You would be forgiven for thinking that Anton Corbijn is comfortable in the world of Hollywood – before he came into Room 114 of the Soho hotel a sweet intern has poured him a cup of tea – but you would be wrong. Starting as a photographer and then going into music videos before he directed his critically acclaimed first film, ‘Contol’, Corbijn is not fully accustomed to the way the film industry works. So when we sit down to talk about his new film, ‘The American’, interviewing him does not feel like being in the presence of a legend, but more a man who is still trying to make a name for himself, though he’s still not quite sure what the name should be.
What are feature films and music videos like compared to photography, which is where you started?
‘Basically the big problem for both is as a photographer it is a single vision, just you and your camera, which is much easier to stay in control of. With anything that involves other people it is much harder not to lose your direction and the more people that get involved the harder it is. It is difficult because I can’t explain my ideas very well. I have them in my head, but the trick of course is to make them understood by others. I’ve learnt that bit now.’
As your background is not strictly feature films, did it seem easier this time, now that you had one film under your belt?
‘My first film [‘Control’] was an independent film that I basically financed myself outside of the film industry. This one was very much in the film industry, in Hollywood, so the way we made it was very different in terms of the way we had to discuss things, which was quite new to me. I made this film differently to ‘Control’ because I wanted to have new experiences that you learn from.’
You had quite a large break between ‘Control’ and ‘The American’ – what attracted you to this one over any others that you might have come across?
‘I had to think what my future would be after ‘Control’. I started to do photography again; I did something for U2, a little film, and then I started reading scripts. It took a year longer than I had wanted to, but saying that, when I made ‘Control’ I always thought it would be the one film I make in my life, because of what it did to me in terms of experience and also in recognition. I felt I should see if I could become a proper director and do another film, in fact another 2 films; this is what I have set myself now, as I want to find out if I can make films or if I want this kind of life. These are all questions you need to ask yourself before starting a project.’
What sort of project were you looking for?
‘I read many scripts that had to do with dark comedies, Westerns, thrillers, because these were the kind of films I wanted to see for myself and I think you should make a film you want to see yourself. I came across this story and I realized I could combine a Western with a suspense thriller, so I could put two genres together into one.’
Is it nerve wracking going into the second film after the massive critical success of ‘Control’, and are you worried about what people think of it or do you just make the film you want to make?
‘Well, if people hate the film I am sure for anyone that is hard to take because you work so long on the project, but I personally don’t think about it so much because ‘Control’ was such a one off, it came so out of the blue. But I have always tried things I don’t know a lot about and try to find my own voice in it. I know that I can’t top ‘Control’ in the critical sense, the recognition was so immense it is just something you can’t aim for. So you make a movie that you want to make and you have to let it go and see how people react.’
Which do you prefer to make, music videos or films?
‘Oh, films, definitely.’
Why is that?
‘I started music videos in ’83 so I have done a lot of them and I think that I have done what I like to do with music videos. Plus I don’t watch these channels anymore and I think it is very hard to make something for a medium that you are not involved or interested in anymore.’
In a way George Clooney is the face of modern American cinema. What made you decide to cast him as the American?
‘Well for starters ‘The American’ comes from an English book called ‘A Very Private Gentleman’, and I wanted the experience I had with this film to be very different from ‘Control’. ‘Control’ had all English actors apart from one who was German, so I decided to change the characters from English to European and American. I thought George would be the best for this role because he can say a lot with very little script. That was very important since there was no dialogue to speak of. Not many people can carry that and keep you interested, but his body language was really good.’
I was quite interested by the love scenes. They were very intense and down to earth which you don’t get much in modern cinema anymore, so what made you decide to show it in an unpretentious way?
‘Well, for start it is a very European film and goes right back to very traditional filmmaking. I felt it was important for the characters to have a sex scene because I wanted to show the aggression and then the change to love during the scene. So I filmed it in a way that you feel sexuality rather than seeing it, which I thought, was important because I know a lot of sex scenes usually don’t feel sexual. You see everything, but it is not sexual. By not showing that much, it will be more sexual; you will feel more what he did to her, which was the idea behind the scene. I am glad it worked well and that Violante is such an amazing actress that she can play that so naturally because it is not an easy role to play. I don’t think it was easy for George either because he never does that in films; you don’t see many love scenes of George Clooney and definitely not a scene like this.’
How does it feel to have one of your films being shown at the London Film Festival?
‘I don’t think I grew up with many expectations and I had no idea what Cannes really meant until I showed my films. I mean the biggest thing I took from Cannes was the realization that film is an industry. The money that goes in there and the people that push your film make it so different to photography. Photography feels like a hobby now, it is very individual, you make a picture and hope that someone will at some point see it. There is no industry there. This is my first experience with the London Film Festival, I have been to Toronto, but I have not London. Toronto I really liked because it had a lot of normal audiences and I think London is really similar to that. It has industry people and the normal audience, which I think is much nicer. Apparently there is a lot of attention to all the films being played which is great.’
You mentioned at the beginning of the interview that you wanted to do three films, and you have just finished your second one. Do you have any idea what you want your third one to be?
‘I am developing that at the moment, but it is too early to give anything away just yet.’