Brady Corbet on The Childhood of a Leader

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 09 Aug 2016

Brady Corbet has come a long way from 2004's Thunderbirds reboot. Since that inauspicious start he's chosen his acting roles wisely and with The Childhood of a Leader he delivers one of the most impressive directorial debuts in recent years

The weather is clement in Edinburgh on 19 June, the day we meet 27-year-old American actor and now director Brady Corbet, but the climate is bleak.

Three days before, MP Jo Cox, one of the most compassionate voices in British politics, was murdered in a brutal act of political intolerance. A few days after our interview the people of the UK will vote on whether we should remain part of the European Union; conflict, fear, suspicion and resentment hang in the air. As the result of the referendum proved, Britain, in 2016, is a divided country. The timing of The Childhood of a Leader, Corbet’s blistering behind-the-camera debut, couldn’t feel more apposite.

Set shortly after the First World War, the film centres on a family of three who’ve recently moved from New York to a dilapidated château in northern France. The father (Liam Cunningham) is a US official serving as emissary for Woodrow Wilson's government during the post-war peace talks that will become known as the Treaty of Versailles. He shows few diplomacy skills at home, however, where his seven-year-old son (Tom Sweet, also making an extraordinary debut) is waging a war of his own.

The first image of the boy is as a cherub in his new church’s nativity play but we quickly realise this is a fallen angel. His first transgression is to pelt the congregation with rocks as they leave the church following the performance, and he soon moves on to psychological manipulation and intimidation of the household, including his repressed German mother (Bérénice Bejo), his flirtatious French tutor (Stacy Martin) and his kindly housekeeper (Yolande Moreau).

Inspired by Margaret McMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World, which chronicles the lead up to the Treaty of Versailles' signing, Corbet was interested in making a study of that period in European politics. “The uprising of fascism was one of the results of that treaty,” explains Corbet when we meet on the day of the film’s UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. “I was really haunted by the book and I was trying to figure out a way of making a film on the subject, but in an allegorical way, and a kind of poetic way. I wanted to avoid it turning into a PBS documentary or something.”

Corbet struck on the notion of telling the story from the point of view of a child who was a product of that time. “I liked the idea of a character who seems sort of possessed by the notions of the era,” he says. “He is an embodiment or the physical manifestation of the result of those talks.” Jean-Paul Sartre's short story of the same name, which tells the similar story of a privileged boy who grows into a fascist, became a very loose template for this tale of the making of a tyrant. A few real life details from Mussolini’s warped childhood were thrown in for good measure.

The difficulties of making The Childhood of a Leader

It’s difficult to recall the last time a debut filmmaker came out of the gates with something so audacious. On top of the period setting, The Childhood of a Leader is shot on 35mm, required a full orchestra for the score, employed hundreds of extras and involved a head scratching co-production between American financiers and several European nations, who proved as unwilling to cooperate as they did in 1919.

“I realise there’s a reason why co-productions between five different countries don’t really happen, because everybody just fucking hates each other,” says Corbet. “It’s always someone else’s problem, whenever you call somebody they say, ‘Don’t bother me, it’s not our territory's issue.’”

Making the film took the best part of a decade. Did he ever think of abandoning the project, or making his directorial debut on a more modest scale? “It was hard to have a lot of gusto about it at times and there were definitely days that we thought about quitting, but my wife (Norwegian filmmaker and actor Mona Fastvold), who’s also the co-writer of the film, she wouldn’t let it die.”

Pressure continued to mount on the couple when Fastvold became pregnant halfway through the process of trying to get the film off the ground. “We had no money. We’d spent all of it waiting for this film to happen, basically. It was so time-consuming to develop that we couldn’t really do anything else, either of us – I mean not properly.” If you’ve ever wondered to yourself why you’ve only seen Corbet in blink-and-you’ll-miss-him roles over the last few years (Eden, Force Majeure, While We’re Young, Clouds of Sils Maria), here’s your answer.

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We’re grateful he stuck with it: the results are stunning. As an actor, Corbet has worked with some of the finest filmmakers working today, including Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier and Mia Hansen-Løve. With The Childhood of a Leader, Corbet is welcome in their company. There might be shades of The White Ribbon in the film’s themes, and the very deliberate structure echos some of Von Trier’s more recent films, but the heady brew Corbet creates is all his own. “I didn’t really show up to any of my sets with a notepad,” he confirms.

In fact, Corbet’s bravura filmmaking is pleasantly at odds with the austere Haneke-like aesthetic that has become the dominant style in European cinema. “Michael Haneke and I are good friends and I love Michael’s films, but Michael’s very dogmatic,” explains Corbet. “I don’t have a philosophy that I’ve developed over the course of 60 years, like he has; I’m more free.”

A closer comparison would be the formal fireworks of Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick (catching Childhood of a Leader with the current Barry Lyndon rerelease would make for a very satisfying double bill). “I’m of the feeling that there’s not a lot of separation between the form and the content,” says Corbet. “For me, the form is the content.”

And what form. As operated by Welsh cinematographer Lol Crawley (45 Years, Ballast), the camera, loaded with genuine celluloid, seems to explore the family's massive house of its own free will, smoothly roaming the long corridors, taking in the crumbling walls, ceilings and decor, becoming more frantic as the war of attrition between the child and his parents reaches boiling point.

“I had a lot of ideas about starting the film with a promise of something very stylised and then falling back into something more restrained,” explains Corbet, “and then slowly let it start to unspool again until it really developed into something that was totally jaw-dropping.” Corbet reckons this distinctive style comes from his love of extremes. “I like silence and I like noise. I’m not that interested in the middle. And I especially like it when you put the two next to each other.”

Scott Walker's score

This is no more evident than on the soundtrack, where a cacophonous, atonal score is provided by experimentalist icon Scott Walker. It sets the film’s menacing tone from the off with a searing, heart attack-inducing overture that plays over a rapid montage of scratchy Great War newsreel. As the boy’s misbehaviour escalates, building to an unhinged crescendo, Walker’s strings are ominous and ever-present. The reclusive singer/songwriter is hardly prolific. His only other soundtrack was for Léos Carax’s film Pola X. Corbet wasn't daunted, though, and took a chance that the subject might hook him in.

“Scott had written a lot of albums and songs addressing themes of tyranny in the 20th century, so I reached out to him in a variety of different ways because he was notoriously hard to reach… I think he got the same letter six times on the same day,” laughs Corbet, “so it must have convinced him.”

The result of the collaboration is a powerhouse score – easily the year’s finest. Suffice to say, a few bows got snapped during the recording. “You could tell that half the orchestra were a bit confused,” says Corbet. The director, though, was delighted. “I never quite imagined how gargantuan [the score] was going to be, but when you ask Scott to do something grand, you can’t be like, ‘Hey, could you just tone it down a little bit?’ You have to let him turn it up to 11, it’s where he operates at his best.”

A few months on from seeing the film, with tensions in Europe continuing to escalate and a potential tyrant on the rise across the pond, The Childhood of the Leader feels even more urgent. Corbet notes, however, that the sad truth is that whenever he made the film its themes would resonate. “I knew that no matter how long it took to get the movie made, it would never not be pertinent. I could have made it 30 years ago and it would have been relevant, and I could probably make it 30 years from now and it would still be relevant.”

The Childhood of a Leader is released 19 Aug by Metrodome