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Filmmakers Chat: Anton Corbijn talks “Life”

September 29, 2015

Film + EntertainmentInterview | by Francesco Cerniglia


For an incredibly talented artist like Anton Corbijn, the move from photography to filmmaking was only going to be a matter of time. Regarded as one of the most influential photographers both in the world of music and in the world of portraiture photography, Corbijn discovered photography though his love for music while still at high school in Holland more than 40 years ago. He used his father’s camera for his first photos at an open-air concert in 1972 and as an autodidact, he soon moved from stage photography to portrait photography, but initially only of artists and musicians which led him to move to London in 1979.

Some of his most well known photographs feature Clint Eastwood, Cameron Diaz, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, Naomi Campbell, William S. Burroughs, Tom Waits, Allen Ginsberg, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Robert De Niro, Gerhard Richter, Ai Weiwei, Lucian Freud and he’s considered to be the ‘house’ photographer of U2 for the last 30 odd years and for Depeche Mode for almost as long.

Interested in pushing the boundaries in respect to the media he works in, Corbijn has been working in film and video with some of the musicians he photographed and was in 1983 one of the first photographers to direct music videos. He has since made approximately 80 music videos for among others U2, Johnny Cash, Arcade Fire, Depeche Mode, Nirvana, Metallica, Nick Cave, Coldplay and The Killers. His music video work is highly acclaimed and has won him an MTV award for Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box, and a CADS (Creative and Design Awards) award for “outstanding achievement” for his oeuvre in 2005.

His work can be seen on over 100 record/CD sleeves featuring many of those artists and for Depeche Mode he has designed stage-sets as well as the on-stage visuals for all their world tours for the last 20 years. His exhibitions have been extremely successful in Europe and his work can be seen in museums and galleries alike as well as in 15 published books. His most recent book WAITS/CORBIJN, which was collaboration between Anton and Tom Waits, was sold out from the publisher within a week of publication. In 2011 he was awarded the highest Dutch Cultural Award, the ‘Prince Bernhard Cultuurfonds Prijs’, for his contribution and influence in the world of the arts.


The inevitable transition to film happened in 2005 when Corbijn started working on (directing/co-producing/financing) his first feature film Control (2007). It was his most ambitious project to date: a love story about the life and death of Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s singer. This subject was very close to Anton’s heart as Joy Division was the reason why he’d moved from Holland to London as he “wanted to be closer to where their music came from”. Control and Corbijn as a director won around 20 awards worldwide, including 5 BIFAs, one of those for Sam Riley as the lead actor.

Over the past few years, alongside a new series of portraits of painters, Corbin has directed two more feature films, The American (2010) with George Clooney and A Most Wanted Man (2014), based on the novel by John Le Carré featuring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. He has also managed to direct a few commercials like Miss Dior, Volvo and a Depeche Mode live DVD plus several features for Vogue (USA).

Filmmaking is Anton Corbijn’s priority now and his latest effort, his 4th feature film, Life, has just been released in UK cinemas after premiering at the Berlinale back in February. Starring Dane Dehaan and Robert Pattinson, Life tells the little known story of two weeks in the life of late film icon James Dean (DeHaan), when young photographer Dennis Stock (Pattinson) tried to pin him down to make a visual essay for LIFE magazine. Dennis thinks he’s capturing a star in the moment before he breaks but he’s also documenting the last moments of intimacy and simplicity that James Dean will ever know. In the process of the journey from Hollywood to New York to Indiana to visit Dean’s family, a deep affection and improbable friendship gradually develops between the two young men.

Producer Iain Canning has noted how there’s a lot of common ground between Control and Life because they both bring Corbijn to the core of what he’s known for outside of film. That common ground is photography and the influence of the photographer on the subject. Corbjin knew well the personal and creative relationships that can emerge, and in making Control he drew on his history of photographing Ian Curtis and Joy Division, hence why he seemed perfect to direct a story about a photographer who works with either actors or musicians in terms of bringing out their soul and their spirit.

We met with Corbijn on a lovely sunny morning in Notting Hill to chat about his new film but also his career so far and his future aspirations as now a mostly full time filmmaker.


How did James Dean’s premature death affect the making of the film? Especially given how the story you tell highlights his uneasiness about the future and change, were you worried it could manipulate the audience slightly by playing on their knowledge of his premature death and detracting from authenticity?

Yes, but that’s in a way a good thing for the film because, although it’s called Life, this idea of death somehow hangs over it, the audience fills it in. We don’t show it, but the end is very dramatic. The experience of it is dramatic, it’s emotional and that’s exactly because of our knowledge of what happened to him. I think that’s rather interesting and it’s not often that you can use it in a film. That makes it a very different kind of film then if he hadn’t died. But we never refer to it although there’s even a photo shoot that Dennis Stock did with James Dean in Fairmont, in a shop that sells coffins, with James sitting or lying in a coffin and we decided to not use that reference in the film or it would’ve been too much on the nose.

You’ve said how Dane DeHaan was your first choice but he wasn’t interested in doing it since James Dean is his hero and he thought he could never do him justice. Not everyone approved of your casting but I must admit that after an initial skepticism, regardless of Dane’s talent, after seeing the film I realized why you picked him as he does a great job at capturing the charm and tormented soul of the late icon. Did you ever have an alternative casting choice in mind?

Not really in my mind. I did have to meet with a few people because you have to go through this process and Dane didn’t want to meet at first so I was nervous since he was my choice and frankly I couldn’t think of anyone else. Luckily, I’m friends with Metallica’s Lars Ulrich who knew Dane because he was in (2013’s Metallica Through The Never) the film the band did and Lars somehow persuaded him to meet me and that was great. Dane was so the right choice for this and I’m so happy with his performance, he’s such a great actor and in the film he makes you believe that you’re looking at this person rather quickly. The physical similarity with James stops at some point, yet he worked a lot to get that far. If you look at him in The Place Beyond The Pines where he appears as this skinny little kid, he’s so believable you think he’s a teenager and that’s a testament to his ability to transform. He’s got similar qualities to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman who literally shrunk into becoming Capote.

Speaking of the wonderful Hoffman, you’ve mentioned how he was your choice to play John Morris (the head of the Magnum Photo office who helped put together Dennis Stock’s photo shoot) in Life before his sudden and premature departure led you to cast Joel Edgerton. That makes me think about his wonderful work in your previous film A Most Wanted Man and the recurring presence of lonely, melancholy protagonists with a tormented soul in all your films so far. Is there anything in particular that attracts you to those kinds of characters?

I’m drawn to them because they’re fascinating. I feel at home with that element and I don’t think there’s anything morbid about it either. It’s just a way of focusing on that one person and how he goes through life outside of the norm that’s interesting to me. In a way it’s about how you depict something that people pick up on. You could make a film about Putin and make him a lonely man. It’s all about how you portray something, emphasizing some elements over others but there’s a solitary side in all of us. Maybe my indulging on nostalgic and melancholic characters is what prevents my films from being really successful [Laughs].


Well, I think the concept of success is relative and subjective but since you’re touching on the topic I’m wondering whether you’ve been offered so far any big blockbuster film.

I haven’t been offered but I’ve been in talks about it. I believe big action films and I are mutually exclusive though [laughs]. I think the time is not for me there at the moment. Of course there is an incredible need for entertainment in difficult times but there is also a demand for proper films and that’s what I’m trying to make. As a filmmaker you have to pick a project you want to see yourself and then see where it goes.

Do you miss the golden days of the MTV music videos era?

Oh no, I don’t miss it at all. I’m very happy I got the chance to make lots of music videos, it was fun, but even if that golden age was happening now I would be making films because it’s much more challenging. With music videos, if it’s a good song, you can almost put any kind of visuals to it and it will work whereas there’s so much more intellect and research going into making a movie and also emotion. I’m happy I had that experience and loved a lot of it but I’m very happy that I’m here now. Photography has changed a lot. Sometimes I think I regret the amount of energy I’ve given to proper photography considering the kind of irreversible change that’s happened now as people don’t believe in images and in stories with images anymore. They want film and they want different subjects. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think they have become very inventive with that kind of stuff and that’s great. No matter what though the power of a single image cannot be underestimated. Sometimes you remember a single image better than the whole film.

There’s a scene where James Dean isn’t exactly amused by having to do interviews with journalists asking stupid questions and he mentions how he didn’t go to college because he thought he didn’t need it in order to follow his acting passion. As far as your photography career goes you got into it as an autodidact. Do you think nowadays we lost that kind of romanticism of dropping everything and follow your passion and is that important to artists in order to be true to themselves rather than being often limited in a school environment?

I think it depends on the person. I would’ve liked to have an education but didn’t have a chance to, so I had to take care of it myself and in the end it worked out very well for me because you find your own language that people later call style. Some other people though benefitted from going to a proper school. Dane DeHaan himself went to acting school and it worked great for him. It’s very much up to yourself and how you’re going to develop what’s in you. Sometimes it needs guidance but sometimes it needs your own creative invention to come out. I mean, if we look at James Dean in a period like that, I guess to him it was really important for an artist to be in control of his own work. I don’t think he set out to break the studio system, he just wanted to do his own thing but turned out to be revolutionary and it’s hard for people now to understand it was like that, hence the importance of seeing the Jack Warner character who reminds James what the rules were back then.


What’s in store for you? Do you go through a pile of scripts or do you have some sort of pre-selective approach when choosing your next project?

I’m working on a script now, well, I’m not writing it, I’m giving notes to the screenwriter and it’s something set for next year. I used to choose on a case by case basis, so for instance a few years ago I didn’t know I was going to make Life. I don’t specifically set out to make this or that film depending on trends and such. I just look at what appeals to me in a story. Ultimately I’d love to be more of an auteur and write more or at least be more part of the writing process because just like James Dean I like to be more in control of my stuff and in photography I was used to that whilst in film it’s more difficult.

Life is out in UK cinemas now

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor