U2, Nirvana, Depeche Mode, Arcade Fire, Joy Division, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds isn’t a shabby list of names to be associated with in any capacity, and those are just a few of the bands that Anton Corbijn has directed iconic music videos for. The renowned photographer and filmmaker has always presented his subjects through a vision of his own, leading to a long history of famous images.
His feature films haven’t been huge hits with the public though. So far Corbijn has only made two pictures — Control and The American – and, by their own accord, they’re not for everybody. The American even downright angered some filmgoers expecting a more action-heavy Clooney picture, but those aren’t the viewers Corbijn is aiming to please.
The director is the subject of a new documentary, Anton Corbijn Inside Out, and for the digital release of the film, Corbijn made the time to speak with us. Here’s what he had to say:
Since it is so time consuming and often necessitates a pay cut for you, when do you know a film is the right one to make?
I find it’s difficult making those decisions. A lot of scripts read really well and you have to really think if you’re interested visually and if it means something to you. Also, what is the challenge? Of course, many things are still a challenge. For me, there’s a wide range of options, in that sense. The American had a different genesis, in that it was a Hollywood movie. Control was independent, so you could do what you like. I wanted to see if I could work in that framework with George Clooney and that different kind of business. It was a challenge. The story of a loner is close to my heart. That speaks to me.
Tragic love stories as well.
Yeah, yeah. They’re different, especially with the genre. It was important for me to see what I could within different genres. The first film was so personal. I wish it was easy for me. I still have to check with myself what I’m not capable of. I’m still in that process, to be honest.
How was it making your first Hollywood movie? Was it a pleasant experience?
Yes. I understand the process better. There were some compromises, but very few. Also, you get a lot of professional help with the right kind of people. George is great in that sense, because he has a lot of knowledge. I learned a lot. I don’t think I’m a natural filmmaker. There’s natural filmmakers like Scorsese, but I have so much to learn. I’m a different kind of director. You know, I do have an ego, but I acknowledge the help I get [Laughs].
[Laughs] Is there a part of the filmmaking process that does come easy to you?
Well, I’m trepidatious of everything, but at the same time, I enjoy it. Once you make decisions you can’t go back, but in photography, that process can continue. With film you have to eliminate all the possibilities and make the one possibility work the best for you, so you have to become very creative with the direction you’ve chosen. Sometimes I find the editing process tedious, although more relaxing. The hardest part is the shoot, which is the most physically demanding.
Usually filmmakers tells us editing is their favorite part of the process.
It’s a very long process. I find it’s very hard to sit there and watch the screen. You do find the film, but those are the days I doze off. I need to go off and take a photograph in that process, which I actually do sometimes.
Even though you say you’re not a natural at filmmaking, you seem to understand showing and not telling. Do you think your background in photography plays a part in that?
It helps. I don’t think I’m very good with dialogue, so there’s another reason. There’s an element of photography there that I like, which seems understated.
When do you get a visual sense of a film? Can you look at a script and know what each scene requires?
No, I don’t. I only make storyboards for action scenes. Once you make a storyboard, you don’t film; it can be a stiff move. You have to find a sense of unity, so sometimes you have to rethink a scene because of what you had to shoot two days ago. Sometimes I know early, but sometimes the actors or you change it. You may find a better angle. You need to be open to that.
How about for music videos?
In the beginning I did storyboard, because I was so insecure.
I know this is an obvious question, but how much did you learn about filmmaking from music videos?
[Laughs] Well, not enough, according to some people. I’d say it did teach me many things. You start to understand the idea of a moving image and storytelling. It all helps. Never in my mind I thought I’d be a movie director, so it’s all an organic process in my head. I didn’t make music videos in order to make a movie. Music videos were the goal for me, so it was never a step to something else. I approached it seriously.
Maybe you were joking, but you’ve said how music videos were like a “hobby.” How often would you come upon a personal video?
Oh, there were definitely personal videos. There’s a lot more emotion in some, depending on the song and the artist. I did make some mistakes, doing some things I shouldn’t have done, for sure. You know, we all make mistakes. Photography can be easy, but music videos are a few weeks of going away, editing, and then it’s public domain.
Can you look at your work fairly objectively?
Yes. These days I think I can.
Looking back at The American and Control, what do you make of those films?
I haven’t looked at those films for a long, long time. There’s always something you think could be done different, but I’m quite proud of them. I like what they give me. I also think they’re not everybody’s cup of tea, but my photography was never everyone’s cup of tea, so I’m very used to being in that position. It’s not my aim to make something everybody likes.
Personally speaking, what do you get out of filmmaking?
Film is an incredible challenge. It’s a different way of telling a story than photography. I want to learn what I can do with actors. I think it’s partly a learning process and making something you’re not embarrassed to put your name to. Working on my third film has been hard, because it’s important but I don’t want it to feel important. I don’t really like the feeling of “important.” With The American I didn’t have that so much. That’s a good thing. The more you know about the film world, the more interesting it is [Laughs]. I didn’t know anything about it. I learned about the Hollywood system and how these things are made, though. The mystery of how these things are made are more interesting than the knowledge.
Do you think never intending to be a filmmaker has its advantages, coming at things from a fresh perspective?
Yeah, possibly. You’re probably trying to reinvent the wheel every single time, but that doesn’t mean there’s not some unoriginal things in there. I mean, there were definitely references to Sergio Leone in The American. There were also some films mentioned that I had never seen, so it might be also some kind of film language you breathe in. I haven’t seen that many movies in my life. I’m not knowledgeable. I can’t reference that many.
You mentioned your films not being everyone’s cup of tea, and that showed in some of the responses to The American. When you made that as your Hollywood film, did you try to consider what people wanted from it?
Not really. They try to force you think about box-office, which starts in the casting. The film world is a big business, which boggles me slightly.
Would you make another film in Hollywood?
I wouldn’t say I’m against Hollywood movies. You learn. You know when it’s the right time to protect yourself against making compromises. Sometimes you make something that people didn’t expect it to be. You always have to make a film for yourself, though.
Anton Corbijn Inside Out is now available on VOD.