A most wanted man.
Hollywood’s finest – a multi-talent.
His images are as iconic as his models – Bowie, Bono, Tom Waits. His pared-down, bleak style has left its indelible mark on an entire generation of photographers. Since the early 1980s, Anton Corbijn has counted among music history’s key photographers. Splicing imagery and design, he later went on to art direct music videos and record covers for luminaries ranging from Depeche Mode to U2. In the late 2000s, when Hollywood beckoned once again, he finally took the plunge and became a bona fide film maker.
Corbijn’s latest work, A MOST WANTED MAN, first captivated critics at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Set in a post-9/11 world gripped by terror and doubt, the noir spy thriller throws a spotlight on loneliness and the desire for goodness.
Part of his eclectic cast: a recently deceased master of the craft, Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his very last role – here, Hoffman portrays the chain-smoking, whisky-swilling secret agent Günther Bachmann.
The small difference.
A MOST WANTED MAN is your fourth feature film. What attracted you to this particular medium?
I have been a photographer for forty years, so I know this medium inside out. Film, on the other hand, is something new for me. I keep discovering new approaches and new ways of working. And I find this very inspiring.
Beyond the novelty aspect, where do you notice the biggest differences between film and photography?
They differ in many ways. Take time, for example. Some of my best pictures were done in just a few minutes. But a film might take a year-and-a-half – and not even turn out great in the end. That’s a risk you have to take.
From photographer to filmmaker.
So, how did you progress from photographer to film maker?It was a very natural and organic process. I started out taking pictures because I loved music and wanted to get closer to the stage. At some point, I also got into music videos. So, when someone approached me about doing a “real” movie, I initially replied that “I will never do a feature film. I’m a photographer and I love working on my own.” Years later, I ended up shooting my debut feature: Control. This triggered a steady stream of proposals – and now I find myself here, as a film maker (laughs).
How do you work? Do you plan all the scenes in your head before going on set?I don’t do storyboards – only for action scenes. I try to keep everything very open: While we run through a scene, I check on the fly if the script works and how I want to shoot it all. If something seems off, I simply change it.
The Spy who came in the S-Class.
What about wardrobe and set? Why, for example, did you pair one of your main actors, A MOST WANTED MAN’S secret agent Günther Bachmann, with an S-Class W126?
A lot of the time, I start out with a vague idea of what a character should look like, long before the actual shoot. Bachmann is a good example. I used to drive the same make and model and really wanted one for the film. It is simply the perfect match for Günther Bachmann – not too clean or shiny. I wanted something that doesn’t scream successful businessman, but something that is a little bit funky. At the same time, Willem Dafoe, who plays banker Thomas Brue, needed an elegant ride that looks like a million dollars. So the SL roadster seemed like a pretty good fit (laughs).
In search of the own voice.
Any advice for young film makers looking for their own audience?
Stay at home (laughs)!No, really: It is important to find your own voice. To have no fear and do exactly what you want. I think film, not photography, is the future. So, when young people ask me today if they should become photographers, I tend to reply: better not.
Nowadays, everyone is a photographer. Yet most of them produce nothing but rubbish. People photograph everything, but live or experience nothing of what they record. That’s crazy! To me, that’s no longer photography. It has nothing to do with real life. Everything is just about status. But photography is not glamorous – it is hard work. Only those willing to put in the work and those who really want to succeed, will enjoy success in the end.
If you look back at what you have achieved so far – are you happy with what you see?Right now, I am working on two exhibitions to be held in The Netherlands, including a retrospective. As part of the process, I sometimes come across long-forgotten shots – good ones, but also ones where I think: How could I have wasted my time with this? It involves plenty of highs and lows. The trick of the artist is to only really show the good stuff.
Thank you very much for this interview, Mr. Corbijn!