Feature interview by Brad Balfour
Ten years ago, German director Michael Haneke created a harrowing, near-psychotic film, "Funny Games," about two young men, Paul and Peter, who force a couple and their son in their vacation cabin to play sadistic "games" with fatal results. A critique of our society's fascination with violence as well as a dire warning about how thin is civilization's veneer for victims and tormentors alike, Haneke's film stirred both admiration and revulsion for unseen violence and depravity. Given Haneke's cultural origins, his psycho-crime film had a resonance that extended its impact well beyond its decade-old release.
In Haneke's current shot-for-shot, English-language remake of "Funny Games," actors Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet are two individuals who express a beguiling quality aligned with a sociopathic unpredictability that leads them to perform far more torturous scenes, showing much more pain and horror (without actually seeing it) in comparison to the more overt blood and gore fare of such "torture porn" films as "Hostel" and "Saw."
Yet this film not only fits the genre of "sadistic men who torture a family in suburbia" but also deconstructs the genre, with such quirky moves as Pitt addressing the viewer directly, and reversing a sequence that might offer the audience the relief of revenge.
In their short careers, Pitt and Corbet have already established themselves as veteran actors who have worked with an impressive list of directors. The 26-year-old Pitt got his break in Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" and is known for his Kurt Cobain-like portrayal of a fatalistic rocker in Gus Van Sant's "Last Days." But he foreshadowed his sadistic role in "Funny Games" with his work in "Murder by Numbers." The 19-year-old Corbet, who starred in two dark films—"Thirteen" and Gregg Araki's "Mysterious Skin"—provides a perfect Peter to Pitt's Paul.
Q: Since this was a shot-for-shot remake of his own German-language original, how was it working with Haneke on this film?
MICHAEL PITT: He was difficult, but he's really smart so I didn't feel that it was unjustified. I knew going in that it was going to be like that, though. I did a work session with him, and I could tell that... Some directors are very free and some directors are very specific. It seemed like doing a play, [it was] that relationship with the director. With Michael, I would've been in hell if I didn't know that that was the way that he was going to work.
Q: Did you see the original film before you worked on this version?
MP: I saw it once.
BRADY CORBET: I've seen it a few times.
Q: How did you guys read your characters and prepare for them?
BC: They are characters without a past or a future. They have no backstory. They are a device. At least for me, they are nothing more than a device. I think it ultimately came down to not being "true" or organic; it was more about being successfully manipulative, charming, and charismatic.
Q: Was that harder for you?
BC: In a controlled environment like that, it was very, very easy to be charismatic, if you have the right dialogue and the right captain. It's much more difficult to be in Tim [Roth], Devon [Gearhart], and Naomi [Watts'] shoes. They were a wreck every day. Tim in particular had a pretty tough time. He has kids so he had a very rough time.
MP: I didn't come up with a back story and I never analyzed why Paul was doing what he was doing. I wasn't sure I was going to do it that way. Then I decided that based on what Michael Haneke was telling me, I shouldn't analyze what I was doing. In a weird way, it really freed me.
Q: Did either of you see one of your characters as being the leader, maybe Paul?
BC: Absolutely, it's like Laurel and Hardy. It's like Paul's in the motorcycle and Peter's in the sidecar in a way. I found it very interesting. I tried to convey in a subtle way a sense of knowing. I didn't want to be a genuine goofball or clumsy, but I wanted it to feel exact—like when I drop the cell phone in the sink, I know what I'm doing.
Q: How would compare Haneke's direction with other directors—what element stood out for you?
MP: Every director is different and they all have different styles. I've worked with directors who were very specific and their direction was very high—they gave a lot of direction. The one thing about Michael that I think is interesting is that he really has a reason for everything he's asking you. If you challenge it, he is open for discussion, but he has a clear idea of what he wants with reasons why. There are directors whose direction is high but can't back up what they are asking; then when you challenge it, they crumble.
Q: Michael, how did he chose you for this role?
MP: I wasn't looking for a project. I wasn't interested in working in film at that time. But a friend called me and he suggested I check it out. I made a phone call, and originally they said that they didn't want to do an audition because I didn't have dark hair, so I thought that was fine. Then time passed, and they had trouble finding someone. I had lunch with Michael, and then we did a work session, and then I got the part.
Q: Did you rehearse before shooting?
MP: I rehearse all the time when I get a role.
Q: Brady, how did you get the role of Peter and meet Haneke?
BC: I met Haneke for the first time at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood about six years ago. When I found out he was making a film in the States—this was before he was remaking his own film—and since I was a fan of his, I made a lot of phone calls and asked to be put in a room with that guy again. I would do anything for the film. They initially didn't want to see me because I was too young and I was too skinny.
MP: They were right.
BC: After that, I was taking bodybuilding supplements without exercising, where you don't retain water, you just bloat. I wore a little fat suit underneath the shirt. I had a face to match the little pad I had.
Q: How was it working with both Tim Roth and Naomi Watts?
MP: I was really impressed with Naomi. She was a producer on it and she was doing things that I wasn't really aware of. The way she was able to switch in handling problems, and then also shoot a really difficult scene I think is a real testament to her true ability. Tim helped me a lot. Sometimes when I had a problem and I couldn't figure it out, he would talk to me, because Tim is also a director.
BC: Tim is an incredibly smart man. He's got a little pit bull in him, this Eastern London thing. But his first film, "The War Zone," which I saw again recently, is amazing, it's a great film. He should direct more. I think Tim and Michael Haneke had problems, because Michael is intelligent but so is Tim, and he had very particular ideas.
MP: Tim was constantly very worried about making a film that would be perceived as just a violent film, and he was very concerned about people taking it the wrong way. So I think that a lot of the battles that were happening on set were as a result of that.
BC: He's a father and what was interesting about "The War Zone" is that as aggressive as it is, it's also very sentimental. I do think that he has this sensitivity in him as an actor and a father.
MP: Tim definitely had the hardest role. That is by far the most difficult role to play because [George is] not strong and he's not attractive. As an actor, for me that would be the most challenging role. In a way, even if you succeeded, very few people would realize.
Q: Since it's a shot-for-shot remake, it's like a play where you are seeing the same art form but with different performers. Do you think movies can work as plays?
MP: I think it can, but maybe I can't be as objective if I wasn't involved. It's interesting, because if you keep it shot-by-shot, then in a weird way you see what the actors bring that's different. Where[as if] it was filmed differently, it would be a different film.
BC: It's a great cinematic experiment.
MP: It's a tough movie in a sense [that] it's very difficult—when you watch it the first time, it's very rough to watch it again.
BC: It's good because we did a good job, we all worked very hard on it.
MP: I hope that this will broaden Michael Haneke's audience, because in America, if it's not in English, there's a very select few people who watch it.
BC: The themes are clearer not because it's a better film, but because it's the second time around. I think that the first movie is a movie about movies, and the new film is a remake of a movie about movies. So if the first film asked the question of why are you watching this, then the new film has to ask you why are you watching this again?
It's the only film of Haneke's that could be remade successfully. The original and the new film are on the nose in a way that his other films are not, because it's his way of conforming to a genre in a smart way.
MP: I also think it's good that Michael did it and it's not some American director doing it some other way.
Q: Why do you think he decided to remake it?
MP: I think he was approached and had this idea to make this film. What he's told me, and what I sensed when I watched the original—it seemed like it was making a comment on a very American topic. Then I found out that it was true and that's what he was intending. I think he's even gone as far to say that he wanted to shoot the original in English and in America, but he didn't have the money.
BC: The original film has an English title.
MP: He's getting to finish what he started. Also, I do think that he is thinking that possibly it could broaden his audience. If a young kid in America sees this film, and he likes this, I would be worried about this. But he would want to research the work of Michael Haneke, then hopefully he'll have the opportunity to see all of Michael's films.
BC: It's important to point out that there was no real financial gain in this for Michael. It's a bigger film, but it's a still an independent film.
MP: I hope he gets some kind of gain from this. He deserves it.
BC: What I mean is, he doesn't have anything to prove at this point. He wanted people to see this because he felt that it was an important issue. It wasn't that he wanted more people just to see him.
Q: Are you concerned that some people in this wide audience that Haneke is trying to reach might not get what the film is going for and might look at it on a base level?
BC: Yes, but what about all the people that will get it?
MP: I am a little worried that people will think [the violence] is cool.
BC: I don't think the film is that hip, though. There's a section in the middle of the film that shows the aftermath of this violence, this long, static shot, that's not Quentin Tarantino. Nobody's going to watch that over and over again. That's what is so smart about Haneke.
MP: He makes a decision every time not to make it cool. Even when the woman is taking her clothes off, he makes the decision not to show things. So hopefully that will come through to the audience.
Q: Since the original came out, there is a rise in the genre of "torture porn." Did you have a philosophical discussion with the cast about the changes in film since then and about this new genre?
BC: That's just how ahead of his time that he is. He foresaw all that.
MP: It would be great if this came out in 1997 in English. Out of all his movies, to me, it's making an obvious statement about that type of filmmaking.
BC: I don't think we discussed it very much. Making a movie is very practical. You find the art in it before and after making the movie, but during [making it] it's too practical.
Q: How long was the shoot?
BC: Eight weeks.
Q: Michael, did you find it hard to make that break into the fourth wall, to look right at the camera?
MP: I think I got better at it. I don't think the first time is as good as when we did it later in the film. I didn't know at first exactly how to do it. What I did later was, instead of making a decision to break the fourth wall, I just played it as though it's already been broken. At any point, I could just turn to it. It seemed to work better.
Q: How do you react to the rewind sequence?
BC: The whole movie is about manipulation. In that scene, he gives you what you want and then he takes it away. It's about building up a bloodlust in the audience. That scene is the only onscreen violence in the film, but he gives that to you and then he takes it back.
Q: Do you find acting to be a little psychotic, like delusional in a multiple personality way?
MP: It's a job. I think that it's important not to take it too seriously. It's all pretend. It's a strange job; it can be strange.
Q: How easy was it to turn off these characters at the end of the day?
MP: It wasn't a very long shoot and we did most of it at a studio in Brooklyn. For me it was great, I just got into the car and went to work. I needed to stay in the character. I told my girlfriend that "I'm not here" and I just stayed in this character for the month and half that we shot it. Once we finished, I just left it.
BC: I'm not a method actor. However, something interesting happened while I was making this movie. While I didn't gain enough weight, I did gain some weight by drinking those shakes, which made me sick. I felt very unattractive and small. When you have gone out of your way to make a physical change, if you spend ten or twelve hours of your day devoted to whatever it is that you're doing, you can't help but take a little of it home if you intend to. I didn't intend to, but I wish that I could've just taken a pair of glasses off and felt attractive again, but I couldn't.
Q: Did you guys have nightmares while shooting?
MP: No. For me, it's pretend. I try to stay away from taking it too seriously. I think it's very dangerous for an actor to take it too seriously, because I think it could really damage you if you do that.
Q: What did you feel about filming at the Hamptons?
BC: Do I think that the film is a statement against the upper class?
BC: Michael Haneke is upper class, and I think he has been most of his life. He goes to the opera every Friday in Vienna. Anyway, nowadays he is part of that class so he makes films about what he knows. If you look at any of his films, he has tremendous respect for all his characters, they are all smart. In "Cache," the poor Arab is just as intelligent as the rich white man. He's really very generous. It's amazing.