Not So Funny Games with Naomi Watts
Source:Ryan Rotten March 13, 2008
One of Hollywood's brightest imports may arguably be one of the industry's greatest emotional masochists. Genre and horror fans have purred over Naomi Watts since David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Gore Verbinski's The Ring; or, if you want to swing back further, you can find her beaming by a lively grocery cart in a faux trailer playing in Joe Dante's Matinee or paying her dues in Children of the Corn IV. She was later rewarded higher-caliber turns in 21 Grams and King Kong, offering her a reprieve from her tussle with "He who walks behind the rows." And with each successive effort, the Aussie native has raised the stakes, stretching range and risk. This couldn't be more evident than in her latest film Funny Games (opening in limited release March 14th), a remake of Michael Haneke's '97 shocker directed by...Michael Haneke.
I had just missed the actress two months ago while up at Sundance where I spoke to her co-stars Michael Pitt and Brady Corbett. The untimely passing of former boyfriend Heath Ledger understandably forced her to cancel all scheduled interviews. Today, hands dug into the pockets of her tight black jeans, eyes scanning the room, Watts is sitting before me at a table, which dwarfs her petite frame, at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills for a press conference-style discussion about "Games." She tells the group of journalists before her that she's been up since the crack of dawn, which may account somewhat for her reserved, quiet tone. However, palpable signs of sleep deprivation are mowed down by genuine enthusiasm when she speaks of her Haneke experience and the "beast" of a remake she was involved in.
To get right down to it: There would be no Funny Games without Watts. Haneke has stated before that he would have never moved on a nearly shot-for-shot American remake had the actress expressed disinterest in the project. Watts nevertheless found this "slightly seductive in a way, because he's someone whose work I admire greatly. He's worked with fantastic actresses before - Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert, I'm major fans of them. [It] felt like a huge amount of pressure, it was also very flattering. I wouldn't make this film with just anyone. It's by no means a no-brainer. To do this film was terrifying and that always interests me. It's nice to think you can combat your fears."
Watts explains she was called by "Games" casting director Johanna Ray - an instrumental player in scoring the actress for Mulholland Drive - and offered to play Ann, a wife who, with her son (Devon Gearhart) and husband (Tim Roth), is psychologically and physically tortured in an idyllic lakeside vacation home by two young white gloved-wearing lunatics. She accepted ("This script screamed at me. It's so powerful in its effect."), jumping into the project as victim and executive producer, but her duties wearing that latter hat didn't extend far into principal photography. "Haneke and I talked about some of the casting and the crew members but once we were on the set it became very clear very quickly that he was attached to every detail and knew exactly what he wanted. I just sat back and said 'This is your beast, I trust you.' I went with his flow, even though I struggled with it at times, I liked that he had such a defined and clear vision of my story and everything. When someone is so sure, you trust them."
And that trust was put to the test during the film's most rigorous and demanding sequences of remorseless violence. Watts describes the on-set vibe as "tense" as Haneke struggled to evoke an air of menace and realism. Shooting roughly adhered to a chronological order and authenticity was crucial to Haneke's vision which often includes excruciating single-shot scenes dripping with atmosphere or sweating brazen cruelty. "The first time I was bound and gagged [by actor Michael Pitt], Haneke was like, 'Oh, that looks like shit, let me do it!' and he'd bind me up," Watts says wide-eyed. " I'd be laughing, but it was a nervous laughter. [I did get] bruises, it's training. I've done a few films that require emotional and physical commitment. I'm kind of used to it."
She confesses, also, that the role posed a challenge in that it was hard to turn off her emotions at the end of the shooting day. "Working in the style Michael Haneke likes to work in is going to be challenging for any actor. The fact this was a remake is...it's always hard because you feel you're going to be compared to the original's actors, but the fact that he was designing each shot the exact same way as the original film meant that you had to do the exact same blocking and tread the same steps as the other actors. And then you suddenly feel like, 'Wow, how can I invent this character, how can I find this theme in my own organic way?' It became such a heady thing and that's so not the way I like to work, I like to intuit it, feel it, surprise myself.
The pressure put upon her was felt amongst her co-stars, too, especially the fresh-faced Pitt and Corbett. Watts easily related to Pitt's method of working and understood the uphill battle he faced as he careened through each scene with "endless amounts of dialogue. Haneke wanted to shoot long takes and he doesn't do a huge amount of angles which means more of the long takes," she says. "[Pitt and Corbett] had to be very much on their game, I was so impressed with the two of them. Very fine actors. Although they struggled with it, playing this horrible, psychotic people, I think there was some fun in it too, weirdly."
Since bowing at Sundance, Funny Games U.S.A. has been labeled as a divisive film, some heralding it as a poignant statement on American violence. Watts agrees with that sentiment but would like to add, and point out she isn't standing on any soapbox, when she says, "I don't think it's supposed to be enjoyed, it's supposed to be work for you, you're supposed to participate and walk away feeling richer for the experience. For knowing and understanding your place as an audience member better, so therefore the next violent film you see, you're more mindful and conscience of those violent moments where ordinarily you'd go 'Yeah!' as brains are splattering everywhere. [People who like those films] might feel very angry, but it definitely makes you more conscious and to me, that's the success. It's provocative and thought-worthy."