Anton Corbijn in Zurich

Anton Corbijn, photographer and film maker

Ewa Hess talks to Anton Corbijn about his film „The American“, 9/8/2010 Hotel Hyatt, Zurich

EWH: So in the meantime you became a serious filmmaker?

AC: I have done two films so far, the funny thing is: people ask me, are you a photographer or a film maker? And i tend to say: filmmaker. The thing is, if you’ve made only two photographys, you never call yourself a photographer. But the amount of time and energy to make a film is so outragous, you really dive inside something, it changes your being, it changes your world.

Clooney, Italy, beautifull women… Sounds like a sure thing.

I did not knew it would come out this way when I started thinking of my next movie after „Control“. All I knew was that I wanted to make a different movie making experience. Control was a specific thing that dealt with a part of my life.

The rock-music part of your life?

No. That’s what people thought. But it was about a love story, really. Anyhow, I started looking for different genres. Westerns, thrillers, dark comedies. And I’ve realised, that one couldn’t make any westerns any more. The period is gone. „The Unforgiven“ is probably the last western ever. And then I’ve found a script, based on the book „A very private gentleman“. I’ve realised, that it was possible to hide a western in the structure of this novel.

What made the novel ideal for that?

It was talking about a man trying to redeem himself. For everything he has ever done. Everything happens inside him, so that’s why it was cosidered difficult to make a film out of it. I took one bit out of the film and put it in the beginning of the film, which kind of made it possible to me to tell the story afterward.

You mean the shocking scene at the beginning, when Mr. Butterfly shoots his bed companionfrom behind?

Yes. It kind of needed this shock to understand his embarassment afterwards. In the book the character is an Englishman, so nobody would think of Geroge Clooney. And there are two prositutes there, because he always went to bed with two prostitutes at the same time. May be it was a personal phantasy of the writer. It is not mine, so I’ve changed it. And I didn’t want ot work with english actors, because I’ve already done „Control“ with english actors. So I’ve changed it, too. And as I started to think about a 50 years old american actor, who is able to convey a certain emotion on the screen without saying anything… There is not many actors who can do that. So the script went to George Clooney.

Did you know him before?

No. But i came out, that he liked „Control“ very much. And we met a few days later. Unfortunately, it was the day of the earthquake in L’Aquila, where the movie was sensed to be shot. So I was thinking at this moment, that this film is never going to happen. All locations were destroyed and this tragedy was so pre-eminent. I couldn’t imagine anybody would ever think of filming there again, because there was so much grief and human loss around. It felt like an irony: I’ve got George Clooney, but lost my film.

Guess you’ve talked all the same?

It was amazing. George was telling me a lot about fillms. He knows a lot about films. Almost everything!

You don’t?

No. I haven’t seen that much films in my life. I don’t think it is a disadvantage. But it’s just different. The most film who make films are film -buffs. I am not.

Why is the movie called „The American“?

I didn’t like the title of the book for my film. „A very private gentleman“, coming from a dutchman, people would think it is a porno movie, I was afraid.


You know, the Dutch and the reputation they have. So my proposition for the title was „Il Americano“

Is it correct? Don’t you say L’Americano?

Yes. On pourpose. The idea behind this is one of an american not fitting in. And of course it is a reference to the spaghetti westerns. But the studio didn’t like the title, they thought the american audiences cannot cope with it.

You are quite stressing the idea of a „hidden western“. For me, in the middle of the film there is something i would call 2the craftmanship“. First of all the character Clooney plays is loving what he does: producing weapons. And then, the movie has a lot of craftsman-appeal, the way it is done, frame by frame perfect images, functioning like a clockwork.

It is for sure a very different film than those which are done today. It takes a whole film to make one gun. Which shows : that is what this guy loves to do. It is his only love in his life. He is really into it, but at the end, it leaves his life still empty. He comes back from the brothel, there is fog, he starts again on his own. After I finished the film I realised, it was how I did the film. Carin about the story, about the actors, about the look of the actors, about the music, putting all this components carefully together… Every piece getting so much love as the other.

We have known you for so many years as this outstanding photographer. This movie seemed to me to be much nearer your first career. It is a photographers movie. The mood in the film ist similiar to the modd in your photographs. And Clooneys character pretends to be a photographer. So may be it is a portrayal of yourself.

May be. May be not.

If it was, quite a thing to make George Clooney play yourself,

Yeah, it is a given… Like in this questionaire. „Whom do you think you look like?“ George Clooney. „Who do you think should play you in a film?“ George Clooney. No, I am not that vain in the end. He is a photographer in the film, because in the novel he paints the butterflies. As an englishman, he likes to do the aquarel. But it wouldn’t do for an american. So I made him a photographer.

But he is still a Mr. Butterfly.

Yes, I have given him the tattoo on his back.

At the end it is a very european movie. Slow pacing, sparse dialogue, beautifull frames, italian landscape, even frontal female nudity points in the direction: european arthouse.

Oh yes. The American are very confused about the film. You can read it in the reviews. They are very mixed. I think it is because the trailer suggests that it is going to be an action film. Which it isn’t at all. I could have told anybody that this trailer is not going to match. But it was outside my competence, so there is this confusion. Because the film, of course, is avery european film. The story, the look of it. And even the pacing…

I would say, the pacing is even european out of seventies. Long time we havent seen a film so slow.

That’s right. I liked the seventies movies. And the surprise is: George Clooney in this kind of independent looking arthouse film. Which might encourage other people as the usual arthouse public to give it a try as well.

It had an amazing start on the labourday-weekend in the US.

Amazing is the right word! And it is doing great! Even on weekdays. After those mixed reviews I mus suppose it is word of mouth. That the people go in, like it, and than tell their friends. Remarkable.

Do you think people start to get tired of the very quickly edited action movies and long for a slow, meaningfull cinema of the seventies again?

There must be a hunger for something else. In my movie I do not force people to keep up their attention all the time in a state of alarm. In my movie there is a lot of walking. Nothing happens. They must like it. It is very encouraging. I never expected it.

You’ve done a lot of things in this movie, whiched risked to be unpopular. Like stripping George Clooney of his usual charm. He is not allowed to make his usual little jokes, no mischief, no charm. Just bare existence.

George is a very intelligent actor. I liked him playing angry in Michael Clayton. So I knew he could do that. It helped also to take him away from George clooney, so he can become really the character. Because you recognize him in those Cary-Grant like charismatic smiles.

And you give him no backgrund.

That comes again from my fascination with old western. Those old heros don’t have this either. And it is not what the movie is about. So why not leave it this way.

Another daring move was hiring Herbert Grönemeyer as soundtrack composer. We know him as a soulfull singer, but in the US he must quite a nobody.

You know, it is herberts idea that I should make movies. We have been very close friends for a very long time. We’ve worked together for 22 years and became friends, the last 10 years in fact even very close friends. I know once Herbert agrees to do something, he is going to do it 150 percent. He wants to be better than anybody else. And he has a beautifull meldic sense. For me it was a very logical choice. Not for the studio, you are right. I needed some persuasion. What happens, they google him on youtube, and they see: a german rock singer. So they go: Oh no, my God. So we did three pieces for the film and they were immediatly blown away.

One more thing: Your beautifull courtisane is called Violante Placido? What an oymoron! Is the name real?

Yes. Both of her parents are actors. Her mother, I think, was in the godfather. She is amazing.

Next project?

Yes, but not enough clear to speak about.

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