Anton Corbijn is a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to filmmaking. The prolific photographer and music-video director had a whole career before he made his first film, “Control,” a biopic of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, at age 51. Since then, he’s turned in the excellent and stylish genre-hopping films “The American” and “A Most Wanted Man,” and his most recent picture, “Life,” with Robert Pattinson and Dane DeHaan.
In Marrakech serving on the jury for the Marrakech International Film Festival, Corbijn just seemed happy to be there, humble and grateful for the experience. He mentioned that serving on juries was a bit of a film school for him, particularly with this year’s jury President, Francis Ford Coppola. There was also a shout-out to an “off the scale” experience serving on the jury for the Moscow Film Festival with Abel Ferrera, but unfortunately, he didn’t expound on the details of that one, which sounds like it had to have been a wild time.
Here’s a few things we learned about the Dutch director from our chat with him.
1. His new film, “The Devil In The Grove,” takes on American racial issues.
Corbijn’s been tapped by Lionsgate to helm the adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Devil in the Grove” by Gilbert King. Corbijn described the film as such: “It’s about racial relations in the late ’40s in Florida, but it’s centered on a court case in ’49. Four black men were accused of raping a white girl, and the lawyer for that case was somebody called Thurgood Marshall, who became the first African-American to be nominated as a Supreme Court judge, many years later, but he was an important figure already then.”
With the social-political climate as it is, Corbijn was drawn to the material for that specific reason, saying, “It felt so relevant to me to what’s happening in the world, at the moment, especially in America, but now also in Europe. We all thought that the racial issues had gone away, but so obviously not with a lot of people. I felt it was important, just like ‘A Most Wanted Man’ was important for me to look at the post-9/11 situation that affects us all. I felt that this story also has elements that are really important for us to look at.”
2. He drew on his early work as a photographer to inform “Life.”
“Life” follows a two-week professional relationship between photographer Dennis Stock (Pattinson) and cinematic icon James Dean (DeHaan), and Corbijn had plenty of life experience in a similar role to draw from. At the age of 17, he started photographing Dutch musician Herman Brood, and had similar feelings to Stock in the movie, about the relationship between the photographer and subject.
“I took pictures of him, and he liked it, and I took more pictures, and he became a singer, and I kept taking pictures,” Corbijn said of lensing Brood. “We traveled together, he was an incredible showman and painter, and he was unfortunately also a junkie, but in Holland in the ’70s, this was more acceptable. At one point he became the biggest rock star we ever had in Holland, and then he skyrocketed, and everybody then wanted to photograph him and I didn’t understand the balance between the photographer and the subject, and I thought ‘what about me?’ That element is in the film.”
3. Corbijn feels like an accidental filmmaker.
Corbijn stressed that he never really had designs on being a filmmaker. “…[M]y whole life, everything I’ve done has been kind of accidental, even filmmaking to a degree. I started to make music videos because people said you should do music videos, you do everything else, why don’t you do music videos? So I reluctantly started on that, and then when I became more successful with that in the late ’90s, they said you should be making movies, your videos are like little movies,” he said. “And I knew myself, I’m quite introverted, and I knew I could never make a film so I always said no, and I read scripts, I was sent scripts, and I knew a thousand people could make a film better than I could.”
It wasn’t until a project came along that he had a personal connection to — “Control,” about Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, whom he photographed — that he reconsidered. “I thought, well there’s so much emotion on my end for that story, because I came to England for Joy Division when I was 24, and I worked for them, so I could imagine that I have an advantage over proper directors. I thought that would be my only film, ever.”
4. He suffered great personal financial losses from “Control.”
Corbijn staked a lot on his debut, and without proper representation, ended up in the hole for the movie that made his career. He said, “I put all my money into it, lost most of it, and had to move back to Holland. I came to England for Joy Division and then I made, 30 years later, a movie about them and had to go back to Holland. It was quite interesting. But now I’m starting on my fifth film, so I’m not complaining.” Elaborating a bit further on the situation, Corbijn said, “I had no agent when I made ‘Control.’ I lost my house because of it, a lot of people made money and I didn’t.”
5. He has a few opinions on the female directors issue.
The jury was pressed on the lack of female directors in competition during the press conference (in actuality, one film, “Lingering Memories” was directed by a woman, Keiko Tsuruoka). Corbijn supports equal opportunities for filmmakers of any gender, but he doesn’t think there should be a quota for film-festival selection, necessarily, or anything else.
“…[W]omen should be movie directors if they want to be. It’s ridiculous if you think it’s a male profession,” he said. When prompted to discuss the recent vote in Norwegian Parliament mandating that 40% of films should be directed by women, Corbijn had more choice words, saying, “Yeah, that’s a bullshit thing. I think we should give people all opportunity to become a film director, male or female; if there’s less women wanting to do that, than that percentage will be crazy. If you have out of a hundred directors there’s 10 females, they get the 40%, that doesn’t make sense to me. Obviously they should be given the same opportunities to make films, but the selection is something else. Seems like positive discrimination; in the long run it’s never a good thing to me.”
Corbijn ended the chat on a grateful note, looking back on his wide-ranging career and humble beginnings: “It’s the most beautiful life I had, for somebody who had no idea what he wanted to do until he was 17, and I was also very depressed in my 20s, so what came out of all that, I’m very grateful for all the people I met in my life, and what I managed to achieve with a little camera.”