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11 Lessons Learned From Michael Haneke’s Masterclass

Couple of days ago, the one and only @refocusedmedia directed my attention toward a masterclass with Austrian Filmmaker Michael Haneke held at the Forum des Images, in French. I usually try to avoid translating from French to English, but this masterclass is just too great to be shy and keep it to myself.

During more than an hour, Haneke talks about his career, how he became a filmmaker, how he developed his sensitivity, how he works with actors and much much more. It is impossible for me to share everything but I tried my best to select stories and tips that felt the most relevant to us.

Without further ado, here are the lessons learned from Michael Haneke’s Masterclass :

#1 – The Best Way to Learn How to Write Good Screenplays Is to Analyze Bad Ones

Before becoming a filmmaker, Haneke was a reader for four years. He believes that when you read a good screenplay, you are too impress to notice what is going on, but when you have to analyze a bad screenplay, you can deconstruct what doesn’t work, and that’s when you learn the most.

#2 – The Best Way to Start as a Director is to Work With a Small Group of Actors… Who Are Not Great

Directing actors is one of the hardest thing to do, one of the scariest thing to do, and one of the most important skill to have as a director. When Haneke started, he worked for the Austrian TV, back when TV was ‘just’ TV. He worked with a small group of actors that were not excellent actors, and that pushed him to learn how to direct actors and find ways to get performances out of them.

Haneke, who teaches at a film school in Austria, shared that tips on how to direct actors is what his students ask the most during his classes.

#3 – Filmmaker is the Most Overrated Job in the Industry

For Michael Haneke, if you have a good screenplay and a good casting, you need to be a really bad filmmaker to make a bad film. It all starts with the screenplay. If you don’t write your own screenplays, and you direct a good screenplay, then your job is not as hard as everybody makes it sound.

#4 – One Day on Set = One Day on the Storyboard

Haneke works on each of his films starting with a storyboard. When he first started directed films, he worked on storyboards because he was scared of making mistakes. This developed into a habit that allows him to carefully work during pre-production. His philosophy is to spend as many days on his storyboards as he is planning to spend on shooting his film. In other words: if the shooting is scheduled to last 8 weeks, he will spend 8 weeks on his storyboards.

Once his storyboard is completed, Haneke gives it to his cinematographer who can get back to him if he has any questions, but this rarely happens as Haneke is used to working with the same team of collaborators.

 #5 – The Most Important Skill for a Filmmaker is His/Her Ear

Haneke deeply believes that the ears prevails over the eyes when it comes to being a filmmaker. To him, films are about rhythm. Haneke initially wanted to become a pianist and spent many years working on his technique, until his uncle told him that no matter how hard he’d worked, he didn’t have ‘the thing’ to become a virtuosi. Haneke dropped piano but kept this sense of rhythm and melody that dictates how he directs actors.

On set or when he casts actors, Haneke doesn’t look at them, he literally shows them his ear, because he wants to focus on the tone. He also became an adopter of wearing a cask on set, so he can really hear every variations and make sure the performances feel right.

 #6 – Rehearsals Are the Best Way to Kill Performances

Just like Ken Loach, Haneke believes that rehearsing with actors gives them a fake feeling of security that takes out from their performance. He also thinks that during rehearsals, actors develop an opinion on what their character should or shouldn’t do, and then act the opinion they have instead of playing their character. This is the most apparent when actors try to play a scene where their character lies, for Haneke, 90% of the time, you already know the character is lying, which he finds absurd.

 #7 – On Score vs. Diegetic Music

Haneke avoids score in his film, and favors diegetic music. The reason behind it is that his films want to depict realistic moments, and real life doesn’t come with a score. If he were to make a genre film, such as a Western, then he would use score, but music needs to be used in harmony with the tone and genre of the film.

#8 – Sound Design is One of the Most Important and Most Pleasurable Moment in the Filmmaking Process

If Haneke doesn’t use score, he does spend a lot of time on sound design, with an average of two months  for his last two films. Sound design happens when everything else is done, the film is edited, you know what the story is about, and you can really immerse yourself into the details in sound that will make a difference, adding layers to the story and even modifying the actors’ performance.

#9 – The Audience Might Not See It, But They Feel It

Haneke is also famous for working in studio as often as possible, and favoring working on built sets rather than on locations. Because of his minutious work on storyboard during pre-production, he has a clear and precise idea of what he wants that, if he has the budget, can be better rendered by building and controlling the set.

Haneke is adamant about reproducing real life’s chaos on set. It needs to feel real and to do that, everything must be done as closely as it would be in real life. He learned that from a set designer he worked with at the beginning of his career, who recreated the German Parliament using the same construction technic used to build the real Parliament. When producers complained that he was making unnecessary expensive choices, the set designer said that the audience might not see it, but they’ll feel it. The apartment where Amour takes place is a reconstitution of Haneke’s parents apartment.

 #10 – Two Of the Hardest Things to Do for Professional Actors

Opening doors in a way that feels natural, and saying short lines such as ‘yes’ or ‘but’.

#11 – A Film Teacher’s Duty Is to Help a Student Find His/Her Artistic Ego

And it is also the hardest task to perform. Haneke considers that an artist must  find his/her inner strength in order to create something unique. We often look up to other artists, but trying to imitate them is already failing, no matter how talented we are. Haneke considers this quest of finding its own artistic ego as one of the most important and hardest thing to do, and a teacher’s job is to help his/her students find out what this inner strength is.

aaaaaand, that’s it! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I hope you enjoyed it (yes, true sentence). If you are a francophone, I highly recommend you watch the full masterclass: