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.