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March 31, 2008.
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 display a
beguiling nature aligned with a sociopathic unpredictability that leads them
to perform far more torturous scenes, showing much more pain and horror
(without audiences 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 Haneke 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.
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.
Did you see the original film before you worked on this version?
Michael Pitt: I saw it once.
Brady Corbet: I've seen it a few times.
How did you guys read your characters and prepare for them?
Brady Corbet: 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
Was that harder for you?
Brady Corbet: 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.
Michael Pitt: 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.
Did either of you see one of your characters as being the leader, maybe
Brady Corbet: 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.
How would compare Haneke's direction with other directors? What element
stood out for you?
Michael Pitt: 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.
Michael, how did he choose you for this role?
Michael Pitt: 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.
Did you rehearse before shooting?
Michael Pitt: I rehearse all the time when I get a role.
Brady, how did you get the role of Peter and meet Haneke?
Brady Corbet: 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.
Michael Pitt: They were right.
Brady Corbet: 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
How was it working with both Tim Roth and Naomi Watts?
Michael Pitt: 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.
Brady Corbet: 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.
Michael Pitt: 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.
Brady Corbet: 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.
Michael Pitt: 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.
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?
Michael Pitt: 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 [if] it
was filmed differently, it would be a different film.
Brady Corbet: It's a great cinematic experiment.
Michael Pitt: 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
Brady Corbet: It's good because we did a good job. We all worked very
hard on it.
Michael Pitt: 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.
Brady Corbet: 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.
Michael Pitt: I also think it's good that Michael did it and it's not
some American director doing it some other way.
Why do you think he decided to remake it?
Michael Pitt: 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.
Brady Corbet: The original film has an English title.
Michael Pitt: 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.
Brady Corbet: 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
Michael Pitt: I hope he gets some kind of gain from this. He deserves
Brady Corbet: 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.
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?
Brady Corbet: Yes, but what about all the people that will get it?
Michael Pitt: I am a little worried that people will think [the
violence] is cool.
Brady Corbet: 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.
Michael Pitt: 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.
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?
Brady Corbet: That's just how ahead of his time that he is. He
foresaw all that.
Michael Pitt: 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.
Brady Corbet: 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.
How long was the shoot?
Brady Corbet: Eight weeks.
Michael, did you find it hard to make that break into the fourth wall, to
look right at the camera?
Michael Pitt: 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.
How do you react to the rewind sequence?
Brady Corbet: 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.
Do you find acting to be a little psychotic, like delusional in a
multiple personality way?
Michael Pitt: [Both laugh.] 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.
How easy was it to turn off these characters at the end of the day?
Michael Pitt: 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.
Brady Corbet: 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.
Did you guys have nightmares while shooting?
Michael Pitt: 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.
What did you feel about filming at the Hamptons?
Corbet: Do I think that the film is a statement against the upper class?
Brady Corbet: 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.
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