How did Anton Corbijn follow up 'Control'?

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He enlisted George Clooney to play an angular freelance gunsmith hiding out in a small Italian village in 'The American', that's how. Cath Clarke meets him

The Dutch photographer cashed in his London home to finance his feature debut ‘Control’ – a biopic of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis. There was no need for such drastic measures to fund his second film, ‘The American’. It stars George Clooney and is backed by a studio – though in tone and style it feels more like a minimal European arthouse thriller. Clooney’s charisma is turned down to a brooding simmer to play a taciturn hitman who wants out and holes himself up in a picturesque Italian hill town in Abruzzo. The script was adapted by Rowan Joffe from an English novel, Martin Booth’s ‘A Very Private Gentleman’.

Did you always plan to make another film after ‘Control’?
‘Afterwards, yes. During, no. I had no inclination at all. I didn’t think I was going to make a career as a director. “Control” was very important to me because it dealt with a lot of my past.’

Because you’d photographed Joy Division early in your career?
‘Yes, and moved to England for them. Only after the film did I think: This is such an amazing experience, can I apply what I learned to another film, find a visual language for myself? I gave myself three films, and said that afterwards I’ll analyse if this is what I want to do: if the films have a reason to exist, if they’re interesting enough.’

The next one is the biggie then, the all-important third film.
‘I guess. That’s why I’m very eager to make films in different genres.’

A lot of music biopics landed on your mat after ‘Control’. So why ‘The American’?
‘The story’s core issue: whether you can fundamentally change your life. That’s what the movie’s about. It’s a suspense thriller in the framework of a western. I like stories about loners. That connects my two films.’

George Clooney is the American, a gunsmith who specialises in bespoke weapons and is possibly a hitman. Which is pretty much all we know. Why so mysterious?
‘It fitted well with westerns: the idea of little back story. And the film is not about action. It’s about this guy’s journey, which is internal.’

There is a shocking scene early on, which feels like George Clooney is killing off his nice-guy reputation. After that we believe he is capable of anything, which creates an edginess that lingers throughout the film.

‘I thought it was important to show what he’s capable of, and for the rest of film you never know if it’s going to happen again. And also he has a paranoia that things will happen to him. The book talks of shadow dwellers: he always has a sense that there are people around, imagined or not. Also, with that violent start, I think you realise the journey he has to make to become a different person is quite long.’

The movie unfolds at a slow pace, and you spend time observing him working, assembling a rifle. Why?
‘To show that the one love he has in his life is a dedication to gun-making. That is his life and he is great at it. But, in the end, that life seems to be empty for him. And the touch of a body becomes more important than the touch of metal.’

Do you think women around the world are cursing you for giving George Clooney such a drab role?
‘In a way, George is sexier than in many other films because he’s so realistic. He’s so real. Definitely it’s his darkest role, sure. He’s not Mr Charming. People look at George Clooney as the charming guy – and there’s something else there.’

Is it hard to direct an actor playing an aloof and internal character?
‘I was lucky because George is an amazing actor. After we spoke about the character, he understood it from the word go. My biggest fear was the Italian actors because in the Italian movies I’ve seen they can be very caricatured – like, “big big” and “funny funny”. But I found three actors who were amazing. So there go my prejudices!’

The film was an unexpected US box-office hit. Did you set out to make a commercial thriller?
‘That was out of the blue. What I found interesting was to make a very European film but within the Hollywood system. And some people in America were very angry.’

Why?
‘They thought it was too European. And they thought it should be an action thriller, which is fine. I never set out to make films that people in shopping malls would love. I don’t aim for that. Even with my photography I’m not a crowd-pleaser. I’ve always tried to find my own way. Thank God, there’s a lot of like-minded people.’



Read our review of 'The American'.

Author: Interview: Cath Clarke



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