On its own, Anton Corbijn’s “A Most Wanted Man,” based on the 2008 novel by John le Carré, is a taut, post-9/11 spy thriller about a government’s attempt to avert future terror attacks. But consider the events that transpired outside the film, and it morphs into a more substantial, sad, and definitive piece of work.
This past February, the movie’s lead, Philip Seymour Hoffman, died of a drug overdose. In the film, one of Hoffman’s last, he portrays German spy chief Günther Bachman with the same passion and aplomb he’s shown throughout his career. That the slowly unraveling Bachman is rarely seen on screen without a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth or a shot of whiskey splashed in his coffee mug makes the performance that much more fraught with emotion. On-screen substance abuse is always difficult to watch, but even more so when it originates from an actor who suffered from it himself (the movie also co-stars Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Nina Hoss and Daniel Brühl among others).
Witnessing Hoffman’s on-screen portrayal first-hand was the film’s director, Anton Corbijn, and the mark the late actor left on him is clear. Corbijn has spoken highly of both Hoffman’s performance in the movie and his off-screen persona. In fact, before Hoffman’s death, Corbijn was trying to cast him in a small role in his next project, “Life,” which focuses on the relationship between icon James Dean and legendary photographer Dennis Stock (played by Dane DeHaan and Robert Pattinson).
I sat down with Corbijn prior to the release of “A Most Wanted Man” to discuss working with Hoffman, as well as his confidence as a filmmaker, why he didn’t like directing to begin with, and what stopped him from quitting movies and returning to photography full-time.
I was wondering if you could talk about your first meeting with Philip Seymour Hoffman, on a photo shoot for Vogue in 2011. What was your initial impression of him?
He didn’t flaunt a lot of opinions. I remember I drove to the location and he didn’t say much. I thought, “He really dislikes me” [laughs]. It was an odd situation because we arranged for me to meet him to talk about the film, and then Vogue had also asked me to shoot him, totally unrelated. They put them on the same day, so they kept telling my agent “No, you can only meet him after one o’clock because Phil has to do a photo shoot in the morning,” without realizing I was also the guy doing the photo shoot. It was very odd. So on the photo shoot, Phil was like “What’s the story?” While we were waiting for some pants to be tailored, we talked about the project.
What was it about him that made you think of him for Günther?
Well, his amazing body of work. I liked also how Phil looked for that role. You could see him as a German who ate too much food. His physicality was there. I always felt that the role of Günther was someone slightly overweight. He’s so focused on his work and his relationships fail. But he’s an intelligent guy, he’s well-read, he’s educated, he speaks Arabic, he’s not Islamophobic. So Phil looked like the kind of guy who could do that. Phil could make a guy in sweatpants look great. He can play any character and make him believable. That was his incredible talent. I can’t fault him in any of his performances I’ve seen. But you know, there’s a lot of performances like “Boogie Nights” and “The Master” that are out there. Bachman was less out there. So it’s more of a challenge for an actor I think to make him three-dimensional and make him stand out. You need a really great actor like Phil to actually make that happen.
It shocks me that the same person plays those roles, in “Boogie Nights,” “The Master,” and now this.
Totally. I mentioned to some people before that when Phil came out to Berlin to look at an early edit we were doing. So I showed it to him and I looked at the screen and then I look at the guy next to me and go There’s no way that this guy is that guy. It’s not possible. Because it was so complete, what was on screen. It was just a person you believed in that it couldn’t be that guy here. He was amazing. All these people, to me, they’re all alive these characters.
How was Philip on set? Did you notice anything amiss?
Well, Phil was not in great shape as you can see in the film, but it was fitting for the role. But if you know Phil apart from taking the photograph of him and filming him, I don’t know how different it was. I did think it was an unhealthy lifestyle, of course, if you carry that weight. But I thought it was just a tortured soul, and I guess he was. But I never thought Phil was doing drugs. He probably wasn’t during the film either, if that’s the question. He’s an artist, and artists are sensitive people, and they need other people to help them, make them feel good. They need opinions, they need encouragement. There’s a lot of insecurity. There’s a false sense of security. It’s a really mixed bag. I have a lot of artist friends, and they are all kinds of people. Sometimes there’s a lot of drugs involved because of them wanting to get to a certain place.
You began your career, and are still primarily known, as a photographer. How do you think you’ve progressed as a filmmaker, from your first project, “Control,” up through your next movie, “Life”?
I would say I am more confident on the set and more understanding of the process. That’s hobbled me a lot in making choices. I really much more enjoy working with actors. I understand more what they go through and better understand what they need from me. I noticed this with [“A Most Wanted Man” and “Life”]—I quite liked the challenges and I started liking the process.
You didn’t like it as much in the beginning?
No, I felt like a stranger on the film set. It’s just a big team compared to me and a single camera when I take pictures. I had to get used to the surroundings and the process of making something. In my head I can see what I like, but just to get there [was difficult]. Now I understand what works. You know, “A Most Wanted Man” is a lot more characters and a lot more dialogue and a lot more camera movement than in my old films, so I think that that’s a sign that I am a little bit more confident. But I generally know what I want. It’s just, I am an introverted character by nature, so I have to pump up some elements of myself that don’t come natural to me.
What kept you from quitting directing altogether in the beginning?
Well the first film was something I felt I had to try once. The second film was like OK, now that people think I should be making films, let’s try a different kind of film and see what I can do with it. I find it very stressful. I find it unbelievable to spend a year on one thing. I make photographs that people still love after 30 years and it took 10 minutes to make. There’s a lot of elements to take issue with in what you do with your life and how you like to spend your time. But I think the adventure is part of making the new experience as opposed to an experience with a single camera. I know what kind of pictures I can take, although I still enjoy that process. In the old days I would get stressed for a photo shoot, now I think it’s a beautiful zen experience, because a film is so much more stressful. Photography is easy, it’s very pleasant.
It seems a lot quieter.
Yeah, it’s a simple thing.
Have you ever considered doing your own DP work on a film?
Well, the first film I did think about it a little bit, but I am glad I didn’t. It’s another thing to think about. On my music videos I did quite a few myself. Physically it’s quite demanding, so I couldn’t do that. And I am quite tall. The French DP that we used for “A Most Wanted Man,” Benôit Delhomme ("Lawless," "Wilde Salome"), he’s shorter than me. I think it’s a better angle for a lot of people––for a film. For photography I quite like my angle. In a movie I think it would be not great, so handheld for me would be out of the question.
Why does your height work better for photography?
Because a single image is a very different kind of thing. But if your film is shot from a slightly higher angle, it would be off.
You briefly hinted in the past about retiring from moviemaking…
Yeah, I don’t mean retirement in terms of “I want to retire,” but I still wanted to see if I am any good, if it means anything, if I wasted people’s time or money, or my own time or money to a degree. But I enjoy it so I don’t ask any questions anymore in that sense. I made “Life” straightaway after “A Most Wanted Man” so I didn’t have to think about that [laughs].
I believe you said you’d make three films and then evaluate from there, and “Life” is your fourth film.
Yeah and for the first three films I made a book about the films because I also [thought they were] going to be my last films. It’s just snapshots with some lighting. But for the fourth film I decided not to do it anymore, so I don’t feel it’s my last film.
That’s interesting there’s no book, just because “Life” has a photography component, with Dennis Stock.
I know, and it’s always in the back of your mind because you have the camera ready if there’s a picture I can take anywhere. But you should actually concentrate on other things. And with “Life,” we shot it in the winter in New York and Toronto, and it was the worst winter in 30 years. I have very low blood pressure so I can’t touch these things.
In “Life,” Dane DeHaan will be playing James Dean. How difficult was it to cast someone in that role?
It was difficult. Also I think for the actors it’s very difficult to step in his shoes. But Dane DeHaan plays it well. He’s a tremendous actor. I don’t think he wanted to do it initially. He wouldn’t take a meeting with me because he didn’t want to be persuaded. But luckily he came to me and he was persuaded. He’s amazing.
He’s great in “Kill Your Darlings.”
Yeah, and “Place Beyond the Pines.” I haven’t seen “Spider-Man .” “Lawless” I have seen. And he’s in “Devil’s Knot” and “Life After Beth.” I haven’t seen that. I was in Sundance but I didn’t manage to see a single film.
What about Robert Pattinson’s work in the movie?
Rob and Dan very different kind of actors. They’re very, very different kind of people in the film, so it was fantastic. They were so different naturally. For Rob to play a photographer is quite interesting because he’s being chased by photographers all the time. Rob is of course a film star, but he likes to be seen as an actor, so he works very hard to be an actor and be valued as an actor. And in the film he plays this photographer who wants to be seen as a great photographer. So I think there’s a parallel there that’s helpful.
He’s made a lot of interesting acting choices, “Cosmopolis”…
…Yeah, “The Rover.” I hear that “Map to the Stars” is a really great film. I am looking forward to seeing it.
I was hoping to see “Life” announced as part of the TIFF 2014 lineup.
Yeah, I was hoping that too, but we are too far from finishing, because we finished [shooting] in late October.
Will we see it at on the fall festival circuit anywhere?
I reckon it will be 2015.
"A Most Wanted Man" opens on Friday, July 25th.