Wearing camel pants, a silky camel cardigan and an orange-patterned t-shirt, the slightly built Olivier Assayas resembles more an artist than a movie director. The youthful 58-year-old had initially thought of pursuing painting as a career, though had deemed it too solitary.
The son of French director/screenwriter Jacques Rémy (who wrote Maigret stories for television), Assayas worked for many years as a critic at Cahiers du Cinéma before moving over to directing. He first garnered recognition when his 1994 film Cold Water screened in the Un Certain Regard section in Cannes and then went on to achieve his widest international success with Irma Vep (1996), starring his future wife, Hong Kong's Maggie Cheung. Their marriage lasted only three years—Assayas was too much of a workaholic Cheung once told me—though they stayed on good terms, re-teaming for 2004's award-winning Clean, before Cheung gave acting away altogether. Assayas met his current wife, Mia Hansen-Løve, when at age 17 she starred in his 1998 feature Late August, Early September, though they only became an item three years later.
Like Assayas's other films, his new movie, After May (aka Something in the Air), presented itself to him, he says. After his five-hour epic television miniseries Carlos (2010) about '70s terrorist Carlos the Jackal (which released successfully as a shortened cinema feature), Assayas had wanted to move away from politics. Yet that didn't happen, because After May (French title Après mai), which is set in 1971, focuses on the aftermath of the May '68 protests, possibly the most politicised era in modern French history.
In past interviews, French baby boomers like Josiane Balasko and Richard Berry have proudly included themselves as part of the so-called '68 generation, who advocated and protested for social and political change. At the time, many left-leaning protesters wrongly aligned themselves with Stalinist and Maoist Communism. Even Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam sang the praises of Maoist China.
Assayas may have only been at high school at the time yet the events exerted a strong influence. Like his protagonist Gilles, he was torn between his personal ambition and having a commitment to the rebellion. And like Gilles, he'd lived in Italy and worked on London film sets.
For After May, Assayas cast non-actors and actors with little experience, with the exception of the leading female role of Christine, played by Lola Créton, the star of Goodbye First Love. Interestingly, the two protagonists bear the same names as the lead characters in Cold Water.
How much of After May is your personal story?
It's pretty much my story but then I use actors, dialogue and sets and it becomes something else; it kind of opens up. I gave the part to every single character and I directed them but I also followed them. Part of what is going on is their own. Like all fiction in a way, it's personal. I think sometimes I am more impressed with the filmmakers who put their own crazy imaginations on the screen. Generally I am more modest.
Why did you want to do that?
I suppose I have been thinking about it in a one way or another since I made Cold Water. As much as I loved the film and enjoyed making it, I felt there were dimensions to what mattered to me in those years that was missing. I needed somehow to complete the picture, to work on a broader canvas, with more characters and more complex interactions. I suppose it's a matter of timing. The right moment came after making Carlos because I had made that movie from a broader perspective.
So this film couldn't have happened without Carlos?
No, I don't think so. I think in many ways my way of filming also changed with Carlos. It was such a huge project, I could not rely on the usual tricks, I had to figure out new ways of filming just to sustain the interest for such a long film and I learned how to recreate the 1970s.
Did the love of your life really kill herself like in the film?
It's almost true. I am not sure I want to elaborate about it, but it's certainly partially true.
The teenagers in the film have a lot of political ideas, yet they seem a little lost.
There were two magnetic fields really. One was counterculture, drugs, free press, underground music, liberated sex, whatever. And then on the other side you had leftism, dogmatic leftism, ideological leftism, which hated the music, hated the drugs, hated the sex, and hated the free press. When you were a kid you felt the attraction of both of those forces and you somehow had to define yourself in the middle. So there was a certain degree of confusion.
What kind of nostalgia do you hold for those days?
Zero. I don't have any nostalgia for the '70s that were in many ways miserable for me. (Reconsiders.) No, some of it because it's my teenage years, so it kind of has a specific space in my memories and my identity, but I don't feel I was that much of a happy person as a kid. I was happy to grow up, to become a young adult. The process of finding my own path was painful and I rejected it for a long time. One of the reasons I am making this film now is also because it's a side of myself that I had been trying to forget about when I was trying to become a filmmaker. I just wanted to forget the confused kid and with time I am growing fonder of him. At least I kind of accept him.
When did you become happy then? Ever?
I am trying, I am doing my best. (Chuckles)
It feels like a movie about the formative years of your generation. How did they fare?
My generation? I don't know. I've lost touch with a lot of the people I knew at that time. The guy who inspired Alain is a well-known French designer; he is still a friend, but the girls I lost track of.
How have things changed?
To me, when I was making this film, it was extremely striking how much the world has changed. Somehow I just didn't realise how much it had. There were political conversations that I had to drop from the film because the young cast just did not understand what was going on. They did not understand the language.
Are they conformists?
No, they just don't trust politics. But why would they? They have politicians on television all year round telling them they have no control in what's going on. When I visited the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York in 2011, it was exciting because I was experiencing the same energy from the '70s. There was anger and criticism that you wish was more present today.
So one of your first jobs was working as a trainee in the editing rooms of Richard Donner's 1978 film Superman?
Oh yes, I was. When they were shooting the explosion of the planet Krypton with Marlon Brando, I was there.
You served Marlon Brando his tea?
No, but I served tea to Charlton Heston and those kinds of guys. It was interesting memories. But in the studio next door, Kevin Connor was making his crazy horror movies like the Warlords of Atlantis. So as a model I used The Land that Time Forgot, which was a Kevin Connor movie starring Doug McClure, a very minor film.
Why do you reference Bo Widerberg's 1971 film Joe Hill about a Swedish man who goes to America and becomes an agitator?
I am a fan of Bo Widerberg. I think in the early '70s and late '60s he was both a political filmmaker and he also had the grace, the depth, the beauty of impressionist painting. To me, he was a Swedish Maurice Pialat, who is a French filmmaker I worship. I think Widerberg is one of the underrated geniuses of world cinema. I don't really do homages in my films but I thought he was worthy of homage in this one. Joe Hill was impossible to find anywhere. I saw it at the time and I only found it again in a weird copy on the internet.
Aftter May is released in cinemas November 21.