Mr. Beaks Talks CARLOS With Olivier Assayas And Edgar Ramirez!
Throughout the 1970s and '80s, the exploits of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez aka "Carlos" weren't so much reported as embellished by the international press. In his ability to evade capture and seemingly outmaneuver heads of state, he was like a spy-thriller villain come to life. When a certain Frederick Forsyth novel was found in the apartment where he singlehandedly killed four French detectives, one British publication dubbed him "The Jackal". The appellation stuck. For decades, the legend of "Carlos the Jackal" has been printed over and over; it's the facts that are worth sifting through now. And so we have Olivier Assayas's sprawling CARLOS, a propulsive five-and-a-half-hour biopic that depicts in exacting detail how a Marxist revolutionary became an allegiance shifting, luxury craving mercenary. Wedding the rise-and-fall trajectory of many a gangster movie with the breakneck pace of a modern-day spy thriller, Assayas (aided by cowriter Dan Franck and historical adviser Stephen Smith) has crafted one of the year's most unique cinematic experiences. It's a run-and-gun epic. And it's anchored by an Edgar Ramirez performance that's both physically demanding and effortlessly charismatic; if you're an A-list screenwriter and you aren't writing something for this Ramirez, you're contributing to the sickness of our industry. CARLOS has been slowly rolling out across the country in two forms: the complete, three-part cut which aired on French television, and the two-and-a-half-hour version which played at Cannes last May. Though the latter works well enough, stick with the former; there are lulls down the stretch, but, much like the second half of Steven Soderbergh's CHE, the deceleration is character-driven and emotionally illuminating (it's also akin to the third act of GOODFELLAS, minus the cocaine-fueled paranoia). Last week, I dropped by the French Consulate in Beverly Hills for what was supposed to be a 1:2 interview with Assayas and Ramirez. Due to scheduling hiccups, I ended up doing a bit of an conversational relay, with Ramirez handing off to Assayas about halfway through. For the most part, this worked out fine - the only snag being my inability to keep track of time, which forced me to jettison questions I'd wanted to ask Assayas about the post-punk soundtrack (featuring songs from The Feelies, Dead Boys and New Order). Maybe another time. At least we got to talk about THE CANNONBALL RUN. First up was Ramirez, who evidently has a photographic memory, as he somehow remembered me from a group set visit to DOMINO back in 2004.
Mr. Beaks: (Laughing) Well, it's great to see you again after all these years.
Edgar Ramirez: Five years?
Beaks: Six? That was an interesting set visit, if only for the variety of actors they kept bringing out.
Ramirez: Which set was it?
Beaks: We were at the Wilshire Grand Hotel. They wouldn't let us see anything being shot, but I remember being told that someone was hanging from the roof.
Ramirez: In Los Angeles?
Ramierz: It was me. I was hanging from the roof. Downtown, right?
Ramirez: It was me. (Laughs) That scene didn't make it to the final cut. I was on a Mescaline trip, and crazy Tony Scott put on this harness and I was hanging. The things you do for Tony Scott. I was really scared, but I did it. I was hanging with this harness on, and there was this rope, and I was doing, like, this Tai Chi kind of thing. We were... I don't know how many stories up, but I remember people from the neighbor buildings thought I was going to commit suicide. (Laughs) I remember that well. That was great.
Beaks: Obviously, hanging off a twenty-story building is something you'd probably rather not do. How do directors convince actors to do stuff like that, and not leave it to their stunt double?
Ramirez: They seduce you. I've been very lucky to have worked so far with very seductive directors. Directors are so sensitive and committed to what they do - and they're so committed to the integrity of the work that they inspire you. When they ask you for blood, you give blood to them. They are, at the end of the day, conductors; they know how to get the right tunes out of everyone - not just actors, but everyone. They become these amazing leaders that you will follow everywhere. I'm very director-driven. For me, it's the story, the character and the director; it should be a combination of those three elements. When you say "yes" to a project, you commit to a vision. And if you organically commit to that vision, then that's what, regardless of the results... it might end up being something so amazing like CARLOS, where everybody's been supporting the movie so enthusiastically. Or like DOMINO, where not so many people supported the movie, although the one's who did really loved it; it's become like a cult movie. But for us actors, it makes no difference. I'm just as proud to have been in DOMINO as I am proud to have been in CARLOS. Because I committed to a vision, and that vision is carried out by the director. You are there to contribute to his vision, make it yours, and then collaborate and make the most interesting piece of work possible out of the story.
Beaks: How did Olivier approach you with this project. Was it always three films shot in ninety-two days, with you having to transform yourself physically throughout the process?
Ramirez: All of the above. I was shooting a movie in Colombia at the end of the summer of 2008. Olivier's production team contacted me. They said, "Olivier wants to do this movie about Carlos the Jackal." And I was like, "Whoa! Carlos the Jackal by Olivier Assayas? This must be fantastic!" Especially because of the ability Olivier has to tell so much about his characters without having them explain anything. I don't know if you've noticed, but Olivier's characters hardly explain themselves; they hardly get introspective. It's about the facts, about people doing things. You learn from these characters by what they do, not by what think or feel. You never see them saying, "I do this because I have father issues, or I was beat up, or my puppy died." Whatever. You don't see them doing that. You see them doing things. It's very factual in a way, and at the same time very sensitive and poetic. So this kind of approach about a character like Carlos the Jackal? I was super excited. So I got the script, and it was 300-something pages. It was gigantic. I wanted to read it part-by-part, and I couldn't. I sat down around 8 PM one night, and then I finished around 7 AM the next day. It was very clear that I was going to do this movie.
Beaks: I like what you said about Assayas's characters, that they're defined through action.
Ramirez: Exactly. Because that's how life is.
Beaks: Yeah. And that's very much the old school way of cinematic storytelling. It's John Ford. It's cool to see Carlos evolve as an antihero without voiceover or something inelegant like that.
Ramirez: He's a rock star - or a hero to the people around him. When I was starting to try to make sense of this character, I would try to use labels to approach him. But I ran out of labels. And then I discovered that the important thing, the core of this movie and this character, was to explore what lied between the labels. From antihero to rock star to mercenary to freedom fighter... those labels were not important at all. It was what took you from one label to the other where the core of the character was. So I forgot about the labels and just went moment-by-moment to the end.
Beaks: In what order did you shoot the movie?
Ramirez: It was as chronological as possible. We started the movie when he was young and joining the Palestinian struggle. I had to lose weight for the first part, so I lost almost two sizes. Then, over the course of the movie, I gained back those two sizes, and then put on two-and-a-half sizes over.
Beaks: You were obviously working with a trainer during all of this.
Ramirez: Yeah, yeah. There's always a physical impact. There's no way to get away from it. You're submitting your body to a major transformation. Actually, it was easier to lose weight than to gain it. For example, before we shot the first scene when Carlos was getting fat, I had a three-week break. So I had to stuff myself in three weeks to develop a belly, and then I just kept eating my way until the end. It wasn't fun, as many people might think. When you're forced to eat pasta, you don't want that pasta anymore. If you have to eat that pasta and those raviolis five times a day - and everyday in the hot Lebanese summer, when you're just craving a tuna salad. You don't want those croissants and those spaghettis anymore because you're forced.
Beaks: Once you've gained all that weight, it must be a chore to do anything after a while.
Ramirez: Yeah, that was the case. Very simple things like tying my shoes, I couldn't do it. I had to go like this. (Leans to the side.) I couldn't bend down forward because the belly was restricting me from doing it. (Laughs)
Beaks: As an American, I remember Carlos as a sort of Bond villain. He was always evading capture, and purported to be planning some grand, villainous scheme. The nightly news really played him up. What was your understanding of Carlos before taking on the role?
Ramirez: Pretty much the same. If I told you that in Latin America or in Venezuela, we grew up having Carlos as a very strong presence, I would be lying. It would be pretty much as you describe: this kind of mysterious guy who left for Europe a very long time ago. He was a master of disguise. Those kind of things.
Beaks: You play Carlos as a very seductive and sensuous man. I know you didn't talk to him, but did you speak with any former lovers to inform how you would play those love scenes?
Ramirez: Yes, I did.
Beaks: Because the way he handles women, it seems so specific.
Ramirez: They all agreed on the fact that he was very charismatic and seductive. He was a turning-head kind of guy for some reason. If I put together all of the opinions that were told me, that's the one that stands out all the time: that he was very charismatic, very cultivated and very educated. He was fascinating to talk to; he could talk about so many things in so many different languages. (The publicist brings Olivier Assayas over. After a quick introduction, we resume the interview.)
Beaks: Before I forget, I want to clarify one thing with Edgar. I believe I read that you didn't want to meet Carlos?
Ramirez: No, I did! I wanted to meet him, but it was very difficult. It got just too complicated.
Olivier Assayas: Basically, he did not follow up on it.
Ramirez: Yes, he did not want to, I guess. But then he wanted to much later, and we couldn't. I wanted to meet him, and I told Olivier, "I'm going to try everything I can to meet the guy." But I didn't want to try to get an appointment with him without his consent. I didn't want him to feel like an animal you visit in the zoo, without him expecting you. I didn't want that. So I never got anything back from him. And then when we were shooting in Germany, somehow he let us know that he wanted to meet me. But I was already halfway with the performance, and it made no sense. I was already on my own.
Assayas: We were beyond that.
Beaks: Will he be able to see the film?
Assayas: He's seen it. (To Edgar:) Have you read the piece?
Ramirez: The STERN one? No. Have you?
Assayas: No, I have not, but you read German. I don't.
Ramirez: (To Beaks:) [Carlos] gave an interview to STERN. (To Olivier:) So the interview STERN did with us in Germany never came out, and it was his interview that came out? Remember the guy we had the interview with, the German guy who interviewed us in French? That was for the same magazine. But apparently what came out was the Carlos interview.
Assayas: It will come out now. They were just keeping it for the release.
Beaks: Did you have time to rehearse prior to shooting?
Assayas: No, we did not rehearse or read. We did a few fittings in terms of the costumes, but that was basically the most we did as far as I remember.
Ramirez: Camera tests for photography.
Assayas: The most basic. And in terms of costume fittings, we chose three or four. Not more than that. The thing about time is that... this film was very difficult to make. We made it on a relatively small budget compared to what we had to do, so we had to save on everything - specifically time. We didn't have much shooting time, and we didn't have much preparation time either. Also, the producers were... dysfunctional.
Ramirez: They got scared.
Assayas; They were scared. So they really never gave us a greenlight until, like, one week before we started shooting, which was crazy. We could not exactly prepare the film the way we should have or would have wanted to prepare it.
(Edgar is whisked away to do another interview.)
Beaks: Did you at least know you were going to get to make the three films as you wanted to?
Assayas: Well, those were the basics. That was the film we were making and preparing. Still, until the last minute, there was the notion that they could just pull the plug. And they kept on wanting to stop the production. We made this film with a producer who was telling us every single week, "We're shutting down the production." It's very complicated conditions to make a film that is technically difficult and involves very complicated logistics.
Beaks: Time and place is very important here, as well as the insertion of your actors into this believable past without the assistance of CG or elaborate production design. How did you pull that off with your limited resources?
Assayas: The cities and locations have changed. I didn't realize how much of the 1970s had vanished. That's when I grew up, so it's a world that still feels familiar in many ways. In Paris, I'm familiar with the city as is my art director, so we managed. But shooting in the street is very difficult. In Paris, they had so many signs and billboards... stuff that just was not there [in the '70s]. It was a little bit easier when we were in Germany, because we ended up shooting in ex-East Germany: Leipzig, Halle, Nuremberg. At some point we considered shooting part of it in Berlin, but it was absolutely impossible. We could not find a street in ex-East Berlin that looked like was East Berlin had been. So it was mostly about shooting in those provincial towns, which had had no time to completely transform. We were kind of lucky because in those areas we found a lot of the locations we were looking for. And Lebanon is not bad in terms of 1970s locations. Lebanon has a lot of areas that stayed pretty much the way they were.
Beaks: In talking with Edgar about the way you develop characters through action. Would you say that's your preferred method?
Assayas: In the case of this specific film, there's hardly any screenwriting in the classic sense of the word. It's mostly scenes that are established; it's fact. I built the screenplay based on research on a level I had never really experimented with. When I'm making any of my movies, of course I research; it's an important part. But here it's all research. It's only in the occasional, specific moment where I have to fill in gaps, or make sense of things that I allow myself to completely invent a scene. Most of the elements, most of the film is based on research - which is extremely interesting. I did not push it to that extent before, and to me it was extremely stimulating. It was a really interesting method, and it took me to very interesting places.
Beaks: Is there a danger of being trapped by research?
Assayas: (Pause) Well, not in the case of CARLOS. (Laughs) Whatever happens, Carlos is always entertaining. He's effortlessly entertaining.
Beaks: He's like a gangster. He's always got a different woman on his arm.
Assayas: Yes! All that stuff is fact! It just comes to you in a flow. It's nonstop. And there was a lot I did not use in the end.
Beaks: I was really amused that these terrorists went around as gangsters. They all have molls, they get preferential treatment at clubs, and they behave rather boorishly at times. It's interesting that there are two films coming out right now that demystify terrorists as criminal masterminds: your film and FOUR LIONS.
Assayas: I have not seen that yet.
Beaks: They demystify terrorists in very different ways, but they both debunk the notion that they're unstoppable, cunning, smooth-operating villains.
Assayas: They are media fabrications. What was interesting to me with Carlos is that he was a complete media fabrication because we knew nothing. The media would not have built him up in the way they built him up if the facts had been accessible - if there had been solid, established, hard facts of the life of Carlos. And what was interesting to me is that now the facts are available. I've spent all my life having this vague notion of this Carlos, who was this poster boy for international terrorism of his time. And then I had the opportunity to getting to the actual truth of what he was about, and somehow it's quite the opposite: he's no mastermind; he's an executor. He often didn't have a clear notion of the geopolitical consequences of what he was doing. He was a soldier. (Getting the wrap-up. I'm permitted to ask one last question.)
Beaks: Okay... I apologize for the rough segue, but I need to bring this up. Years ago I read a piece in FILM COMMENT where you spoke highly of Hal Needham's THE CANNONBALL RUN. (Assayas bursts out laughing) You listed it as a film that you really enjoy.
Assayas: It was called "Guilty Pleasures", right?
Beaks: Right. And it seemed so odd because I've seen all of your movies, and I never once thought, "You know, I could definitely see Assayas doing a Burt Reynolds car chase movie!"
Assayas: (Laughs) No, I don't think I would do that.
Beaks: So what is it about THE CANNONBALL RUN that stands out for you?
Assayas: Well, you know, it's the kind of movie that's usually ridiculed and vilified. At the time I saw it, I thought it was both stupid and entertaining; it was this really cheesy 1970s type of oddball entertainment. But there's really not that much more than that to it, seriously.
Beaks: I didn't expect there to be much more than that, but I had to remark on it because I love it, too.
Assayas: I've always liked lowbrow filmmaking, I must say. In the '70s, you had the right actors for that, you had the right energy, and it didn't take itself seriously.
And that, unfortunately, was the end of our conversation. I would love to further discuss lowbrow American filmmaking in the 1970s with Assayas at some point (and I'm well aware that THE CANNONBALL RUN was released in 1981, but it felt like a holdover from the previous decade). CARLOS is currently playing in theaters and On Demand. If it's available to you, hunker down and absorb the three-part, five-and-a-half-hour version in one sitting (with two brief intermissions). This is masterful, widescreen filmmaking. It is absolutely worth your time. Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks
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Oct. 29, 2010, 12:45 p.m. CST
And call it 'The Adventures of the Chocolate Monk', as a tribute to Cannonball Run.
Oct. 29, 2010, 12:58 p.m. CST
Oct. 29, 2010, 1:48 p.m. CST
One of my favorite movies. Definitely my favorite movie about movies movie.
Oct. 29, 2010, 1:51 p.m. CST
I saw the 5 1/2 hour version in Detroit last weekend...utterly astounded. I've been having health issues with my chest recently and literally about half-way through the film my chest started acting up...but I couldn't pull myself from my seat! (I was partly hoping the pain would go away and at one point it did dull down, but I actualy ended up going to the emergency room after the screening!) But the intensity, the excitement, the acting, the facts, the women...it was all completley mind-boggling. I was glued to my seat! I didn't really know anything about CARLOS and had actually never heard of him (but I have been a fan of ASSAYAS since DEMONLOVER) so to watch this film and to be thinking that this REALLY happened? W-O-W. Another astounding thing is just the fact of who Carlos was connected to in his 20 year-odd run and how this one man has kind of shaped how the world has turned out...SCARY!
Oct. 29, 2010, 2:03 p.m. CST
Great interview. Looking foward to this, especially after watching the Mesrine two parter. Beaks, what other Assayas movies are good?
Oct. 29, 2010, 4:54 p.m. CST
by Gwai Lo
Very different from CARLOS but a very good Assayas film
Oct. 29, 2010, 8:24 p.m. CST
It was good but it wasn't some hyper actively paced kind of thing that jumps scene to scene. I actually liked that it was more subdued.
Oct. 30, 2010, 12:06 a.m. CST
IRMA VEP was one of the best films of the '90s. As Snooty Boots said, it's one of the best films about filmmaking. Also a huge fan of LATE AUGUST, EARLY SEPTEMBER and DEMONLOVER (which I reviewed for AICN back in '02). Would also recommend LES DESTINEES SENTIMENTALES, BOARDING GATE and SUMMER HOURS.
Oct. 30, 2010, 9:17 a.m. CST
by Bodenland Unbound
BOARDING GATE, an awesome European thriller with Michael Madsen, Asia Argento and her sexy tattoos!
Oct. 30, 2010, 11 a.m. CST
...is playing the central character in The Bourne Legacy. I know it.
Oct. 30, 2010, 9:43 p.m. CST
MR BEAKS - great interview btw...so glad you covered this film on AICN as I have been obsessing over it and want to know anything and everything about it...so thanks! BLUELOU_BOYLE - I stand fully behind all of Beaks recomendations...the great thing about ASSAYAS is that all his films are really quite different from each other but still have his filmmaking style...I would also thrown CLEAN in the mix...a cool kind of Rock N' Roll movie akin to say, SID & NANCY.
Nov. 2, 2010, 6:13 a.m. CST
... then it will be fantastic. Can't wait. Besides the freaky aspect that i share the same first name with this wel known terrorist/mercenary, or at least his noum de guerre. Thanks for the heads up, Mr Beaks. Your comparison of Bay's movies with Samuel Beckett is still wrong, though.
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