The Varsity: How was Carlos conceived? Could you give me an overview or outline of the film’s conception? What prompted you to make Carlos?

Olivier Assayas: It’s kind of a long story. It’s a long story because it starts awhile ago. And it starts pretty far from where we ended up. It was initially a project that was brought to me by a French TV producer and he had a very basic outline — about four pages based on how Carlos was arrested by the French. I was not really interested in doing the movie. I did not see any angle that was really exciting. But when he sent me his project, he included research that a journalist was doing for a while around Carlos. There was a thick file of facts, basically a chronology of what is known of the story of Carlos. After reading it, I thought it was great. I thought it was amazing. So I said to him, “I am not interested in the way you approach it. But if you are okay starting from scratch and doing it like the story of Carlos seen through the eyes of Carlos or something like that, I am interested in giving it a shot.”

So basically, I started writing it and the film grew out of proportion. Pretty early on, I understood that it would not fit into one film, so I thought it was going to be more like two films. And then even with two films, we didn’t have the space to tell the whole story…. Well, I always thought about it as a five-and-a-half hour film. But then I knew that I would also be doing for the multiplexes a shorter version cut that would be condensed of the story….

TV: Was this conceived as a film or a hybrid of television and film? Because most movies are not five-and-a-half hours long.

OA: No, no…the financing is a hybrid…and you can’t get movies on that scale financed, really.You know if I had brought this project to a film producer and tried to finance it on the movie side, I would have got nowhere because no producer is going to spend that kind of money on a film that long because you know, it’s, you just can’t sell it. I think in only one way which is the one way I know how to make movies. Basically, it’s cinema. It is not like I am going to use some kind of different language because it is TV financing. The DNA of the film is not exactly the money that you use to make it. The DNA of the film is your inspiration.

TV: On that topic, where did your inspiration come from for this movie, considering that you were reluctant in the beginning?

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OA: A lot was exciting about it. I grew up in the ‘70s, so it’s not like a world that is alien to me, like European leftism of the 70s. So you know I was a kid but still I lived through it and when I was writing the dialogue I realized that I still speak the language, this kind of specific political language of the time. It’s something that I just realized that I was fluent in it…

TV: What do you have to say about…well, I’m younger and I don’t speak the political language of that time. There’s a lot of political discourse in the film — operations, negotiations and discussions — could you comment on that within the framework of the film?

OA: One side of it is about recreating those times, recreating the inner-working and logic of those times. Another side of it is showing how terrorism is connected to geopolitics. That it is not some angry individual throwing bombs, that bombs are not about ideology but bombs are about messages that are being sent by one power to another power. And so there’s one media side to it because you do get it on the first page of the newspaper. But on the first page of the newspaper you don’t have the explanation really of what happened and why it happened. The explanation is something that will surface much later because it was part of the politics of the time.

Again, it’s about geopolitics. You have politics, you have diplomacy and when both don’t work you start using terrorism. And when terrorism does not work you use war. But it’s one of the tools politicians use. And so what I’m trying to say is that it can be relevant in terms of looking at modern events, you know, because the logic is not very different ultimately. It has an aspect that is about reflection on what terrorism is and how it connects with contemporary politics.

TV: Ok, I see what you mean. In terms of the protagonist of the film, Carlos…the film is inspired by real events and based on extensive historical research presenting twenty years in the life of this international terrorist. However, since much of his life is unknown, you had to speculate on some of the more personal aspects of his life on screen. How did you go about doing that?

OA: It involves a level of responsibility. You know, you have some stuff that is established, like what happened during that operation. You have stuff like when there is the shootout in the small studio; you have police reports on basically what happened, what the individual said, and ultimately the dialogue is based on transcripts. So you have a lot of material that is extremely accurate.

And then you have stuff that you do not have access to because there were no recordings and people have not written their souvenirs or is simply classified, like dialogues with [Waddie] Haddad. That stuff is not accessible. Or even anything that has to do with Syrian intelligence: in terms of the Eastern secret service or the Hungarian state security, the files have been opened up after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some of that stuff is available. But in Syria, there has never been something like a Berlin Wall that has fallen. It’s still pretty much the people who were in power at that time that are in power now. So obviously that stuff gets made up. You have to make it up, and here you have to be very careful. You try to use only known facts. You make people speak but ultimately what they say is things that are more or less established. I am not trying to use any kind of psychology or I am not trying to interpret things or whatever, but still, it’s a thin line.

TV: What I am trying to get at is that when you were making these things up, what did you have in mind for Carlos as a character? How did you want to present him? Because by the way you present the material, you will shape people’s perception of it?

OA: My approach was that I do not have an agenda. I don’t have in the back of my mind an overall idea of Carlos I want to transmit to the audience. To me, what is exciting about it is just being as incredibly factual as I can. And that through the accumulation of actual fact, there is a bigger picture that will emerge which ultimately you know people will basically make their own idea. … Carlos is a different person at different ages of his life. And somehow you can’t say Carlos is this…I think Carlos is this and that and that and that…I mean he kind of morphs, he changes, he evolves, he adapts to an ever-changing world. I suppose there are some characteristics which is this kind of Latin, machismo and this kind of violence he has, but at the same time he adapts and he ages. So you know he can’t do the things when he’s forty that he was doing when he was twenty.

Carlos opens Thursday at TIFF Bell Lightbox.