With the amazingly good Funny Games (review here) just around the corner, Warner Brothers set up a roundtable discussion with Naomi Watts, and we’ve got your seat at the table!
Q: Michael Haneke said he wouldn’t remake this film without your involvement. One, what is your reaction to that, and two, would you have done this film without Michael Haneke?
NW: Definitely not; that’s the answer to the second question and the first I’ll elaborate on. It was put to me that he only wanted me. While that felt like a huge amount of pressure, it also was very flattering, sort of slightly seductive in a way. He’s someone who has work I’ve admired greatly, and he’s worked with fantastic actresses before: Juliet Binoche and Isabel Huppert. I’m a major fan of them. It made me think…an artist that I admire, respects my work, and he’s that passionate about it; it made me think it’s probably just a bold-faced tactic of his.
It was not an easy decision to make. I wouldn’t make this film with just anyone. It’s by no means a no-brainer. And yes, I have seen the original, though only after. The way this came about was originally a phone call through this woman called Joanna Ray, who’s a casting director, who was instrumental in casting me for Mulholland Drive. They had come to her saying they wanted to get ahold of me, and for her to cast the rest of the film. She called me, and the minute she said Michael Haneke, I was very excited. I feel blessed to have worked with some of the great directors. The minute his name was mentioned I got excited. Then I saw the movie. I was both excited and angered and I felt messed with.
Q: Were you repulsed?
NW: I was repulsed, and terrified. Apart from my obvious reactions about the movie itself, to do this film was terrifying, and that always interests me when I’m afraid of something.
Q: Why is that?
NW: Well, you know, it’s because it’s nice to be able to think you can combat your fears, I think.
Q: Did the challenge as an actress help you overcome your problems with the material?
NW: There were different sets of challenges. Working in this style that Michael likes to work is going to be challenging for any actor. The fact that this was a remake, was, well, it’s always hard to do a remake because you fear you’re going to be compared to the original actors. The fact that he was designing each shot the exact same way as the original meant that you had to do the same blocking and tread the same sets as those actors. Then you suddenly feel like, wow, how can I invent this character? How can I find this scene in my own organic way? It’s so mapped out; okay go to the sink, then go to the fridge, then go back to the sink, then go to – it became such a heady thing. That’s so not the way I like to work. I like to intuit it, and feel it, and surprise myself. It was a great challenge.
Q: Earlier today in an interview you said you don’t find a lot of scripts that really speak to you, and I’m wondering what about this story and the character you play really spoke to you…
NW: It screamed at me. I could say it wasn’t an easy decision to make. It is such beast of a film, and it’s so powerful in its effect that you fear that it’s not going to land well with everyone. Some people are just going to be repulsed, and not enjoy the ride because it’s so disturbing. I don’t think it’s supposed to be enjoyed, that ride, it’s supposed to be work for you. You’re supposed to participate and be part of the film, and walk away feeling richer for the experience, for knowing and understanding your place as an audience member better. So therefore the next violent film you see, you’re perhaps more conscious and mindful of those moments, where ordinarily you’d sit there and go “Yeah! Brains splattering everywhere!” It’s definitely makes you more conscious, and to me that’s a success because it’s provocative for discussion.
Q: What are your feelings about more conventional horror? Do you enjoy the blood-spattering kind?
NW: I’ve never been a fan of gore. Even though I’ve done some, or quite a few, thrillers and films of this genre, there has never really been much blood and guts in the films. They’re more psychological. I’m not here to say that just because I’ve tapped into his mindset and what he’s trying to say, I’m not trying to say now that shame on you for all those other films that are being made. I’m not on a soapbox here. I understand that every film has its value in its different way. What works for some people doesn’t work for others. I’m an actor, I enjoy playing fear, and if I’m in another thriller of that type then, well, again I’m not really ever interested in really gory stuff.
Q: Was this the most challenging film you’ve ever done?
NW: Yes. Yes.
Q: Why do you think this remake was made?
NW: Because Haneke made this film to speak to American audiences originally, and the fact that it didn’t reach here was a shame to him. He felt that we’re the biggest consumer of violence, and that may be not just because…it’s also about numbers. We’re a huge market for film here. When Hollywood called and said here’s a bunch of money, remake this film, it wasn’t like oh okay, I can change it and correct this bit and that bit, and make it glorified in ways that he didn’t in the original. His intention and message remained pure, and therefore it is a very similar film.
Q: Could you talk a bit about the atmosphere? The film was so tense, and you guys had to switch this on and off, and this must have been very challenging to have all this emotion…
NW: It was quite hard to turn off at the end of the day. In fact, it didn’t happen that often. Most of the time, when working on a film, people say, “Oh, was it scary to make? It’s scary to watch, but was it scary to make?” Usually the answer is no, because what becomes scary in a film is a succession of moments that build up to a scary payoff. You shoot out of sequence, everything is fragmented. That’s not the case in this film, the way we shot it. It’s very much in chronological order. Pretty much all takes place on the one set, and as you’ve seen in the film, Michael’s framing is not short. He doesn’t cut a lot. One shot is held for endless minutes. It was hard to be on this set which was at times a very tense place. Then you also go, okay, I just got to break this.
Q: Was it physically demanding?
NW: Yes, the way Michael likes to work. He’s from a very authentic point of view. The first time I was bound and gagged, he came up and went, “Yecht! This looks like shit! No way, I don’t believe that, let me do it,” and then bound me up. You saw the way I was bound, there’s a name for it and I forget. The rag was all around my neck and my feet, so if you fell or tried to walk you could be strangled! I’m laughing but it’s a nervous laughter…
Q: Was this before or after you were pregnant?
NW: It was before. But I have to say, I conceived during this. I think I was creatively fulfilled.
Q: Funny Games seems, in some way, to pass judgment on people who pay to see gratuitous gore; do you think there’s a chance that these people might be turned off by this film? Or at least question the perverse things in cinema?
NW: I do. I haven’t seen those films, but I know about them. I think, yeah, Michael is trying to invite that audience and say, “Come, come, come! I’m talking to you!” He tricks them. Funny Games, that’s the irony of it all. That audience is such a mass audience, and I suppose he does feel that they are culpable, and again trying to build awareness of what he feels violence is. By depicting it in a very authentic way, it becomes very grotesque and brutal, even though he never actually gives it to you. He does in that one isolated moment and then he says, no, you can’t have it, though I know you want it. So, yeah, those people may feel very angry, but I think that’s the point of the film.
Q: Does being a parent now change your perspective on how the movie evolved, particularly the scenes where the young boy was terrorized?
NW: Yeah, I had a very adverse feeling at the time before I was a parent. Being a mom changes you in every possible way. I certainly don’t want my son to see this film for a very long time. After he’s an adult he’s going to make his own decisions about what he sees, and hopefully he’ll understand my reasoning behind it.
Q: Will you continue to produce, and if so, will you produce films that you also appear in?
NW: Oh, yeah, I would be interested in that. I do like putting people together, and finding good material. I don’t know, it’s a lot of work though, particularly when you start doing things on the side that you’re not appearing in. There was a time when I was approached by a studio and they said, do you want to do a deal with us, and it sounded all very exciting and seductive, but I was terrified by the workload. Particularly now that I’m a mom, I feel like everything’s too much. I can’t even get to read scripts.
Q: You do take an executive producer credit on this. What other duties did you have, if any?
NW: Well often when you’re invited to be involved as a producer, it’s one way to spice up the deal, and be involved in all the creative decisions. Michael and I talked about casting, some of the crew members. Once we were on the set, it became very clear, very quickly, that he was attached to every detail and knew exactly what he wanted. I just sort of said, this is your beast, and I trust you.
Q: Did you find a way to use your own method of acting? You said it was a little restrictive…did you figure out a way to bring Naomi’s way to it at all, or did you just go with his flow?
NW: I really just went with his flow. Even though I struggled with it at times, I liked that he had such a defined and clear vision of my character, the story, and everything. Like I said, when someone is so sure, you trust them. It’s actually a much more fun way to work than with a director that sort of says, “Okay let’s try this, okay, now let’s try it this, whatever.” Then you think, oh god, what’s going to happen in the editing room? We’ve tried it 75 different ways, how’s my character? He’s very deliberate and precise. Sometimes it was hard to get there.
Q: How was he compared to working with Lynch?
NW: Very different, very different. Lynch won’t tell you anything. He won’t tell you what’s going on, and he doesn’t give you that much direction. He encourages you to intuit it, whereas Haneke tells you everything. He’s very specific.
Q: If he tells you everything, is there any back story that you know that is not revealed in the film?
NW: We talked about the what-ifs a lot. Who this family was, and, yeah, you do create that stuff on your own and as a group.
Q: When you read the script and realized you were spending a lot of time in your underwear, was that intimidating and terrifying, or do you embrace it and figure it’s time to be a rock star?
NW: *Laughs* It was terrifying, but that was adding to it all. I don’t know if you’ve seen the original, but when she strips down and then she puts back her slip. To be honest when I saw the original that was one of the only false moments to me. It felt like the wonderful actress was being slightly modest, and I completely understand that. But I felt, and Michael said this to me, “How do you feel about this thing.” I could tell where he was going, do I feel right about doing it in my underwear versus in a slip. I said right away, let’s do it in my underwear. It feels less self-conscious. Oh, I just happened to have a slip on. I don’t know how many people wear slips these days. It was frightening, it’s such a large portion of the movie, but again it added to it. I felt so vulnerable in that place in the story, and the fact that I didn’t have any clothes on added to that vulnerability.
Q: Do you think it’s strange that she’s got, the way this is shot that this is basically now, in our current time, that she wore such a dowdy 50’s, 60’s, house dress?
He wanted it dowdy.
Q: But the family obviously are up-market because they own this posh vacation place that they obviously frequent often. They have a very expensive boat and very expensive golf clubs, so it’s kind of, it doesn’t work with that.
NW: The reasoning behind that is, again, Michael is someone who pretty much doesn’t believe anything. He wants the real thing. This lovely wardrobe designer went out to Bonnie’s, to every designer on Rodeo Drive, and 5th Avenue, and brought back a million dresses, and Michael didn’t believe any of them. What you and I would think would be right for a rich woman who lived in that part of America. He made me bring my own dresses. And because I don’t have 12 copies of that dress, I’m afraid to say that “dowdy” dress came from my wardrobe…
(From the back) We liked the dress!
NW: Laughs They found some fabric that was an older fabric, and they copied the dress 12 times.
NW: They both had such difficult parts. Michael Pitt particularly had to do endless amounts of dialogue. Haneke wanted to shoot long takes, and he doesn’t do a huge amount of angles, which means more of the long takes. More time. They had to be very much on their game. I was so impressed with both of them. They are very, very fine actors. Though they struggled with it, playing these awful, hideous, psychotic people, I think there was some fun in it too, weirdly. Michael Pitt, I know, he struggled; again I can tell he’s someone who works from a very organic place, and Haneke had a lot of instruction for him. You could feel very trapped and confined. So occasionally they had their moments. Clearly this material is so heavy, it makes you tense.
Q: How did you prepare for the role?
NW: The preparation is endless discussion and imagining the scenarios, the what-ifs, and how would you deal with this. I happen to know two people who have had situations not the same, but similar, where they have been held hostage in their homes. To know even two people is really scary. This sort of thing can take place.
Q: Do you think not showing the violence was more effective?
NW: Yeah, that’s the thing. It ends up being a much more powerful effect. You hear it, and then you see the aftermath, you don’t see the actual thing except for that one moment which he almost gives you. It becomes much more authentic. You’re not numbed by the violence. You don’t think it’s cool, you don’t think it’s hip, you don’t think it’s sexy, or funny. You see it. You feel it in its most brutal way. It’s Michael saying violence is hideous and inexcusable no matter what. We’re so used to sitting in films and excusing violence because it’s a bad guy, and it’s revenge, so you’re cheering it on.
Q: You mentioned you conceived during the filming of this film, was that a life affirming act after all this darkness?
NW: *Laughs* Yes! I didn’t find out until later…
Q: Will you talk briefly about your upcoming role in The Birds?
NW: It’s a work in progress at this point. I think it’s a wonderful film. There are great things in it that interest me. The script isn’t completely there yet; it probably won’t happen until next year.
Q: Are you talking to them about the formation of the script, are you involved that way?
NW: Not yet. I’m sure they’ll come to me with the next draft. I’ve seen one draft, it’s good, and there’s more to develop.
Q: Could you talk about behind-the-scenes, you said the director had tied you up and there might be bruises and you had cried a lot…
NW: Yeah, it’s draining, and like I said, you don’t turn off at the end of the night. You take that home with you. I’ve done quite a few films that required physical and emotional commitment and I’m kind of used to that, but this was probably the most challenging because it was impossible to turn off, because of Michael’s process, the way he likes to do it.
Q: Could you actually specify how you feel at home, how does that affect you, and does it help being in a relationship with another actor?
NW: Yeah, it does actually. You can talk about it, and they understand it. He came to the set a few times, and I think he liked the way Michael worked too. I don’t think every actor could deal with it, but he’s an actor who likes to take risks and there isn’t, in my mind, anyone that wouldn’t respect Michael Haneke and his work. In fact, as I was wrestling with this decision-making, I called a couple of directors who I’ve worked with and bounced the idea off them, and unanimously they said you must work with him.
Q: Would you work with Michael again?
NW: Yes! Absolutely! I loved it. As much it was a struggle along the way, he makes you realize your potential, I think. He makes you realize also your inhibitions, and you’re willing to go there and you feel better for it.
Q: Regarding The Birds, are you, or have you, met with Tippi Hedren?
NW: I have met with her because she was in that film I did, I Heart Hucklebees. She had a little in it, and David Russell introduced us. I was pretty fascinated by her then, because people have often said we’re alike.
Q: She has some awesome stories about that experience…
NW: *Laughs* I know!
Q: Can you talk about bit more about what you had gone through, such as being tied up and all of the crying?
NW: Like I said, Michael really likes to go for authenticity all the time. A lot of the time, I wouldn’t even take it off between takes, because it would take too long to reset. The crying stuff, you just had to go there, Michael’s not one for cheating. Sometimes your eyes are almost popping out of your head because you’ve been crying for three hours, and other times there’s no crying anymore, and you look like this. Again, I think he’s just always going for that authenticity. You would often hear him off-camera in his little tent, and he would laugh! But again, it was a nervous laughter. It’s all too creepy and too freaky, and it brings up an awkward emotion.
Q: Thank you!
Funny Games opens everywhere March 14th, 2008.
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