After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Anton Corbijn's "A Most Wanted Man" — featuring the last leading man performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman — makes its way to theaters today.
If it's playing on a screen near you, I urge you to seek it out. It's dry in the best possible way, a dug-in slow burn (to use an over-used phrase) that is nevertheless captured in beautiful hues. And Hoffman is absolutely fantastic; it might be one of his best performances, albeit one completely different from anything he has ever offered. It could even be something remembered by the Academy later this season, and I don't think it would be a mere final toast to an actor we lost too soon: it truly is an exhibition of how he could get under a character's skin and sing.
Calling from Berlin this morning, Corbijn talked to me about the draw of shooting in Hamburg, Germany and working with an actor like Hoffman who put so much into his work, among other things. We also chatted a bit about another late artist he had the pleasure of collaborating with, Kurt Cobain; the music video for "Heart-Shaped Box" and the release of the "In Utero" album recently celebrated a 20th anniversary.
Read through the back and forth below.
HitFix: A lot of times, when filmmakers take on a John le Carré work, it seems to really light a spark in them. Even though it's sort of interesting because these films tend to be slow burns in the best way. When you read this particular novel, what was in it that you wanted to convey cinematically.
Anton Corbijn: I liked the idea of Hamburg, regardless of the story. I liked the setting of Hamburg. I was born near Rotterdam, which is a poor city, and I had been quite a few times to Hamburg. So I knew it was a great-looking city, at least, you could use great-looking parts of it. It's a very rich city, but it has this underbelly. There was also a great movie made in Hamburg by Wim Wenders called "The American Friend," and that's the only reference I had in my mind as a film in Hamburg, because there are very few films made in Hamburg.
The other reference for me was autumn, because I felt the story lent itself to the autumn colors as a setting. And on a deeper level I find that humanity, mankind, has come to the era of autumn. And actually I wanted to release it in autumn as well, which happens in Europe, but in America they wanted to do it before.
The look of the film is very striking. I was very engaged by what you and your cinematographer, Benoît Delhomme, were doing. What else were you trying to achieve in the way of a look for the film?
It was the tonality. And also I wanted the film to look different than my other films. Although they're quite different from my photography, a lot of people think they are not, because they are more based on composition, sometimes. I wanted a loose feeling with this film and we did handheld camera to get more of an urgency in the film that I found would fit the subject matter. By nature, I guess, when you do handheld, you have less control over the composition, so it looks less composed. But I think it looks, still, very beautiful. But it has a different feel to it than my other films.
Casting the late Philip Seymour Hoffman was an interesting choice. I don't know that he would leap to mind as perfect for this role of a German spy, yet he wears it like a glove. How did you decide on him?
It was actually my girlfriend who immediately named him, and when I thought of Philip I thought, "Yeah, there's nobody else who could do this." I wanted, also, the physicality that he brought. I thought it was interesting for him to play a character that's not so extreme, as a lot of the characters he has played have been. This is a more down-to-earth kind of character and I wanted to see what he would do with the nuances and how he would bring it to life. And obviously I have no regrets; it's a phenomenal performance, I think. I would have been stuck if he had said "no."
That was obviously such a great loss, and even though there are a pair of "Hunger Games" movies on the horizon, "A Most Wanted Man" will stand as the last true example of what he was capable of in a featured role. That must be very strange for you as a filmmaker.
It's not something you want to have hanging over your film, even though it means probably more people will want to see what this performance is like. It makes it kind of hard to talk about it. It makes it kind of hard to see the film, for me, at least. He was a tremendous guy, as a man. As an actor, I think he is peerless. If he was a difficult man, it would be something else, but I have such great memories of the guy. That makes it really hard, and the fact, like I said, that the character is not so extreme, so you see a lot of him in there. I think he put a lot of himself in there.
Forgive this crude segue, and you've probably been asked about this a lot lately with the20th anniversary of "In Utero," but you also worked with another artist that we lost all too soon: Kurt Cobain. What was the experience of shooting the music video for "Heart-Shaped Box" like for you? How did Cobain strike you as an artist?
He really was an artist, that guy. I met him through a photo shoot, as I met Philip, and he liked some of the videos I had done. So a month later he sent me some drawings by fax. Unfortunately it was on this old fax paper from the early-90s, which fades away, so I don't have them anymore. He thought out the whole video. Obviously I changed some stuff, but the idea and a lot of the detail came from Kurt. I've never seen a musician be that detailed about the visuals. So that's how it started and he liked my changes. We shot for three days and it was a really easy collaboration, actually. We spent about a month coloring it in, because we did it all hand-colored to get that strong color sense, like an old film. It was fantastic to work with him.
A few people have asked me — because I worked with Jeff Buckley, I worked with people like Ian Curtis — and they passed away early. I think a lot of artists are very sensitive people that are not always that balanced, but they're not boring. They're people with the sort of mindset that's attracted to the arts, and sometimes that makes them more unbalanced and it's very difficult for them, and that's sad. But I'm always attracted to people who put a lot of their emotions into their work. So consequently I've worked with people who maybe put too much into their work.
"A Most Wanted Man" is now playing in limited release.