Michael Haneke’s films have been honored multiple times at the Cannes Film Festival over the past decade and this year is no exception. The Austrian filmmaker, who won the Grand Jury Prize for The Piano Teacher in 2001, Best Director for Caché in 2005, and the Palme d’Or for The White Ribbon in 2009, took the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, in 2012 for his latest movie, Amour. The French-language film, which stars Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva and Isabelle Huppert, is a poignant story about a married couple in their eighties whose bond of love is severely tested. Amour is Austria’s official selection for the 85th Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
At the film’s press day, Haneke talked about what inspired him to make Amour, how he enjoyed shooting entirely in a studio on a single location, what led him to cast Trintignant, Riva and Huppert, why he never rehearses with professional actors, which scenes were the most physically and emotionally demanding, why he chose to shoot the film in French, the difficulties he encountered using complicated new digital cameras, and why the unexpected gifts that actors bestow upon a director give him the greatest satisfaction as an artist. Hit the jump to read the interview.
Warning: Spoilers are discussed
Michael Haneke: Like so many of us, in my personal life, I was confronted with a situation in my family where someone I loved very deeply was ill, and I had to look on helplessly at their suffering. It was a very moving experience. It’s one of the worst experiences you can go through. That was the catalyst then for me to make the film. But, to avoid any possible misunderstanding, I’d like to point out that my personal story has nothing to do with what’s actually presented on screen.
Did you have any concerns about shooting a film entirely in one general location?
Haneke: Not when I was on set, but when I began to write it, yes. I recognized the challenge. It’s much harder to write a script that involves two people in a single location than 20 people in 30 different locations. But I also saw it as a challenge, and it was enjoyable then to try and meet that challenge. In fact, it’s more enjoyable to shoot in a studio on a single location with two actors…if they are good. (Laughs)
This is the first film that Jean-Louis Trintignant has done since his daughter was murdered. Can you talk about casting him and how you convinced him to accept the role?
Haneke: You’re right. In fact, he hadn’t worked in the movies for 14 years prior to working on my film. I wrote the script for him. My producer was aware of that and knew Jean-Louis Trintignant quite well. She lives close to him and has a place there close to his in southern France. She told him about the project and that I was working on it. When we were preparing the French dubbed version of White Ribbon, then I needed someone as a narrator and I asked him to read the part. He read it and liked it and was so enthusiastic about the film that it was relatively easy to convince him to come on board for this project. In fact, he was going through a difficult situation personally. He was unwell and wanted to commit suicide. My producer told him, “Well, make the film first, and then you can commit suicide.”
Haneke: Of course, I had seen Emmanuelle Riva in Hiroshima Mon Amour and was smitten by her at the time, but that was 50 years ago. To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t really been able to follow her career after that because she hadn’t played in that many important movies. So, I did a normal casting for her part. I met with all the actresses in the right age group in Paris, but it was very clear to me after the first audition that she was by far the best actress for the part. I also wrote the role of the daughter for Isabelle because she is a friend, and I know that I can ask her for a favor and she’ll usually accept.
The performances were very powerful. What rehearsal process did you use, if any? How much time did the two leads spend together prior to shooting?
Haneke: They spent next to no time together prior to shooting. The three of us met two or three times in Paris over lunch to talk about the project, and Jean-Louis came over to my apartment in Paris one afternoon to discuss the script. In fact, we talked about everything except the script. They’re both very experienced and highly professional actors, and therefore, I assume that they know how to read a script and know how to prepare their part. I don’t rehearse ever with professional actors. When I’m working with children and non-professional actors, I do. But, when you’re working with actors, especially good actors, then I simply ask them to show up on set. They’ve read the script. We go through it and block out the movements. We start shooting and I look at the results. If I’m not satisfied with it, then we try something else and we keep shooting until we’ve got what I need. But, I don’t rehearse. I don’t have any special recipe or special secret to this. I think that what’s important as a director is to give your actors the feeling that they’re protected, the feeling of confidence, the feeling that if they make mistakes, then as a director, you’ll know how to help them. If you’re able to convey that, then the actors will give you wonderful performances. As well as the author, you have to write scenes that give the actors the opportunity to show what they’re capable of.
Haneke: There is no adlibbing and no improvisation at all. We’re publishing the original script at the moment in Germany and France so that people can actually compare and see that what’s on screen is exactly what I had written.
Will the original script also be published in English?
Haneke: If an English language publisher wants to bring it out, then I’m all in favor. In fact, the German edition will be illustrated and is going to include the storyboard that I drew for preparation as well.
Were there any scenes that were particularly emotionally challenging or difficult for your actors and how did you handle those?
Haneke: There were any number of scenes that were difficult because of the emotional content, but that wasn’t the only difficulty. In fact, many scenes required inordinate concentration. There were other technical and physical difficulties. As you see on screen, Jean-Louis was quite unsteady on his feet. So, from a physical point of view, some of the scenes were hard for them to play. I’m thinking, for example, of the scene with the pigeons. We shot those two scenes over two days until I got what I had written. It was very difficult for him because he has to react to the pigeon. It’s hard as a director to direct a pigeon. You can’t tell it what to do. We laid out seeds on the ground in the hopes that it would go in a specific direction, but that was physically a strain on him. It’s a question however of concentration and [creating an] atmosphere that lends itself to concentration on set and that gives the actors the feeling that they can take risks. The hardest scene in the film for Emmanuelle was the scene with the electric wheelchair. She was scared to death of being able to control it and that she wouldn’t manage to. That was the only scene that we actually rehearsed. For days, prior to shooting that scene, after we’d finished the day’s shooting, she’d practice sitting in the electric wheelchair and operating it.
What is it about directing in French that you find appealing as opposed to directing in German?
Haneke: There were several reasons for shooting the film in French. First of all, France numbers any quantity of very great actors, but in terms of the actual work with them, it’s no different than when I’m working with Austrian or German actors. Some of the actors in France, at least, are famous around the world, which isn’t the case for very many actors in Germany or Austria. And finally, in France, there’s more money available for challenging projects than in either Germany or Austria.
Haneke: When making a film, I’m never concerned about whether the theme is new or whether it’s been done before in cinema or not. I’m led to make films if there’s a theme that interests me or I experience something in my own life that confronts me with something that I want to deal with. I never think about whether there are ten other films that have dealt with a similar subject or not. It’s the theme that interests me and motivates my desire to explore it.
Were there any scenes that you shot that didn’t make it into the final cut?
Haneke: No. We shot one to one on the basis of the script.
Your films are often criticized as being too analytical, but this film seemed to be a lot more emotional and open. Did you approach it in a different way from your other films?
Haneke: No. In all the cases, it’s the same director behind the camera. The same mind that’s writing the scripts. There’s no difference, except the fact that the themes are different. It’s easier to be warm and tender when you’re making a film about love than when you’re dealing with the representation of violence in the media.
The scene where the husband slaps his wife and then you cut to a series of paintings, do the shots of those paintings mean anything specific or is it simply open to the audience’s interpretation?
Haneke: It’s open to interpretation. All the things you mentioned — not just the paintings but also the pigeons, for example, and any number of other elements — are open to interpretation. In fact, that’s why they’re in the film to confront the audience, to invite the audience to think about these questions. For that reason, it would be counterproductive if I were to impose a specific, rigid, single meaning on those elements. If I tell the audience what they should think, then I am robbing them of their own imagination and their own capacity of deciding what’s important to them. That scene was one of the emotional climaxes of the film, and that’s why it’s followed by the shots of the paintings, because it would have been impossible to follow simply with a continuation of the story.
Haneke: It’s not very usual to kill somebody.
It seemed to border on enthusiasm on his part or almost a sense of relief that he would be able to do this.
Haneke: That’s your interpretation. He’s trying to comfort her. This is a personal story. It’s something that I experienced.
How were you able to film that so that Emmanuelle Riva could still breathe?
Haneke: They were both terrified of the scene before because it was so demanding. First of all, the act itself is preceded by a long period of dialogue that goes on for eight or ten minutes, and then, it’s followed without a cut into the scene of the suffocation. That was very difficult for Jean-Louis to play because he had broken his hand during shooting. He didn’t break it on set. In fact, he had asked for a physiotherapist so he’d be strong enough to make the film and it was while working with his physiotherapist that he broke his hand. But, for that reason then, it was very difficult for him to move his hand and hold the pillow in place. So, that was one physical difficulty. Of course, it was terrifying for Emmanuelle. She was afraid of really being suffocated herself and was worried about the scene. We tried every possible movement. We tried making special pillows that would help her. Finally, we came up with a mattress that could be lowered that allowed her to move her head aside and that’s what we used. But, with my assistant, I tried out all of those variations, both as the victim and as the murderer.
What did you learn personally from making this film?
Haneke: It’s so hard to say what specifically I learned with this film. You learn on every film. Usually, learning is a painful process because it comes from making mistakes. In this case, the most painful thing was not something that I learned, but the greatest pain was involved in the fact that we chose to shoot with very complicated, very new digital cameras that caused all sorts of problems, that took me a long time to correct in post-production. I didn’t learn anything from that except that now I know what to expect on the next project.
Haneke: In terms of cinema and filmmaking, there are certainly the unexpected gifts that the actors bestow on you. Film is always a question of compromises with respect to what you originally intended. My father, who was a stage director, told me that you should be happy if you obtain 40% of what you’ve set out to do. When he told me that, I said, “Well, I’m not interested in becoming a director.” I think that limit of 40% is a bit of an exaggeration, but if you get 70% of what you were looking for, then you can be happy. Usually, when making a film, the surprises are negative surprises. You don’t get what you wanted or what you hoped for. The only nice surprises are those that are offered to you by actors when they offer you these gifts, as I mentioned before, when they are better and give you more than what you had originally conceived. That doesn’t happen every day on set, but if it happens a couple of times in the course of making a film, you can consider yourself very lucky. In this film, however, I was given a great many gifts.
What films interest you the most as a moviegoer? What do you like to watch?
Haneke: I’m interested in seeing films that confront me with new things, with films that make me question myself, with films that help me to reflect on subjects that I hadn’t thought about before, films that help me progress and advance. Those are the kinds of films that interest me. For me, personally, I think watching a movie that simply confirms my feelings is a waste of time. That applies not only to movies, but also to books and every form of art.
Are there any films in recent years that have touched you deeply?
Haneke: That’s a very dangerous question, because if I cite one film, then ten other filmmakers will be angry.
Do you have a script in mind that deals specifically with Austrian themes and would you like to work in Austria?
Haneke: I don’t have any product at the moment that’s waiting for me. I have to see what occurs to me, but none of my films deal with themes that are specific to any country. I can’t see myself making a film about a specifically Austrian subject. All of my films could take place anywhere, be set anywhere in the West, in the industrialized nations, with the exception of perhaps White Ribbon which is based on a specific historical context.
Did working on Amour lead you to reflect on your own mortality?
Haneke: I think every day of my own mortality. (Laughs) I don’t need the film to remind me.
Amour opens in limited release in LA and NY on December 19th.