“Like so many of us, in my personal life someone that I loved was very ill and I had to watch them suffer, that was the catalyst for this film,” film director and writer Michael Haneke (Cache, The White Ribbon, Funny Games) said through a translator at a recent press conference at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA. He was referring to his new film Amour, which opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 19th. Haneke was quick to add, “I want to make a point that what’s on screen is not my own personal story, these are characters that I wrote.”
With a recent Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film, the Sony Pictures Classics Amour had already made an impression on the film community winning the Palme d’Or award at Cannes and was an official selection at the Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals in addition to being Austria’s official selection for the 85th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.
Haneke, no stranger to making films that push the limits into areas both dark and unavoidable, explained how this particular film proved extremely challenging in its own right. “The story takes place mostly between two characters and in one location.” Haneke concurred that this was, in fact, a much harder script for him to write, but explains that this made it a challenge, as well. “It’s more enjoyable to shoot with just two actors,” adding with a laugh, “Especially if they’re good.”
Haneke’s brilliant and masterful handling of a subject most find unbearable to look directly at, human mortality, is the basis of the film starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert and Alexandre Tharaud. Georges (Trintignant) and Anne (Riva), both in their eighties, are retired music teachers enjoying their golden years when their love is truly tested as Anne falls ill.
“This was Jean-Louis’s first film since the murder of his daughter,” explained Haneke. “He hadn’t worked on a movie in years until this. I wrote the script for him. He was personally unwell and wanted to commit suicide.” Haneke was able to persuade the actor to take on the role and soon thereafter they, along with Riva, began to meet for lunches in Paris to discuss the project. Haneke tells of the very short amount of time between these meetings and the start of filming. “I don’t rehearse ever with professional actors, except for children. We go through blocking of movements and then proceed forward. I trust that good actors have read the script and know how to prepare their roles.” In regards to his role as both director and writer, “I have to write scenes that give the actor the opportunity to show what they can do.”
Preferring to leave a lot for the audience to interpret for themselves, he explains his reasoning for this and many of the choices that he’s made in his work over the years. “I invite the audience to interpret rather than me imposing on the audience what to believe. If I tell the audience what to think than I’m robbing them of the freedom of coming up with their own answers.” With such heavy material he admits to the inordinate amount of concentration necessary during filming. There were a few poignant scenes that involved the use of pigeons. “We shot the scenes with the pigeons over two days. As a director you can’t tell a pigeon what to do. We put seeds on the ground and hoped that the pigeon would go in certain directions. It was hard physically for Jean-Louis to do, to run around.”
Riva had her share of challenging scenes, as well. “The hardest scenes for Emmanuelle were the ones with the electric wheelchair. She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to operate it properly. The other difficult scene was the suffocation scene. It was terrifying for her. She was afraid of being suffocated so we tried to make special pillows and ended up using a mattress that could be lowered for her to be able to move her head aside. It was different for Jean-Louis to play because he’s trying to comfort her.”
Not one to shy away from difficult subject matter in his work, Haneke says that he thinks of his own mortality everyday. “I don’t need the film to remind me,” he says with a laugh. Of deciding on a theme for a film, he doesn’t worry about whether or not it’s been done before. “I never think of if ten other films have been done on a subject already. I just think of whether or not the subject motivates me and if I want to explore it or not. I’m interested in seeing films that help me progress and advance, that challenge me and make me question myself. Any art form, whether it’s film, television, books that simply confirm what I already know are a waste of time.”
Of Amour, he said that he’s happy with the way the film turned out. “The most satisfaction as a filmmaker comes from the unexpected gifts that an artist bestows upon you and I was given many gifts. You learn on every film. Usually learning is painful because you learn from making mistakes. Film is always a compromise with what you end up with and what you had originally intended. If you get seventy percent of what you’re looking for, you should be happy. And if an actor gives you more than you asked for, you’re grateful.” Haneke claims to have no projects in the works at the moment. “I will just have to see what occurs to me.”