Third Time's the Charm: Anton Corbijn on A Most Wanted Man

Anton Corbijn is one of the world's finest rock photographers. He's pretty handy with the moving image too. Here he discusses his latest film, spy thriller A Most Wanted Man, and working with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 02 Sep 2014

In this age of social networking and self-promotion, we all kid ourselves. Cast an eye over your friends’ Twitter feeds and Facebook profiles and you’d think you were part of some cultural glitterati, where every second acquaintance is a musician, filmmaker or visual artist. You know, and they know, of course, that their true profession should read barista, office temp or retail assistant, but we accept these false boasts because we make them ourselves too. But it’s not just struggling artists who tell these little white lies. People who have excelled professionally in one field often want to be recognised for other ambitions: the journalist with the failed book deal who claims to be an author, the actor who wrestles directorial command of their film project and instantly announces him/herself to be a filmmaker or the reality star with one novelty hit who changes their CV to read singer.

Not so Anton Corbijn. The Dutch photographer and music promo genius, who was responsible for some of the most indelible rock and pop images of the 80s and 90s, shooting everyone from U2 and Depeche Mode to Björk, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen, has been reluctant to call himself a filmmaker, even though cinema has been the art form in which he has primarily worked since his 2007 debut Control, a biopic of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, whose sunken cheeks Corbijn photographed within weeks of moving to the UK in his 20s. He declared at the start of his movie career that it would be a while before he considered himself a filmmaker: “After I’ve made three films I’ll either quit or become completely absorbed in filmmaking,” he said while promoting Control. Having followed up that film with the George Clooney-starring assassin flick The American, he’s now reached that magic number with A Most Wanted Man, an adaptation of John le Carré's novel of the same name.

When we meet in an Edinburgh hotel on the day of A Most Wanted Man’s UK premiere at the city’s film festival, The Skinny asks if he’s come to a decision: will he quit or embrace the movie racket? Despite all his success in cinema (Control won numerous awards, including prizes at Cannes and Edinburgh; The American opened at number one at the US box office), the 59-year-old is still a little sheepish: “To me, Scorsese is a filmmaker, Lars von Trier is a filmmaker. Am I a filmmaker? Well, I don’t want to say I’m on that level, but, yeah, if you look at the time I spend on doing what I do in my life, then most of it is spent making films now, so in that sense I am. Plus," he laughs, "I jumped straight into another film after this one, so I didn’t have to think about if I’m going to make another film or not.”

Back to film three: A Most Wanted Man centres on German spymaster Günther Bachmann (played with a world-weary brilliance by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman), who’s tasked with preventing the kind of large-scale terrorist attacks that rocked the world at the start of this century. “9/11 and its aftermath, it’s what shapes the world we live in at the moment,” says Corbijn. “And I think it’s a pretty dark place.” This, for Corbijn, is one of the chief reasons for his move towards filmmaking: "Music videos, they’re fun, but they’re more entertainment. My photography has always been more serious – not politically serious, but more about people’s own development or state of mind. But I felt it was important to work on something that affects our lives. I feel that the world is so polarised now, it’s so black and white, we judge people very quickly, and that's all in the last ten years or so, and it's been such a quick change.”

His new film certainly couldn’t be accused of being morally black and white. It’s a dense puzzle in shades of grey populated with characters whose motivations remain opaque ’til the final reel. Take, for example, Issa Karpov, the wanted man of the title, a Chechen refugee who enters Bachmann’s home turf of Hamburg illegally so that he can collect a large inheritance from his dead Russian father, a notorious gangster. While the US authorities are keen for Karpov, a suspected Muslim extremist, to be apprehended and interrogated, Bachmann’s instinct is to sit back and observe him – play the long game – which causes tension with his US counterparts who distrust his methods. Le Carré’s story, written in 2008, proved to be prescient: “The period that we filmed was late 2012, and then after that came the Boston bombing, a guy from Chechnya, and then you had the NSA revelations about spying on Merkel and Germany. It’s very interesting how current the film is.”

While its themes and plot machinations could have been ripped from today’s headlines, A Most Wanted Man's stylish gloom and sombre tone call to mind the great paranoid thrillers of the 70s – think The Conversation and The Parallax View. Corbijn doesn’t appreciate the comparison, however. “I wouldn’t know the difference between my film and other thrillers because I haven’t studied them,” he says gruffly. “That might be a bad thing or a good thing, I don’t know.” This is a typical Corbijn response. Later, when asked about this film's and The American’s similarity to the work of Jean-Pierre Melville he fires back, “It was interesting when people made that comparison with The American, because I hadn’t seen that movie [Melville’s 1967 masterpiece Le Samouraï], just as I never saw a film called Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which some people said Control reminded them of. For this movie, I didn't watch much at all.”

“It’s very interesting how current the film is” – Anton Corbijn

A Most Wanted Man does represent a shift in style for Corbijn, however. While Control and The American are both never less than gorgeous, taking the form of exacting tableaux and fastidious framing, A Most Wanted Man's handheld cinematography, by contrast, is raggedy and loose. “I wanted to get away from this idea that everything is so composed,” says Corbijn. “And of course I still think it looks quite beautiful.” So it looks less like a photographer’s movie, then? “With Control and The American that was more obvious I think. And because of the subject matter I wanted something that brings you into the action. Handheld camera gives you that immediacy, that urgency – that’s hard to achieve when the film is very static.”

Another element that draws you in is the acting. Russian actor Grigoriy Dobrygin gives an intense turn as the troubled Karpov, while Rachel McAdams and Willem Dafoe do good work as, respectively, a human-rights lawyer and a German banker who help Karpov get hold of his inheritance. But the picture belongs to Hoffman: hulking, intelligent and melancholy, it’s one of his finest performances. For Corbijn, no other actor would do: “Initially I looked at it as a solely German film, but once I let that go and it became an international film it was always Philip,” he explains. It wasn’t only Hoffman’s acting talent that the Dutchman was drawn to. “He had many of the characteristics in him that I wanted for the role, including his size. It was important for me that the character was someone who was not totally looking after himself, who was very occupied on what he was passionate about, and there was no vanity there; he did it because he believed in what he was doing.” Sounds like Hoffman alright.

As well as being one of the much-loved actor's final performances, the film has added poignancy in that it, along with The Master from a few years ago, suggests that Hoffman was on the verge of a breakthrough: after a career spent working primarily as a character actor he was starting to be considered as a bona fide leading man. “It was hard for Philip to get leading roles, but if you look at the ones that he did, they were so good you cannot believe he wasn't always the leading actor,” agrees Corbijn. “At the same time, though, he was open to do a small role in my new film. He liked to work with certain people again and again: Moneyball after Capote was not a big role but he liked working with Bennett Miller; he supported filmmakers.”

A Most Wanted Man is released 12 Sep by Entertainment One