Olivier Assayas takes on the life of Carlos the Jackal
Olivier Assayas talks about making his epic ‘Carlos’, a five-hour biopic of the first international terrorist, Carlos the Jackal
Maverick French director Olivier Assayas made a name for himself in the mid -1990s with the film ‘Irma Vep’, a wry indictment of the French film industry which – with its references to Louis Feuillade’s ‘Les Vampires’ – also illustrated his love of classic cinema. He presented a different side to his filmmaking in 1998 with the hushed ensemble drama ‘Late August, Early September’, and then again in 2000 with the lavish period piece, ‘Les Destinées Sentimentales’. He took another U-turn in making the divisive Manga-porn techno thriller, ‘Demonlover’, and has continued to surprise with his directorial choices. 2008 saw him deliver one of his finest achievements with ‘Summer Hours’, which followed the mould of his earlier character-driven dramas. His most recent film is ‘Carlos’, a gargantuan biopic of international terrorist Carlos the Jackal.
Do you recall the first time Carlos came onto your radar? Were you aware of him as a teenager?
‘Well, yes, in France, of course, because that’s where he killed three French cops and it was big news. There was a famous headline in Liberation, which said “Carlos: 3, DST: 0” which was pretty striking and it was the first time he appeared on anybody’s radar as before that he was just another militant. And then he kills these cops in the centre of the Latin Quarter – which is the student area in Paris which was basically where I would be walking everyday – so all of a sudden there’s this notion of some kind of this war going on far away. It’s just terrorism in a form that had never really surfaced in that way in France. But he more or less disappeared soon after.’
Did you see the recent Vincent Cassel film ‘Mesrine’ about the French gangster? There’s this sense that despite his criminal actions, he became an anti- authoritarian poster boy. Did a similar thing happen to Carlos?
‘I think the politics of “Mesrine” is something that has been more or less fabricated after the fact; I don’t buy it, because Mesrine was a gangster: that’s what he was about. Carlos is a different character. He’s an idealist who is recruited by the Palestinian militants who becomes a soldier with the Palestinians in the mountains of Jordan. This is all as a very young man: he’s like nineteen. So there is a sense of involvement, there’s a sense of conviction and there’s a sense of putting your life on the line for your ideals at the beginning. He’s pretty much part of the whole leftist mythology and that’s what the film is more or less about: the places that these politics can take you.’
There were disputes in the press, especially around the time of the film’s premiere at Cannes, about whether ‘Carlos’ is a film or a television series.
‘Honestly, I have a very simple take on this; I only know one way of making films. It’s not like I switch on a TV mode or something. For me, this was a film from the start – it was a very long film, but it was absolutely a film and I made it exactly the same way as I did my other films. The paradox is that eventually I had a larger budget than usual, so somehow I just had more space to be creative. And the reason why this ended up being this hybrid is because you just can’t get away with a five-and-a-half hour film for the cinema, especially if you don’t have a French leading part. Most of the film is shot in foreign languages and so on and so forth, so the only way to give rationale to the project was to use the money from TV and the structure from film.’
As biography, where did you draw the line between capturing the essence of the subject and entertaining the audience?
‘It’s a difficult line, but it’s the one we’ve been walking. In terms of the historical side, in terms of the factual elements, it was all about being as accurate as possible. I’m not saying that we get it right every single time, but we get it right as much as possible, using all the evidence available. Maybe something will surface in a year or two, something that will contradict what we’ve done. But I tried to focus the film on the most documented events, meaning the facts leading to the Latin Quarter shootout, the Vienna OPEC operation and the arrest of Carlos in Sudan.
‘Obviously not everything is accessible, so there were a lot of areas where sometimes I have to make up for missing elements and also sometimes I have to make things more compact, because time passes and there’s just too much stuff happening. During the 1980s Carlos did a million things and became this kind of businessman in the world of international terrorism. The biggest question for me was how to deal with the “non-stop” element.’
The character of Carlos is extraordinary complex. Did you have a clear idea of him before you started making the film?
‘He grew from the film. I did not have a clear idea of Carlos. I had flashes of Carlos, moments of Carlos, but I had no idea how they connected and they seemed extremely different from each other. There is very little in common between the man from Paris and the guy who is arrested by the French in Sudan. Somehow all my research and all my work on the film was about making sense of the connection between those snapshots.’
This film continues your fascination with language and communication: this idea of connecting people from cultures who shouldn’t really connect.
‘Well it’s something that fascinates me in the sense that it’s our world, you know. It’s not a theme in my films, it turns up in my films because that’s what the world is like.’
In reviews of your films, the word that often crops up is ‘global’.
‘Yes, I mean, if you deal with today’s world, you will use that word a lot. What surprises me is that so few filmmakers are interested in this subject. I think it’s the most striking thing about how the world has been evolving and I think it’s one of the most fascinating aspects of modernity.
‘I’m interested in how cultures interact, how people who were not supposed to meet come together, how information, money, commodity travel incredibly fast, faster than at any other time. And all those people are using some kind of weird English as a common language. So to me it’s a very interesting cinematic reality and even more so because, basically, no one else seems to be interested: I have the space to myself!
‘I’m joking, I’m sure there are a lot of filmmakers who use it in one way or another. Just not in France.’
The soundtrack is very interesting and diverse. There’s a lot of Wire, but I was very surprised to hear ‘Pure’ by The Lightning Seeds at one point.
‘Well, I was a fan of that specific track. I haven’t listened to much of their other stuff. Well, I have, but I don’t think it’s as good. I had no idea what kind of music I was going to use, so I tried this and tried that.
‘When I started working on the music, for some reason I found that what worked for this film, at least for me, was either the darker post-punk stuff like Wire, because it kind of gave the story this drive, or lighter pop stuff. And for some reason I started looking in that direction, and just remembered that song and tried it and it worked. It’s very intuitive.’
Have you seen Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Che’, and if so, what do you think of it?
‘I like it a lot. I saw it in Cannes. I saw the two parts back to back, and I was impressed by how he could get away with doing a film like that, meaning filmmaking on this scale, entirely in Spanish, with Benicio del Toro as the big star and no other “names”.
‘But also what struck me is how he used a mythical figure to deal with something that’s much more complex than a biopic. It’s basically two moments in the life of Che Guevara and he gets into a lot of detail in describing those two moments. I think the film is about guerrilla warfare, it’s about how a guerrilla wins and how a guerrilla fails and it’s a case study for both aspects. I really see it as a movie about strategies, and it occurred to me that if you had the space, you could deal with things that few movies can deal with because they need time to describe.
‘So when I was thinking about “Carlos” and trying to figure it out, “Che” was an inspiration, absolutely.’
Read our review of ‘Carlos’
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