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Interview with Photographer and Director Anton Corbijn

With his new film ‘Life’ releasing in the US this December, whe spoke with Anton Corbijn about the film and his life as a photographer and director

Fri, Dec 4 - Fri, Dec 4  2015

This winter, the film “Life” -about the relationship between actor James Dean (played by Dane Dehaan) and photographer Dennis Stock (played by Robert Pattinson) – will be released in the US. In Europe, the film has already been out for a couple of weeks, making it a busy period for the film’s director, Anton Corbijn. Thus, we were very pleased that Mr. Corbijn found some time to talk to us about his new film and his life as a photographer and director.

Anton Corbijn is one of the Netherlands’ most influential photographers, and is well-known worldwide for his portraits of artists. Among his subjects are musicians and bands like Joy Division, U2, Nirvana, Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Depeche Mode, as well as painters like Richter, Dumas, Doig, writers like Burroughs, Vidal, Ginsberg and actors like Penn, DeNiro, Eastwood, Depp and Rossellini, to name but a few. The focus on musicians in the beginning of his career is no coincidence. In our interview, Corbijn explained that music was what inspired him to become a photographer in the first place.

Corbijn: “The only reason I ever got behind a camera was music. Music fascinated me even as a young boy. I grew up in an island community [Corbijn grew up in Strijen, the Netherlands]. And basically everything outside of the island was interesting and mysterious to me, especially the music I heard on the radio. I would create stories in my head about the artists that sang my favorite songs. Music was like another world to me, and I found this highly fascinating.”

These days, Corbijn has taken some distance from bands and musicians and has instead turned his focus more towards photographing painters, and of course towards directing films. He explained why he thinks this shift came about:

Corbijn: “The world of music has changed a lot due to the internet. There is so much to do these days, so many things which we can spend our time on. I think it’s caused the role of music to change. Whereas in my childhood you would save your pocket money to buy that one special record, you now just hop onto the internet and stream or download it. Due to gossip magazines and musicians’ selfies music lost that mysterious edge it used to have. I think that’s part of the reason my focus has shifted to photographing other artists and making films.”

Corbijn’s last film, “A Most Wanted Man,” starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, was well received by audiences worldwide. We wondered where, after this previous film in the spy genre, the idea for “Life” came from.

Corbijn: “As a director, the editing stage of a film is the stage where new projects are generally presented to me. So that was when the script of “Life” was presented to me. But I initially rejected it without reading it. Personally, James Dean, didn’t mean that much to me so I wasn’t exactly interested in making a film about him. However, I ended up looking at the script anyways and realized it wasn’t so much about James Dean himself, but about his relationship with Magnum photographer Dennis Stock. Being a photographer myself, this idea really interested me.”

In essence, “Life” is the story of two young men -young photographer Dennis Stock and free-spirited James Dean- who accidently cross paths and in doing so change each other’s life. It’s the story of how one meeting can lead you to approach life in a new way; how your view on life can expand and change thanks to the people you meet and the relationships you build.

Seeing as Dennis Stock, and especially, James Dean are icons in their field, we imagined it must be very challenging to find the right actor for such roles. We asked Corbijn how he approaches such a task.

Corbijn: “Casting an actor for the role of James Dean was difficult, because there’s no one like him. I didn’t really find any actors who I thought really looked like him either. So, what I looked for instead was an actor who could really dive into Dean’s skin, could become him and make me and the audience believe it. I ended up approaching Dane DeHaan, because I just knew that he could pull this off after having watched his previous work. He didn’t say yes immediately; it’s quite a difficult task for an actor to play another actor, especially when it’s someone as iconic as James Dean. Fortunately, luck was on my side, because Dane had set himself a particular goal. He had promised himself he would push himself a little bit further with every challenge that was set before him. And this was such a challenge. So I didn’t even really have to convince him to take the role, he convinced himself to get into the project.”

“Life”, also featuring Sir Ben Kingsley and Joel Edgerton, has received some great and less great reviews over the past few weeks. Yet most of Corbijn’s friends –which he described as being brutally honest- have called it Corbijn’s best film so far. Some critics might have expected more grand gestures in a movie about an icon, but that is not what Corbijn was looking for. He says it is about nuances. We invite you to judge for yourself. “Life” will be in theaters from December 4. 

DutchCulture USA