Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke's "Amour" has been nominated for five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actress, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Screenplay (which you can read here). And the film continues to score foreign film wins (NY and LA Film Critics, NBR, Critics Choice, Golden Globes and BAFTA, which also gave Emmanuelle Riva best actress, along with the LA and National Film Critics and the European Film Awards) after a stellar year that began with the film winning the Palme d'Or in Cannes last May.

Haneke's last film, "White Ribbon," was nominated for the foreign film Oscar as well as cinematography. "Amour"'s success with the Academy is somewhat surprising, given its elegantly wrought but potentially uncomfortable end-of-life subject. But the film has built solid voter support ("it's my life," one elderly director told me) and Haneke, up for three awards, and Riva are both serious contenders.

Sony Pictures Classics, which always releases more than a few foreign films in Oscar contention, had the challenge this year of having two rival French actresses in the Oscar race, Marion Cotillard of "Rust and Bone" and Riva, whose costar Jean-Louis Trintignant was also deserving. Neither he nor Cotillard were nominated. But 85-year-old Riva, who starred in "Hiroshima Mon Amour," a movie that many Academy seniors remember, reached into Academy members' hearts to make history as the oldest Best Actress nominee ever ("Cocoon"'s Jessica Tandy was 80). And February 24, Oscar night, is her 86th birthday. Sony has masterfully maximized the actress's limited availability so that her press is hitting right in the center of the voting period.

I sat down with able translator Robert Gray and the tall, intimidating director, whose native German and second language French are better than his English. One thing that struck me, aside from the force of his intellect, is his competitive drive. This is not unusual among film directors.

Anne Thompson: Your leading man Jean-Louis Trintignant had not starred in a movie in 14 years. How did you lure him back to the cinema?

Michael Haneke: I didn't have to convince him to take the part. My producer knows him quite well and she told him I was writing a script for him. He'd seen "The White Ribbon." He doesn't go to the movies anymore. I showed it to him and for the French version of the film, I needed an actor to play the narrator and he did that for the film and he was so enthusiastic about the film that he said 'yes' when I asked him to work in "Amour." As he's said in several interviews, before doing the film he'd broken either his leg or his ribs but he was in the hospital and driving home from the hospital, he thought whether he should crash into a tree and end it all. And my producer told him: 'Make the film first. You can commit suicide after that.' And now he says he doesn't want to commit suicide anymore.

AT: I should think not. I was moved by the film and by the reception to the film and the actors at the Cannes closing ceremony. They should have won. Cannes prohibits that?

MH: You know they can't. The rules of Cannes were changed because of me, because of "The Piano Teacher." There was a great division in the jury, some members of the jury wanted the film to be awarded the Palme D'Or – or at least if we don't give him the Palme D'Or, we'll give him all the other prizes. We'll give him the Grand Prix De Jury, the Jury Award and the two acting prizes. As a result of that the rules of the festival were changed so there couldn't be that concentration of awards.

AT: We have a phrase, hoist by your own petard. I don't know if that translates.

Emmanuelle Riva and Jean Louis Trintignant of “Amour”

MH: I think was a little bit apprehensive [this year], but the production companies were apprehensive because Nanni Moretti was the president of the Jury at Cannes. On a previous occasion he said that he would never give a Haneke film a prize. He didn't say that about all my films. What Moretti said was that he was in the Jury when "Funny Games" was shown in Cannes and he said at the time if "Funny Games" gets a prize, he's going to leave the jury. So we were apprehensive, but in fact, in an interview after Cannes this year, Moretti said that if it had been up to him, he would have given "Amour" not only the Palme D'Or but the prize for best actor, best director, best script and best both acting prizes.

AT: At the press conference at Cannes, the actors suggested you were very demanding. Could you talk about getting these performances. Was Trintignant rusty, stubborn, persistent?

MH: The difficulties weren't because he hadn't shot for so long, hadn't made a film in fourteen years but rather because of his own physical difficulties. Difficult because I insist in getting what I want when I shoot a scene, and sometimes you get what you want very easily and quickly, other times it's not so easy. The scenes with the pigeon were particularly demanding and difficult physically and shooting those two scenes took a long time. We shot them over two or three days. That was difficult because it's hard to direct a pigeon. And he had to respond and react to the pigeon and that's very difficult given his physical condition, but he's a very disciplined actor. He never once complained on set, but at the same time I knew from the very beginning that I had to allow more time when shooting with older actors. I needed a longer shooting period than shooting with young actors. You can't demand from 80-year-olds that they shoot a string of ten-hour days. But I allowed the extra time for them, for that reason it wasn't a problem.

AT: How many days did you shoot?

MH: Eight five-day weeks.

AT: So that's longer than it would ordinarily be?

MH: If it had been a production involving two forty-year-old actors, we probably would have planned for a six week shoot.

AT: Your films have been known over the years as hard-hitting, audacious and physically, viscerally disturbing. This film goes in a very different direction as you head for a more elegant, simple and contained mise-en-scene. Your films have always been very beautiful, even if disturbing.

MH: I think it's a question of the theme, I think, I hope that the other films were elegant as well.

By Anne Thompson