In 1997, Austrian director Michael Haneke made Funny Games, a brutal German-language thriller about a wealthy family taken hostage in their vacation home by two sadistic young men. The movie was meant as a conversation starter on Haneke's favorite subject, violence and the media. Unfortunately, the film didn't really reach American audiences, which are some of the primary consumers of on-screen violence.
So when he got the opportunity, Haneke remade his film -- almost shot-for-shot -- in an English language version to reach those audiences. In this new remake, blond bombshell Naomi Watts takes on the role of Ann, the mother/wife at the movie's center.
"It was put to me that [Haneke] only wanted me and, while that felt like a huge amount of pressure, it was also very flattering and slightly seductive, in a way, because he's someone whose work I admire greatly," says Watts. "But, it was not an easy decision to make. I wouldn't make this film with just anyone. It's by no means a no-brainer."
Because Funny Games is intended to be provocative, it can be -- to say the least -- a tough watch. Which meant Watts had to think a while before she took the part. "I feared that it's such a beast of a film and so powerful in its effect that you fear 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," she says. "I don't think it's supposed to be enjoyed."
"I think that ride is supposed to be work for you," she continues. "You're supposed to participate and be a 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, perhaps you'll be more conscious and mindful of those moments where, ordinarily, you sit and go, 'Yeah! There's brains splattering everywhere!!' It definitely makes you more conscious. And, to me, that is its success because it's provocative and it's worthy of discussion."
But being part of such a disturbing piece can take its toll on its actors. "Most of the time, when working on a film, people say, "It's scary to watch, but was 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," Watts recalls. "That's not the case with this film. The way we shot it was very much in chronological order, it pretty much all takes place on the one set, and Michael doesn't cut a lot. One shot is held for endless minutes."
"It was quite hard to turn off at the end of the day," she continues. "In fact, it didn't happen that often."
Funny Games is open in limited release now.