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Brady Corbet on the difficulty of making 'The Childhood of a Leader'

The American actor made his directorial debut, and it wasn't easy.
Brady CorbetThe Childhood of a Leader

As an actor Brady Corbet got his start on an episode of “King of Queens.” But most of his time has been spent working for auteurs, both in America and abroad. He’s had roles in “Martha Marcy Mary Marlene.” He’s acted for Michael Haneke (the “Funny Games” remake) and Lars von Trier (“Melancholia”). He’s had bit parts in “Clouds of Sils Maria,” “Eden,” “Saint Laurent” and “Force Majeure.” All of those films clearly inspired his directorial debut, “The Childhood of a Leader” — an art film set in Europe in 1919 that follows an unspecified future fascist as a long-haired boy, raising minor but telling “tantrums” against his mother (Berenice Bejo) and his government-official father (Liam Cunningham).

You were in a lot of European films a couple of years ago. I imagine that was because you were there making “The Childhood of a Leader.”
Basically we were in preproduction on this movie for years. We had originally gone to Paris thinking we were going to be shooting in eight months. We already had a cast and crew, so we thought it would be straightforward. Then it proved to be anything but. We ended up staying there for three-and-a-half years. The film just continued to get pushed back. It was always six weeks away. It was never like we got pushed a year. We just couldn’t leave.

How did you find raising money for an art film in Europe, which I’m sure is very different than making an indie in America?
Not that making movies in America is easy, but it’s extremely familiar. I spent three-and-a-half years learning about how co-productions work in Europe. Basically it’s a lot of cocktail parties, where representatives from a country come. Usually the tinier or the s—ttier the place is, the more willing they are to give you a lot of money to shoot there. [Laughs] If it’s across from a Saab factory or some kind of chemical plant, they’ll say, “This will work for 1919, right?”

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You would think European financiers would be very open to a film this abstract. But I could be wrong.
I spent a long time presenting the project and defending it, which is a position I’ve never been in. A lot of these institutions will bring in a film critic from Belgium, a filmmaker from the Netherlands and whoever’s been appointed the head of the institution. They basically start asking you about absolutely everything. The thing about making movies is, a lot of it is intuitive. You arrive at a place and then you figure out how to work with it. But they were asking me things like, “How will you work with this kid?” I hadn’t even cast the kid yet. I didn’t know how to answer such vague questions. My bulls—t detectors just exploded, because they didn’t know anything about the process of making movies. It’s basically 60 percent great planning and 40 percent catastrophes that you’re dealing with all the time.

Then it’s hard because the screenplay has slabs of traditional narrative cut out of it. I got this sense that poetry is dead, because anytime you would present something with a poetic logic it was completely baffling to them. I wound up coming back to the States and having my agency raise a portion of the budget, and my producer raised capital from a kind of movie bank. They look at the cast and they bet on it, basically. I should have started there.

I hate to ask about shooting on film, because in a perfect world all films would be shot on film…
Video looks like s—t and it will always look like s—t. Even if it’s 12K or 30K, it won’t represent even 1 percent of the full range of the color spectrum. Anybody who tries to tell me otherwise is in the pocket of the manufacturer. People ask, “Why would you shoot on film?” when they should always ask the filmmaker, “Are you sure you want to shoot this digitally?”

Although there are some major converts. Terence Davies is a big fan of digital now.
There are a lot of people who like it. But the best digital films were very early on. They had a lot of texture, a lot of life, a lot of grain. I think about “Julien Donkey-Boy” or “The Celebration.” All the Dogme films were exciting. What was terrible was high-def. High-definition is this weird thing, because it’s somewhere between aggressively ugly and tricking you into thinking it looks like film stock. When you go to see a DCP, basically you’re looking at a very large laptop screen. You’re not looking at a better image, just a bigger image. I don’t even feel like going to the movies most of the time. Ninety percent of the time I’m like, “Just send me a link,” which I never used to do. It’s made me a very apathetic viewer.

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I should ask about the content of the film. For one thing, it may seem at first like it’s going to explain what makes a tyrant, but it goes out of its way to resist interpretation.
It would be impossible for me to summarize precisely what makes someone a tyrant, because there’s a billion different ways to get there. The character, for me, was metaphysically linked to that era. He’s the manifestation of problems that were on the rise. I kept thinking, how we can show the earliest seeds of political defiance? How can we see a young man learn to use language as a weapon? How can we see hierarchies form on the basis of class? One of the most telling moments in the movie is when Berenice speaks very flippantly with the maid, who is very docile and submissive. Then she reprimands everyone that’s right under her. You’re constantly seeing people that are good but fragile turning into the worst versions of themselves.

I wanted to go back to the European films you had brief parts in. There was actually a time two years back when I saw four movies featuring walk-ons by you in three days.
It was just that a lot of different friends of mine had asked me to come and do something for them. It was more spread apart. Then they all came out at the same time. Everyone was calling me. It was like I got lost in some kind of backlot or something.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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