Kristen Stewart on her directing debut: ‘The best female film-makers are compulsive freaks’
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, 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!”