What, to you, makes Kristen such a great screen presence?
I think she’s incredibly gifted. I think also she has this completely fascinating relationship with the camera. It’s something beyond her own talents. She has it. It’s something that’s obvious. It’s something that struck me the first time I saw her onscreen in Sean Penn’s film, “Into the Wild.” She stands out. There is something that happens when she’s onscreen that’s beyond analyzing. What’s exciting about her is the mixture she has of animal instinct and deep technical knowledge of what she’s doing.
Do you encounter that much?
It’s very rare to have a combination of the two. You have great, very technical actresses, you have intuitive actresses, but actresses who have both, who know how to use their instinct to control in very nuanced ways what they do, it’s pretty unique.
What about for “Personal Shopper,” specifically?
In terms of a movie like this one, which deals with the supernatural, with the invisible, I thought it was really important to have an actress that’s as grounded and real as Kristen. The thing is, Kristen brings everything back to something very human, simple, obvious, and she connects that with the audience.
Are you guys going to work together again?
I would make another film with her tomorrow. I just don’t have the subject yet, but I’m sure I will find it. I think there’s really space for us to make another film. I would love it to happen.
Costume designer Juergen Doering was responsible for the wardrobe, and worked with director Olivier Assayas and the cast to piece together his own impression of how it should look. “First I read the script and I asked Olivier to tell me in three adjectives what he thinks about each character,” explains Doering. “Then I looked at the cast - so I led with the character first and the person second. Then I went to the actors and, without telling them what the director had said, I asked ‘How did you get this part and how do you see it?’ Because Olivier likes for people to feel the character and feel the clothes.”
There’s a noticeable difference between Maureen’s day-to-day clothing and the more elevated style of her boss. “We were thinking that Maureen’s American, she’s in Paris, she’s wearing jeans, she’s a little bit rugged - sneakers, vintage, sweaters,” says Doering. “I looked at some vintage Fruit of the Loom sweaters at a shop in Paris, and was looking for things that you could believe a girl like this had picked at the flea market. The flying jacket in brown leather, very manly, for when she’s always on the bike - a young person will try things.”
As the film progresses - spoiler alert - Maureen sneakily borrows and wears some of her client’s designer pieces, including a Vionnet organza gown with a harness, something that was specifically requested by Assayas. “I was looking in all the couture collections for a harness dress,” says Doering. “The director said ‘Maybe it’s a harness over a dress, or maybe it’s part of the dress.’ In the end I saw it at Vionnet and Olivier liked it immediately. We chose black because there is something ambiguous about her personality: she says she hates the job she is doing and the girl she is picking the things for, but when she comes to desire men, she wants to be that woman she hates.”
Maureen also borrows a silver sequinned Chanel dress. As Stewart has fronted several Chanel campaigns, it was no surprise to see the fashion house popping up in her movie - though Doering says there was no contractual obligation involved. “We know the team at Chanel well, but if we didn’t find what we wanted, we had no pressure,” he says. “I asked the girls there, ‘Do you have something with sequins?’ and they said ‘Oh we have this old dress that no one has worn before.’ And I saw it and I thought ‘Oh, this is it.’” It may be the only time you’ll see Stewart in a Chanel dress that doesn’t fit like a glove: “Of course we didn’t fit it onto Kristen, because it is not supposed to be her own dress. She feels uncomfortable in the dress, it’s not hers - but she likes it because it’s not correct for her to wear it.”
Though the contrast between Maureen’s casual wardrobe and this highly polished eveningwear is visually dramatic, it somehow feels like a natural fit for Stewart. The actress is known for her grungy personal style of T-shirts and Converse, but she’s also a muse for Karl Lagerfeld and a fixture on the front row. Working with her was easy, explains Doering: “Kristen knows her stuff. She loved Chanel before she was famous. For her it was easy to jump from the jeans to the dress, no trouble.”
He clearly felt that they had a meeting of minds. “Often actresses they have no taste!” he laughs. “So it’s good to actually have a conversation with someone who knows.”
What were the main things you had to consider wardrobe-wise with the film?
"The story has many levels. You have a mourning part, because Kristen's character recently lost her twin brother and she's looking to connect to his soul after the death – that's one part of the film when there are no clothes. And then there is the part where she works as a stylist for a female celebrity, who is a bit like a Kardashian, but she’s not very nice, and she hates her. At this point she wears a casual, vintage-y wardrobe, but not standout clothes. It's very personal, a little boyish; like Kristen can be - a jean, leather bomber jackets, and nice wool sweaters – it's a French style in a way. And the other element is that she is cruising a guy, and when she has to meet him she wears a crazy, shiny, embroidered Chanel dress."
How did you get into costume design?
"At the start of my career I was in fashion design andI worked for Karl Lagerfeld, but it was not the famous icon Karl of today, it was the beginning of his time at Chanel. Then I worked in Yves Saint Laurent, which was where I really refined the culture of fashion. I was not making a dress for the sake of it; I was interested in the culture of making a dress. When Mr St Laurent died fashion changed a lot, with modernisation and over-marketing luxury; I didn’t like it. A guy with the pencil from marketing school was telling designers what to produce. So I thought, no, I need something more free and creative, so I moved to cinema. A girlfriend of mine was doing costume design and she said to me, 'Why don’t you come and assist me on a film and see if you like it?' loved it!"
Kristen is an ambassador for Chanel…
"Yes she is, and we worked with Chanel for Clouds of Sils Maria, the film before Personal Shopper. Chanel always invited Kristen to their fashion shows and dressed her for them, and everybody said, 'Oh that girl is interesting', which she was. And then she made the advertisement for their glasses and makeup. The real Chanel headquarters in Paris appears in the film." Is Kristen as comfortable in a polo top as she is in a Chanel gown?
"Yes, because the real chic is to be yourself, and not to try to be the dress. The dress has to come to you, not the contrary; and Kristen understands that exactly. When she put the Chanel clothes on for the movie, she didn't change anything about herself or the way she moved - if she is wearing a sweater or very cheap T-shirts she acts the same. She's pretty and young and moves well so everything follows her. She's fabulous." Is it difficult to make things look authentic in a film?
"My job is to make clothes look credible, true, but I must not forget that it needs to be cinematographic, because cinema is not real life - it has to be with a special line - if it's realistic, it has to be a little bit above reality. For example, for the main dress I could have chosen a shiny or silver dress, but the Chanel dress has something really chic – although it's not something you would enjoy to wear to a party because you can’t sit in it, it's heavy and you can't move because it's really 'plumpy' but nobody watching the film knows so it gives to the image something more powerful.” Are there any celebrities you think are really stylish now?
"That's a difficult question for me because I like people to get dressed the way they really are, and not the way someone [a stylist] dresses them - and today a lot of these stars have no personal look. A really chic person for me is, what's her name…oh…. the British girl with the very blonde hair, like this [he clips his temple with his hand]. She's a blonde, very skinny and from Scotland…I will have to call my sister. [He calls his sister and speaks to her in French]. It's Tilda Swinton! I love her because she has something personal, she follows nothing and is strong and free – raffinée."
The man responsible for the amazing looks in the film is gay costume designer Jurgen Doering.
‘I’ve worked with Kristen two times,’ says Jurgen, referring to Personal Shopper director Olivier Assayas’s last movie; the amazing Clouds of Sils Maria (a drama with a strong LGBTI subtext, also starring Juliet Binoche). ‘Kristen is very inspiring and easygoing with the clothes, and easy to work with,’ he tells us.
Here, he talks about gay people in the movie industry, Kristen’s dual sense of style, and the one item of clothing that belongs in every wardrobe…
In the film, Maureen dresses casually, but is also fascinated by high fashion – that’s so like Kristen!
You’re right. In real life Kristen is comfortable with all clothes. She’s natural in a couture piece, and also jeans.
How involved was Kristen in choosing the clothes?
She gave me direction on the phone before coming to Paris. She tried things on with a friend of hers and said ‘That’s cool’ and ‘that’s not cool.’
Did she get to keep any of the clothes?
Yes, some pieces. Not all of them. She’s not that kind of actress! During the film she said [puts on sweet voice] ‘Oh, don’t forget to give me that sweater…’
What is she like to work with? Is she nice?
Oh yes. Friendly, nice, normal. I’ve worked with some that weren’t like that. I wont give names. Actors and actresses – it’s a strange job. It [makes] you crazy a little bit! You have to be very strong in your head. Have you seen the film yourself?
Many times. What’s my understanding of it? Well, it’s normal to feel confused. She’s confused. She loves her twin brother and she’s very insecure during the film, that’s why she’s looking for the ghost, the spirit. What is your top style secret?
Follow what you feel. Do what you want to do, be free. What one piece of clothing should everyone have in their closet?
A white t-shirt, in proportion to your body, is very important.
Is your industry very LGBTI-friendly?
Cinema isn’t very gay. It’s very macho. Oh really?
Yes. That was my first surprise when I moved from fashion to cinema. Fashion, we are in ‘our’ world. When one is hetero you think ‘Oh, what’s happening with them?’ But in cinema, the hairdresser and make up people are gay, but all the other ones are not telling. There’s never cruising on set – nobody comes to you and says ‘Hey, what are you doing tonight?’
Are you proud then to see Kristen talking about her sexuality in interviews?
Yes. She does it in a very natural way, in a way I understand. Take it or leave it, no apologies it’s the way I am. It’s very close to a lot of my nieces and young people [I know]. They say ‘I’m with a boy for the moment, and next week I might be with a girl.’ They don’t think about gay or not gay, it’s what they feel.
That’s reflected in fashion too, and in Kristen’s style perhaps – the gender-fluidity…
Yes, of course. I love that. One day she can be very feminine and play the girl and the day after she’s in that boyish way again. It’s all her.
Did you have any crazy nights out with her in Paris?
No, she’s not so ‘crazy’, she’s not the kind of person who wrecks a room at The Ritz! She just enjoys herself, has drinks with all the crew, listens to loud music in the car when we had to move… She’s just…cute! I would love to work with her again.
Have you seen Kristen’s new haircut by the way?
No. What’s that? How’s she looking?
She’s shaved it all off!
No – completely?
Yes, and she’s bleached the little bit of hair she’s got!
But it would be a mistake the call “Personal Shopper” a ghost story in any literal sense, says Assayas, who sat in on a conference call with his leading lady to correct misimpressions about the new film. Despite the presence of an ectoplasm-spewing poltergeist, “Personal Shopper” is, according to the 62-year-old filmmaker, less an art-house version of “Ghostbusters” than a metaphor for “visibility and invisibility.”
“It’s a story about someone who gradually manages to comes to terms with herself, and to understand her identity and, eventually, even her own femininity,” Assayas says. “I’m using the conventions of genre film because it’s the best way to convey inner fear, inner anxieties and so on and so forth.”
If the title also is a metaphor, it’s an especially apt one. After all, is it not the task of the personal shopper to channel the personality — or at least the tastes — of another individual? In the film, Maureen is shown studying the work of Hilma af Klint, a Swedish painter who claimed that her pioneering abstractions were commissioned by beings from the astral plane, as well as that of the writer Victor Hugo, who believed he could communicate with spirits of famous dead people. Isn’t channeling, in a manner of speaking, what every actor does?
According to Stewart — who says she’s not sure whether she believes in ghosts — the answer is a resounding yes.
“I find it really self-aggrandizing and idiotic for self-proclaimed artists to take an immense amount of credit for their work, in a way that is self-celebratory,” says the 26-year-old actress, who in 2015 became the first American to win a best supporting actress César — the French equivalent of the Oscar — for her performance in “Sils Maria.” “Really, you’ve just been on the receiving end of something that passes through you.
If man cannot judge “Personal Shopper,” he certainly has tried (though the scorecard is, so far, pretty mixed.) An early audience booed the film after a media screening at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Then, the following night, the film’s festival official premiere was met with a five-minute standing ovation.
As an actor, Stewart says, she takes such ups and down in stride, and compares her best work to participating in a kind of seance-like trance. “There’s never been a time when I’ve done a scene and looked around the room and gone, ‘Ooh, we nailed it. We should be so proud of that.’ What you do is you look around and go, ‘Oh, my God, did everyone just feel that? Did everyone feel the same way?’ Once you realize that you did, and that you’ve made this connection, it always feels spiritual. It’s like, ‘Wow, we’re so lucky that we were open enough to let that pass through us.’ ”
Whatever accolades Stewart has received for the film — and more than one critic has called her performance mesmerizing — the actress gives all glory not to God but to Assayas, who says he wrote the part of Maureen, a profoundly lost and troubled soul, specifically for Stewart. “Kristen has such incredible control of what she’s doing,” he says, “at the same time as she’s following complete freedom. It’s a mix that’s extremely uncommon.”
Stewart describes Assayas’s way of filmmaking as arising less from the impulse to tell a preconceived story than out of an interest in asking open questions. “In this case,” she says, “there was the [ghost] subject matter, but, more importantly, there were really pointed questions. But every single person on the crew — every single cast member, myself included, and Olivier — we all had different responses to these questions. Whether our responses to them were the same or not didn’t actually matter. They defined the movie, but didn’t alter our course. What we ultimately discovered was that everything was a revelation, rather than an accomplishment.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with making movies where everything is cut and dried, Stewart says. Ceding complete control to a director can be just as liberating as letting the spirits move you. “I’ve been involved in films where a story sort of preexists and is somewhat finite, and you’ve been hired to function as not much more than a mouthpiece for a filmmaker,” she says. “You feel that control, and it’s not always stultifying, ironically. Sometimes it’s actually really satisfying to hit something hard really hard for someone, and to do it in a way that is controlled by them.”
On the other hand, Stewart says, she has come to realize that her greatest strength now lies in what she once saw as her greatest weakness: that sense of painful awkwardness that comes from being a “naturally shy” introvert. And how exactly did she gain that insight? Only the hard way, she explains: by making bad movies. “Anytime anything was super planned out, or seemed like a great idea on paper and there was nothing that could go wrong with it, it always ended up being trite and empty and embarrassing and so not worthwhile.
“I’m much more comfortable,” she says, “being uncomfortable.” Source
Say what you want about Kristen Stewart but she knows how to shock a red carpet. Just the other day, at the New York premiere of her new film Personal Shopper, she stunned everyone in a floor-length halterneck Chanel gown and dyed-blonde buzz cut.
Practical, severe, chic — it’s typical of Stewart’s style, one she’s been developing long before vampire franchise Twilight turned her into a megastar in 2008.
It’s why she appreciates the work of her stylist, Tara Swennen, who can regularly be found on Instagram posting pictures of Stewart.
‘I have a really open and involved collaboration with my stylist,’ says the actress. ‘I’m not remotely dressed by someone. But she’s known me for so many years. I’ve been working with her since I was 13, so she can highlight who I am, rather than make me something else.’
We meet before the New York red carpet, when the 27-year-old isn’t rocking quite such a severe look, just a white vest-top, navy trousers and black trainers.
Her blonde hair is falling over her shoulders, her green eyes accentuated with dark eye shadow.
Around her neck are silver chains, one with a mini-padlock on it. ‘I like them,’ she murmurs, ‘but they are not symbolic of anything.’
Maybe she should be wearing a cross, given the subject of Personal Shopper. Set in Paris, Stewart plays Maureen, who — when she’s not seeking out designer gowns for her supermodel boss — communes with the spirit world. Part-thriller, part-psychological portrait, it’s a tense yet teasing tale as Stewart’s amateur medium, desperate to speak to her late brother, becomes increasingly haunted.
Oddly, it’s her second ‘assistant’ role in a row for director Olivier Assayas, after 2014’s Clouds Of Sils Maria, in which she played the PA to Juliette Binoche’s actress.
‘Maureen is stuck in a very dark place in her mind,’ says Stewart. ‘I know that feeling — having physical manifestations of anxiety based on really lofty questions that you’re never going to have answers to. How the hell do you get out of that thought process? I think the way you do that is not by meaninglessly distracting yourself but by finding a peace in not knowing.’
After dating her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson, Stewart has spoken openly about her sexuality, and has had partners including French singer Soko and current squeeze, model Stella Maxwell.
‘I’m just trying to acknowledge that fluidity, that greyness, which has always existed,’ she recently told one interviewer.
You can imagine conservative studio heads blanching at such confessions, but she couldn’t care less. Acting since childhood in films such as Panic Room, Stewart says she’s not that career-conscious. ‘I work very instinctively and it’s all about gut [instinct],’ she says.
It’s why these days you’re more likely to find her in recent indie film Certain Women than a blockbuster.
‘Doing soul-fulfilling work is when I’m finding myself and not hiding,’ she says. Not that she doesn’t know how to have fun: see comedies such as American Ultra and the Rolling Stones video Ride ’Em On Down.
She’s now working behind the camera, having directed the Take Me To The South video for Sage + The Saints and her first short, Come Swim, which premiered at Sundance.
‘That is one change in direction I’m definitely going to try and focus on,’ she says. Calling all the shots — it beats being the assistant.
In Personal Shopper, Kristen Stewart spends her time browsing haute couture stores and even trying on the slinky outfits belonging to her character’s supermodel boss. But in real life, does she have a massive wardrobe?
‘I have a lot of sneakers! I’m really sneaker-obsessed. But, no, not really,’ she says. ‘All this stuff we wear is being lent to us. I try to keep little pieces that feel like mine but I don’t have that much stuff.’
Stewart is not afraid to mix it up either. When she hosted Saturday Night Live recently, she wore Christian Louboutin heels with a $78 Spanx slip dress. And while it’s rare to see her at a fashion show, she has modelled for Chanel. ‘There’s nothing wrong with appreciating beauty and aesthetic,’ she says.
‘The people who are drawn to fashion for genuine reasons are the artists and are those who can appreciate that art.
‘Those drawn to it because of the attention that it brings and the potential popularity contest that they have a chance of winning... that’s just self-serving. It’s really selfish and it’s not beautiful at all.’
At Members-only screening at LACMA’s Bing Theater on March 6, director Olivier Assayas and actress Kristen Stewart sat down with Film Independent at LACMA curator Elvis Mitchell to discuss their new Paris-set mystery drama, Personal Shopper. Immediately following the screening, Assayas and Stewart delved into an intense 20-minute conversation about their connection as collaborators as well as what drew them to Shopper—out now in limited release and on VOD.
As with Assayas and Stewart’s prior collaboration on the director’s 2014 Clouds of Sils Maria, Shopper reflects the theme of women uncovering facets of their identity while experiencing the world around them. Stewart plays Maureen, a young American woman living in Paris working as a personal shopper for a spoiled celebrity. It’s gradually revealed that Maureen is also a medium using her uncanny abilities to communicate with her dead brother, whom she was very close. From there, the film takes audiences on a journey through Maureen’s self-discovery during the somewhat mundane life that followed her brother’s passing, as well as her thrilling (and decidedly not mundane) encounters with unknown spirits.
Assayas began the Q&A by giving the audience some insight into just how sure he was of Stewart’s ability to play Maureen. He said it came naturally to give her the screenplay, because the story “didn’t make sense” without her.
“I’d always been a fan of her work, but I didn’t know how far we could go or how we could function together,” Assayas said. “It was gradually on the set of Sils Maria that I realized we could go further. I had no idea where the limit was, and I still don’t know.”
Assayas praised the human quality and authenticity that Stewart brings to the screen, saying that Stewart gave (and gives) him the confidence to try things and explore areas he wouldn’t dare to go without her—just the type of collaboration he wanted for Personal Shopper.
Clearly, for those who have suffered the death of a loved one the experience can be disarming. It can be a struggle to find your ground after something so confronting. In Personal Shopper, Maureen is a dismantled, stark version of a person trying to put her life together again—a challenge Stewart endeavored to portray.
“I think every response to this movie is entirely individual, so my own interpretation took a second,” said Stewart. “But very ambiguously, I knew that it was something that was worth doing, and I was very intimidated by it. But I knew that I really loved working with [Assayas].”
To portray the character, Stewart said she had to know what being “alone” felt like. She needed to put herself in a mental space where she felt completely isolated in order to channel the feeling of grief required to portray Maureen.
Mitchell asked Assayas and Stewart if they thought they trusted each other enough prior to production to push the normal boundaries of filmmaking. With great chemistry comes great creative collaboration; the relationship between director and actor is important for the evocative atmosphere intended for a film like Personal Shopper.
“It gives you this sense of security knowing that he does good work, and it sounds really simple, but it’s true,” Stewart said of her director.
Assayas knew that because of Stewart’s relaxed composure as an actor she would perfectly what Personal Shopper was about. But her ability to go beyond her limits encouraged and inspired him as a director.
“I think we made this film together, because she reinvents with me. We were completely complimentary,” he said.
It’s obvious that Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper are both united by a common motif. Mitchell was curious to know where this inspiration came from and why Assayas thought he gravitated toward stories about the relationship between women and identity.
Assayas shared that growing up in France the son of immigrants—a Jewish-Italian father and a Hungarian mother—finding his own identity was often a struggle. According to him, the women depicted in his films more or less reflect his past. He’s always been interested in “a stranger in a strange land” and the decisions foreigners have to face in a culture they don’t fully understand, writing about people who have to make sense of the world around them. Since, he said, we’re all trying to discover ourselves on a day-to-day basis, it was his goal to translate this trouble-filled process to film.
Assayas admitted to a complex relationship with the abstract process of turning his screenplays into movies. He explores each script word-by-word and in filming those words takes them much further—especially with the help of Stewart. When filming with Assayas, Stewart said that everything belongs to the environment and because of that, Personal Shopper was a film she was proud to do.
Find more photos and videos from the screening at LACMA here.
At the Q&A screening of Personal Shopper, a couple of audience members mentioned being scared.
Would you agree the film is scary?
I don’t know. If they were scared I suppose it’s scary. It’s not scary for me because I’ve done it. It’s something you can’t really quantify. I suppose that genre filmmakers can know and control it a bit more than I do. I have zero control on it. I want to push the scenes as far as I can, but I’m not sure when people are actually scared. When you make something that’s funny, that has comic overtones, you know instantly, because the audience is laughing. When they are scared, you don’t have that kind of feedback.
It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that early on, we get to see a ghost on-screen. How did you decide how much you were going to show?
I wanted to show it. What’s in the film is pretty much what was in the screenplay. Slightly different; I obviously adapted, and blah blah blah. To me, the question was more how to represent it. It’s a difficult question because it’s a projection of your imagination. Doesn’t have to look too CGI, too digital. If it’s just a superimposition it will look corny. Very early in the process I had the clear notion that what I wanted to use as a reference was spirit photography, from the second half of the 19th century, early 20th century. It looks very naïve now with the perspective of time but it’s still kind of scary and it really does represent what the medium thought of what they saw in séances. Ultimately I used descriptions by medium of their encounters with spirits. I was as strict as I could be in terms of representing ghosts in a way those in the spirit world imagine they see them.
There is an extended sequence in the film without any spoken dialogue but tension is sustained through a mysterious, menacing text message conversation. What were the difficulties and possibilities of using modern media in this way?
I was really wondering if I could manage to translate on-screen the fascination we have with our cell-phones, with the conversation we can have via text message. It can be addictive. ‘How long will it take to get an answer?’ ‘Oh, he’s writing, the dots are blinking.’ That kind of tension. I thought it would be fairly simple, but in terms of technique it was a nightmare. To get that stuff right, I had no idea how complicated it would be. I kept changing. Some of the text I ended up changing the wording. I reworked that scene for ages to maximise the tension.
Given the rate at which technology moves on, do you not worry using text messaging like that will date the movie?
Of course it will date the movie. But think about when Superman changes in the phonebooth or something. We kind of accept it in the history of filmmaking. We’re fine with watching movies where people don’t have cell-phones. To put it that way, your film, any film, instantly becomes a period piece. You don’t have to wait five years. Especially in terms of communication. In terms of communication, this will be completely outdated in five years’ time. Even if I think people will keep on texting, because texting is a very interesting form of communication, it will just be a memory of how people functioned in 2016.
Kristen Stewart’s performance is terrific, but you suggested at the Q&A that there were depths to her that were still yet to be seen. Can you elaborate on this?
I genuinely think that I’m extremely privileged to be working with Kristen because I think she’s a very unique actress. When we were making Personal Shopper I was just wondering where the limit was. I never really sensed where the limit could be. I think that Kristen can be funny; I think that’s a dimension of her that has not been explored much. I think she has a wicked sense of humour. Once in a while, when she has something she can use for comedy, she’s pretty smart at using it. I would love to do a period piece with her. I’ve made two movies with her and I’m still curious of where she can go. Which doesn’t mean I’ll be making my next film with her but there is the potential for that.
You also said that the role wasn’t written for her; given certain similarities between her character here and her role in your previous film [Clouds of Sils Maria], did one role grow out of the other?
I didn’t exactly write it for her, at least not consciously. I was certainly inspired by her. I don’t think I would have written the character of Maureen if I had not worked with Kristen. She was my one experience of observing a young American girl. When I’m writing the part of a young American girl it has echoes of that one person I know. Until the moment we finalised that we were going to work together on this film I kind of refused to admit the logic of how it all fell into place. But the minute it was clear, I had to accept that I’ve been writing this piece for her.
Where did the idea for the film begin?
Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to explain, but here it’s fairly simple. I think that what inspired me was the notion of this girl doing a stupid job, at least a very mundane job. She thinks it’s superficial, wasting her time, but she needs it to make a living. She finds some sort of comfort by exploring ideas out in her dreams. And it grew from that.
In this, as well as being one of the big talking point of Clouds of Sils Maria, there is a strong sense of ambiguity to the narrative. How would you explain this?
I’m interested in the twists and turns of how I describe things. I like the idea of how to surprise the audience. How to not go for the obvious, the expected, and take it in another direction. I’m not interested in resolution. I’m interested in the excitement of witnessing something that’s strange, in a film. If you explain it you kind of spoil it. Usually movies are adverse to ambiguity. I like the notion of ambiguity. I like the unresolved quality of ambiguity. I like the way it generates questions that stay with the viewer. To take another example that’s maybe more clear-cut, like when Valentin disappears in Clouds of Sils Maria, I think it’s just more interesting to have her disappear, as opposed to having her leave. I could have added a shot where we see her with her hiking boots boarding a bus, and no one would have questioned it, but I think the question mark we stay with increases our awareness. It gives a sense of maybe she won’t come back. It gives a sense that during the whole epilogue of the film she’s present. She’s like a shadow that’s hovering over the whole night. It’s much more interesting to leave it open. Has she disappeared? Why has she disappeared? Ultimately we don’t care. What we care about is that she’s still around, she lingers on. It’s this notion of unease that’s generated by Personal Shopper. The ambiguous few shots of some ghosts walking out of a hotel is beneficial to the ending of the film. It’s something that echoes.
You shot Personal Shopper in a short amount of time. Given a larger budget/longer timespan, is there anything you’d change?
No, because I like the energy of it. I like to shoot long days. I’ve shot all my recent films in about six weeks. Even Carlos. Carlos was three movies, but it’s like three times six weeks. Maybe Something in the Air was a bit longer. But I like this struggle with time. It’s what makes the process exciting. When there’s too much time, it gets a bit boring, and you can get… bourgeois.
Olivier Assayas has never heard the term "ghosting" before. You would think someone would have brought it up to him anytime between now and last year's Cannes, since his new movie, Personal Shopper, involves Kristen Stewart getting quite literally ghosted. That is, she gets into a frantic, voyeuristic, threatening, and sexually charged texting conversation with a ghost, who is possibly her dead twin brother. As weird as that sounds, it translates to the screen in a magnetic way thanks to Stewart's brilliance in every frame, Assayas's devoted gaze as his lead actress tries on beautiful clothes, and his fashionable sensibilities while unraveling this chilling story.
This is the second time Assayas has worked with his new muse. In 2015, Stewart's role as a personal assistant to Juliette Binoche in The Clouds of Sils Maria won her a prestigious César Award (basically the French Oscars), making her the first American actress to do so. Personal Shopper is a far more daring and experimental turn for Stewart, whom Assayas cites more as his collaborator than actress. And because this is an Assayas film, he doesn't give us clear answers in his 21st-century mystery. And he doesn't just stay in just one genre lane—whether it be horror or thriller or a coming-of-age story (even the makeover montage is nothing like you've ever seen before)—or even a single medium, using séances as inspiration in the ghostly scenes and shooting long back-and-forth exchanges that take place on the iPhone.
Ahead of the film's solid box office opening this past weekend, we sat down with the acclaimed French director to talk about his new movie, texting etiquette, and working with Roman Polanski.
VICE: The film is more than just fancy clothes and texting, but I sound so silly whenever I try to describe the movie. Did you have any trouble getting your vision across before having the movie made?
Olivier Assayas: Well, not really. Kristen Stewart was immediately onboard, and we were making this film for very little money—in the $5 million range. If I had to do pitching, I would have been in trouble.
Have you seen Elle? It reminded me of that a bit: How women deal with grief or loss, and how sometimes it makes no sense to other people.
Yes, I've seen Elle. I think the film is, ultimately, exactly as you say. It's really someone else's coming-of-age story or just someone who, through grief, becomes herself again. I've used various elements—anxiety, fear, whatever—to help the audience share those very basic emotions. And then I tried to convey that through the genre elements.
Is it weird that people are just starting to write about Kristen Stewart like, "Turns out she's actually a good actor" after your films?
I always loved her. I did not know how far we could go together. I had seen her in the first Twilight film. I had seen her in Into the Wild, and she was amazing. And I also really liked her as young Joan Jett in The Runaways. I thought she was getting that kind of punk energy so right. I always thought she was a very special actress. How far she could go, I had no idea. I discovered it while we were shooting The Clouds of Sils Maria. I realized every tiny thing she had to do, she would just turn it into something that was completely cinematic. I don't think I invented Kristen or whatever. It's really her talent and hard work, but I think I was the right person at the right moment because I could tell her that it's OK to be herself.
Right, it's much weirder material.
Yeah, that scene where she tries on clothes was very much a Kristen creation. I said to Kristen, "Don't worry, just take your time, do it however you want, and I will edit it." And then, when I saw her doing it, I thought, Oh my God, I'm not going to edit that. She made something out of every single movement. I mean, that's what Kristen does; she's like a dancer. She also has this very precise awareness of how sexy a moment could be. And she micromanages it in a brilliant way.
Do you know the term "ghosting?"
OK, say you're dating someone, and you're texting or communicating with them, then they suddenly stop talking to you. That's what you call "ghosting." I kept thinking you bring ghosting to the next, literal level in your film.
Ah yes, yes, yes. I did not know the term, but I like the idea of the dramatics of text messaging. Especially when it has to do with some sort of weird sexual thing, you know? I like the idea of the seduction scene, by someone you don't know, but you can fantasize. And so I like the idea of her being dragged into this kind of thing that has to do with physical desire or sexual desire or whatever you call it. And also by someone who is just an abstract entity, and it could be a boy or a girl.
You decided to include read receipts in there, which is often considered rude. I guess that's perfect for a ghost to do. Were you thinking about that specific texting etiquette?
Well, what I wanted to capture ultimately is the complexity of that specific form of communication. I think I had an intuition of it, but I didn't realize it until we were actually shooting the film. When I got into editing it, all of a sudden every tiny nuance echoed in very complex ways. People are so used to communicating through text; it's an experience we all share… every tiny nuance of how you respond, how you don't respond, how you delay responding. I wanted to be able to reproduce on film the complexity of that language.
You use a CGI ghost, which is obviously not your usual trick. How did you direct that scene to get exactly what you wanted?
It was a complex process. I didn't want to connect with contemporary specialist acts; I wanted to be able to connect with something a bit rawer, cruder, like spiritualist photography at the end of the 19th century. They used photography to reproduce what they imagined they saw during séances. So I used that kind of photography and used the description by mediums of what they saw during the séances. I think ultimately what we ended up putting on the screen is as close as possible to the way the spirits looked like in the imagination of mediums.