Dane Dehaan & Robert Pattinson in ‘LIFE’
Dutch photographer-filmmaker-video director Anton Corbijn built his career snapping portraits of rock legends and shooting vids for Nirvana, U2, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Depeche Mode, among others—and since 2007, when he released the Ian Curtis biopic CONTROL, he’s also been directing features.
Recently, he flew down to Morocco (where he shot the video for Depeche Mode’s “Barrel of a Gun” nearly two decades ago) for the Marrakech Film Festival to serve on the nine-person jury headed by Francis Ford Coppola. At the same time, his latest feature LIFE—which chronicles the relationship between James Dean and the documentary photographer responsible for some of the most iconic images of him, Dennis Stock—was opening to select markets in the United States.
In a lush, sprawling courtyard enclosed by mesmerizing Moorish architecture and bursting with trees full of juicy clementines, we sat down with Corbijn to chat about his transition into filmmaking, his recent decision to start posting on Instagram and his own LIFE-style experiences as a photographer.
What got you interested in making films?
“For many years, friends were telling me I should. And I never believed that; I thought it’s impossible because I’m very introverted. Then the story of Ian Curtis came around, and because I’d moved to England for Ian Curtis when I was really young, I felt I had a very emotional connection to the story, and therefore maybe I was a step up from ‘proper directors.’ That’s why I dared to do it. I thought this was going to be my one film, so I put all of my money into it and didn’t get it back.
But it had so much positive reaction that suddenly everybody wanted me to make films. I thought, maybe I should try one that’s very different than CONTROL, to see if CONTROL was not just some lucky kind of circumstances. I got really interested in, you know, ‘How do you tell a story?’ It felt more exciting for me than photography. I knew more or less what I could do with my photography; with film, I don’t know yet. It’s an incredible change in my life, and it’s exciting, because I’m 60 now and this whole new thing is happening.”
Did Dennis Stock have any influence on your own work as a photographer?
“I’m a bit embarrassed to say that as a photographer I discovered him very late.”
Had you seen that iconic photograph in Times Square?
“I don’t think I knew it when I started taking pictures, but I think it’s a fantastic picture. And while studying Stock’s photography as I was prepping for the film, I started to think, ‘Why does that picture stand out?’ If you look at it: It’s this rebel, looking really cool, it’s raining, and he’s just moving through this world, this jazzy kind of world. There’s a lot to read into that picture.
Also, when somebody dies young, all the stuff that’s left behind gets a different meaning. And I had a similar experience myself with Ian Curtis’s pictures, and some other people that I’d worked with who also died young. And as a photographer you have no say over that—it just happens because of other forces.”
What role has death played in your work?
“I think if you work with a lot of people, there’s always somebody who will die young. And it’s all for different reasons: With Ian Curtis, of course, it was a state of mind that was very hard to alter. James Dean, it was an accident. I worked with some musicians who had bad deaths. But you know, they’re not always emotionally very balanced people. And sometimes they’re very interesting because of that, because they’re very intense in what they’re doing. Actually, I had nothing going for me in my life till I actually had a camera in my hands. It was such a big love and I was so intense with it that I connected so much to people who were felt the same about their profession. I connected to people who tried to get more out of things. And sometimes, they couldn’t handle it, I guess.”
What else do you admire about Dennis Stock?
“Dennis Stock was a documentary photographer, and I’m very grateful for that, because documentary photographers don’t just take the portrait: They take people in an environment. So 60 years down the line, you see much more of that world in 1955 than if he just been a portrait photographer. I think that makes his photographs so valuable. Especially on the farm, where you see how Dean grew up. And he had quite a sharp eye, Dennis Stock. He also had a funny eye. Not so much in the James Dean pictures, but in other work that I’ve seen of his.”
Is there any sort of “funniness” in your work?
“In my videos, sometimes there is. I find it’s very difficult in a still photo to have a ‘ha ha moment;’ it’s much easier in something that moves. I started to think about that with my first video for Echo and the Bunnymen, ‘Seven Seas’—it was already like this ‘bad’ kind of school theater play. I also would love to do a comedy as a film. Dark comedy, preferably.”
Did you consider making LIFE in black and white?
“I did. But later I thought it was much better to not have it in black and white, because it you make a world that looks like Dennis Stock’s world, when he takes a photograph it looks like anybody could have done it. But if you show the real world, you can really see how it’s such an achievement.”
How do you feel about the current state of photography?
“It’s a great time for photography; when I started, it was not considered a serious art form. The negative is that now everybody considers themselves a photographer. It’s quite narcissistic, most of it: The whole selfie movement, people thinking that every moment in the day—of their day—is supposed to be interesting to everybody else. It’s not adding to any intelligent conversation, and you have to be quite vigorous and go through so much rubbish to find something interesting. But there’s also people who are merging different disciplines, and using photography in a different way.”
What do you think of Instagram?
“I just started Instagram about five weeks ago. My girlfriend had said, ‘You should do that—it’s good for your name.'”
What have you been posting?
“The picture of me and Francis Ford Coppola. Or me and Christian Louboutin: He did my bowtie, so my girlfriend took a picture of that. So I guess that’s narcissistic already. But I also take some pictures of things I see: I took the train to Paris the other day, when Brussels was closed down. And there was a Ferris wheel that I saw in Brussels, from the train. And I saw another one in Paris. The one in Paris was moving, the one in Brussels wasn’t. So I put those side by side.”
Did you ever have a similar relationship with an actor or musician to the one that Dennis Stock had with James Dean?
“That balance, that relationship between a photographer and a person who’s in the public eye—that was for me the way into the film. Because when they first said to me, ‘We have a script that you might like, it’s about James Dean,’ I said no. He had never been of big interest for me.
When I was young, I didn’t understand that balance between the photographer and in my case, a musician: A Dutch guy called Herman Brood. He was just a piano player when I met him. For a few years I took a lot of pictures of him: We traveled together in trains to gigs, because neither of us could drive. And then suddenly he became the biggest rock star we ever had in Holland, and everybody wanted to photograph him. He loved that. And I was like, ‘But … but … Herman! What about me?’ It was a good learning process. Definitely part of the reason I did this film.”
Do you have any interest in working with larger budgets or on larger-scale films?
“Larger budgets: great, because I get more salary. But at the moment I don’t look for it. I’ve been in talks about very big films, over-100-million kinda things. It’s much more difficult. My next film is about a Thurgood Marshall case, and even though it’s a studio film there’s certain things they’ve given in to me already and that are very important to me. I’m not saying I’ll never make a big budget film. It just has to be the right one.”
Do you have any interest in writing films?
“Yes. The more you can be in control of what you make, the better it is for an artist. Like with your photography, you’re usually much more in control than you are with your films. Since I do still a lot of photography and my life is a chaotic mess, I don’t find the time to write. And I’m not sure that I have confidence yet in my writing.”
You’ve worked with so many iconic rock stars. Is there a quality that you’ve noticed that sort of unites them all?
“I guess they like to be well known. And there’s a drive. But I turn down almost everything in music photography these days. I don’t want to shoot young bands; I did it when I was young and I don’t want to repeat my life, basically. I’m happy to work with people I’ve worked with before, like U2, but mostly I like to challenge myself. In my new show in Berlin, there’s a room with my latest photography work, and it’s almost all portraits of painters.”
Where are you interests headed, artistically?
“When I started out, music had an incredibly mysterious quality to me. And that’s gone now. What holds mystery now is the art world, especially the painters. Photography is a beautiful excuse to meet somebody, to get a bit of that world, an experience of that world that might bring you forward again. The last small show I did was called ‘Inwards and Onwards,’ and it dealt with being in company of great minds, how being in their presence for a while might make you spiritually richer. That’s what I’m trying to get to.”