Amour’s Michael Haneke and International Directors Spotlighted at 10th Annual Golden Globes Foreign Film Symposium

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The much-anticipated 2013 awards season has finally arrived. As the world celebrates one of the most exciting years for film in recent memory, it’s clear 2012 gifted us some truly wondrous works of cinema. Among the standouts: Ben Affleck’s heralded Argo, the dreamy indie smash hit Beasts of the Southern Wild, the heart-warming Silver Linings Playbook, Spielberg’s historical biopic Lincoln with a predictably astounding performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, and Kathyrn Bigelow’s beautifully gritty Zero Dark Thirty.

It goes without saying that domestic films in 2012 have really hit—and redefined—the mark for great cinema. But one of the most exciting elements of this year’s awards season lies in the sheer abundance of excellent foreign film contenders.

Highlights include gems like Eric Rolendano and Oliver Nakache’s French comedy-drama The Intouchables; Jacques Audiard’s critically-acclaimed film Rust and Bone starring Marion Cottilard; and Espen Sandberg and Joachim Roenning’s sea exploration epic, Kon-Tiki.  Moreover, one of the year’s most exciting feats of film belongs to 5-time Oscar nominee Michael Haneke’s Amour, which has been heralded as one of the best movies in recent memory, nabbing a coveted Oscar nod for Best Picture (a historically rare feat for foreign films).

With so many outstanding films from far-flung places, the 2013 awards season may very well be remembered as a banner year for foreign film. So we were thrilled to catch the 10th Annual Golden Globe Foreign Language Symposium at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles on Saturday. Presented by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assoc., in association with the American Cinematheque and LMU’s School of Film and Television, the symposium spotlighted some of the year’s best foreign film directors in an intimate and engaging roundtable discussion.

Symposium participants included directors Michael Haneke (Amour), Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair), and Espen Sandberg and Joachim Roenning (Kon-Tiki), with legendary Swedish director Lasse Hallström—whose films include What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, and Chocolat—as moderator. The conversation that ensued shed light on various aspects of directing; from getting the best performances out of actors, to the use of story-boards, rehearsals, CGI, and test-screenings.

Here are a few key insights from the symposium:

  • Espen Sandberg and Joachim Roenning, the directors of Kon-Tiki, discussed, in detail, the intricate process of filming the ocean-epic. Filmed in parts with CGI, in a tank, and on a raft that has made the same voyage depicted in the film, the directors often used the keyword “Jurassic Park!” to prompt the actors’ performance when confronting the CGI-generated whale that stars in the film.
  • Nikolaj Arcel’s period piece A Royal Affair was shot entirely on 35mm film. “I might be the only filmmaker in Denmark still shooting with film,” the director joked.
  • On the performances in A Royal Affair, Nikolaj Arcel said, “It was almost like a dogma for us to have very modern performances.” But he didn’t skimp on making sure performances remained authentic to the film’s time period. “If you want to portray these periods accurately…there was a lot of holding back then, a lot of hiding emotions.”
  • Moderator Lasse Hallström asked the directors: should actors possess a strong intelligence? The directors were divided; Nikolaj Arcel quipped, “We try to cast really intelligent actors,” because historical comprehension is integral to the film. Haneke was less hard-lined on the matter, noting that talent trumps all: “As a musician, for instance, you have to be talented, not necessarily intelligent.”  Motivation was the most important quality in directing the low-budget film Kon-Tiki. “We had to be there at 4am. We only had one hair and one makeup person and everyone had to see them. You just have to find those actors who are motivated,” Joachim Roenning said.
  • A life-affirming role. Michael Haneke admired Jean-Louis Trintignant, the lead in Amour, since he was very young. “There’s a secretiveness to him, a mystery…He was the ideal cast for that role and I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity.” Prior to Amour, Trintignant hadn’t been in a film for fifteen years. When Haneke asked him to star in the film, the actor had been depressed and suicidal. “He was choosing the tree against which he’d drive,” the director remarked. “I said, could you make the movie first and then commit suicide?” Haneke assured the audience: “He made the film and he doesn’t want to kill himself anymore.”
  • On Trintignant’s physical performance in Amour, Haneke noted, “It’s not an act; he has difficulty moving. We had to do takes many times in order not to tire him out.” Even so, the director said that Trintignant never complained. “He’s very, very professional.”
  • When prompted to divulge their filmmaking idols, Kon-Tiki’s Joachim Roenning exclaimed, “I’m sitting between Haneke and Hallström! This is a bit overwhelming.”
  • When it comes to directing actors in his film, Nikolaj Arcel learned not to be too precious from director Lars Von Trier, who notably said to actress Nicole Kidman on the set of Dogville, “Nicole, please don’t overact in the next scene.” Arcel quipped, “If you can say that to Nicole Kidman, I can say that to just about anyone!”
  • To rehearse or not to rehearse? Michael Haneke is averse to over-rehearsing his films. “In film, if you rehearse too much, there’s a false sense of security and the tension isn’t there.” The directors of Kon-Tiki agreed. “We don’t rehearse. In fact, we worked on how to lose dialogue. More acting, less dialogue.”
  • Long days. Michael Haneke is no stranger to multiple takes. “I have taken 30 takes,” he admitted. “I’m a little bit infamous for wanting to repeat takes, but that’s because I do very long shots.”
  • Test screenings pale in comparison to Amour director Michael Haneke’s wife. “My test screening is my wife. She’ll tell me when it’s boring and I just ask her ‘where is it boring?’…[test screening] isn’t really customary in Europe, where I think it is here.”
  • Even critically acclaimed directors get insecure: “I absolutely hate everything I make until fifty thousand people tell me it’s ok,” A Royal Affair director Nikolaj Arcel admitted.
  • Among the symposium’s directors, the subject of storyboarding was a controversial one. Moderator Lasse Hallström revealed, “I love chaos and creating something in the moment. Storyboarding isn’t something I want to do.” Amour’s Michael Haneke, on the otherhand, is insistent on the use of storyboards. “I write the roles myself,” the director said, “so I do complete an enormous storyboard. The movie is that storyboard.” The reason? “It’s my experience,” he said, “that actors feel freer the more parameters have been established.”

For even more insight from these visionary foreign film directors, be sure to check out the symposium in its entirety:

Feature image: Lasse Hallström moderates a conversation with directors Espen Sandberg and Joachim Roenning (Kon-Tiki), Michael Haneke (Amour), and Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair). All photos courtesy of Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television