sat 02/07/2022

Interview: Anton Corbijn on making The American | reviews, news & interviews

Interview: Anton Corbijn on making The American

Interview: Anton Corbijn on making The American

Celebrated Dutch photographer and director talks Clooney, Control and U2

Joy Division brought Anton Corbijn to England in 1979 and, nearly 30 years later, made him a cinema director. The sleeve of the band’s album Unknown Pleasures fascinated him so deeply he felt compelled to leave Holland for the country where such mysteries were made. The photographs he took of them for the NME helped make an icon of their singer Ian Curtis even before his 1980 suicide, and were themselves icons of a school of serious, black-and-white rock photography.

Corbijn restlessly challenged himself to change styles through the 1990s, making rock videos as well as portraits. Finally, in 2007, he parlayed that experience into Control, a beautiful film about Ian Curtis and the northern England of the 1970s that had been so crucial to Corbijn. Now he’s back with George Clooney in The American.

Corbijn had been hustling as a rock photographer in Holland since 1973, making his name shooting the man who became the country’s biggest star, Herman Brood. He lived till 11 in Strijen, on the small island of Hoeksche Waard, “a Dutch boy from a little village” as he calls himself, in wonder at how far he’s come. His Joy Division assignments were followed by ongoing collaborations with Depeche Mode and U2, who he defined in their 1980s pomp on the sleeve of The Joshua Tree, where they could be dusty Dublin extras from a John Ford western. A portrait of the reclusive Captain Beefheart in his desert home, in which a man recalled by bandmates as a tyrant looks pleadingly vulnerable with a hat Corbijn asked him to remove in his hand, shows the human sympathy behind his portraiture. Miles Davis, Kurt Cobain, strippers and painters are among a broadening range of subjects.

Control was a near-perfect directorial debut. With the help of cinematographer Martin Ruhe it looked beautiful in inky black and white, an animated NME cover. Its qualities of quiet, stillness and dry humour suited its era’s northern backstreets, but were rare in a rock film. Corbijn’s insistent understatement made Curtis’s ordinary life as real as his extraordinary music and death. He called it his “most rewarding experience”. But he knew drawing so much on his own experience only made it a dry run for a cinema career.

4056_D041_05929sThe American is deeply flawed but doggedly brave proof that Corbijn is a real director. Based on Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, it puts George Clooney’s Jack (pictured left), a gunsmith and assassin, at bay in a mist-shrouded Italian town. When we first see him in a Swedish cabin, with a ripely curvy, post-coital nude woman satisfied on his fur-draped bed, it’s straight from The Spy Who Loved Me. Jack is more brutal than Bond. But his meetings with gorgeous women in Euro cafes and the exotic Abruzzi locations creak with references to other spy movies - the cool European thrillers of the 1970s especially. You can hear the music of Kraftwerk in Jack’s gliding journeys down snaking autostrada. The dancing eyes of Gorgeous George are stilled here. But we’ve seen this sort of loner, his carapace cracked by a beautiful young woman (Violante Placido, rarely clothed), many times before. The American’s script is made from sawdust and bits of old spy stories, where Control breathed with someone’s life.

Fetishistically composed, static long shots and flattened, disproportionate images show Corbijn’s photographer’s eye. And his inexperience as a director and career-long wish to make uncompromised choices make The American oddly memorable. With its muted music and violence, it’s a perverted action film. Clooney’s social awkwardness and full-on sex scenes in his near-empty hilltop bolthole sometimes find a way past the clichés. Corbijn’s deliberate, sometimes off-key approach is admirable, even when it makes his film falter. It’s been a substantial, surprise US box-office hit.

The downside for Corbijn to Control’s success was the promotional grind, which he found hellish and shattering. His time for The American is therefore strictly rationed, just as he complains photographic assignments are these days during our interview in London (where he still lives). The country boy who met Joy Division as a 24-year-old in 1979, too shy to speak much in his faltering English, and his two unemphatic films all seem present in the reserved man I meet. It’s only when I bump into him in the hotel lift later (where he starts enthusiastically critiquing the 1970s albums of the man on my T-shirt, Van Morrison) that I realise Anton Corbijn is an impressively tall man. Like his characters, he keeps his strengths quiet.

NICK HASTED: Even though it’s called The American, your new film is very European. It could almost be a Wim Wenders movie.

ANTON CORBIJN (pictured below with Clooney on the set of The American): Yeah, I guess. There was one occasion where it reminded me of Wenders’s take on America - the scene where he delivers the gun to a character. The book is of course an English book, set in Italy. But I wanted to make so many changes from my first film to this film that I actually changed the nationality of the characters - I didn’t want to go to any English actors. So I had to make the protagonist American. And my working title was Il Americano, which was for me the spaghetti western kind of vibe - it’s incorrect Italian, actually, it should be La Americano. Anyway, that was too difficult for the Americans. But yes, it’s a very European film…

Jack seems a very James Bond sort of character, for the first five minutes. There’s a naked woman lounging on fur on the bed in the cabin, he’s relaxing after a job. Then he shoots her in the back of the head, which shows he’s somewhat different…

Well yeah. There’s very little background information on the main character - on any of the characters. And that’s typical for westerns, they’re elemental stories. He’s not really a hitman, he’s a gunsmith. But he’s very protective of his whereabouts, and that’s the reason why he kills the girlfriend - to protect himself, and also he knows that if she falls into other people’s hands it’ll be worse for him.

The-American_-Anton-Corbijn-George-Clooney-set_2010-Focus-Features-LLCHe’s the ultimate existential loner, but the story of the film is of that crumbling - that shell of certainty falling apart, which makes him vulnerable.

Yeah. It’s about whether you can change yourself, a little bit. It’s very internal, this film. There’s some action bits, but it’s absolutely not about action. The book is very internal, with the main character justifying his whole life to himself.

Have you felt the need to change your life - and have you found that easy or hard to do? I guess going from the village where you grew up was the first time you remade yourself.

Yeah, but that was my parents… I don’t think I made a very conscious decision, apart from when I moved to England, which changed my life. That was a big thing. That’s why Control was an important element of my life that I wanted to get out of the way. Making films, I know it changes my life - but I don’t make films because I want my life to be changed. I just find it really interesting to take on these challenges, and these opportunities I’ve been given. It’s amazing when you think about it. I was a photographer who wanted to photograph some musicians on stage when I was 17, and became a portrait photographer, and got involved in very, very many visual disciplines, and you learn from all of them. Making movies is a culmination of all these disciplines. It’s fantastic. But it’s a very organic process for me. I don’t set out to become a director.

Yeah, I was really interested that you’ve mentioned that you haven’t seen that many movies, which is very rare for a director. So you’ve come to this region of the moving image from a very different route.

Yeah. It’s sometimes embarrassing, I guess, because the people who interview me do know a lot of films. I have not seen enough, because my film gets sometimes compared to films that I’ve never seen. But in the arts it’s all about finding a language for yourself. With photography it was the same. I had to discover what I could actually do with it, without knowing anything about photography when I started. I had not really any schooling. I don’t come from the perspective that I have an opinion about films that have been made. I come from a lot of experience and I wanted to prove myself with film. It’s more a project for me where I try to find a voice.

I wanted to emphasise the loneliness of the protagonist. Because we wanted people to see that he’s really very isolated, and in a place that’s already very isolated

Did you learn photography, and start to find your voice, by reacting and connecting to those people on stage. [The late, great Dutch rock star] Herman Brood, for instance - what was his importance to your life?

Yeah. By that time, 1973, 1974, I hardly did any live stuff any more - it became more almost documentary things. But with Herman, he became really famous in Holland. And my photography, because I photographed him always, became known, and that was amazing. Herman always said to me that what I did with him was a blueprint for my work with U2. So yeah, I think it was great that I had all those years to make all those mistakes, and they didn’t really get noticed. But I taught myself to shoot, and with all the mistakes in there, that’s your style. Your handicap is basically your greatest asset. Anyway, I never learned properly how to take a picture. But at some point, people accept that. When people ask me to take a proper picture, I get very nervous, because I don’t know how.

Are you just always reacting to the human being in front of you - trying to make a connection with them?

And an environment, too. That’s why I don’t have a studio - although I’m building a proper studio now, for the first time in my life, because I want to cut down on my travelling. But I always find it interesting to go to where people are, and that element becomes part of the picture.

In Control, there’s not much camera movement. And the way you frame Castelvecchio in The American, there are a lot of long and overhead shots of static images, with someone moving in them. Why did you do that?

One reason was to emphasise the loneliness of the protagonist. Because we wanted people to see that he’s really very isolated, and in a place that’s already very isolated. And the other reason is that I like to show the landscape, because it’s reminiscent of the spaghetti western landscapes which I like.

That sense of a man in open space - do you think that’s rooted also in the Dutch landscapes you grew up in?

I think the feeling of space that I grew up in on an island was very much part of my early photography. But now, anything that’s a hill is to me exotic, foreign, and I enjoy that…

I’m from Essex, so I know what you mean…

Yeah. [Laughs.] Norfolk is very Dutch, isn’t it? I remember with my parents in Holland, which is not a very big country, we’d travel an hour and that was very foreign already, because of the hills…

corbijn_u2When you photographed U2 in Death Valley, could you link that to that flat, Dutch expanse?

Possibly. I think it had more to do with the fact that I didn’t want to place things anywhere - I had a freedom of location. That’s when I was for a while attracted to this idea of deserts. That started for the first time, really, when I met Captain Beefheart in 1980 [in the Mojave], and I thought I’d use that same environment for U2 (Edge and Bono of U2 pictured above, with Corbijn centre). At that time, we had time for these things. I went out for a week to find the places and they came over for three days. It was amazing. Nobody has time for that any more. We are always being filmed by about 10 cameras. Then I got a little lost. Because I lived a little while in LA. And for me, those are lost years… not really the most interesting of my photography. I tried to change. My photographs of the Seventies and Eighties were chronicled in a book called Famouz. And then I got a different camera, and I wanted to use more shadow and get closer to people, and I moved to LA to shoot different people differently. It all plays a part in how you develop. But sometimes I think I was a little lost.

My window to the world as a teenager was record sleeves, and sitting in a room looking at them and relating to it that way. Which is a very odd thing to do

Did you find yourself in limbo as a human being in LA - just drifting through?

Also, also. I found it a very difficult place to connect with a lot of things. I’m a very basic guy, very down to earth. But very lost sometimes in my work, I don’t see a lot beyond that. Which is I guess fine for artists. But my films deal always with loners, so far. So I think there’s part of me that really empathises with that existence.

How did you climb out of that lost period? And what did you do with your days in LA?

Well, I took pictures, and I tried to make videos. But I think creatively I was lost. And a relationship ended, and all that stuff. And I was doing the kind of stuff I did with U2 on Achtung Baby.

Had you gone to LA partly because of that same Europeans’ fascination with America, and rock’n’roll, that U2 show?

Partly. Also I thought I’d try to work more with videos, and it was the capital of videos. And I really wanted to work with light and shadow, because I always thought I worked with clouds. I made a picture with Nick Cave where the shadows really helped make him look like Lucky Luke, which was really funny, and also with Spielberg. But somehow I started to work with colour. It took me two years, but by 1993 I was in a really creative period again, and I worked with Nirvana, and I made a short film with Captain Beefheart [Some YOYO Stuff], which was fantastic. It was the last anyone has seen of him. I thought it was an important piece of film. I found myself again in 1993.

And when you went home at that time, was it long dark nights of the soul - or more low key?

I don’t think I realised myself at the time how lost I was. It was more when I came out of it, I thought, “God…” I don’t think I want to go in and salvage anything from those times. But it’s essential for the work to do these things.

Did that experience feed into understanding the intense loneliness that Jack has as part of his job?

Yeah. Possibly. My window to the world as a teenager was record sleeves, and sitting in a room looking at them and relating to it that way. Which is a very odd thing to do. But I think from that stems the connection to people creating things, and the difficulty of creating. Whereas some people when they think of music they think of this orgasm on stage. I’ve never found that interesting. I think what I can relate to in musicians is the creation part. And that’s one reason I’m much better as a photographer of one person than of a group of people. I got known as a photographer of groups because these pictures became so successful, but that is not what I’m best at. And also not what I’m interested in.

I was in my mid-forties, I thought, what is this? How can I still be interested in music so much? What sparked that interest off?

I know you left Strijen when you were 11. Lots of people who live on islands tend to have very richly imagined interior lives, because you have to…

I guess, yeah.

And also tend to be a bit odd, because you’re in that enclosed place.

Yeah, that’s true. What happened was that I lived on that island until I was 11, and then The Beatles happened - the sense that everything in life that was exciting happened outside the island. And I got a relatively large interest in everything that happened outside the island. So when we moved from that island, I really gave all my time to music. Everything connected to music I found interesting. And it culminated at some point in taking a camera and going to a little afternoon concert in the town where I lived. And that’s where I started.

Were you interested, or fixated, as I was when I was growing up, on rock’n’roll as something that could change the world in some way? Or was it more to get you out of where you were?

Yeah, initially, absolutely. I had no idea about its significance. It was just different and it seemed exciting. Really, I think it’s quite basic, what my initial attraction was.

It’s happening somewhere else - and if you got to it, you’d be somewhere else…

Yeah. When I was in my mid-forties, I thought, what is this? How can I still be interested in music so much? What sparked that interest off? And I went back to that island. And I realised then that it was the lack of anything exciting that made me interested in it. And I made a series of self-portraits on that island. It was really a nice project. It was bringing my big world to this small world, and looking at my own obsession with musicians, and combining it with the obsession I grew up with, which was my parents’ obsession with life after death. So I dressed myself up as deceased musicians, in that town. It showed a lot of the environment that I grew up in, and you can see how that landscape we talked about influenced me. And there was an exhibition that started in the village, and it was a secret project that only the mayor of Strijen knew about. And then the people all came to the exhibition. It was really interesting. [Laughs.] It was convincing to the point where the locals wondered who I was… Yes, so that’s how I dealt with that. [Corbijn’s self-portraits, made-up as an unlikely, stone-faced Jimi Hendrix, Marc Bolan, Bob Marley and more, with the fields and big empty sky of his home village behind him, are in his 2002 book a.somebody, strijen, holland].

Icontrol-1n Control (pictured right), you’re of course almost recreating a moment in your own life. With the way England seemed then, and also the way news photography was, what aesthetic, what idea of beauty did that create do you think - that grey, black-and-white world that you were moving in and photographing? Like in the film, where you find beauty in crematorium smoke…

I guess it’s nostalgia sometimes for how things used to look. And you can see that if I turn things into black and white. But also I think the lack of opportunity then was very important. You pay attention to the environment you’ve been given. I think I can find beauty in very simple things, and I’m also very aware of how ugly things are, which is the downside of all that. Architecture is one of my pet hates. There’s so much bad architecture - especially here [in England]. If you take housing projects, the houses they make for people have small doors, small windows. It’s terrible, pushing people down - it’s a class thing.

Was it a relief almost to get back to those old back streets of Nottingham where you filmed Control?

It was great. Nottingham was brilliant for the film. Manchester was not very helpful at all. Nottingham couldn’t have been more helpful. And I think back with great love to that period of three months, in a very hot summer, actually. I always imagine Control to be a very cloudy film, very dark, and it was just sunlight the whole time. But it helped, I think, it lifted the mood of the film!

Did it seem like the England you’d lived in?

Yeah, it did. The environment was very different from Holland. I remember going out of London on the train, with the NME for all these assignments, and I couldn’t believe how Third World-like it was. And now I sound like somebody who works for the Pope…

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