The period drama premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival, where Corbet took home the awards for Best Debut Feature and Best Director, and is being released Friday through IFC Films’ Sundance Selects label. Corbet co-wrote the screenplay for the film with his partner Mona Fastvold.
A dark, post-World War I tale about the seven-year-old son of an American diplomat in France, the film’s largely European cast includes Bérénice Bejo (“The Artist”), Liam Cunningham (“Game of Thrones”) and Stacy Martin (“Nymphomaniac”). Robert Pattinson has a small but deceptively important role in the movie, which focuses on the young, manipulative Prescott (British child actor Tom Sweet), whose haunting malevolence casts a shadow over the entire film starting with the very first scene. While the title implies that the brazen little boy will grow up to be a “leader” of some sort, there are scant clues as to what exactly is unfolding and which details demand the most attention.
Corbet framed the movie as a slightly meandering fever dream in part to help put the audience in the troubled mind of his young protagonist. “That’s how I feel a young person relates to the world in a way,” Corbet told IndieWire in a recent interview. “It’s like he can’t quite grasp it.” Nearly 80 percent of the film takes place in dimly lit hallways, something Corbet said contributes to the idea that the audience is “lost in the corridors of the narrative.”
Whether you find Corbet’s approach fascinating or disorienting, it’s hard not to be impressed by the pure originality of his storytelling. While many directors wear their inspirations on their shirt sleeve, consciously or subconsciously, it’s hard to find other filmmakers’ fingerprints on “The Childhood of a Leader.”
“There are some people that really have rules about how a movie is supposed to be constructed, and I think it makes them feel very safe,” Corbet said. “It’s important to be formally conscious and cognizant, but I don’t think you need to be married to anything, and I think you have to let a little bit of your intuition guide you, because otherwise you’re just doing something you’ve seen before.”
Some of Corbet’s cinematic heroes include the late Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer and John Cassavetes, two filmmakers who Corbet says would basically do whatever they wanted. “It was like the camera could go anywhere [and] the possibilities were endless,” he said. “Now I watch a lot of stuff and I know what’s going to happen in the beginning, middle and end.”
Aside from predicability, one of the problems Corbet has with movies today is what he views to be a lack of ambition on the part of filmmakers to create fine art, instead of just disposable content. “The standard is pretty low at the moment in terms of how ambitious a project should be or can be,” Corbet said. “I don’t think we’re necessarily living in the best moment in the history of moviemaking.”
Still, he concedes that there are creative people in the film world “doing some very, very special things.”
Bucking the trend of independent movies today, Corbet shot his debut on 35mm film and used a 120-piece orchestra to record its ominous score, composed by Scott Walker. Going to these lengths with a budget of just $3 million was not easy, however, and Corbet encountered more than his fair share of setbacks, attaching and then losing actors like Juliette Binoche and Tim Roth. After roughly four years of trying to get the movie made, Corbet and Fastvold felt like it might be time to call it quits.
“We really bled for it,” Corbet said. “We were bankrupt, had no place to live, and she was six months pregnant.” After securing some American partners and private equity funding, Corbet finally was able to shoot the movie in 24 days in Budapest, Hungary in January of 2015.
Despite having landed acting roles in films like Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” Antonio Campos’ “Simon Killer” and Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria” that made him something of a darling in the indie acting world, Corbet hasn’t starred in a feature film since Andrea Di Stefano’s 2014 crime-drama “Escobar: Paradise Lost.”
“I’m basically not pursing any acting gigs,” Corbet said, adding that he’s already working on his next directorial effort, “Vox Lux: A 21st Century Portrait,” about the rise of a pop star from 1999 to present day. Killer Films is producing the movie, which will shoot on 65mm film.
Though Corbet says he’s not shutting the door completely on acting, which he’s done since he was seven years old, he considers himself too sensitive to go on audition after audition, memorizing lines and trying out for roles that rarely result in offers. “It’s a lot of rejection,” he said. “I will never do that again.”
“The Childhood of a Leader” opens in limited release on Friday, July 22.