsessive relationship we end up having with our phones.Click To Tweet
7R: How did you think about filming text messages in a way that creates tension?
Olivier Assayas: The challenge was to make it exciting, to give it tension the way it has tension when we’re using it. I’ve really been fascinated by the way text messaging can be pretty intense, potentially even more intense than having a conversation. In conversation, there are things that you would dilute. You would use so many words to wrap something. Text messages are raw, brutal. They go straight to the point because you only have so many words. I think that gives them a very special tension. I was experimenting. I was curious how far I could stretch it.
7R: It’s interesting how sometimes you can see her hands in the frame, sometimes only parts of the phone, sometimes it’s blurry.
Olivier Assayas: It raises a million issues. You think it’s simple. When I wrote it, I thought, “Okay, it’s the phone, it’s alive.” You realize where the focus is, the lens you’re using, the moments when all of a sudden you need to have the words of the text fullscreen. Other times, it’s just like a passing. The time you give to the viewer to read.The texting scene was one of the most technically complex, challenging scenes that I’ve ever shot.Click To Tweet
One dimension I didn’t understand when I was writing is that those words come back because they’re still there. They’re still on the screen. So you end up reading them every time. There’s a lot of really subtle interactions between what we know, what we don’t know, what we expect.
How long will she take to answer? How long will the answer take to come? It’s extremely complex, and ultimately, very interesting. I didn’t quite realize what I was getting myself into. I think, technically, that texting scene was one of the most technically complex, most challenging scenes that I’ve ever shot.
Read more: Cinematographer Jakob Ihre talks Louder Than Bombs >>
7R: You mentioned that what lenses you used has a huge effect. What kind of experiments did you do?
Olivier Assayas: It gives more power to the words if you use a longer lens, and all of a sudden you’re just inside. You have a slightly wider shot with the phone behind, and all of a sudden you zoom in, it has a dramatic effect.
I shot a lot of those messages with two different lenses: wider and shorter and longer. I was not yet sure when I was shooting which version I would use, which was the right moment in the conversation to zoom in, and things like that.
7R: How important was it to have Kristen on the phone versus shooting just the phone?
Olivier Assayas: A lot of things we had to redo in post-production because we needed to make them more readable, to make them coherent. We shot in different countries where the things that lit up on the screen were different so we needed to have continuity.We shot in different countries where what lit up on screen was different: we needed continuity. Click To Tweet
But we had it all live initially. Kristen was interacting with the phone and typing, etc.. It was very difficult for me when we were shooting because I was watching the shots. I was not watching the screen so I had no idea what was going on on the screen. It was very difficult to read her reactions, to understand exactly what she was doing.
It was very difficult to go to her and say, “yeah, Kristen this is it,” because I had honestly no idea. It’s stuff that I only discovered in the editing room. I had to reconstruct her reaction from the pace at which the text messages were coming in.
7R: You had written Clouds of Sils Maria for Juliette Binoche…was this written for Kristen Stewart?
Olivier Assayas: I think it was inspired by Kristen, but at the time, I thought that she would not be interested. I thought that she would find it too abstract or too weird. But once I started discussing it with her, she was the first to read it. We both instantly knew that we had to do it together. So subconsciously, she has always been there.
Read the rest of our Personal Shopper Special Issue here.