Mathieu Kassovitz has been acting since the ‘70s, turned feature director in 1993 with Café au Lait, then 1995’s modern classic La Haine. He continues to do both, but hasn’t directed a film since 2011’s Rebellion. Instead, he’s been appearing in the films of other directors that he admires, with the latest, Michael Haneke’s Happy End. The German born director, who now often works in France, is probably best known to audiences for the masterful Hidden. He hasn’t made a film in five years, following the heartbreaking Amour.
Happy End is an allegory for the class divide in Europe, focusing on a wealthy family in Calais, with the refugee crisis in the background. The best of French cast includes Isabelle Hupert, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Kassovitz as the Laurents.
Is it a long held ambition for you to work with Michael Haneke?
I started as a 3rd assistant director. I started at 17 and for 5-6 years I was a very good 3rd AD. Running everywhere, very effective. Then I became a 2nd assistant and then 1st assistant. But I wasn’t very good as a 1st assistant, believe me. Very bad at the organisation. I also did electricity, I did a lot of jobs as a kid, as a filmmaker, as a crew member. I was lucky enough to work on really bad movies. That pissed me off so bad, it didn’t satisfy me. I always dreamt of being in, you know when you go see a beautiful movie and you’re like “oh shit I would have loved to be on that set! I would have loved to see my name at the end of that trailer”. So, to be a part of the movie of a filmmaker you love, and to be a part of his vision at some point… not vision, because that’s being an actor. But to be there when he works, that’s what you can do as an AD. That’s something I always dreamt about. When I was 14 I always said I want my name at the end of a Steven Spielberg movie; when I was doing super 8 movies because I want to be with these guys.
So yes, as a technician, not as an actor… I never thought he’d call for me to be an actor in one of his movies, I couldn’t imagine it. Like I couldn’t imagine Spielberg would do that, I couldn’t imagine the link to me. But Michael, who knows my movies, I wouldn’t expect him to. I didn’t expect him to as an actor, but as a technician of course. When I see his movies I’m like “shit, I want to know how he does that”.
Did you do that this time while working with him?
What do you think I did when I worked with Costa-Gavras [Amen.], when I work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet [Amelie]? When I’m with them I’m observing how they do what they do.
Can explain what you like about Haneke?
He is a filmmaker, he is a pure filmmaker. You have to admire him. He is an artist, so when he does his movies, whether you like it or not, it’s a masterpiece of what he does, and they are very fragile. So that’s what I like. I know how complicated it is to make a movie and the decisions you have to make, the point-of-view you have to take. Making a painting takes you years, but doesn’t cost much money and you can do it on your spare time. To make a movie, it takes a lot of energy, a lot of people, and costs a lot of money. It’s part of an economy. So, to be able to make the movies in the way he does and that economy is fascinating, to see how an artist manages to work in that business and still be totally free and no compromises. It’s fascinating to see guys like that, there isn’t many like that.
Being a filmmaker, did you have to take a step back in terms of voicing your opinion when constructing a scene with him?
I don’t think I’m like that at all. I don’t think you as a journalist when you have to work with a higher journalist, like somebody that you respected, that you looked up to, you’re not going to come up and say, “maybe you should do it like that”. If he comes to you and says, “do you think I should do it like that?”, you’re going to say, “yeah maybe, maybe not”. He is going to start a discussion with you if he wants to have a discussion with you. You’re not going to tell him, like if I’m in a Steven Spielberg movie on set I can ask him questions like “why did you do it like that? Oh, you do it like that? Oh, I get it”. You cannot say “maybe the camera should be here”. No, you can’t.
If there is an atmosphere of total equality on the set, then yes.
No, no. If you see him fucking up, and you know he is fucking it up, you can be at some point “hey I think you’re fucking it up”. And he can tell you “listen, go….”, it cannot be 50/50. He inspired you, you didn’t inspire him. Haneke inspired me, I never inspired Haneke. Never. How can I go tell him what to do? He inspired me. It’s like student and an art teacher. You’ll always be the student. Right? And it’s an honour to be a student. You don’t want to kill the master, you don’t want to tell the master how to do it.
Are you being too modest?
No, ask him. I was upset on the set most of the time. I was like, “shit I could shoot that in an hour, why we taking eight hours to shoot that shot?” And I got upset. I asked the crew “is it always like that”, and they’re like “it is!”, but that’s an artist and it has nothing to do what we do. I’m satisfied after two takes.
So how many takes are you doing with him roughly, on average?
It’s not that crazy. It’s as crazy as artist crazy. Like “is this guy crazy?” or “is he nuts?”. No, he’s not nuts, he’s an artist. Again, if he would be doing a painting of himself and he cut his ear off, you would say he is a crazy artist, but look at what he does! He needs that to get there. Same thing with him, same thing with him.
I told him, I was like “Michael, come on. What the fuck, it’s perfect”. And he’s looking at me and he has pain in his eyes, I see pain in his tears. and I’m telling him, “it’s too much, you’re too much”, and he’s like “I know, but I can’t stop, I have to get it”. That’s what artists say! He is in pain when we have to re-do it again. He would love to have it in the first three takes, and sometimes what we have in the first three takes were good.
He seems so in control as a person and what he says. You watch his films and they’re the finished products, you just don’t imagine him struggling.
To get there you need to try things. He doesn’t try anything in the editing room because he doesn’t shoot anything more than that’s in the script, so he has to find everything on the set. So that’s why he takes time on the set. When you do something and you’re like “I have it in the first three takes because I know I’m going to cut it like that, and I have different options so I can save that take and I don’t need more takes. I don’t need a perfect one because I can cut it with something else”. Here? No, if he doesn’t have the perfect one, he cannot cut it, and to find that right pace and that right timing, which is very intimate, like when my wife, at the end of the scene she turns off all of the lights in the apartment, we did that ten times, twenty times. And I was like, “I don’t get it, what’s the timing?”, “no, a little slower, a little slower.”
Did that make you more anxious?
I’m anxious because I’m an actor. All I want to do is go home. I don’t give a shit about his problems. Actors are very selfish. But as a director I’m watching him, “what the fuck is he looking for?”
And once he got it, and she started to go around and turn off all the lights, I was like “oh, I get it. It’s the end of the bourgeoisie.” It’s the end of that era, and I got it right away. Before I didn’t get it, because the timing, it took him 20 takes to find the right timing and that’s the take that’s in the movie. It’s subtle so that’s why his movies need to be seen in a very specific timing. You cannot come in, you need to turn off your phone and focus.
Was it clear for you in the beginning what the Laurent house stood for, e.g. Europe, society?
I only figured it out yesterday. Well, yes yes of course when you read the script and when you shoot the scenes it’s talking about the bourgeoisie, talking about the way the bourgeoisie is looking at the world as outsiders, you get it. But you don’t really get that the scenes you are actually shooting, like you don’t get why is she running and why is she looking back at the camera for the last shot. I don’t get it, I never get it. Maybe I’ll get it in a year or two, because it’s going to be my interpretation of it. He was very specific on the script. It’s like Kubrick. You know those guys that watch Kubrick movies, and like analyse everything, you can do the same thing with him. But in the same way, it’s very raw, he does things that you really need to find the clues, I think.
Do you think watching him will change your directorial style?
No, no, because you’re watching an artist. It’s not like I’m watching another technician. I’m not going to learn anything from him as a technician. I can learn from Steven Spielberg as a technician because I asked him very specific questions about filmmaking in a technical way. But he’s an artist that does his thing, you cannot steal that to do your thing. No. no.