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The American - Anton Corbijn interview

The American

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ANTON Corbijn talks about directing his second film, The American, with George Clooney and why he wanted to try something completely different from Control.

He also talks about the surprise of getting a photo of Clooney’s naked bum on his camera and why he intends to make only one more film before re-assessing his career.

Q. What appealed to you about making The American?
Anton Corbijn: Well, after my first film [Control], obviously you don’t want to become the guy that people think you are, so I got all these films offers that dealt with the same subject matter. So, I realised pretty quickly that if I wanted to make another film… and initially I didn’t think I was ever going to make another film – I just wanted to make this one film. So, I needed to diversify and so started looking at very different genres. I then started reading lots of scripts for thrillers, suspense films, political dramas and dark comedies… films I would like to see.

I then came across the script for this story and went to read the book, upon which I realised there was a better script to be written. But the core of the film is the question of whether a person can change himself… that’s the essential thing. In our lives, it’s whether we can turn things around if we discover that our lives are empty or wrong in his case. So, taking that core question, we put a body around it of a suspense thriller. But at the same time I saw the possibility of putting an element of the Western in there, so there’s all these references to Westerns as well. The structure is like a Western.

Q. You include a clip of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West. He was obviously a great influence when drawing from the Westerns?
Anton Corbijn: Well, I like the pacing of the Leone films and the cinematography.

Q. At what point did you approach George Clooney?
Anton Corbijn: The book was released in the early ‘90s and the script I read from the book was, I think, the third script already. But obviously, it was really difficult for people to find a form for it. The script we made was actually the fourth script. Focus, at one point, had an option on the book but had let it go on the condition that if circumstances changed dramatically they would get first option again. So, when I got involved they then got interested and once we had finished the new script they sent it to George. He was the first person to get it and luckily he was interested.

Q. So, what appealed to you about George?
Anton Corbijn: Well, the reasons for actors I never know exactly. This was obviously a character he was keen to play and he liked the script and he was a big fan of Control.

Q. The movie asks a lot of him because there’s such a lot he has to do without words. There are scenes of him by himself a lot of the time… and yet he emotes so much…
Anton Corbijn: Oh yes, it’s a difficult part to play because he has to do a lot with very little.

Q. Had you seen Michael Clayton? Because there’s the scene at the end of that where the camera remains on his face at the end…
Anton Corbijn: Yeah, I liked it when he was angry in Michael Clayton and I liked Syriana. These are the references for me in his work… the ones that I like. So, I wanted to continue with that anger. But this is definitely his darkest role to date as well as one of his finest performances, in my opinion. But I could see he could do that and I really enjoyed bringing that out in him, especially because you don’t normally get to see it. It’s more often this charming man, which he naturally is. But this goes against the grain almost.

Q. But I gather he switches back into that charismatic George as soon as the cameras stop rolling? He’s not method…
Anton Corbijn: Yeah. He can do it in a split second.

Q. I gather you attempted to keep up with his jokes at one point, but then gave up?
Anton Corbijn: [Smiles] All the time! I made a book of the film called Inside The American, so I had a camera on set but there were days that I had no time whatsoever to take snapshots. My camera was always on my chair, though, and at one point I got the films back and I remember thinking: “I never saw these pictures! I can’t recall them.” Then there was someone’s naked butt. But then I realised it was George’s because I recognised the T-shirt. He had taken my camera and asked his assistant to take pictures of his naked butt [laughs]. It was very funny.

The American

Q. Did he make you sign anything afterwards so that you didn’t publish it anywhere?
Anton Corbijn: [Laughs] No. I can do what I like with it.

Q. You also work with Filippo Timi, who is an amazing actor…
Anton Corbijn: Yes, he’s amazing. He stutters…

Q. But not when he’s acting…
Anton Corbijn: No ,exactly. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve met. Unfortunately, we only had a small role for him [of the mechanic who assists George’s character] but he’s capable of so much more. But we were blessed with a great cast.

Q. How much fun did you have in researching locations, because I gather you chose the Abruzzo region of Italy as much for giving it some prominence for tourism because of the earthquake?
Anton Corbijn: Not really, no. That was an added bonus for the people there. But the region was chosen before the earthquake because it’s in the book. The villages I found myself. There are no references in the book to the villages. I met George on the day of the earthquake, funnily enough, for the first time, and we then started shooting in late September, so we decided to stay in Abruzzo and see what was possible. We did change some locations around but the setting was just right for us. Of course, we were pleased to stay there and help these people by putting our money into it, which was millions of dollars. And it was, of course, greatly appreciated by the people.

Q. Did the way it’s laid out present any logistical problems for filming – given so much is uphill and the streets are so tight?
Anton Corbijn: Sure. I couldn’t stay in the village so every morning I had to drive up again. I got car sick very often. The upside of it, though, was that you had no outside traffic.

Q. And I guess it’s also away from George’s fan-base, so less chance of being stalked by fans or the paparazzi?
Anton Corbijn: After filming he told me it was his favourite location ever because he could walk around there without anybody noticing him and he hadn’t had that for 18 years. In the bigger towns, there were problems of course.

Q. Does that type of thing get frustrating for you as a director? And is it a learning curve for you as a fresh features director working with such a big star?
Anton Corbijn: It was a learning curve full stop to work with George, but I previously worked for many years with U2 and there were the same kinds of scenario sometimes. We had to always be on guard. But it didn’t interfere with the film itself, apart from in Sweden when they sent helicopters over. The noise makes you stop filming. But in Italy, the paparazzi were far away and people wanted it to work, so the town people wouldn’t scream during set-ups,

Q. You mentioned earlier that after Control you hadn’t intended to keep directing. But now you definitely seem to have the bug. Is it a fair assumption that you will now continue to direct?
Anton Corbijn: Yeah, I think the first film was just a one-off for me. I never look at things as career moves, so it was just something I did and I liked it enough to tell myself: “OK, let’s try again.” It was such an amazing experience making Control, it really was. Without getting emotional, I think it was almost the best experience of my life. So, then I decided to make three films and then judge it. So, I’ll make one more film and then see if I want to have that life of a director, because it’s very different from that of a photographer – there’s much more stress [laughs]! I also want to see if I can still call myself a director because I don’t want to make films that don’t matter. I like to make films that have a reason to exist.

Read our review of The American

Read our interview with Violante Placido