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Born in the Netherlands, Anton Corbijn moved to in London 29 years ago to be nearer his musical heroes. Music has always been important to him, whether directing videos for U2 and Nirvana or designing album sleeves and touring shows for Depeche Mode. His debut feature, Control (2007), was the story of rock band, Joy Division. Latterly, he directed The American (2010), which he was attracted to from the start, as he explains in the Q&A. 

Tell us how you came to be the director of The American?
I got the third script adapted from the book in 2008. I read it and got in touch with the producer who then sent me the original novel, which was written in 1990, and I thought the book was fabulous – so by the time Focus got interested in it I was already involved. I like the fact that it’s about a loner, like Control, and I liked also that the book was very internal, this guy justifying every aspect of his life. I liked the idea that he realised he had been wrong all his life. The question of whether you can change your life – these themes I like.

The story is about a hired assassin, a gunman, and you’re a photographer. Is being a photographer like being a gunman?
That would be simplistic; I create things and with a gun you’re killing things.

How did Clooney become involved in the project?
As soon as the script was finished I sent it to him – he read it and I met him just a few days later. I just thought of the actors of his age and thought: in this film you have to look at someone not doing anything for five minutes stretches. It has to be someone you want to watch. Besides, I like George’s dark side, which is a side you hardly ever see. He’s very interesting to me, not just when he’s Cary Grant but especially when he gets angry, like in Michael Clayton or Syriana. 

He’s famous for his practical jokes – did he play one on you?
He did. I did photographs on set and my camera hangs on my chair. And at some point my assistant Monica went back to London to get those films developed, so I got the contacts back and looked at them the next day, and I thought – what are these shots? And it was somebody’s bottom! And he’d had his assistant take pictures of his bottom. I recognised the t-shirt!

How about the casting of Thekla and Violante in the female roles? Did you know Thekla from the Netherlands?
No. I saw her in the film In Bruges, but I don’t really know that many films. That role – everybody wanted that role. So I met with many big names but this was Thekla’s. She had to be a hard-edged international woman whereas the Clara character is a local girl with a good heart.

And Violante – you met her in the Rome casting?
I like understatement, not caricature, and Violante wasn’t like some Italian actresses that I saw. She has a very strong personality. She was late both times for the casting, but there was something about her that was incredibly strong.

For once, music is not in the foreground for you.
It’s true – but Herbert Grönemeyer (Das Boot), who is one of my best friends, and who played the doctor in Control, did the score here. I hope he will act in my next film. And over the final credits I have a Dutch song from my youth – every movie I make has a Dutch song in it.

Where are you based at the moment – in London or the Netherlands?
I’m spending a lot of time in London still, but I live in The Hague; I had to sell my place in London to make Control but moving to The Hague is OK. My printer for my photographs is in Old Street, which is not far away from the squat in Dalston where I lived when I first came to London in 1979 – I remember photographing David Bowie and then coming back to a house with no hot water.

Published March 17, 2011

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Anton Corbijn


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