In a suite at the Hotel Majestic Barrière in Cannes, every surface heaves with haute couture. Chanel dresses spun from gossamer threads are draped along the walls and chunky, diamond-studded bracelets are scattered across the dresser. Only the suite’s occupant doesn’t seem to have received the memo. Kristen Stewart, dressed in a vest and black cargo pants, her hair in a blond crop, looks almost defiantly out of place.
But Stewart is not quite the incongruous presence she might seem at the festival. In 2014, she became the first female American actor in 30 years to win a Cesar, for best supporting actress in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria. More recently, there was her bewitchingly odd performance in Personal Shopper, Assayas’s strange, sad, ruminative ghost story.
And Stewart has now decided to do the one thing this auteur-worshipping town regards more highly than anything else – become a director. Her debut short film Come Swim, part of the Shatterbox Anthology and which she wrote and directed, has been handed a plum special screening slot. “I feel like they’re just being nice to me because I come here a lot,” she laughs. “Like they’re saying, ‘Sure, you can show your little short here.’”
Stewart may be underselling herself. Irrespective of who made it, Come Swim is the sort of daring avant-garde fare Cannes usually laps up. An abstract tale of one man’s quest to satiate an unexplained, unquenchable thirst, the film never lacks for arresting imagery, from the hyper-vivid opening shot of a wave cresting in languorous slow motion, to the sight of the film’s central character literally cracking up in a moment of Cronenberg-style body horror.
The film, Stewart says, stemmed from an image that seemed permanently lodged in her head – of “a person sleeping contently on the bottom of the ocean floor, and getting such satisfaction from that isolation. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty dark.’ You want to know the situation that would put someone so deep.”
The idea of sinking to the bottom of the sea, away from all human contact, might be an enticing one to someone like Stewart – no paparazzi to deal with, for a start. But the subtext concerns something more universal: heartbreak, or more specifically “that first bout of pain where you’re just like, ‘Nobody has ever felt this’ – when actually we all have”.
So the film plays out in two halves, with the opening, more experimental section expressing the extreme sensations we feel after having our heart broken, when even breathing air and drinking water can seem impossible, and the second depicting the more mundane reality of the situation. “I just wanted to externalise a very internal feeling that you don’t really talk about until it’s past and then you go, ‘God, I was losing my mind. It’s so crazy, I was such a weirdo for six months, I’m so sorry to all my friends.’ Not to be too heavy about it, because it’s not clinical or anything, but it is a form of depression.”
The subject matter is matched by some bold stylistic choices. Art rocker St Vincent provides a menacing, throbbing electronic soundtrack, and the film is edited in a series of discombobulating quick cuts. Meanwhile, a complex digital technique known as neural style transfer has been used to superimpose Stewart’s original sketches of her submerged man on to the footage. Stewart even co-authored a research paper on the technique for Cornell University.
Come Swim is a bit rough around the edges – some of the film’s whispered dialogue has a hint of perfume ad pretentiousness– but, for a debut, it’s impressive. Certainly, it’s been better received than some of the bloated actor-director projects that have washed up at Cannes in the past, such as Sean Penn’s The Last Face, which elicited howls of laughter when it premiered here last year.
As the daughter of a screenwriter/director and a producer, Stewart always saw herself ending up behind the camera rather than in front of it. When, aged 11, she appeared in the 2002 David Fincher thriller Panic Room, she made the rather bold claim to that film’s star, Jodie Foster, that she would become “the youngest director that exists”. The sudden leap in her acting career brought about by the Twilight movies put paid to that, but the desire didn’t go away.
Stewart concedes she’s in a fortunate situation, aware that Come Swim probably wouldn’t be at Cannes if its director wasn’t an A-list actor. “People who are much more talented and inspired couldn’t ever have the opportunity to make a short film for the amount of money I was given to make this,” she admits. “I had eight days to shoot it. It was the most comfy process.”
If opportunities are limited for first-time directors, the situation is markedly bleaker if they’re women. Come Swim was produced as part of the Shatterbox Anthology project, run by US lifestyle website Refinery29, which aims to redress the disparity between male and female directors. But it’s an uphill struggle: only 7% of the top 250 films in 2016 were directed by women, a figure that’s lower than it was in 1998.
For Stewart, the only way to correct such an imbalance is with pure intensity. “The coolest female directors I’ve ever worked with are such compulsive freaks,” she says. “You ask Kelly Reichardt [director of Meek’s Cutoff and Certain Women] what it’s like to be a female director and she’s just like, ‘I don’t have an answer because I couldn’t do anything else with my life.’
“The female artists who do the best work, they’re just so focused that nothing is going to get in their way. Kelly, fucking Patti Smith, they’re just workers. It’s hard to talk about, because you need to talk about it to change it, but at the same time it’s like, ‘Just do it.’” She pauses, reconsidering this call to arms. “That’s the most ridiculous thing to say. Of course, people would just do it if they could. I’m in the craziest, most lucky position.”
Whether Stewart will continue making her own films is unclear. She still has plenty of acting commitments, including a drama about the hoax writer JT LeRoy, created by Laura Albert. What’s more, she doesn’t just want to stumble into any old directing gig. “People keep asking, ‘So what’s next for you? Do you want to develop projects?’ I feel they have to just come to you. I don’t want to do an impression of a film-maker. I don’t want to do it for the sake of it.”
If Stewart does return behind the camera, it’s likely to be on her own terms. “I don’t like the idea of making movies with any regard for an audience. Because I’ve worked with people who have been like, ‘I want the audience to think this at that moment.’ Well, who are you making this for then? Because if you start making this for everyone, you’ll end up with something generic. It needs to be its own animal. You can package and deliver an idea after the fact, but if it’s what informs you in the first place… pffft, don’t make movies!”
•Come Swim screens at Sundance Film Festival: London on 2 June.
Kristen Stewart is crafting a great career for herself. She shot to international stardom in “Twilight,” but it’s what she’s done after the vampire romance franchise that really makes her stand out. Instead of gravitating towards blockbusters or Oscar bait, she’s signed on to interesting indie projects and delivered standout performances in films like Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” and Oliver Assayas’s “Personal Shopper” and “The Clouds of Sils Maria.” And now she’s getting into directing. She’s at Cannes screening her new short, “Come Swim.”
I spoke with Stewart about when she decided to step behind the camera, what she looks for in a project, and why she thinks directing should never be about correcting.
“Come Swim” made its world premiere at Sundance in January and debuted at Cannes May 20.
This interview has been edited. It was transcribed by Kelsey Moore.
W&H: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. Women and Hollywood focuses on feminism and the business. Here’s one of our pins.
KS: “Educate. Advocate. Agitate.” Damn right.
W&H: I figured you’d be into it. So, where did the inspiration for this film come from?
KS: I was sort of fixated on one image: a person sleeping on the bottom of the ocean — which is obviously a very inhospitable place for a human being to sleep — and seeing this oddly placed contentment, the satisfaction in that isolation, and wondering why that would be something pleasurable for him.
Everyone — young people, in particular — go through this kind of thing: your first disillusionment or heartbreak that puts you on the outskirts of life. You feel like you can’t participate in normal things. You ask yourself, “What the fuck? I’m here, I look like I’m here, but I’m fucking not here. I’m saturated. I’m moving through water.” It’s not necessary depression as much as it is anxiety and the inability to participate in ‘normal’ things. You aggrandize this pain when you’re little; you believe that your pain is different from the norm.
So, the idea was to source that pain and then watch someone, in a moment, just realize that they are actually completely fine. To see that one day from two different perspectives. One of which is his, and it’s so graphic, surreal, and abnormal. Then, you step outside of that, turn the lights on, and realize that, in fact, everyone has done something like that.
W&H: The beginning of the film definitely connotes the feeling of simply being overwhelmed and underwater, so that explanation helps a lot. If you had to describe a log line, what would you say to people? “Come Swim” is…?
KS: I would say it is two perspectives of one man’s “coming to.” Also, in terms of the film’s use of voiceover, it speaks to perspective and the way you remember a situation. You can absolutely attack yourself with memories, and then if you look at the same situation from a slightly different standpoint, it can actually appear [very differently.]
Essentially, I had my two actors hang out in a pool and play-fight; they would pretend to drown each other, which sounds dramatic, but it was actually cute. In the film, the main character is a little stiff and unwilling to swim; he doesn’t like water. Theoretically, they broke up, and all he’s doing is thinking about what he could have done differently to avoid messing that up. He keeps asking himself, “Why didn’t I want to swim with her? What did I say? God, everything about me is terrible.”
You just start going back into your memory bank, asking yourself what you could have done differently. But, if you get past that, you realize that those were actually fun memories that you repurpose as being awful.
So, I used the same voiceovers in different places with slightly different readings. Some would be ominous, aggressive, and scary, and then the same exact words would be said through laughter to create a different, lovely memory.
W&H: Was this personal for you?
KS: 100 percent.
W&H: What made you decide to write and direct? When did you know that you wanted to do this?
KS: I’ve wanted to make movies since I was about nine or ten years old — as soon as I wanted to act. I’ve watched the process since I was a baby. My mom , Jules Mann-Stewart, is a script supervisor, and my dad, John Stewart, was an AD for television. I was always on set with my mom, and she’s always worked very closely with directors.
I wanted to be on set. I loved the team effort of it all. I really loved that people would do crazy, crazy things, and I thought that the grind of it all must have been worth something. To be a part of that was really attractive.
As I got older and started actually being a part of that process, I realized how spiritual it can be; the only thing that would drive someone to work this hard is this compulsive, artistic, protective nature: the need to protect a story, to make sure that one’s experience with it can be transferred onto others because it’s worth it.
The best directors I’ve ever worked with always make you feel like you have a hand in holding this bowl of water. You need to get it to the end of the line, and it’s tipping in every direction. But, if we all hold an equal part, we can get it to the end, and all of the water will still be in the bowl.
W&H: That’s a nice image. I’m sure you’ve worked with some directors that you’ve loved and some that you haven’t loved. What have you learned from directors — both good and bad — that you took into this project?
KS: Directing is kind of a strange word because it implies that you’re telling people what to do. The best feeling in the entire world is wanting something, transferring that desire to others, and watching it become a selfish thing for them — something that has nothing to do with doing me a favor or satisfying a job. It’s actually this transference of desire. All of a sudden, they reach a place where they start to own it for themselves.
Directing is never correcting; that’s the worst. You can influence people, but, at the end of the day, you’ve put people in place because you’re inspired by them. You want to watch what they do.
W&H: The other day during a Women in Motion talk Robin Wright said to “never say no.”
KS: Right. Because even if you don’t like something, don’t tell them. Just don’t use it. If someone is on a path, don’t derail them. The whole reason you are there is to explore something. It is not to finitely control this experience. You want someone to discover and experience.
I don’t want to package and deliver ideas; I want to get everyone in a room, meditate on a subject, capture it, put it together, and put it out. I’m not too precious about it.
W&H: That’s why I think women are such good directors; we know how to bring lots of people together because that’s how we’re socialized.
Speaking of women directors, you did “Twilight” with Catherine Hardwicke. Even though that was the highest grossing movie by a woman at that moment, she had to take a pay cut for her subsequent film. Even now, she continues to struggle to get to that next movie. What are your thoughts on that and opportunities for women?
KS: There is utter value in a commercially-driven decision making process. I want people to see the movies that I work on. I want them to reach as many people as possible. But, people that really get it done are just so compulsive.
Look at someone like Andrea Arnold. She tells her own stories. She’s not a hired hand. Nobody could tell the stories that she’s telling. They are hers. They come from her.
It is undoubtedly annoying that it’s still taking a long time to balance out. There is no equality in this business.
W&H: It’s not even close to it here. Women directors made up four percent in the top 100 grossing films last year.
KS: This is always kind of hard to speak to.
W&H: I know. There isn’t an answer, but you’re a person so steeped in it. you’ve worked with both men and women, like Kelly Reichardt. Everyone wants to work with her, yet she gets so little money for her films.
KS: I know, but that speaks to who she is as well.
W&H: She’d like a little bit more money.
KS: Definitely, but if you look at the types of movies that she does, they don’t make a lot of money.
W&H: Well, I also believe it’s a vicious cycle. If it were in more theaters, then more people would see it, and so on.
KS: Sure. Do you think that they’re not in more theaters because she’s a woman?
W&H: I think some films are not in more theaters because they don’t have enough of a budget to warrant more theaters; they don’t have the marketing budget to push them over the edge. But, even Andrea Arnold’s last film, “American Honey,” was pretty commercial. It could have played more, and it could have been an Oscar consideration.
KS: I was shocked it wasn’t.
W&H: Right. It doesn’t rise to the occasion, and that speaks to the overwhelming amount of male critics on some level. It’s a very hard cycle to break. You’ve seen so much of it, and now you’re entering it. You’re going to be a director, and you want to continue to act and write as well. You’re going to be in this world. How do you navigate that?
KS: I’m so lucky. I have people who listen. I’m in a very lucky place.
W&H: It’s interesting because I live in New York, and I write about feminism and Hollywood. I’m always a bit shocked when I come to a place like this or go to LA and see the machinery behind it all.
That’s something that you live through. You seem like an incredibly happy, lovely human being. I don’t know you, but people weirdly think they know you. How do you keep your own identity and yet give people what they need to promote your movies?
KS: Right now it’s strange because I’m not working for anyone. I’m less nervous here because I’m not overtly concerned about representing a director and the way he wants a story to be spoken about.
W&H: Because the director is you.
KS: Yeah. That’s a trip, and that’s fucking amazing. I had to sort of relinquish the notion that you can control the way people see you. You can’t. When you try to, you start becoming oddly and ironically disingenuous because you want others to think a certain thing.
Honestly, you literally just have to be protective — but not guarded — and be honest about what you care about and what you don’t.
I can talk to you because this is a conversation — but I have to abandon the idea that anyone is going to read this, because then you start thinking about what it will sound like to everyone else. This conversation can exist right here and people can read it for what it is, but addressing the world at large is [overwhelming]. I don’t think about it. I just try to have individual conversations with people, and when I don’t have to do press, I work.
W&H: So, you probably get tons and tons of scripts, and you’ve made such interesting decisions. I loved “Clouds of Sils Maria.” What a great movie. Talk a little bit about how you make your acting choices.
KS: It’s always really instinctive. I never know what I’m going to be doing. There may be a subject I want to explore, but that’s typically as a filmmaker rather than an actor.
As an actor, I want to read something and feel like it lives so fully that I need to preserve that life. It’s hard for me to develop projects with people because it needs to preexist in me in order for me to honor it.
W&H: Are you interested in producing as well then?
KS: No. That’s the last thing I want to do. I hate development meetings. If a character doesn’t exist yet, I of course would be interested in writing and directing that project. But, I don’t know if I could necessarily act in something like that because I’d know it’s a farce — I’d know that I made it up.
I need to feel like a character literally existed, like I’m reading a history book and people need to know this story.
W&H: So, you had a lot of female crew members on this. Was that something that you wanted, or were they just the best people for the job?
KS: To be honest, they were the best people for the job. It wasn’t totally intentional. But, I think if I had a fully male crew, I would have noticed and done something to fix that.
Credit to: http://adoring-kstewart.com/