NAOMI WATTS on 'FUNNY GAMES' Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
March 12, 2008
In the thriller Funny Games, two disturbed young men (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) terrorize a couple (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts) and their son by holding the trio hostage in their own house and subjecting them to physical and psychological torment. Breaking the fourth wall as a means to make an interactive commentary on violence in cinema, the home invasion duo seem readily aware of their existence as antagonists in a horror movie, with Pitt's character making frequent comments to the viewing audience. This unusual project is a remake of a 1997 German film of the same title, both written and directed by filmmaker Michael Haneke.
In this interview, star Naomi Watts talks about her involvement with the movie, touching upon the physical and emotional demands, Haneke's specific directorial style, and the necessity of spending a whooooole lot of time shooting in her underwear.
MEDIA: Director Michael Haneke said he wouldn't remake this film without your involvement. What was your reaction to that, and would you have done this movie without him?
NAOMI: Definitely not... [laughs] It was put to me that he only wanted me, and while that felt like a huge amount of pressure, it also was very flattering and slightly seductive in a way, because he's someone [whose] work I admire greatly. And he's worked with fantastic actresses before--Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert...I'm major fans of them. So yeah, it made me think, "An artist that I admire respects my work, and he's that passionate about it..." It was probably just a bold-faced tactic of his. [laughs] But it was not an easy decision to make, and yeah, I wouldn't make this film with just anyone. It's by no means a no-brainer. The way this came about was originally a phone call through this woman called Johanna Ray, who's a casting director who was instrumental in casting me in Mulholland Drive. And they had come to her saying they wanted to get hold of me, and for her to cast the rest of the film...I feel blessed to have worked with some of these great directors. And the minute [Haneke's] name was mentioned, I got excited. Then I saw the movie, and I was both excited and angered, and I felt so messed with. [laughs]
Were you repulsed by the film's extreme elements?
I was repulsed and terrified. And 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...Because it's nice to be able to think you can combat your fears, I think.
Did the acting challenges of the script entice you to overcome your apprehension with the material?
Well, there were a different set of challenges. Working in the style that Michael likes to work is going to be challenging, I think, for any actor. The fact that this was a remake...You know, it's always hard doing a remake because you fear that you're going to be compared to the original actors. But 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 steps as those actors, and then you suddenly feel like, "Wow, how can I invent this character? How can I find the scene in my own organic way?" It's so mapped out: "Go to the sink, then go to the fridge, then go back to the sink." It became like such a heady thing, and that's so not the way I like to work. I like to intuit it and feel it and surprise myself. So it was a great challenge.
What was it about this project that really spoke to you?
It screamed at me! [laughs] It didn't [just] speak to me. I mean, like I said, it wasn't an easy decision to make, and I feared that it's such a 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, and 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. And so therefore, the next violent film you see, you're perhaps more conscious and mindful of those moments, where ordinarily, we would sit there and go, [cheers] "Yeah! Brains splattering everywhere!" It definitely makes you more conscious. And to me, that's a success, because it's provocative--it's discussion and thought-worthy.
You mentioned Mulholland Drive...How did Michael Haneke compare to David Lynch, in terms of their directing style?
Very different. Lynch won't tell you anything--won't tell you what's going on, and really doesn't give you that much direction. He encourages you to intuit it, whereas Haneke tells you everything. [laughs] Very specific, very by-the-numbers...
What was your reaction when you first read this script and discovered that you'd be spending a lot of time in your underwear? Was it terrifying and intimidating, or did you just embrace it and figure it's time to be a rock star?
[laughs] It is terrifying, but that was adding to it all. I don't know if you've seen the original, but [the lead actress] strips down, and then she puts back her slip. And to be honest with you, when I saw the original, that was one of the only false moments to me. It felt a little bit like the wonderful actress was being slightly modest. And I completely understand that. But Michael said to me, "How do you feel about this scene?" And I could tell where he was going, like, "Do I feel right about doing it in my underwear versus in a slip?" And I said right away, "Let's do it. Let's do it in the underwear. It feels less self-conscious." I don't know how many people wear slips these days, you know? So anyway, it was frightening, and 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.
Did you think it was unusual for your well-to-do character to wear a relatively dowdy, old-fashioned housedress?
Well, the reasoning behind that is Michael is someone who pretty much doesn't believe anything. He wants the real thing. So this lovely wardrobe designer went out to Barney's, went to every designer on Rodeo Drive and Fifth Avenue, and brought back a million dresses, and Michael didn't believe any of them. And what you and I would think would be right for a rich woman that lived in that part of America...He made me bring my own dresses. And because I don't have 12 copies of that dress... [pauses, laughs from embarrassment] I'm afraid to say that dowdy dress came from my wardrobe! [laughs]
Actually, we like the dress...
Oh did you? [laughs] They found some fabric which was an older fabric, and they copied the dress 12 times.
Why do you think this film was remade?
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 feels that we're the biggest consumers of violence...It's also about numbers--you know, [there's] a huge market for film here, as well. When Hollywood called and said, "Here's a bunch of money, remake this film," it wasn't like, "Okay, now I can change it, and I can correct this bit and that bit," and glorify it in ways that he didn't in the original. His intention and message remained pure, and therefore, it is a very similar film.
What are your feelings on traditional "blood and guts" horror?
I've never been a fan of gore. I mean, even though I've done quite a few thrillers and films of this genre, there's never really been much blood and guts in the films I've done. More psychological. But just because I've tapped into [Haneke's] mindset and what he's trying to say, I'm not trying to say now, "Shame on you for all those other films that are being made." I'm not on a soapbox here. I understand every film has its value in its different way. What works for some people doesn't work for others. And I'm an actor--I enjoy playing fear, and if I'm in another thriller that's of that type, then [so be it]. But again, I'm not really ever interested in the gory stuff.
Was it easy for you to turn off the tension and intensity of the film at the end of a shooting day?
It was quite hard to turn off at the end of a day. In fact, it didn't happen that often. Most of the time, when working on a film, people say, "It's scary to watch, but is it scary to make?" And usually, the answer is no, because what becomes scary in a film is a succession of moments that build up to a scary pay-off, and you shoot out of sequence, everything's fragmented. That's not the case with this film. The way we shot it was very much in chronological order. Pretty much it all takes place on the one set, and as you've seen in the film, Michael doesn't cut a lot. One shot is held for endless minutes. [laughs] So it was hard. The set was, at times, a very tense place. But then you also go, "Okay, I've just got to break this," and Tim would crack a very crass and base joke, you know?
Was this a very demanding shoot for you physically?
Yes. The way Michael likes to work is from a very authentic point of view. Like the first time I was bound and gagged, he came up and went, "That looks like sh*t! No way! I don't believe that! Let me do it!" And he bound me up. [laughs] And you saw the way I was bound...It was all around my neck and my feet, so if you fell or tried to walk, you could be strangled! [laughs] I mean, I'm laughing, but it's a nervous laughter.
Did you film this before or after your pregnancy?
It was before. But I have to say I conceived during this film. [laughs] I think I was creatively fulfilled.
What's been the most surprising thing to you about being a mom?
The equipment. [laughs] You just can't believe the amount of things you have to travel with. I thought I was bad with excess baggage before, and now it's out of control. Endless surprises every day, though.
Does being a parent now change your perspective on this film at all, particularly the scenes where your movie son is terrorized?
Yeah. I mean, I had a very adverse feeling at the time, before I was a parent. And yeah, 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. [laughs] When 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.
Did you think Haneke's tactic of showing very little overt violence was an effective device?
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. Again, it's sort of Michael saying, "Violence is hideous and inexcusable, no matter what." And I think 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.
Will you continue to work as a producer, even on films that you may not necessarily appear in as an actor?
Oh, yeah, I would be interested in that. I do like putting people together, and finding good material and stuff. 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 got 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 also was terrified by the workload. [laughs] And particularly now I'm a mom, I feel that like everything's too much. I can't even get to read scripts. [laughs]