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Michael Haneke Plays Funny Games With Naomi Watts

Michael Haneke Plays Funny Games With Naomi Watts

Articles - Directing

A family is traveling to their country vacation home. As they drive, the parents take turns playing “guess the classical composer” (Schubert? Brahms?) with the CD player. Their son laughs approvingly in the back seat. The scene couldn’t be more bucolic or benign, until Mom slips in a new musical selection—and over the soundtrack, we hear a loud, jarring skitter-metal tune from avant-garde musician John Zorn. The happy trio looks peaceful and content; viewers, meanwhile, try to recalibrate their central nervous systems.

That opening of Michael Haneke’s 1997 meta-thriller Funny Games was the first indication that the German director’s pitch-black examination of screen violence wasn’t planning on playing by the rules. It’s such an effective sneak preview of the horrors that lie on the horizon in this house invasion tale that it’s not surprising Haneke repeats the sequence in Funny Games U.S., a remake of his breakthrough movie. If it wasn’t for the fact that the original’s Austrian leads have been replaced by Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, you’d swear the projectionist had thrown on the first version by mistake: The scene is replicated with such scrupulous fidelity that it’s almost a carbon copy. As is the next scene. And the next. And the next…

For folks who’ve been following Haneke’s career since Funny Games (and dipped into his earlier back catalog), the notion that he’d decide to do a shot-for-shot remake shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Despite the fact that his cold, clipped examinations of the worst aspects of humanity often make a misanthrope like Kubrick seem warm and fuzzy in comparison, he has always appreciated a good (albeit usually sick) joke and sought to thwart expectations. So what could be more unexpected than a director reproducing one of his most notable achievements down to the last minor detail? What is odd is that this longtime critic of the American entertainment industry is doing it with Hollywood’s money: The movie is being released by Warner Independent Pictures, the indie boutique arm of Warner Bros., starring a genuine A-list female star. While the domestic arthouse crowd that made Haneke’s last film, 2005’s Caché, a success will probably appreciate the gesture, it’s hard to say whether a mainstream audience is ready to embrace such an in-your-face indictment of their own complicity in treating torture as entertainment. In any case… let the Games begin.

David Fear (MM): Let’s get this out of the way: Why a shot-for-shot remake of Funny Games ?

Michael Haneke (MH): Well, the first film was made to reach an audience that consumes violence as entertainment… and that means it was made primarily for an American audience. Even the big country house in the original, you wouldn’t find something like that in Austria; it’s supposed to represent an American vacation house, built for a family. In any case, since the first movie is in German, it didn’t reach as large an audience as it might have here in the States. The film did well in the art houses, but that wasn’t the audience that, shall we say, needed to see this. So when [producer] Chris Coen approached me in Cannes and asked if I’d be interested in doing it, I told him I’d be glad to do it—on the condition that I could get Naomi Watts to play the lead. The film really was contingent on that. Since the message of the film hadn’t changed, I didn’t see any reason to change the aesthetics or dramaturgy.
MM: Why, specifically, Naomi Watts? She’s obviously quite talented, but surely there are other actresses who could have played the role?

MH: I’d seen her in a number of films, and she’s one of the few performers who can really negotiate through extreme psychological situations. If you look at her work in 21 Grams or Mulholland Drive, she’s quite extraordinary, and the movie really revolves around someone who can pull that off. So she was my first and only choice. That isn’t the first time that’s happened, however. I wouldn’t have made The Piano Teacher (2001) with anyone but Isabelle Huppert; I wouldn’t have made the film at all if she’d said no, frankly. It wasn’t a story I’d come up with but an adaptation of a novel, and those sort of projects tend not to interest me. But I wanted to work with her, so… you do what you have to, right? (laughs)

MM: Right. The fact that Funny Games U.S. is in English—and stars Naomi Watts—means that this will probably reach a larger audience than the original. But because of the nature of the film itself, do you honestly think the large multiplex audience you’re targeting will go and see this?

MH: I hope so. I’m gambling on it, aren’t I? (laughs)

MM: Warner Independent Pictures became involved after production had already begun. I’m assuming someone at the studio had seen the original and knew what they were getting into?

MH: I would hope so. But the mindset of those who run movie studios… that’s far beyond my limited comprehension. (laughs) Working with the studio has been okay, though the production itself… that wasn’t so pleasant. All the unions you have to deal with make the whole apparatus around filming way too huge to manage. I’m used to the European way of filmmaking, in which you can do set-ups quickly and work with a smaller crew. Here, it’s way too cumbersome. It was an experience I don’t plan on repeating.

MM: Having seen both films back to back, I have to say that—even though the shot set-ups and story are identical—the U.S. version’s actors give vastly different performances than their predecessors. Once you start concentrating on what they bring to these roles, you really do see a different movie.

MH: I agree. That was the intriguing part of remaking it, really—to see what this cast would bring to the table. I’ve always said that the best part of making movies is working with actors. Some of them did take a look at the original beforehand, naturally, to see what they were getting into. But I told everyone: Do not watch it again once we start filming. The tendency would be to either slavishly imitate or base an entire performance on being reactive to the original. You know, to be different just for difference’s sake. I didn’t want marionettes; I wanted people who would contribute.
MM: You’ve essentially taken something that’s a critique of Hollywood’s blithe attitude toward screen violence and sold it back to them using their money and their actors. Could you have done something more subversive?

MH: No, I think that would be impossible. (laughs)

MM: The original film felt like an antidote to the sort of “screen violence is fun and cool” ideology of Quentin Tarantino that was everywhere in the 1990s.

MH: That’s true. Tarantino sold violence as an amusement—as consumable. He was very much part of the system that Funny Games is asking viewers to dismantle, in a way.

MM: So I wonder if, in remaking this movie 10 years later, the new version is an antidote to something else in the culture?

MH: Unfortunately, the situations that the movie took on in the late 1990s have not changed very much. If anything, they’ve grown far worse; look at the Saw movies if you don’t believe me. The notion of extreme violence being produced and sold as entertainment has increased tenfold, so in a way, Funny Games seems all the more to up-to-date and apropos.

MM: There was a quote you had after the release of the original that said anyone who left in the middle of the movie didn’t need to see it, and anyone sick enough to stay until the end did.

MH: That is even more true now! Specifically, American audiences need this film more than they did then. Go ahead and enjoy your violence, but in my movies, you will enjoy it with a bad conscience!

MM: Do you remember the first time you saw an example of screen violence that made you think, hey, this shouldn’t be treated as a lark?

MH: Hmm… I do remember seeing Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet as a boy with my grandmother, and the film begins with this dark, foreboding intro involving the ghost of his father. I apparently ran out of the theater, incredibly scared. So you could trace it back to that, really. As an adult, you’re exposed—directly or indirectly—to more real instances of violence, so you start to catch on that the atrocities you see in the movies aren’t representative of the real thing. But your complicity starts the moment the lights go down in a theater.
MM: When you were writing the original, at what point did you realize that the killers needed to turn to the audience and address them as collaborators?

MH: Very, very early on. Those scenes where the two boys turn to the camera and address us were essentially why I made the film. The point was never just to write a thriller—I can write a thriller every year if I want to—the intention was always to give people what they want and show them that they are being jerked around. Critics have said that I’m trying to have my cake and eat it, too, but the best way to demonstrate to viewers that they are being manipulated is to expertly manipulate them. You can’t talk about violence without depicting it; some movies have tried, but nobody saw them—they weren’t interested! So you have to find a way to grip the audience, then show them what you’re doing. That was the reasoning behind Caché as well: You show people something and then you slowly take away their ability to trust in the reality of what they’re seeing.

MM: Your films have a habit of taking the bourgeoisie to task. What specific bone do you have to pick with the middle class? Complacency? Blithe ignorance to cause and effect?

MH: It’s the class I’m most familiar with, so I tend to stick to stories about them. It’s more reporting than anything else. I mean, the killers in Funny Games belong to the same class as the family they’re terrorizing… and people have tried to find psychological reasons for why they’re doing these things. “Oh, their mother didn’t love them enough when they were infants, right? That’s the reason they torture them!”

MM: You even have one of the characters say just that…

MH: Right, and it’s obvious that he’s just playing with their heads! It’s utter nonsense. For me, sociological reasons aren’t necessary; in fact, they become very reductive. They tend to put the world on a very simple denominator. Reality is much more complicated.

MM: So can we expect you to just start remaking your entire oeuvre, film by film, now?

MH: It’s odd you say that, because right after I signed on to do this, somebody approached me to remake Caché for Hollywood. And I said, ‘Thanks, but I’m not interested.’ I’m not even sure I could rewrite Caché to make it fit for an American setting, to be frank. It would be tough. [Ron Howard is tentatively attached to remake the film in 2009.] Funny Games was a special case.

MM: But you’re okay with another director remaking it?

MH: You mean, am I okay cashing Holly-wood’s checks for not doing any work and not being responsible for the outcome? That’s the real question here. (laughs) Believe me, I’m fine with that.

MM: Given that you’ve remade this film 10 years later, are you worried that you’ll be asked the exact same questions about this version that you were in 1997?

MH: Like a question-for-question remake of an old interview? (laughs) Why not? You can just go back and transcribe the old interviews. See? I’ve just saved you a lot of hard work!

Michael Haneke’s Funny Games U.S. will be released by Warner Independent Pictures on March 14, 2008.

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