Boarding Gate with Olivier Assayas

Cannes Film Fest 2007–Interview With Olivier Assayas, the director of Boarding Gate, which world premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival out of competition.


A news brief caught my eye about the murder of French financier Eduard Stern during an S&M session. It seemed like something right out of my film DEMONLOVER. That triggered in my mind the story of a murder involving an ambiguous sexual relationship and the world of modern finance. I also thought about a woman on the run, trying to escape both the murder and the past. So the first part of the story ended up being centered around the confrontation between a man and a woman, their cat-and-mouse game. I wanted the second part to be about her escape, her being desperate and on the move. I knew the first part could pretty much take place in any Western city. But the second part had to be Hong Kong. I know that city well, but I had never filmed there before. I had been dreaming about it a long time.


I chose this term as a title to evoke the idea of a passage between two worlds. Early on, I wanted the film's title to be the word stamped on passports when leaving Hong Kong: Departed. But I found that Scorsese had just finished a film that was going to use that word in the title.


After DEMONLOVER and CLEAN, I had originally wanted to make a very French film focusing on provincial life. But the project met with a lot of financial complications. A sign of the times. While waiting to see if my French film was going to happen or not, I decided to write and even shoot quickly another project. Why not make a sort of B movie in English Why not take my place in the new order of film finance by constructing a project around B movie economics
Slashed budget and a fast shoot, but all the benefits of complete creative freedom. It was something I knew how to do.

I made IRMA VEP under similar circumstances and for the same reasons. In March 2006, I scouted locations for BOARDING GATE, followed by Paris pre-production to start shooting in July 2006. We shot for six weeks, three in and around Paris and three in Hong Kong. The film ended up costing less than 2 million euros.


Frankly, I didn't feel any loss. Less locations makes it easier to shoot for less. In Paris, we shot primarily in the office and apartment of the Michael Madsen character Miles. For the other locations, I wanted to shoot in the city outskirts to give the feeling of a no man's land which could just as easily be Paris or somewhere else. The industrial suburbs of a modern industrial city somewhere in the Western world. This would only strengthen the contrast with ultra-urban Hong Kong. The key is knowing how to shoot quickly. This is something I learned a long time ago by simple survival reflex. It's essential to have a solid crew of technicians and actors ready to take the same risks as the director.

This requires a lot of energy because the constraints and the pressure forces you to constantly invent new solutions. This was definitely the case in Hong Kong. Shooting there isn't really costly if you do it the local way. If you go there with a full Western crew, Western habits and a Western infrastructure, then things will quickly turn expensive and heavy.


The narrative was inseparable from my urge to work with Asia Argento. She was the only actress capable of truthfully incarnating the different facets of the character. Asia is a physical actress. You can tell she has fun doing action scenes. Running around with a gun in her hand amuses her. She was behind the film the whole way, always ready and willing, even for the toughest acrobatics. And she fell in love with Hong Kong, which she had never been to before the shoot.


Asia is one of few actresses completely at home on a film set with no regard to stature. She has been on film sets since she was very young so she's more at ease with technicians on a chaotic set than shut away in a dressing room. Asia has a certain freedom in the way she thinks, reacts, in the choices she makes. This isn't something she puts on. She simply puts it out there very courageously. She's innately rock 'n' roll, which isn't very common among actresses. There's nothing prefabricated about her. She's all instinct with an uncommon intensity. She's a surprising actress who doesn't discriminate the trivial from the sophisticated, B movie situations from the most intimate of scenes. She's completely herself every time, and with the utmost generosity. Each take she comes up with something new, but she's always in the heart of the film, in the heart of her character. She has a nearly unreal bond to the camera.


I met Michael Madsen through Nick Nolte, which was a good sign. I was looking for an actor with a strong physical presence who could play both dangerous and seductive. When I contacted him, he was able to find the time in his schedule to do the film. He was patient enough to stick with us every time we moved the shooting dates. We only needed him 10 days or so as his character shot only on three locations in Paris.


The scenes between Asia and Michael were shot in chronological order. Their first shot together, the one with the cufflinks, was actually their first meeting. They had never seen each other before. Seduction started instantly between them, but also a certain defiance. He's a bit of a bear. He tries to completely identify with his role, to get under the skin of his character. This can be risky for him and those around him. Asia is pretty radical herself, so this produced a real electricity on the set. It was like a pressure cooker between them, as if they were constantly competing, checking each other out. Even if the shots were carefully laid out and the movements very choreographed, Michael always shook things up with his unpredictability. Both Asia and I had to manage to follow him. Sometimes even against him, we had to firmly hold on to the line of the scene. He broke a plate, he spit out a pit on the other side of the room, he bit his nails Conversely, there are things that he resists, that he balks at doing, that he reacts to at a different moment. Everything had to constantly be integrated into the film. Asia is on the front line so she has to react in real time. I'm behind, but I still have to take in everything and re-orchestrate so as not to lose the whole concept of the sometimes very long sequences.

Michael can be very over-the-top and go to extremes. After a certain point, he can take you to some very scary places. Things can get out of hand and situations can take on a troubling truthfulness. Asia called his bluff and took some big risks. Michael didn't seem to like the idea of being pushed to the limits by a girl. For example, the sex play scene with the belt. I originally wrote something really simple. But Michael had some very precise ideas about what Asia should do to him. There were some takes that scared both of them!


Since I was going to shoot in Hong Kong, I wanted to do my film under the same conditions as Hong Kong cinema. I wanted to look toward the new generation of actors directly there instead of trying to cast out of Paris. Carl Ng, who plays Lester, is an actor-model who grew up in London. He's the son of Richard Ng, a star from the 80s. He has very strong presence which I immediately found right for his relationship with Asia's character. Kelly Lin has worked with directors like Johnny To and Patrick Tam, and she's won of the best new Chinese-speaking actresses around. BOARDING GATE is the first time she acts in English in an international film.


We were only five Europeans: Asia, the cinematographer, the sound engineer, the assistant and me. The rest of the crew was local. They understood that we were going to shoot like them: fast, hand-held. They are accustomed to rushing about with the Steadycam, so they were amazed and puzzled by our precision to the millimeter regarding the shots and our obstinacy at redoing them until we got exactly what we wanted. The unexpected difficulty we met in shooting the Hong Kong way was that the crews are big. Salaries are low, so there are numerous technicians for every job. For example, never less than six people around the camera.

Crew members are numerous and the people of Hong Kong tend to be pretty noisy. This posed a problem when we shot in the streets, when we did guerilla shots in the middle of a crowd. The crew had to be really careful to be as limited and discreet as possible. Sometimes we had to invent these schemes, pretend to prepare a shot just to keep the excess crew occupied so that we could go somewhere else and shoot something else. In such guerilla conditions, the toughest thing is that you're forced to do a lot of illegal shots, like shooting in the subway without permits. We did those shots with a team of four people. We did two takes, then ran off. We did the same thing at the airport because we were restricted to shooting from a certain boutique in the main hall. Of course, it was impossible to shoot everything from only this point of view. Our Hong Kong crew was terrorized by airport security and they tried to stop us from doing anything illegal. We had a hard time getting them to do the shots we really needed. I have to say that I understood their reluctance because I would never do something like that in Paris!