Michael Haneke, Funny Games U.S.
Michael Haneke is a director who makes films strictly on his terms, and — as his new movie demonstrates — writes his own rules if he doesn’t like the existing ones. The son of an actor-director father and an actress mother, Haneke was born in Munich, Germany, and grew up just outside the Austrian capital, Vienna. He attended the University of Vienna, where he studied philosophy, psychology and theater. Over the course of the 70s and 80s, Haneke plied his trade as a writer-director on television and stage productions before making his feature debut in 1989 with The Seventh Continent. He made waves internationally with Benny’s Video (1992), in which his preoccupations with the dynamics of screen violence and the horrors of everyday life were very much at the fore. Haneke attracted further attention with Funny Games (1997), again focusing on the theme of movie violence, and has since held an elevated position in the ranks of the European auteurs. In his subsequent works – Code Unknown (2000), The Piano Teacher (2001), The Time of the Wolf (2003) and Caché (2005) – he has shown a willingness to utilize big name European actors like Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert and Daniel Auteuil to attract audiences to his challenging and uncompromising visions of the darker aspects of human experience.
Haneke claims he had always wanted Funny Games to be seen widely by a U.S. audience as the film was commenting predominantly on violence in American cinema. So when he was offered the chance to direct an English language remake, he gladly accepted — on the condition that Naomi Watts played the lead. The resulting film, Funny Games U.S,, is a shot-for-shot remake of his 1997 success, and replicates the Austrian original’s close scrutiny of viewers’ complicity in the film’s brutality. The plot concerns a (now American) family – a yuppie couple (Watts and Tim Roth) and their young son (Devon Gearhart) – whose vacation at their country house is interrupted by two white-clad young men (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbett), who are supposedly friends of their neighbors. As the two men psychically and psychologically torture the family, Funny Games U.S. (like all smart “horror” movies) harnesses its considerable power by not showing the most violent or shocking moments and allowing the dreadful acts to exist within the minds of its audience.
Filmmaker spoke to Haneke about resurrecting his prescient 1997 movie, cinema as truth or lies, and bawling in terror at Olivier’s Hamlet.
Filmmaker: I suppose the logical first question is…
Haneke: Why? [laughs] Why a remake?
Haneke: Because when I did the first Funny Games it was intended to be for a public of violence consumers in the English-speaking world, [but] because [it was in] the German language the film stayed always in the arthouses and so didn’t reach the public that it would need to have. I had this proposition from Chris Coen to [remake] it with an English-speaking cast, and for this reason I said “O.K.” Maybe now the film will come to the right public.
Filmmaker: And how daunting was it for you to work in English?
Haneke: Difficult, of course. [laughs] My English is terrible so it’s less the problem to explain what I mean (because I can explain in a not very elegant way), but to understand other people. And especially [during] shooting when there’s a lot of conversation around you. If I shoot in German, I understand all things around[me], but this was very difficult because I understood nothing. [laughs] Also here because of the unions it’s always very heavy. For example, when I shot the first film in Austria, our shoot was six weeks and it was easy in six weeks; here, I had eight and a half weeks and it was very difficult to finish. So it was not too funny Funny Games! [laughs]
Filmmaker: Did you work with a translator when you were shooting?
Haneke: Yes, but it’s another thing to have a translator in a conversation like now — you speak, I speak, so it’s easy — but shooting you have ten people, [and] everybody needs something. We had another translator but they were all a little overwhelmed by the situation, so this was a difficult part. But I am a little used to working in a language that is not mine because the last ten years I’ve always been shooting in French. My French is better than my English but I’m not bilingual. The most difficult thing was that there were, in my opinion, too many people. The first time I came into the canteen, there were 200 people [and I thought] “Who are all these people?”
Filmmaker: When you work in France, do you always write your scripts in German and then have them translated?
Haneke: I write all my scripts in German and then I give it to a translator and then I work with the translator on the translation and finally I am satisfied. Here also in this case, there was a translation and then another translator was editing it and then I was [working] together with a writer-director (what is his name…?) and together we changed some things from the European way of life to here. For example, a little detail we had in the original: when the phone is working again, he says, “Call somebody!” “Who?” “The police.” “I don’t know the number…” This is possible in Austria because I don’t know the number for the police in Austria either, but in America everybody knows 911. So we changed things like this.
Filmmaker: How many details were there like that which changed?
Haneke: Not so many. There was a play on words, the prayer, things like this. But, in general, it’s the same.
Filmmaker: How important was it for you to keep the remake very close to the original?
Haneke: It was a decision because I had the impression that the film is today more up-to-date than 10 years ago so I had no need to change something. If I do a remake with the same script, why do it in a different way? It was also a little bit of a gamble with myself [to see] if I was able to do the same film under different circumstances. It was pretty difficult. [laughs]
Filmmaker: The film looks incredibly similar, and I heard that you exactly recreated the house from the first film.
Haneke: The house was rebuilt but the first house was in the studio so this was easy. But to find exteriors that allowed [me] to have the same framing, this was really difficult. [laughs]
Filmmaker: In the period between the first and second films, the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres took place, in addition to many similar tragedies. Did they change your perception of the ideas in the 1997 version at all?
Haneke: These developments seem to have confirmed what the film is attacking. This is why I said the film is more up-to-date today than it was 10 years ago.
Filmmaker: What initial signs of these kinds of incidents did you identify back when you were writing the first film? What do you see as the source of the problem?
Haneke: That’s a difficult question because it’s a very complex thing. There is not one source but the whole of society is at the [core of the problem]. For me, the most irritating point today in comparison with 10 years ago [is that], even for the intellectual people, in this kind of post-modern view of life it became chic to make violence as an entertainment, even for the filmmakers and the critics, and this I find is a little bit disgusting. [laughs]
Filmmaker: So do you watch Tarantino movies and the like?
Haneke: Of course. If you are in the business you need to see at least the most exposed examples. [laughs] But I don’t go very often to the cinema. I prefer to see the films I like [laughs] when I have time, so I’m not somebody who’s going to see the newest films.
Filmmaker: You were talking before about how this film is about violence in American cinema and how you wanted it to reach an English-speaking audience. So what do you hope the impact will be? And what change do you hope might come about?
Haneke: A film can do nothing, but in the best case it can provoke so that some viewer makes his own thoughts about his own part in this international game of consuming violence, because it’s a big business. [laughs] So maybe one or other [person will ask], “What am I doing when I’m working for this? Why am I working for this?” That’s the top from the possibilities. [laughs] And I’m not a social worker. [laughs]
Filmmaker: So in an ideal world…
Haneke: I don’t believe in an ideal world. [laughs]
Filmmaker: I’ll rephrase that then. Would it be preferable for you to see a Hollywood cinema that is much more responsible in regards to violence?
Haneke: Of course. Cinema could be an artform, can be an artform… it’s very rare. If it is art, it is automatically responsible. A film has to be a dialogue, not a monologue — a dialogue to provoke in the viewer his own thoughts, his own feelings. And if a film is a dialogue, then it’s a good film; if it’s not a dialogue, it’s a bad film. It’s very easy.
Filmmaker: This film is very much a dialogue, and it’s involvement of the viewer is at its most intense with the final shot, where Michael Pitt stares straight into the camera. How would you characterize that final image?
Haneke: I don’t like to interpret myself. [laughs]
Filmmaker: I think you said, in reference to Caché, that every viewer sees a different film. How concerned are you that someone will see a very different meaning in your film to the one you intended?
Haneke: You can do your best to avoid misunderstanding but there is no guarantee to not have a misunderstanding. If somebody is a complete lunatic, they will find this a good example to go and kill other people. What shall I do? The question is, in this case, what is the alternative? To not speak about this thing, or to try to speak in a responsible way? I try to do [that], but there is no security that somebody can’t misunderstand you, of course.
Filmmaker: You were famously quoted as saying that cinema was “twenty-four lies per second.”
Haneke: This was a joke because it’s famous phrase from Godard [“Cinema is truth 24 frames-per-second”], and I said it’s a lie 24 times a second to serve the truth. What I will say is that film is always a manipulation.
Filmmaker: I mentioned that quote because there’s a line in the film which says that an act of violence is real if we see it, whether it is fake or real.
Haneke: This is a very ironic dialogue, [laughs] but in a certain way it’s true. Because the violence is in you, in your mind, so it is real.
Filmmaker: You picked your top 10 movies for Sight and Sound magazine in 2002.
Haneke: I forgot which ones they are. I know three or four, but I forgot the rest. It’s a very stupid idea to have 10. Why not 20?
Filmmaker: One of the things I noticed about the films you chose was that none of them were made beyond the 1970s. So what is your opinion of contemporary cinema?
Haneke: There are filmmakers that I like a lot. For me, Abbas Kiarostami is my favorite — he is the best. Also Bruno Dumont. That’s two persons that I like a lot but… It’s difficult to say, there are a lot of good filmmakers that I like. David Lynch. But they are all in opposition to the mainstream, of course. That’s the difference: at the time, in the 60s, film artists had a public, Godard or Antonioni, all these people had big successes in their time, but since then the coming up of television, it’s changed. Now cinema is always in comparison with the television, so it devolves, it goes down.
Filmmaker: You talk about working against the mainstream, but it seems like this film is an intermediate between an independent film and a studio picture.
Haneke: Yeah, it’s a Trojan horse. [laughs]
Filmmaker: So if this is a Trojan horse, what happens when the soldiers come out?
Haneke: I don’t know, maybe the people that come out of the horse, they are the viewer and they have understood something. [laughs] Maybe, maybe, because I have not to give a lesson. I try to provoke a little bit, to reflect where I am looking at cinema. That’s all. I have no lesson to give, because I wouldn’t know what the lesson is. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Your next movie, The White Band, is an Austrian film, but do you plan to return to work in America again?
Haneke: It depends. If I can do what I want to do, why not? I have nothing against America. I have a lot against a certain kind of cinema, but if I can have my way… On this film, of course, people tried to convince me to change things and I said, “No, no, it’s clear: I have my contract, I have final cut and all artistic decisions are mine so you can stop continuing to ask me if I will do it like this.” If I can do it like I like to work, then I can work in Austria, in France, in America, in India…
Filmmaker: So maybe a Bollywood musical next?
Haneke: [laughs loudly]
Filmmaker: What’s the strangest thing you’ve experienced during your time in the film industry?
Haneke: I think it was my first experience with cinema when I was a little child. My grandmother went to the cinema with me and it was Hamlet with Laurence Olivier. The film starts with the big castle and the waves and it’s very dark. I was so scared, I started to cry and my grandmother had to go out [of the theater] with me. This is my first impression of cinema, so it was strange. [laughs] The second moment that I remember of cinema, I was six years old. I was in Denmark, because after the war in Austria it was difficult so there was a program to bring little children to the Scandinavian countries to give them milk. I was very unhappy there because I was not at home, and the people there also brought me into the cinema. We saw a film [set] in Africa with animals and it was fantastic. At the end, the curtain closed and the doors opened to the rainy city of Copenhagen and I couldn’t understand why I was so quickly back in Copenhagen, because I was in Africa. It was important for me because today for children who have grown up with television, there was never this knowledge of how strong the impression is for children’s brains. I think it was a good experience, a very strong experience.
Filmmaker: What matters more to you, that a film is successful, or that you’re happy with the finished product?
Haneke: Of course, the second.
Filmmaker: Finally, if you could hand out an Oscar to someone who’s never won, who would you give it to?
Haneke: The Oscar? Is the Oscar the most desirable prize in the world? I know a lot of great filmmakers that never got an Oscar. The greatest filmmakers, for me, are Bresson and Tarkovsky, but it would be very strange if Bresson got an Oscar. [laughs]