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March 20, 2008

Michael Pitt Plays Haneke's Games

By Cole Smithey


Michael Pitt has been described as the Johnny Depp of his generation. He considers himself to be more of a musician than an actor; he frequently performs and records with his band Pagoda, and plans to tour sometime. But if the gifted and flawed list of film directors with whom Mr. Pitt has worked with is any indication, the young actor is carrying out a great second career. Since 2001 Michael Pitt has worked with directors John Cameron Mitchell ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch"), Larry Clark ("Bully"), Barbet Schroeder ("Murder by Numbers"), Asia Argento ("The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things"), Bernardo Bertolucci ("The Dreamers"), Gus Van Sant ("Last Days"), and most recently, the master of confrontational cinema, Michael Haneke ("Cache").

Auteur Michael Haneke (pronounced ‘hanakkuh’) has remade a shot-by-shot version his own controversial 1997 film "Funny Games," in which he effectively mocked American cinema’s love for violence by pushing the limits of cinematic sado-masochism with an excruciating thriller that sticks to a standard formula, albeit with a different kind of ending. In it, Pitt plays Paul, an American bourgeoisie serial killer disguised in white shorts, tennis shoes, shirt, and gloves. Paul and his friend Peter (played by Brady Corbett)—AKA Tom & Jerry--use the artifice of politeness to disorient a family of three that they take hostage at the family’s idyllic lakeside cottage. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play the husband and wife that the tireless torture with a cruelty and brutality much more affecting than any of Hollywood’s violence porn.

I sat down at New York’s Regency Hotel with Michael Pitt to talk about working on "Funny Games."

Cole Smithey: How would you compare Michael Haneke's direction to other directors—what trait 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 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.

CS: How did Haneke choose you for this role?

MP: I wasn't looking for a project. I wasn't interested in working in film at that time, but I had a friend who 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. I thought that was fine. Then time passed and they had trouble finding someone. I had lunch with Michael, we did a work session, and then I got the part.

CS: Was he a difficult director?

MP: He was difficult but he's really smart, so I didn't feel that it was unjustified. I knew that going in though. That was something that would've been hell if I didn't know that that was the way that he was going to work. I could tell. Some directors are very free and some directors are very specific. It seemed like doing a play, [it was] the same kind of relationship with the director as when you do a play.

CS: Did you see the original film before you worked on this version?

MP: I saw it once.

CS: How did you prepare your character Paul?

MP: I didn't come up with a backstory, and I never analyzed why Paul was doing what he was doing. I wasn't sure I was going to do it that way and then I decided that based on what Michael Haneke was telling me, that I shouldn't analyze what I was doing. In a weird way, it really freed me.

CS: Did you rehearse before shooting?

MP: I rehearse all the time when I get a role.

CS: How was it working with both Tim Roth and Naomi Watts?

MP: I was really impressed with Naomi. She was a producer, and she was doing things that I wasn't really aware of. The way she was able to switch from handling problems to shoot a really difficult scene, I think is a real testament to her true ability. Tim helped me a lot when I had a problem. He would talk to me because Tim is also a director.

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. I think that a lot of the battles that were happening on set were as a result of that. Tim definitely had the hardest role. That is by far the most difficult role to play because he's not strong and he's not attractive. As an actor, for me, that would be the most challenging role. Also in a way even if you succeeded, very few people would realize [it].

CS: What’s interesting about making a shot for shot remake?

MP: 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.

I hope that this will broaden Michael Haneke's audience because in America. I also think it's good that Michael did it, and it's not some American director doing it some other way. I think it's interesting that he did it.

CS: Why do you think he decided to remake it?

MP: 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. That's what I felt. 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. If it's not in English, there's a very select few people who watch it.

He's getting to finish what he started and 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 it, 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.

I hope he gets some kind of gain from this. He deserves it.

CS: Are you concerned that some people in the audience that Haneke is trying to reach, might not get what the film is going for and might look at it at a very base level?

MP: I am a little worried that people will think it's cool. He [Haneke] 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 certain things, so hopefully that will come through to the audience.

CS: The context of the film has changed since the first film. It is a movie about torture. Since the original, there is the rise of "torture porn." Was there any philosophical discussion with the cast about this new genre?

MP: 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.

CS: Did you find it hard to break the fourth wall?

MP: I think I got better at it. The first time I don't think 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.

CS: Do you find acting to be a little psychotic?

MP: 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.

CS: How easy was this character to turn off at the end of the day?

MP: 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." I just stayed in this character for the month and half that we shot it and once we finished, I just left it.

CS: Did you have any nightmares while shooting?

MP: 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.

CS: What are you working on next?

MP: I'm working on my music right now. I'm always trying to work on scripts. I'm pretty selective. Sometimes maybe too much because I'm broke [laughs].


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