Michael Haneke’s “Amour” has been nominated for five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actress, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Screenplay (which you can read here). And the film continues to score foreign film wins (NY and LA Film Critics, NBR, Critics Choice, Golden Globes and BAFTA, which also gave Emmanuelle Riva best actress, along with the LA and National Film Critics and the European Film Awards) after a stellar year that began with the film winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes last May.
Haneke’s last film, “White Ribbon,” was nominated for the foreign film Oscar as well as cinematography. “Amour”‘s success with the Academy is somewhat surprising, given its elegantly wrought but potentially uncomfortable end-of-life subject. But the film has built solid voter support (“it’s my life,” one elderly director told me) and Haneke, up for three awards, and Riva are both serious contenders.
Sony Pictures Classics, which always releases more than a few foreign films in Oscar contention, had the challenge this year of having two rival French actresses in the Oscar race, Marion Cotillard of “Rust and Bone” and Riva, whose costar Jean-Louis Trintignant was also deserving. Neither he nor Cotillard were nominated. But 85-year-old Riva, who starred in “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” a movie that many Academy seniors remember, reached into Academy members’ hearts to make history as the oldest Best Actress nominee ever (“Cocoon”‘s Jessica Tandy was 80). And February 24, Oscar night, is her 86th birthday. Sony has masterfully maximized the actress’s limited availability so that her press is hitting right in the center of the voting period.
I sat down with able translator Robert Gray and the tall, intimidating director, whose native German and second language French are better than his English. One thing that struck me, aside from the force of his intellect, is his competitive drive. This is not unusual among film directors.
Anne Thompson: Your leading man Jean-Louis Trintignant had not starred in a movie in 14 years. How did you lure him back to the cinema?
Michael Haneke: I didn’t have to convince him to take the part. My producer knows him quite well and she told him I was writing a script for him. He’d seen “The White Ribbon.” He doesn’t go to the movies anymore. I showed it to him and for the French version of the film, I needed an actor to play the narrator and he did that for the film and he was so enthusiastic about the film that he said ‘yes’ when I asked him to work in “Amour.” As he’s said in several interviews, before doing the film he’d broken either his leg or his ribs but he was in the hospital and driving home from the hospital, he thought whether he should crash into a tree and end it all. And my producer told him: ‘Make the film first. You can commit suicide after that.’ And now he says he doesn’t want to commit suicide anymore.
AT: I should think not. I was moved by the film and by the reception to the film and the actors at the Cannes closing ceremony. They should have won. Cannes prohibits that?
MH: You know they can’t. The rules of Cannes were changed because of me, because of “The Piano Teacher.” There was a great division in the jury, some members of the jury wanted the film to be awarded the Palme D’Or – or at least if we don’t give him the Palme D’Or, we’ll give him all the other prizes. We’ll give him the Grand Prix De Jury, the Jury Award and the two acting prizes. As a result of that the rules of the festival were changed so there couldn’t be that concentration of awards.
AT: We have a phrase, hoist by your own petard. I don’t know if that translates.
MH: I think was a little bit apprehensive [this year], but the production companies were apprehensive because Nanni Moretti was the president of the Jury at Cannes. On a previous occasion he said that he would never give a Haneke film a prize. He didn’t say that about all my films. What Moretti said was that he was in the Jury when “Funny Games” was shown in Cannes and he said at the time if “Funny Games” gets a prize, he’s going to leave the jury. So we were apprehensive, but in fact, in an interview after Cannes this year, Moretti said that if it had been up to him, he would have given “Amour” not only the Palme D’Or but the prize for best actor, best director, best script and best both acting prizes.
AT: At the press conference at Cannes, the actors suggested you were very demanding. Could you talk about getting these performances. Was Trintignant rusty, stubborn, persistent?
MH: The difficulties weren’t because he hadn’t shot for so long, hadn’t made a film in fourteen years but rather because of his own physical difficulties. Difficult because I insist in getting what I want when I shoot a scene, and sometimes you get what you want very easily and quickly, other times it’s not so easy. The scenes with the pigeon were particularly demanding and difficult physically and shooting those two scenes took a long time. We shot them over two or three days. That was difficult because it’s hard to direct a pigeon. And he had to respond and react to the pigeon and that’s very difficult given his physical condition, but he’s a very disciplined actor. He never once complained on set, but at the same time I knew from the very beginning that I had to allow more time when shooting with older actors. I needed a longer shooting period than shooting with young actors. You can’t demand from 80-year-olds that they shoot a string of ten-hour days. But I allowed the extra time for them, for that reason it wasn’t a problem.
AT: How many days did you shoot?
MH: Eight five-day weeks.
AT: So that’s longer than it would ordinarily be?
MH: If it had been a production involving two forty-year-old actors, we probably would have planned for a six week shoot.
AT: Your films have been known over the years as hard-hitting, audacious and physically, viscerally disturbing. This film goes in a very different direction as you head for a more elegant, simple and contained mise-en-scene. Your films have always been very beautiful, even if disturbing.
MH: I think it’s a question of the theme, I think, I hope that the other films were elegant as well.
AT: They were. But you have to keep this love story, this drama inside a given space. Why the contained apartment?
MH: Well first of all, there is a very banal reason for that choice. When you’re sick, when you’re old and sick, in fact your life is reduced to the four walls that you live in. It would have been possible however, to open the drama up, to show the social context to show the family, the hospital, as television family melodramas often do, but to me the story was about, what I wanted to concentrate on, was the emotional relationship between the two characters. To me the question was then finding an aesthetic form for the structure that was appropriate for such a challenging and such a serious subject, one that affects all of us. For that reason I went back to the three classical unities of place time and action from the classical drama.
AT: You wrote for Trintignant, but you auditioned many other actresses. Why was Emmanuelle Riva the right person?
MH: She was the best for the part. Of course, as a young man I had seen her in ‘Hiroshima, Mon Amour’ and been smitten with her but after that I lost her from view. We did auditions and I had the sense even before I met her, I had seen her picture and I could imagine her and Trintignant as a couple together. I thought they would make a good couple, but I hadn’t seen her perform. She auditioned for the part and immediately I knew that she was the one for it, because she was so good, but also because they fit together so well, they play to each other so well.
AT: This is a subject that has not been done a lot in films and I wondered if you were satisfied with the way that other films have treated death, and in fact, if there were other films that inspired you that you were impressed by that handled the subject of death.
MH: When I’m working on a theme, if I’m interested in a certain theme then on principle I avoid watching films about them because if the film is good it will hamper you, it will bridle you. But as a whole, I watch very few films. When I was younger, before I started working in the cinema, I was watching three films a day. But since starting to direct movies then in fact I see very few films.
AT: You have said that you don’t like the way many filmmakers coddle and direct and overemphasize their themes and you try not to do that. Even if you haven’t seen a lot, is there someone who has shared some sympathy with you about how to make films?
MH: Yes of course there are directors like that but I would never mention them because inevitably I will leave out a few and they will feel insulted
AT: I guess I want to know if you’ve seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’?
MH: Not yet.
AT: That one goes in your direction in terms of not telling people what to think. Very much so.
MH: It sounds like you are dismissing him.
AT: Not at all. It’s a subject of great debate that the filmmaker doesn’t tell the audience what to think. Therefore it inspires great numbers of conversations that otherwise wouldn’t have taken place.
MH: I certainly will see the film at some point. I’m a huge fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman and very curious to see that film.
AT: Where do you stand on the subject of shooting digitally vs. shooting on film?
MH: The fact is that within a few years no one will be shooting on 35 mm film anymore. That’s regrettable, but whether I regret that or not is irrelevant, because that’s simply how it is. The problem however is the rapid development of technology, the non-stop development of technology. Each year there is a new camera and the latest and greatest with new possibilities. That means that none of the technicians can really master what they have, they’re all constantly having to try out and test how to work with the newest cameras. And that comes to problems, so all of these technical developments and technical possibilities that have arisen with new technology really don’t impress me. I find working with 35mm far more enjoyable. When a problem comes up the technician blames the cameraman and the cameraman blames technician…35 mm was a mature technology, people could master it. That’s not the case anymore. People are constantly having to test things, having to learn how to work with the new tools.
AT: When have you worked in digital?
MH: We shot “Cache” on video, it was necessary to use video for the entire film. It wasn’t the case for “Amour,” we couldn’t show it in 35 mm, but my cinematographer was so enthusiastic about working with this new digital camera [the Arri Alexa] that I allowed myself to be convinced by him and I have to say I very much regret that decision, because that decision led me to having to spend a year in different studios working in post-production to make corrections.
AT: I had no idea, it doesn’t show. It’s beautiful.
MH: I’ve never had so much work shooting a film.
AT: Will you shoot in 35 for your next film?
MH: I hope so, it depends for the theme.
AT: Do you know what you’re doing next, do you have that planned?
MH: My next project is in opera.
AT: Is this Mozart’s ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ in Madrid?
MH: Madrid and Brussels.
AT: Thank you very much.
MH: Thank you.