'Personal Shopper' Director Olivier Assayas on Working in Hollywood: "You Have to Adapt, Even if It's Frustrating"

Agustin Mango
The Hollywood Reporter

A foreign filmmaker's first time working in Hollywood can be hard, and French auteur Olivier Assayas (winner of the best director award in Cannes for Personal Shopper) didn't have an easy run with his next project, heist movie Idol's Eye, produced by Benaroya Pictures, Bluegrass Films and EMJAG Productions. The project, starring Rachel Weisz, Robert Pattinson and Sylvester Stallone, is now back on track after production reportedly fell through earlier this year.

Assayas, who previously wrote for legendary film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, attended this year's Mar del Plata Film Festival, running from Nov. 19-27 in Argentina, and sat with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss his first Hollywood experience, Asian cinema and the upcoming French elections following Donald Trump's presidential win in the U.S.

Now that Idol's Eye appears to have been resurrected, what are your thoughts about working in Hollywood for the first time?

Honestly, I thought it would be easier. I think I underestimated the specificity of how Hollywood functions, and I underestimated the differences with the dynamics of European filmmaking. I lived and made my movies in a very specific environment - European independent filmmaking - which is ultimately based on a kind of freedom in the way you function, the way actors function, in terms of your relationship with the financing of your films. I didn't realize how privileged I was. A lot of things that I took for granted in terms of my filmmaking, meaning the fact that I can have some weird way of functioning, that I can adapt to the subject or the context of my movies. I've always had the opportunity to adjust my filmmaking to the specific needs of each project. In the North American film industry, you have very strict rules, you feel you can never break the rules, you have to adapt, even if it's frustrating or counterproductive. There is this notion of control in every single level, which is adverse to the dynamics of filmmaking, at least as I love it. I realized very early on in the process that it's not a matter of liking it or not, but I felt it took a lot of pleasure out of filmmaking. And to me the pleasure of filmmaking is incredibly precious. So I hope this film will happen now. I think that it genuinely has potential to be a pretty good film, but … I'm not sure if I'll try something similar again for a while.

This way of having to rationalize everything, with guys trying to control everything, you know, there's a lack of trust. The big thing in European filmmaking is that it functions on trust. That's why it moves fast. When you spend a year discussing a contract, just to make sure no one gets f - ed in the process … that's not how movies are made. You have this lawyer culture, which ultimately creates a system where making a film is actually a byproduct of the contract.

Read more: 'Personal Shopper': Cannes Review

One of the consequences of the resurrection of the project was Sylvester Stallone stepping in for the mobster role for which Robert De Niro was originally cast. How do you feel about working with Stallone?

I genuinely admire him, I've always been a fan. I haven't seen the Expendables films, but I've seen every single Rocky movie, and I think he is an excellent writer and director. He has his own idiosyncratic way of functioning. I remember his first film, Paradise Alley, I loved it. I think he is an amazing actor. And I was not disappointed when I met him. I'm a fan.

Back in the 1980s, you were one of the promoters of New Wave Asian cinema as a film critic. We haven't heard your thoughts on that region's film production for a while.

Well, I'd say Asian cinema doesn't need me anymore, it's pretty much on the map (laughs). It's financing Hollywood, the map has changed. When I wrote about Asian cinema back in the mid-'80s, it was not on the map, people were not aware of it, of its history, of its stars, of its auteurs. People had no idea that in the 1930s you had an actual industry in Shanghai, or that there were great filmmakers making genre films, like kung fu movies. It was so exciting, because it was like discovering a new continent, and you had young filmmakers who were very energetic and active, and doing things that didn't exist before, meaning Asian independent cinema.

Now, the dynamics has changed. The Chinese are producing blockbusters for the Chinese market, most of the Taiwanese industry has emigrated to mainland China, same thing for the guys in Hong Kong, and they have to adapt to Chinese censorship. You have very few filmmakers who actually get through with a certain degree of freedom - one of them being Jia Zhang-ke, and a couple of others, but not that much. And you can't see something happening that would transform the system. I think that now, as seen from afar, I think the one exciting Asian filmmaker today might be Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who is extremely idiosyncratic and a marginal figure, but still he is a very interesting and exciting artist. And you have things happening in the Korean film industry, because somehow they managed to protect it. That's the one film industry that has actually protected its structure and keeps solid and functional.

Since the results of the U.S. election, the idea that a similar thing could happen in France next year with Front National candidate Marine Le Pen is getting stronger. How do you feel about that?

I don't think Marine Le Pen will happen in France. I genuinely do not. We have lived for the last two years with the potential that she might get to the final round - which ultimately may mean that there will be no left-wing candidate in the final round. So, it will be either Juppe, or Sarkozy, or Fillon, who is the guy rising in the polls right now and seems to have potential. But my take on it, because I'm an optimist - because people say Trump's victory will empower Marine Le Pen - I think the opposite. I think the election of Donald Trump scares the shit out of everybody. Because it has a destructive potential. People will want someone who can stand against him, as opposed to someone who will adapt to him.

Read more: Cannes: Kristen Stewart's 'Personal Shopper' Receives 4-Minute-Plus Standing Ovation