ABOVE: TOM SWEET AND STACY MARTIN IN THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER.
Much like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds imagines a violent and satisfying demise for Adolf Hitler, actor-turned-director Brady Corbet’s feature debut, The Childhood of a Leader, imagines a fascist leader’s fictional childhood. Out today, the film follows a young boy’s experiences through the end of the First World War that would shape him into an unforgiving leader of the un-free world.
While Corbet is best known for his front-of-camera work in artful films like Funny Games, Melancholia, and Martha Marcy May Marlene, Childhood catapults him into the echelons of today’s most exciting young auteurs. The film won Corbet the best director and best debut prizes at this year’s Venice International Film Festival—and with good reason.
Taking visual cues from the likes of Stanley Kubrick, the film is cloaked in the dread of the era while also being a stunning period portrait of a time come and gone. Paired with visionary composer Scott Walker’s score—one which Corbet praises as “one of the great film scores”—and matched with excellent turns from Robert Pattinson, Liam Cunningham, Bérénice Bejo, and breakout Tom Sweet as “The Boy,” The Childhood of a Leader gets in your head and stays there, for better or worse.
Two days before the film’s debut, Corbet took a break from playing dad with his partner and co-writer Mona Fastvold and their soon-to-be two-year-old daughter to speak with Interview about history’s fascist leaders and why a movie about Donald Trump would be boring.
BENJAMIN LINDSAY: I’ve read that The Childhood of a Leader is based on Jean-Paul Sartre’s story of the same name from 1939. What was your relationship with that source material prior to filming?
BRADY CORBET: Well, actually, the book that the film owes a bit more to than Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story is Margaret MacMillan’s book Paris 1919, which was a chronicle of the events leading up to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. I read that book about 10 or 11 years ago, and I was really haunted by it, and I decided then that I’d like to make a film on the subject. But I knew that I would have to figure out a way to tell that story inside of a microcosm because it was too sprawling, too expensive, and frankly, an exact retelling didn’t leave a lot of room for poetry. It was just a lot of bureaucratic rhetoric. So basically, it started off with that, and then I had this idea to have the protagonist be a character who was sort of the result of these events—the character is almost the physical manifestation of a premonition. As that treaty or series of treaties paved the way for the rise of fascism 20 years later, I decided to try and tell this fictional account of this young would-be fascist’s childhood. That led me to reading biographies of young Stalin, Mussolini’s childhood, et cetera, et cetera. And then I actually discovered an article called “The Childhood of a Leader,” which I didn’t know had taken its name from Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story, and the title I thought was very, very impactful. Shortly thereafter, I made the correlation between Jean-Paul’s short story and the title, so then I read Jean-Paul’s short story… Especially when Mona became involved and finished writing the screenplay with me, then it took on a life of its own and it had less and less to do with those sources of inspiration, but we decided to cite them and keep them there anyway so that it would be a sort of mixtape of the 20th century.
LINDSAY: Do you feel like now is a time that this film is particularly resonant?
CORBET: I think what stuck was that the story would never not be relevant. Also, it’s interesting to gauge the response in the U.K. right now compared to the U.S.—In the U.K., they’re not dreading something happening, something already has happened. So critics and stuff are viewing the film very much through that prism and so they’re projecting all of their own experiences and notions onto the film. Of course, that’s part of the reason that the film is designed in such a way that there’s space. It’s not a plot-y film; it’s a film that leaves plenty of room for contemplation.
LINDSAY: Personally, I couldn’t help but think of Hillary Clinton’s “role model” ad showing the children listening Donald Trump—just the circumstances that do shape a childhood and make these kind of intrinsic ideologies in a soon-to-be man.
CORBET: Completely! I was away for many years from the U.S. until September, and I was barely here because Mona and I had a daughter. We had our daughter in Norway, and we were working mostly in Paris and it was shot in Budapest. So we were travelling a lot. I was really outside of what was going on in the U.S. political sphere. When I landed, that was the first time that I ever knew it was a possibility that Donald Trump would become the Republican nominee. It was during that period that people said, “He probably won’t, but he could become the nominee.” So obviously now that he’s the nominee everyone’s terrified…. If I was going to make a film about the childhood of Donald Trump, I think I can make an educated guess and say that it would not be particularly cinematic or interesting—because he is not very interesting. He is just an opportunist. It’s terrible, because he seems to abandon his own ethics and morals on a daily basis just for the press, for the notoriety. He’s definitely a bigot, but he’s that crazy uncle that you avoid at reunions. But somebody has given him the red button, and he’s just ready to push it. That’s really scary.
LINDSAY: Oh, it’s baffling. Going back to the film, I also wanted to talk to you about the casting process, especially with regard to “The Boy,” Tom Sweet. How did you find him?
CORBET: There was a good thing and a bad thing about the process of looking for this boy, which was that we knew we were looking for something extremely specific. We needed a little boy that looks like a little girl that feels like he could disappear into the era, and that has good diction and is ideally bilingual—a boy that speaks French and English. What we found were all of those characteristics, and Tom is quite bilingual, but German and English. As soon as I realized he’s capable of taking on another language, I knew it would be easy enough for him to pick up the French, and he just worked on it for months and months. But he was found on a soccer field. The casting director saw him on a soccer field and asked him to come in and audition. He’d never acted before.
LINDSAY: You started acting at a relatively young age as well. Do you feel like your roots in front of the camera at all enhanced your role as director?
CORBET: Yeah, I’m sure, but pretty much as far back as I can remember, I was really a cinephile. It was that kind of mentality where I really wanted to see everything, I wanted to know about everything. And so I think that my prior experience made me sensitive to what the actors were going through, which was fairly important, especially the way that I like to make movies because it’s long sequence shots, which means it’s a lot of dialogue, a lot of choreography. It takes a long time to get it right. I knew from experience that the most important thing to be was supportive of everyone.
LINDSAY: For this style of long sequences, you really found the perfect complement with composer Scott Walker. How is it that he came on board?
CORBET: I just wrote him. He said yes very quickly, which I was truly shocked by. He was on board as early as anybody was—he was on board three and half years ago, four years ago. I was terrified that I would lose him because we kept losing the money, and it’s one of those things where when he commits to something, he commits to it fully. So by him committing to your project, it means that he’s not working on other projects of his own. So it was very painful to constantly have to deliver that news to him because he’s so focused and works so sparingly. But I think in the long run, I think he’s very proud of it. I know I’m really proud of it—I think it’s one of the great film scores.
THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER HITS THEATERS AND IS AVAILABLE ON VIDEO ON DEMAND TODAY, JULY 22, 2016.
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 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 pre-production 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 straight-forward. 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?”
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.
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.
Hours prior to the end of the world, he becomes a bride’s object of desire.
He’s part of a malevolent duo, clad in white, that disrupts the idyllic life of an affluent family. In Paris, his relationship with a sex worker awakens a disturbing sociopathic streak.
Working with some of the world’s most prominent cinematic artists, the multifaceted Brady Corbet has enhanced many a film (like, mentioned above, Melancholia, Funny Games and Simon Killer) with his presence, sometimes in just one scene. Beyond racking up his impressive list of acting credits, though, Corbet himself is a well-rounded moviemaker whose ardent obsession for the medium extends to writing, producing and editing. After directing a string of short films, Corbet finally completed his feature-length debut last year—astonishing the Venice Film Festival jury, who rewarded him the “Luigi de Laurentiis” Venice Award for a Debut Film.
In The Childhood of Leader, a historical fiction drama set at the end of World War I, Corbet exhibits the stylistic bravado of a seasoned director. The story centers on Prescott (Tom Sweet), a long-haired young boy whose French mother (Bérénice Bejo) and American father (Lian Cunningham) are too occupied with their own turbulent realities to witness the gradual transformation, both transfixing and terrifying, of their child from innocence to perversion. Ominous in its tone and adorned with a dark visual palette, Childhood is a ferocious first feature.
Frank and heartfelt, Corbet discussed his intense affair with filmmaking with MovieMaker, how his extensive acting paved the way for his feature, and his firm position regarding the value of shooting on celluloid. A cinephile, a performer, and now an award-winning filmmaker, Corbet has broken out as an auteur-in-the-making whose future work should be awaited with expectation.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Was stepping into the role of director in a film like Childhood was a radical undertaking, or a natural progression, given everything else you’ve done in film?
Brady Corbet (BC): I’ve been making things since I was a teenager. I was always working on my own projects, making short films, video installations and things like that. In a way, it’s just what I’ve kind of always done, but obviously this is on the grandest scale.
MM: What was it about this project, in comparison to other features you have co-written or produced, that ignited the need to also be the one to bring it to life on set?
BC: It’s hard to say what specifically drives you towards a certain theme. I was quite obsessed with the interwar period. For a period of time I was reading a lot about it and I was just very interested in this period of world history. I think that the period in between the two wars is particularly fascinating and I feel there is a lot that is still relevant today. It developed so slowly and so organically over a course of a long period of time, so it’s hard to point to any one instance that was a turning point. That just happened to be a theme that I wanted to explore and a period I wanted to evoke.
MM: The film is a very contained period piece that takes advantage of mostly a single location, but it’s nonetheless trying to depict a particular period of time with specific costumes and production design. Tell about achieving this vision with limited resources.
BC: It was hard [laughs]. It was really tricky. We didn’t have a lot of money, especially for production design, but I was very insistent that we hire a particularly great designer named Jean-Vincent Puzos, because he was the only person I knew that could make it work for the money we had. He did everything from Michael Haneke movies to Roland Emmerich films. He has a wealth of knowledge and tricks up his sleeve. At one point we decided that the village was going to be something a lot more impressive [than it is in the finished film], but when we looked at our restrictions we just decided to do a set with coal and mud. Basically we took a lot of cues from Ermanno Olmi’s movie The Tree of Wooden Clogs from 1978, which is a film that is set around the turn of the century in a farming community. We sort of modeled a lot of our art design after that.
MM: What was it about the concept of childhood as a defining stage in a human life that you found particularly fascinating? Can we really trace a lot of our adult decisions to specific moments or situations we experienced at a young age?
BC: I suppose that I was very interested in doing an anti-origin story. I knew that people would come into the film with very specific expectations because we have a title that’s explicit. It sets people up to be like, “Oh, ‘The Childhood of a Leader’—of what? Who is it?” I thought it would be very interesting to subvert those expectations and do something which was poetic as opposed to something that was like, two plus two equals four. Or like, “Oh, this is the moment when everything changed for him.” I just don’t think that’s the way life works. I don’t look at the events in my life and go like, “This all happened because of that one moment.” It’s many things and many moments that shape who we are and what we become.
MM: In recent years you’ve appeared in a lot of independent and international films in very small roles. These were all films directed by renowned artists such as Olivier Assayas [Clouds of Sils Maria], Mia Hansen-Løve [Eden], Ruben Östlund [Force Majeure] or Bertrand Bonello [Saint Laurent]. Were these roles you took because they were small and would allow you to work on your directorial debut? What can you tell us about working with such an impressive group of moviemakers?
BC: Some of those shoots were spread quite far apart and they just sort of happened to come out around the same time, but the majority of them came around at a moment when I was in preproduction on Childhood, so it was, basically, ideal. Certain friends of mine, who happened to be great filmmakers, allowed me to come in and work on their projects for a few days or a week. It was about as much time as I could spare while I was working on my own film. It was perfect. Then it just so happened that they all ended up on the same festival circuit. It was like I had gotten lost in some European backlot [laughs]. It was great to work with all of them. I adored Mia. I think she is a brilliant filmmaker. She’s accomplished so much at her age, and it’s just really astonishing and inspiring. Obviously Olivier is just the sweetest, warmest guy and a brilliant filmmaker and cinephile. Ruben I’ve known for years. Bonello I had met but I didn’t know very well. He is one my favorite filmmakers in France and actually a number of years go I wrote him a letter to tell him how much I loved his work. Then, he reached out to me about working with him on Saint Laurent, so that was really a treat.
MM: Further back, you also worked with two of the most provocative and intriguing directors of our time: Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke. What sort of lessons or valuable experiences do you remember from working with them, and dealing with their approaches to art form?
BC: I think that probably what I’ve learned from all of them is that there is not one way to bake a cake. Michael has a very different approach than Lars does, for example. Their films, or their results, are both rigorously controlled, but the environment or the process of shooting is completely different. Lars shoots in a very lose way. He shoots a lot of takes. He just sort of lets you find it. With Michael, he has something very specific in mind that he wants in terms of performance and he sort of molds the performance to be just that. I mean in terms of choreography, the rhythm, the cadence, everything. He is really more like a puppet master, and some people love that and some people really don’t like it. For some people it’s really frustrating to be getting line readings, but for me it was a really positive experience because I basically always just wanted to be in the hands of somebody who knew exactly what they wanted. I found it really comforting to be given very specific instructions. But the truth is that I think the only thing that all of these really great people have in common is that they are pretty brave and they are pretty radical. They are all pretty daring artists and I think that’s the most enjoyable kind of work to look at, whether it’s a painting, a composition, a photograph or a movie.
MM: How much do you feel your work in front of the camera helped you when working on Childhood?
BC: I’m sure that it helped. The number one thing that I think it gave me an edge on was simply just compassion for what the cast is going through because it’s very, very difficult to act in a film which is so formally rigorous. There are some processes in movies where the camera and the blocking are just there for the actors. It’s just completely set up to serve them and to capture what they are doing. The way that this film was made, the way that I’m accustomed to making movies, is a lot more precise and controlled than that. I knew how difficult it was at times, especially for a 9-year-old boy. Tom had never been on a movie set before in his life. He was not an actor. It was painful for me to make him do 15 takes of a five-minute shot where he keeps getting beat up at the end of it. That was his very first day of shooting, the scene where his father accidentally dislocates his shoulder. It was like throwing this 9-year-old boy right into the deep end. I’ve done a lot of physical scenes in my life as an actor, and so I knew how hard it was. Sometimes filmmakers are very caught up in the moment and they can get very frustrated because things don’t look real, but it’s very, very hard to make something look real without it sort of being real. The truth is that 99 percent of the times when you are doing a scene where it looks like you are getting hurt, you are getting hurt. It was a very difficult balance and I hope at least that my experience as a performer made me kinder.
MM: On a more technical note, tell me about the equipment, format and lenses you selected for the film and the reasons behind those choices, given that this film has a bold visual language of its own.
BC: We shot 3-perf 35mm. We short 3-perf primarily because we were formatting for 1:66, so we needed more height than width at the neck area. I had originally assumed that we would shoot the film on very old lenses because obviously the first notion you have making a film set in 1919 is, “Hey, let’s get some lenses from before the 1950s,” and we ended up testing a lot of lenses. They were not actually from that early, I think our oldest lens was from the 1960s, but the problem was that they all have this very foggy, warm, golden kind of quality about them. It just made the image look too cozy. We basically decided to use very fast new lenses that shoot in extremely low lighting conditions, so you would draw out all of the grain and texture of the 35mm, but have something quite modern and immediate about the image. I really liked the effect. I think it’s a way that I’ll be shooting for a long time.
MM: With the assertions from many directors and cinematographers that digital resembles film more and more, why do you feel so passionate about shooting on celluloid still?
BC: I guess my mantra is that I feel like the question is not, “Why would you shoot on film?” but the question should be, “What about your story makes you want to shoot it on video?” There are amazing visual breakthroughs with video and it’s been really exciting to watch films from the Dogme 95 movement, in particularly Julien Donkey-Boy, Breaking the Waves, and The Celebration, where people were shooting with really pixelated early consumer video. I thought that was infinitely more beautiful because it had so much texture and life, and there was something kind of random and wild about it, than right now, where we’ve moved into high-definition, which is all about mimicking the look of celluloid but without actually achieving it. The devil is in the detail. I feel that whether we shoot 4K, 6K, 8K, 12K or 20K in the future, such a small percentage of the spectrum of color is actually being represented, because you are still talking about tiny squares—which you can make smaller, smaller and smaller, but they will be never as infinite as the possibilities of shooting celluloid. The shorter answer is that shooting on film looks better. It looks more timeless. It’s longer-lasting. For me it’s like the difference between painting with oil and painting with watercolor.
MM: Taking into account how expensive it is to shoot on film, according to those who advocate for digital, do you feel like first-time moviemakers will have to live without the chance to use this medium?
BC: Yes. It’s extremely frustrating. But it’s easier this year than it was a few years ago, because a few years ago was when Kodak almost went under and that’s when Fuji did go under and stopped producing stock. A few years ago I was really shaking in my boots. Now it seems to me that celluloid will stay alive, due to the efforts of Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Tarantino, etc. It’s amazing that all of these guys are shooting on film. It’s great that the new Star Wars movies are shooting on film. However, what needs to be communicated is that if you are a young filmmaker or a first-time filmmaker, or you are making your first short film, it is absolutely possible to shoot on celluloid. There has been a really unfortunate lie, which has been perpetuated, that shooting on film is infinitely more expensive. Now, it can be more expensive depending on what it is that you are trying to do, but it can also be cheaper than shooting with digital cameras, which are in much higher demand, so the equipment rental is much more expensive. It also requires more time in the digital intermediate to work on the colors. You are spending a lot of money on extra days. There is also a lot of extra equipment that you need when you are shooting on video than you need when you are shooting on film. It’s one of these things where it’s really a case-by-case basis. For example, Cary Fukunaga said something to me about the fact that he shot Beasts of No Nation on the Alexa, because of the fact that they were shooting in such remote locations that it was impossible for them to ship their negative back and forth overseas. In a scenario like that I completely understand how a film would not exist if it were not for that technology. When Antonio Campos and I worked on Simon Killer together years ago it seemed that shooting on the Alexa made the most sense not only for our schedule and our very limited resources, but also because is suited the story. It was about modern youth culture. I don’t have a problem with the technology when there is a thought process behind using it, but as a standard of image-making it’s certainly not good enough to be our new standard.
MM: Have you or do you plan to screen The Childhood of a Leader on a 35mm print? That must be the most beautiful way to watch the work you’ve created.
BC: We’ve already done special screenings all over the world. We screened 35mm prints in Venice where it premiered—it was the only film to screen on a print at the festival, actually. They had to bring in a 35mm projector in order for us to screen it there. In Rotterdam we screened the film with a live orchestra. We are talking about doing more events like that, especially maybe in the U.K., but we have to wait and see. I’m going to have new prints made with English subtitles because the problem was that our prints from Venice had burnt in Italian subtitles for all the French scenes. As soon as I have those new prints in my possession, hopefully over the course of the next six months or a year, whoever wants to screen it will be able to do some pop-up screenings on 35mm.
MM: Last year László Nemes, the director of Son of Saul, would only allow his film to be screened on 35mm at festivals and press screenings.
BC: The thing is that if you are in a position to make a demand like that, it’s a brilliant demand to make. In my case with Childhood, it’s quite remarkable that it’s going to be screened on as many big screens as it is in the U.S. and around the world. It’s going to be on a dozen screens in the U.S., but in the U.K. it’s going to be on 25 or 30. Considering the film is very niche, I suppose I just have to thank my lucky stars that people are seeing on a big screen at all. In the future I would of course like the film to be seen on as many prints as possible, and my next films as well.
MM: Did you feel any sort of pressure when embracing the director’s chair on a feature, since most people know you as an actor?
BC: I didn’t feel a lot of pressure about that, just because of the fact that because I’m not a particularly famous actor. I never felt like I walked into a room and all eyes were on me. I’ve never experienced anything like that. I felt quite anonymous stepping behind the camera. The one thing that I had that I knew I would not have if I were just starting out or if I was just fresh out of film school was that, of course, it was easier for me to reach out to other actors via agencies because I already knew all of those people. That was the only way in which my prior work was really helpful to the current work. It would never seal the deal for me, but it would usually get me in the room with the right people. MM
The Childhood of a Leader opens in theaters July 22, 2016, courtesy of IFC Films.
Actor Brady Corbet serves up a bold directorial debut about the origins of evil.
One hallmark of a daring piece of filmmaking is a surrender to ambiguity. When a filmmaker refuses to provide answers in her movie, she relinquishes control over the audience. Interpretations become wildly personal; in the spaces within the narrative, a thousand new stories emerge.
Brady Corbet took this approach with his 2015 Venice premiere and debut film Childhood of a Leader, opening in theaters today. The multi-hyphenate, whose acting credits include Funny Games, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Thirteen, investigates the confluence of elements that engender evil. The film’s seven-year-old protagonist, Prescott (Tom Sweet)—whom we can understand to be, for all intents and purposes, a young Hitler—is coming of age at the dusk of World War I. His father (Liam Cunningham), an American diplomat stationed in France, is emotionally and often physically unavailable; his mother (Bérénice Bejo) lacks maternal instinct. Were it not for the family friend (Robert Pattinson), there would be little signs of life in the family’s ornate mansion. As such, the child creates excitement for himself. At first, it seems like innocent child’s play, but quickly the manipulation takes on darker proportions as Prescott wreaks havoc on the rigid social conventions that characterize his time.
Corbet, meanwhile, wreaks havoc on narrative convention. We’re exposed to scenes that, though rich with texture and emotion, seem disconnected from a larger narrative framework. Childhood of a Leader is not a story, per se; it’s an evocative experience heightened by exquisite, Barry Lyndon-esque cinematography (Lol Crawley) and a disquieting score that imbues seemingly innocuous moments with resounding malice.
No Film School sat down with Corbet to discuss his allegorical approach to filmmaking, his fruitful collaboration with Crawley (resulting in a thrilling final shot in which the camera is passed from person to person in a crowd), and why more films should be transcendent.
No Film School: Your film is unconcerned with answers. From the get-go, it becomes clear that you’re more interested in evoking a mood—a psychological state—than you are in creating a linear framework for the development of this young sociopath’s behavior.
Brady Corbet: The idea was to make a film which was totally allegorical. In fact, [the movie] avoids any literal psychological breakdown of this character. For me, this character is sort of the physical manifestation of what is happening around him, which is a combination of fairly ingratiating religious doctrine, the oppression of women during the period, and the incredibly naïve foreign policies that were established at that time. Basically, American foreign policy as we know it was forged in 1919 and it hasn’t changed hardly at all in a century. It’s about how everything informs this young man, but not in a very literal way. I never was interested in looking at him absorbing information, because it is, in its own way, a coming of age movie, so people kind of assume all of those things. There’s no reason to spell anything out because you already know what it is. Calling the movie The Childhood of a Leader is like calling your movie The End of the World. You know where it’s going. It’s more about how and what. Having worked as a ghost writer for many years on various formulaic and not-very-good projects, when Mona [Corbet’s writing partner and wife] and I are writing together, I think that we just know that most audiences that are going to be watching our movies are pretty film literate. They enjoy searching and uncovering things on their own.
You’re always in the corridors of the narrative. There’s always something happening in the room next door, but you never have access to that. That’s how you kind of feel about information, in terms of my early memories.
NFS: As a kid, everything is just out of reach.
Corbet: You know you feel it, but you don’t know it yet. I think it would be virtually impossible to make a two-hour movie that summarizes exactly what turns someone into a tyrant. I mean, it’s not a nature versus nurture story. It really is just a fable and an allegory.
NFS: These things are unknowable to a certain extent. We’re obsessed with trying to find out what went through the mind of a mass shooter. What led up to the decision to commit an act of evil? We’re never going to be able to access that full truth.
Corbet: Of course. At the end of this film, certain things that you’ve even assumed about this young man’s bloodline have been incorrect. It’s kind of about how there’s no way to reflect on history and truly know it. There’s something about that which is devastating, nauseating, dizzying, overwhelming. If you scroll through Netflix or Hulu or whatever and you go to the documentary section, there are at least 11 fascist dictator origin stories. You’ll watch these docs and they’re like, “When he was 16 years old, his mother….” It’s all quite absurd, in a way, because it’s impossible for anyone to really know that. I don’t think that my wife or my mother could really write my entire life story down and be totally accurate or precise.
NFS: There’s that barrier of subjectivity.
Corbet: Always, always. I thought of the characters and of the story as being this empty vessel for audiences to project their own feelings and suspicions onto. Now, it’s a little bit dangerous, because when you leave certain things open for interpretation, you also leave your movie open to misinterpretation, which is tricky. But I can’t exactly go around telling everybody that they’re wrong. It’s really funny when people come out of the movie and they’re either excited or pissed off about something sort of being simplified. They mis-perceive the film as being morally or psychologically simplistic when, in fact, it’s about the opposite. It’s about how the seemingly inconsequential moments in our lifetimes are often just as traumatic and defining.
I remember, for example, the scent of certain perfumes, or I remember my first crush, and those things informed me forever. Your first crush is actually a nice sort of innocent example how it frequently will define your type for the rest of your life. You’ll always be attracted to the same kind of men or women of based on a lot of those first impressions. Maybe you were just wired that way. Maybe you would’ve been that way forever. Maybe it is just that you sort of carry one thing with you for the rest of your life.
I felt like it was very, very important that the film maintain a totally poetic and objective kind of logic, and that the filmmaking is more or less omniscient; we can dip in and out of subjectivity, but for most part remain fairly objective. I don’t see a lot of films being made that way, but I love them when I happen upon them. I just saw Embrace of the Serpent for the first time. It’s just such a masterpiece, you know? It’s just so brilliant and it’s the first modern movie I have admired that much in a couple of years.
NFS: I felt exactly the same way.
Corbet: Its primary goal was to create as many transcendental moments for a viewer as possible. With humor, wit, and grace, it just has you hooked. Transcendental style in film is a bit too rare. If you’re going to make something and you’re going to demand two hours of someone’s time, you have to at least attempt to give them moments of transcendence.
NFS: This philosophy was writ large in the cinematography, which was thrilling to watch. How did you communicate your vision?
Corbet: I think I have a natural instinct to create images which are at least graceful. Those are traditions that existed so early on in the medium that now when people see it in a modern movie, they just go like, “Oh, it’s like a retro thing.” Like you’re like….
Corbet: Right. So basically, the person that I worked with the longest was my production designer, Jean Vincent Puzos. Michael Haneke had introduced me to him; he was the designer of Amour. I had met this guy and I just thought he was like the bee’s knees. I just thought he was the most brilliant person that I had ever met, honestly.
NFS: What did he have that the others didn’t?
Corbet: Well, he’s an architect and a landscaper and a cinephile, and he is the head of design at La FEMIS in Paris. He basically has a sensitivity to light, rhythm, and texture, and he and I were frequently talking about where the sets were in relationship to one another. He said, “Well, we need this space to be roughly a 30 to 40-second walk from this space, as opposed to a three-minute walk or a five-second walk, where you don’t have enough time to allow any kind of tension to build.” He came to me one day and he said, “I have kind of a difficult proposal to put in front of you. Either we can spend the next four weeks”—because we were running out of time—”and just fill up our set with a lot of furniture and drapes and shit, or we can do one room very, very dense and every other room is going to have about two or three pieces of furniture in it. It’ll be sparse, but it’ll be perfect. If you choose that second option, I will be able to paint the walls seven times in the next four weeks. What’ll happen is that when you come in at 8am or 11am or at 1pm, you will always be looking at a different shade of color. You will never not have an angle in the house; there’s always going to be something to look at. The space will be infinitely more dynamic as a result; when you’re in the same rooms, there are still elements of the space which are revealing themselves to you.” We opted for that. And then my cinematographer, Lol Crawley, is extremely intuitive and very rock and roll. His operating is extremely formal and super precise—he’s got some very kind of punk rock spirit—but he also is extremely experienced. When we were talking about the last shot, I was like, “I think we’re going to have to bring in like five or six operators to do this and they’re going to have to pass the camera through the crowd, because, you know, with insurance and whatever, I’m not sure that we can just hand the camera to the crowd.” He was like, “Fuck that. We’re going to build a cage. We’ll build a lightweight aluminum cage around the camera. We’ll just pass it through the audience. You said we have 1,000 extras, so let’s just give them the camera.” He was the only person in all of my meetings that had said that, so I said, “Okay, yeah. Let’s do it that way.” That’s what we did.
I definitely need things to be precise and to be formally coherent, but then I also need to have someone that is operating with their gut enough that we say, “Well, fuck it. Let’s just throw it all out the window and do something else.” You have to do that at least a couple of times; otherwise, the experience would be too dogmatic.
NFS: I noticed that you frequently made the decision to linger on shots long after a subject leaves the frame; that definitely tied into the philosophy of this being a vessel for interpretation. There was no room for dogma with those shots.
Yeah. When you leave a film a little bit shaggy, it gives it life. You start playing this really wonderful game with an audience where it’s like, sometimes something might happen. Then other times, we might be waiting for something to happen, but nothing happens, but maybe there’s a moment or something beautiful that’s just worth looking at. We can always talk about the banality of evil, but I also think that there’s an interesting conversation to be had about the evil of banality.
Brady Corbet’s bold performances as an abuse victim in “Mysterious Skin” or a lonely, horny, and lost young man in “Simon Killer,” illustrate his commitment to challenging material. As an actor, he has worked with some of the biggest names in contemporary world cinema, from Michael Haneke (“Funny Games”) and Lars von Trier (“Melancholia”) to Olivier Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria”) and Ruben Östlund (“Force Majeure”).
Now Corbet is embarking on a new phase of his career with his stunning feature directorial debut, “The Childhood of a Leader.” In this compelling drama, set in 1919, nine-year-old Prescott (Tom Sweet) manipulates his family and household with dramatic consequences. Prescott curries favor from his housekeeper (Yolande Moreau), and leers at his tutor (Stacy Martin). He also enacts power plays with his mother (Bérénice Bejo) and father (Liam Cunningham) — who is working on the Treaty of Versailles — as the film builds slowly to a powerful conclusion.
“Childhood of a Leader” is a complex drama that explores the intimate nature of family dynamics and manipulation that draws larger parallels to fascists like Hitler.
Corbet spoke with Salon about the process of making his new film, his own childhood, and the subject of evil.
You’ve taken some risky roles as an actor. “Childhood of a Leader” presents a new risk. What can you say about your career path?
I think I got to a point in my career where I could choose projects and not have them choose me. I was never at any point in a powerful place, but I could dictate the direction, if not the outcome of the jobs I was pursuing. I came to terms with the fact that if I was going to work almost solely with the filmmakers I was interested in working with, I wouldn’t make a lot of money, or work very often. I’d do one or two projects a year. So I found other avenues of getting by so those things happened organically.
You have supported other independent filmmakers, such as Matt Amato and his film, “The Makings of You.” Was this helpful in your process of becoming a director yourself?
It is important to have generosity of spirit and the support of anyone and everyone that I believed in. You are frequently calling on people to do that same thing for you. It’s important not to be stingy, and be willing to pull all-nighters for colleagues, because eventually, you have to call on them as well.
You have worked with Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Gregg Araki and Olivier Assayas. How did you draw on your experiences as an actor to direct the actors and compose the film?
I think that the number one thing I gained from everyone, was seeing them struggling to get their films made even when they were accomplished in their careers and lives. When I saw people I admire that much struggle that much, it taught me to be fairly patient and not lose my cool. I did lose my cool in pre-production. I found it easier to shoot, and that’s really enjoyable. Setting up is a fucking nightmare.
Can you talk about the process of getting “Childhood” made?
You are sending your screenplay out to the abyss, especially if you are a first-time filmmaker. My experience and credentials as an actor didn’t help me that much putting the film together. I was surprised they didn’t help me more. I thought I demonstrated a pretty specific trajectory. I didn’t think it was hard to see my work and look at this script and wonder what it’s going to be, look, feel, and sound like. We had an impressive cast and crew signed on. My background as an actor was a detriment — understandably so — because there is a bad association with actor-directors.
The process took longer than I expected it to. During that process, my life changed; I had a child in the middle of it. Mona [Fastvoid, the film’s co-writer] got pregnant before shooting and the film fell apart just before shooting. We had no money. We had to stay in Europe. When we finally got the film off the ground, Ada, our baby, was 5 months old and Mona was directing the second unit with Ada on her back. We shot in 24 days, and the whole thing was quite bananas.
What drew you to “Childhood of a Leader” that you wanted to write and direct it?
It’s one of those things where—because no one has read my unproduced material—they don’t have a sense of what my oeuvre is. [Laughs]. This film is very consistent with themes I’m exploring in general, for example, my next film, which takes place in 1999-present, is about the rise of a pop star, but it has a lot in common with “Childhood” as well. There’s a character who is at the center of the world, and is a [product] of the times. I’m interested in generations, and trying to explore the times in a way that is in a microcosm.
Can you talk about creating the film’s visual style? You favor deep, rich indoor spaces, both bare and ornate. You tend to use tracking shots and circular pans to create emotion. Can you discuss your approach to the material?
I have a pretty specific idea of how I like a camera to move. I hate shots where the camera is moving for absolutely no reason. I want the audience to feel it’s all there for a reason, especially for a film that is very objective, and where the style has an omniscient quality to it. Those things are intuitive.
We painted every room seven times because we couldn’t afford that much furniture or have that much time. So if you came in at different times, the eight or nine rooms would be more visually dynamic. We talked a bit about painters and texture and creating something amiss, like the walls were sprayed down in battery acid.
The tragedy of war, one character says, is not that one man has the courage to be evil but that so many do not have the courage to be good. This is an apt metaphor for Prescott, who realizes that he can misbehave because others allow it. Likewise, the film includes Aesop’s fable of the lion and the mouse, Can you discuss these themes in the story?
Basically, we decided to incorporate as many sort of quotes, fables, and parables because we liked the idea that this young man uses language as a weapon. He misinterprets Aesop’s fable about generosity of spirit, and his perversion of this story of generosity and human righteousness is used against everyone. That was the idea. By the end of the movie, even certain conclusions the audience assumed about this character are challenged. The closer you get to describe or explain a tyrant, [the more] it is about how the masses allow for people like that to come into power.
For me, I think there’s an interesting relationship to the news. I perceive politicians as celebrities, or a brand. I grew up working with and around celebrities, so when I see a magazine stand at an airport, I see these people not as heroes or people better than me. I don’t worship them for being beautiful, or wishing to be them. I look at it like a high school yearbook. I’m happy she’s doing well. Or that guy is a fucking asshole. I think the idea of prophets, which is my feeling about politicians — even well-meaning ones — they drink their own Kool-Aid. They think they are prophets. I find that disturbing. We are born in to this world believing there are people and power that are greater than us. I think that’s unhealthy. I’m more disturbed by the onlooker in a crowd than opportunistic puppets like Trump, or [Viktor] Orbán in Hungary, or any number of these kinds of figures.
Prescott misbehaves, throwing stones, grabbing his tutor’s breast, refusing to eat, or leave his room. He also slaps his mother. The adults try to control him with decidedly mixed results. What can you say about these incidents and individuals that shape his experience and force viewers to continually recalibrate our impression of him?
It’s designed that way. All these people around him are treating him as if his behavior is unusual, when it’s not. These figures in his life are accidentally shaping him. By reprimanding him, they are empowering him, and that forces him to rebel. I wanted the boy to be something of an innocent. As if he was a victim not of his own circumstances, but of himself. You try to imagine great personalities alone, looking in the mirror. They must develop a perverted sense of self. Prescott is coping. He’s trying to figure out who he is. It’s not to say he’s completely reacting. There’s a fair amount to be broken down in a literal psychological way, and biological, but we leave room for interpretation, but that leaves room for misinterpretation as well. People who have a bad reaction to “Childhood” perceive it as an extreme, morally simplistic film about a cold mother and abusive father. I think the film avoids anything that ridiculous. Parenting in 1919, children were spoken to, not heard. That was the standard. I didn’t see this family as cold, but very prototypical of aristocratic families and how they treated their young. When the boy’s father attacks him, he doesn’t [injure] him on purpose. He’s just trying to get him dressed. He’s an absent father, but not an abusive one. There is a hierarchy of power in that house. You see constantly that dynamic.
Did you deliberately choose not to tell the story exclusively from Prescott’s point of view?
There was a strong knee-jerk response to make [the narrative] more focused, and from Prescott’s vantage point, but I don’t like that kind of storytelling. It doesn’t interest me. It’s didactic. It indicates too much. I don’t like a character to be only one way. I like narrative to be as ambitious as possible. For one reason or another, everything I write has a very formal layout. I wanted an overture, three parts, and an epilogue. I thought that it was a way of giving emphasis to seemingly banal events. Not a lot happens in the first 45 minutes, but inside part one, you think of the defining moments and actions. I design an experience to be as organic as possible. The boy’s vanity of not cutting his hair off, and the irony of finding him later without hair are tiny moments that make the man.
Did you see any of yourself in Prescott?
Possibly. I never thought of this film as a literal psychological study. I always perceived the characters as archetypes and the story as allegorical. You get into a sticky area if you try to psychoanalyze a fictional future despot. It can blow up in your face. The boy was directed to be fairly blank in a Bressonian way; an empty vessel for the audience to project their feelings. Tom [Sweet] wasn’t directed to be sinister, but very present — which is very hard. It’s hard to get most kids just to be there. Tom was naturally that way.
What were you like as a child?
I was outgoing and extroverted when I was very young. After age 7 or 8, I was working in a used/rare bookstore, and I started reading a lot. That formed my interest. I was a collector of films, books, and records, and became more introverted. For me that was like collecting baseball cards. It was nothing more special than that. But I gained an education.
When are you at your best and when are you most evil?
I experience or am confronted with that almost every day, ever since I had a kid. It depends on how much I’ve slept. Today I slept for 10 hours. I’m fantastic. My baby slept in.
The experience of making this film, I came across someone on a daily basis who was getting in the way of making something good. But that’s moviemaking. Every time you have a good idea, someone will tell you it’s a bad idea. You have to fight for absolutely everything — posters, trailers, stills. The process has so many beautiful images, but we saw bad designs. You try to craft an experience from top to bottom that is rich and evocative. It’s so frustrating to be constantly dealing with an army of people that want to do something that is considerably less interesting. That happens when you send the screenplay out. People try to force you to shoot digitally or on film. The most amazing thing about this film is that it is uncompromised. It’s 35mm. It’s set in 1919. It stars a 9 year-old boy. There are no special effects. It has a large cast. They are quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater, or to find a solution that works economically and creatively. It’s difficult to make movies like this anymore.
Brady Corbet has come a long way from 2004’s Thunderbirds reboot. Since that inauspicious start he’s chosen his acting roles wisely and with The Childhood of a Leader he delivers one of the most impressive directorial debuts in recent years
The weather is clement in Edinburgh on 19 June, the day we meet 27-year-old American actor and now director Brady Corbet, but the climate is bleak.
Three days before, MP Jo Cox, one of the most compassionate voices in British politics, was murdered in a brutal act of political intolerance. A few days after our interview the people of the UK will vote on whether we should remain part of the European Union; conflict, fear, suspicion and resentment hang in the air. As the result of the referendum proved, Britain, in 2016, is a divided country. The timing of The Childhood of a Leader, Corbet’s blistering behind-the-camera debut, couldn’t feel more apposite.
Set shortly after the First World War, the film centres on a family of three who’ve recently moved from New York to a dilapidated château in northern France. The father (Liam Cunningham) is a US official serving as emissary for Woodrow Wilson’s government during the post-war peace talks that will become known as the Treaty of Versailles. He shows few diplomacy skills at home, however, where his seven-year-old son (Tom Sweet, also making an extraordinary debut) is waging a war of his own.
The first image of the boy is as a cherub in his new church’s nativity play but we quickly realise this is a fallen angel. His first transgression is to pelt the congregation with rocks as they leave the church following the performance, and he soon moves on to psychological manipulation and intimidation of the household, including his repressed German mother (Bérénice Bejo), his flirtatious French tutor (Stacy Martin) and his kindly housekeeper (Yolande Moreau).
Inspired by Margaret McMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World, which chronicles the lead up to the Treaty of Versailles’ signing, Corbet was interested in making a study of that period in European politics. “The uprising of fascism was one of the results of that treaty,” explains Corbet when we meet on the day of the film’s UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. “I was really haunted by the book and I was trying to figure out a way of making a film on the subject, but in an allegorical way, and a kind of poetic way. I wanted to avoid it turning into a PBS documentary or something.”
Corbet struck on the notion of telling the story from the point of view of a child who was a product of that time. “I liked the idea of a character who seems sort of possessed by the notions of the era,” he says. “He is an embodiment or the physical manifestation of the result of those talks.” Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story of the same name, which tells the similar story of a privileged boy who grows into a fascist, became a very loose template for this tale of the making of a tyrant. A few real life details from Mussolini’s warped childhood were thrown in for good measure.
The difficulties of making The Childhood of a Leader
It’s difficult to recall the last time a debut filmmaker came out of the gates with something so audacious. On top of the period setting, The Childhood of a Leader is shot on 35mm, required a full orchestra for the score, employed hundreds of extras and involved a head scratching co-production between American financiers and several European nations, who proved as unwilling to cooperate as they did in 1919.
“I realise there’s a reason why co-productions between five different countries don’t really happen, because everybody just fucking hates each other,” says Corbet. “It’s always someone else’s problem, whenever you call somebody they say, ‘Don’t bother me, it’s not our territory’s issue.’”
Making the film took the best part of a decade. Did he ever think of abandoning the project, or making his directorial debut on a more modest scale? “It was hard to have a lot of gusto about it at times and there were definitely days that we thought about quitting, but my wife (Norwegian filmmaker and actor Mona Fastvold), who’s also the co-writer of the film, she wouldn’t let it die.”
Pressure continued to mount on the couple when Fastvold became pregnant halfway through the process of trying to get the film off the ground. “We had no money. We’d spent all of it waiting for this film to happen, basically. It was so time-consuming to develop that we couldn’t really do anything else, either of us – I mean not properly.” If you’ve ever wondered to yourself why you’ve only seen Corbet in blink-and-you’ll-miss-him roles over the last few years (Eden, Force Majeure, While We’re Young, Clouds of Sils Maria), here’s your answer.
We’re grateful he stuck with it: the results are stunning. As an actor, Corbet has worked with some of the finest filmmakers working today, including Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier and Mia Hansen-Løve. With The Childhood of a Leader, Corbet is welcome in their company. There might be shades of The White Ribbon in the film’s themes, and the very deliberate structure echos some of Von Trier’s more recent films, but the heady brew Corbet creates is all his own. “I didn’t really show up to any of my sets with a notepad,” he confirms.
In fact, Corbet’s bravura filmmaking is pleasantly at odds with the austere Haneke-like aesthetic that has become the dominant style in European cinema. “Michael Haneke and I are good friends and I love Michael’s films, but Michael’s very dogmatic,” explains Corbet. “I don’t have a philosophy that I’ve developed over the course of 60 years, like he has; I’m more free.”
A closer comparison would be the formal fireworks of Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick (catching Childhood of a Leader with the current Barry Lyndon rerelease would make for a very satisfying double bill). “I’m of the feeling that there’s not a lot of separation between the form and the content,” says Corbet. “For me, the form is the content.”
And what form. As operated by Welsh cinematographer Lol Crawley (45 Years, Ballast), the camera, loaded with genuine celluloid, seems to explore the family’s massive house of its own free will, smoothly roaming the long corridors, taking in the crumbling walls, ceilings and decor, becoming more frantic as the war of attrition between the child and his parents reaches boiling point.
“I had a lot of ideas about starting the film with a promise of something very stylised and then falling back into something more restrained,” explains Corbet, “and then slowly let it start to unspool again until it really developed into something that was totally jaw-dropping.” Corbet reckons this distinctive style comes from his love of extremes. “I like silence and I like noise. I’m not that interested in the middle. And I especially like it when you put the two next to each other.”
Scott Walker’s score
This is no more evident than on the soundtrack, where a cacophonous, atonal score is provided by experimentalist icon Scott Walker. It sets the film’s menacing tone from the off with a searing, heart attack-inducing overture that plays over a rapid montage of scratchy Great War newsreel. As the boy’s misbehaviour escalates, building to an unhinged crescendo, Walker’s strings are ominous and ever-present. The reclusive singer/songwriter is hardly prolific. His only other soundtrack was for Léos Carax’s film Pola X. Corbet wasn’t daunted, though, and took a chance that the subject might hook him in.
“Scott had written a lot of albums and songs addressing themes of tyranny in the 20th century, so I reached out to him in a variety of different ways because he was notoriously hard to reach… I think he got the same letter six times on the same day,” laughs Corbet, “so it must have convinced him.”
The result of the collaboration is a powerhouse score – easily the year’s finest. Suffice to say, a few bows got snapped during the recording. “You could tell that half the orchestra were a bit confused,” says Corbet. The director, though, was delighted. “I never quite imagined how gargantuan [the score] was going to be, but when you ask Scott to do something grand, you can’t be like, ‘Hey, could you just tone it down a little bit?’ You have to let him turn it up to 11, it’s where he operates at his best.”
A few months on from seeing the film, with tensions in Europe continuing to escalate and a potential tyrant on the rise across the pond, The Childhood of the Leader feels even more urgent. Corbet notes, however, that the sad truth is that whenever he made the film its themes would resonate. “I knew that no matter how long it took to get the movie made, it would never not be pertinent. I could have made it 30 years ago and it would have been relevant, and I could probably make it 30 years from now and it would still be relevant.”
Every now and again Brady Corbet asks himself why he didn’t just do a superhero movie and be done with it. “There was a period when I definitely could have made a little bit more money,” laughs the 27-year-old American actor. “When my partner and I were having a baby I was like, f***, why didn’t I just put on a cape or some horns or whatever. Nobody would care. But all the money in the world is not worth being humiliated.”
He knows of what he speaks. When he was 14 he was cast in the starring role of Alan Tracy in the Thunderbirds movie. Embarrassed by the results – but also quickly realising this type of filmmaking just didn’t fit his own sensibilities (his favourite director at the time was Claire Denis) – he turned his back on blockbuster fare altogether. “Until I was about 20 I was still getting offered pretty high profile, but kind of shitty, projects and it was actually hard to say no, especially when there was a dollar sign attached. But the thing is, that could be the last paycheck I ever make and it still wouldn’t be enough for a lifetime.”
In the handful of years since, Corbet has remained true to his word, working for the likes of Michael Haneke (Funny Games) and Lars von Trier (Melancholia) and forming a close association with the New York-based Borderline Films, the cutting-edge production company behind Martha Marcy May Marlene and the Corbet-fronted Simon Killer.
When we meet in Edinburgh, though, it’s to discus his directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader. A study in megalomania that chronicles the early years of a future fascist dictator in the aftermath of the First World War, it’s as artistically audacious and uncompromising as the movies with which he’s thus far chosen to define his career.
Taking its title from a Jean-Paul Sartre story and its real-life inspiration from a childhood picture of Mussolini looking like a little girl, the film is structured as a series of “tantrums” involving the young son of an American diplomat. As his father (Liam Cunningham) works on the Treaty of Versailles and his mother (Bérénice Bejo) defers childcare duties to a series of paid servants, the boy (newcomer Tom Sweet) responds to the ensuing parental neglect and sense of isolation with small but increasingly transgressive acts of disobedience.
If these tantrums can seem a little abstract over the course of the film, especially as the finale jumps abruptly forward with a disorientating conclusion featuring a bald and bearded Robert Pattinson as the adult leader, that’s the point. “I was thinking about these kinds of things as they’re stretched over a period of time,” says Corbet, who wanted to tell a story about a vain young boy who is “metaphysically linked” to the events that would define the 20th century. “What seem like inconsequential experiences might be just as important in dictating who you grow up to be as things that are a bit more evident or obvious. The film really became about trying to attach a trail of breadcrumbs, one where you have scenarios that suggest the possibility of causality, but primarily leads viewers to think about the prompting factors.
”Making the boy American and blond might, of course, make audiences think of a more current leadership contender. “I’d been living in Europe for three-and-a-half years and it was only when I got back to New York that I realised that Trump was a real possibility,” sighs Corbet of the inevitable parallel. “If the film has anything to say – and I didn’t intend for it to be all that didactic – it’s that wherever these people come from is almost irrelevant, because in the end, it’s all down to the people that put them there.
”Artistically speaking Corbet is certainly fighting the good fight, though he remains a little despairing of the state of film culture in his home country. Despite winning two major awards at Venice last year, The Childhood of a Leader was rejected from every major North American film festival. “I’m not shocked someone disliked the film, but I’m a little shocked that a lot of film programmers didn’t even think it was worth their while to show.” Still, this isn’t enough to make him reconsider his anti-blockbuster stance – even if he has kind of made peace with Thunderbirds. “Now that I have a two year-old I can’t wait to show it to her,” he laughs. “I’m going to try and blow her mind with it: ‘Look, your dad, at one point, was a very unsuccessful action star.’ There was even a little toy made of me so maybe she’ll play with that in a few years. Now she’d just swallow it.” l
The Childhood of a Leader is on selected release from 19 August
Brady Corbet: ‘I wanted to make a poetic film about politics’
The actor discusses stepping behind the lens for his startling directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader.
Brady Corbet is familiar to the eye, yet far from being a household name – and meeting him in the flesh you get the sense he prefers it that way. The brooding indie mainstay made his screen debut on TV’s The King of Queens aged 11, before landing his first film roles in Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, Michael Haneke’s 2007 Funny Games and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. He was even briefly distracted by Hollywood in 2004 with a forgettable Thunderbirds reboot. But it has always seemed like he needed more.
Now, Corbet has channelled his restless energy into something dark and foreboding entirely of his own making. His directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader, is an offbeat post-World War One romp which points to the rise of fascism in Europe in the early part of the 20th century. After years of on-off development – Corbet’s partner, the Norwegian filmmaker Mona Fastvold, convinced him to revive it in 2014 – the film finally emerged at the Venice Film Festival where is won the Best Debut and Best Director awards. “I’ve always been interested in this period of world history, for whatever reason – the period between the two [world] wars,” Corbet explains. “That moment in time defined foreign policy as we know it today – in America and throughout much of the rest of the world. I wanted to try and make a poetic film about politics and interpersonal dynamics – but not a political film, if that makes sense. Something as punk rock as possible.”
To achieve that, Corbet approached his friend Robert Pattinson to co-star opposite Bérénice Bejo and Game of Thrones regular Liam Cunningham, which helped raise the necessary finance. But before shooting even began, the 28-year-old pulled off an even greater coup, enlisting the services of cult musician Scott Walker for a deliriously deranged, hypnotic score. Like all great film music, it quickly becomes its own character in the film, its pounding intensity spectacular assaulting the senses with incessant regularity.
“He’s my hero,” Corbet says of the famously private Walker, who typically shuns such offers. “There’s nobody that would have been the right combination of classical and totally punk other than Scott. That was a defining characteristic of what we set out to do. When he said yes, we were kind of shocked. It seemed too good to be true. And when I had moments of doubt, he spoke to me in a very comforting way. He was like, ‘You’ve got to shoot for the moon’.”
The Childhood of a Leader centres on an American diplomat (Cunningham), who’s in Paris to help negotiate the map of post-war Europe. His wife (Bejo) and their young son, Prescott (newcomer Tom Sweet) have joined him outside the French capital, holed up in a dark, gloomy house. When the patriarch does see his family (mostly at weekends), he is shocked by his son’s erratic behaviour, and irate at his wife’s reluctance to bear him another child. Complicating matters further is the boy’s teacher (Stacy Martin) and a visiting journalist, Charles (the aforementioned Pattinson). Before long, the precocious Prescott is causing havoc with the locals – and at home. It’s this that draws on disturbing real-life events. A dictator will ultimately emerge from all this – but not who you might think.
“Mussolini used to throw rocks at parishioners when they were coming out of mass when he was a kid,” Corbet explains. “He also maimed one of his teachers and a fellow student. For me, he became the face of the worst kind of machismo and misogyny. He ruined every woman’s life he touched.”
The film, shot on 35mm, is rife with cultural references. Given recent events in the US and Europe, it feels even more intense and timely, not least because of the boy’s jaw-dropping belligerence. Bejo believes her stifled, unhappy character in the film is, “in a certain way, giving that power to the little boy. In a sort of way, she’s enjoying his insolence.” The results of this are wildly unpredictable.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, like his most intense on-screen characters Corbet can’t sit still for long. After years of co-writing and editing (most notably with Borderline, the New York-based team responsible for 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene), the Arizona native is already plotting his next directorial outing, Vox Lux, about the rise of a female pop star from 1999 to the present day. He’s also made noises about quitting acting for good, especially is his filmmaking career takes off. Still, it’s hard to imagine Corbet not turning up on screen in some deeply unsettling film at some point in the near future. Whatever he winds up doing, he’s likely to be stirring it up for some time to come.
The Childhood of a Leader is in cinemas 19 August.
Actor turned Director Brady Corbet makes his feature debut with Childhood of a Leader, assembling a stellar cast to tell a tale of fascism through the eyes of a budding post-World War I megalomaniac. To find out more, our Artistic Director of Film, Jason Wood, spoke to Corbet about casting, inspirations and stepping behind the camera…
JW: The film is based on a Sartre short story but takes in many other credited sources including texts by Hannah Arendt and Robert Graves. How did you and co-writer Mona Fastvold corral together all these elements?
BC: We could have fairly credited Vilhelm Hammershoi or Anselm Kiefer or any number of artists but decided only to include authors that the dialogue or scenarios specifically reference in the film. Those were the texts we were discussing during the writing process.
JW: Did you also have in mind other films dealing with sociopaths and dictator figures? Films as diverse as The Omen and Bellocchio’s Vicente came to mind.
BC: We always were aware that we were subverting certain genre expectations but neither The Omen or Bellochio’s Vicente (as much as I admire Bellochio) are very significant films for me… The film I did think about very often, however, was Young Torless based on Robert Musil’s story. The other films I remember we discussed a lot (mostly for lighting or approach to production design) was Tree of the Wooden Clogs and Barry Lyndon).
JW: You co-wrote Simon Killer and have seemed to be heading towards directing a feature on your own right after acting in some of the most interesting independent films of recent years. Why did the time feel right and what draws you to characters and narratives that revolve around human beings that are inextricably flawed? You seem fascinated by our innate capacity for evil.
BC: Honestly, the time was right as soon as the money came together. It could have taken less time or a great deal more. I have some compassion for characters living in a very personal hell of their own rendering so I have tended to write about them. In regards to Simon Killer, Antonio has an interest in true crime so that is reflected in his film. Childhood of a Leader and my upcoming project, Vox Lux, which chronicles the rise of a pop star are primarily concerned with the problem of worship and the deconstruction of familiar iconographies.
JW: The film has a very specific aesthetic, from the arresting credits, through to Scott Walker’s score and the film’s largely muted visual tone. What was the overall intention regarding the look and feel of Childhood of a Leader?
BC: Classic chiarascuro, light emerging from the shadows.
JW: Can I also ask about how working with Scott Walker arose? He doesn’t accept many invitations, despite his avowed cinephilia.
BC: I sent him a letter and to our great and thankful surprise he said yes.
JW: You draw on elements from the childhood of Mussolini but deliberately also position Prescott as a kind of everyman dictator figure. Was it important that for the film to have the desired effect relating to how such figures come into being you didn’t attempt to actively portray a specific historical figure? In a time in which leaders and political figures in Europe, American and further afield are becoming more and more totalitarian your film certainly stokes a very chilling note.
BC: That’s exactly right.
JW: For a first feature it’s exceptionally well cast. Robert Pattinson, Liam Cunningham and Yolande Moreau are all excellent. Stacy Martin is, I think, becoming one of the most interesting actors of her generation. Was it easy to attract figures of such prominence to the project?
BC: Our great cast and crew were fairly easy to attract. The money for a project like this is the trickier part.
JW: Tom Sweet is a real discovery as the young Prescott. He shows a real mix of intelligence and cunning. Was it difficult to cast the role?
BC: We saw a lot of people but Des Hamilton and his team found tom playing on a football field and brought him in to make a tape. We really knew right away that we had all discovered someone very special.
JW: Some reviews have described the film as a story about not only a maniac but also the story of mass abdication and the story of those who wish to be led. Is that how you view it?
BC: For me, it’s not about a maniac at all. It never was. I was surprised when journalists viewed Tom’s character as a “sociopath,” a buzzword that is thrown around too liberally. He’s not even a brat. He is the result of the bureaucratic failures, oppression of women, culture of worship and general short-sightedness which defined the early 20th century and will define the 21st again if we allow it.
Brady Corbet is no stranger to art house cinema. As an actor, he’s worked with Lars Von Trier, Olivier Assayas, and Michael Haneke. But now he’s stepped the other side of the camera.
For his first film, he hasn’t exactly made things easy for himself. Childhood of a Leader is a post-WWI epic about the birth of twentieth century fascism, adapted from Jean-Paul Sartre’s book of the same name. It’s an allegory of sorts in which the young son of an American diplomat at Versailles rebels against the pressures of parental authoritarianism.
With a score by Scott Walker, the pop crooner turned Avant Gardiste; elaborate plays on biblical imagery; and an ambition to map European history onto the life of an individual family, this is clearly a film with big ideas.
It’s maybe surprising, then, that the film’s director is a model of humility; an affable, eminently down-to-earth guy. The first real question was his – an offer of coffee that surely would have been churlish to turn down. So, hot beverage in hand, we got down to business; was this a daunting first film to make?
Not initially, he tells us, but as time went by, stumbling blocks appeared: ‘At a certain point, I realised what it really meant to make a movie with a nine year old, set in 1919 with an orchestral score, on 35 millimetre. It required a lot of personal sacrifice.’
Thankfully, good news was on the horizon. ‘Once we started shooting, things became more peaceful because it all kind of starts with this boy [played by Tom Sweet]. You never know what you’re going to get with a young actor, especially someone who’s never acted before and had no desire to act, who was found on a soccer field.’
‘He was like the most healing part of the process,’ Brady continues, ‘I was really ready to take on that battle as well: ‘now we hired a kid and he can’t act!’ But it was the opposite; we got this young man, who was like born to do this.’
But getting the film right wasn’t just a question of casting. Although it must be said Brady did a pretty impressive job there, securing the likes of Robert Pattinson, Bérénice Bejo, and Liam Cunningham (‘it was primarily just letters. I wrote people letters,’ he later explains). The film is also the product of a lot of reading; the synthesis of a lot of different ideas.
‘The most important book,’ he explains, ‘the book where the film would not exist if I had never read it is a Margaret McMillan book on the six months leading up to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, called Paris 1919. She was a relative of Churchill. She’s a brilliant writer and an amazing speaker. I was listening to her for almost two years.’
It’s a history of a critical point in European history – a time in which a continent was flimsily repaired, and which Brady sees as momentous.
‘For me, and I’m no scholar, but my impression of everything I’ve read on the developments of the Twentieth Century; a lot of it, not all of it but a lot of it, can be traced back to that year. It was the moment where American foreign policy was sort of established as we know it today, with the same level of impossible naiveté; the sense of being the Great White Hope; the invading nation that comes along to frequently do a great more damage than help.’
Childhood of a Leader takes on this history, making a microcosm of a crumbling old chateau where the diplomat and his family spend their days. It’s a fearless film, and when Brady speaks at one point of something ‘a little punk rock in [his] spirit,’ we’re tempted to agree.
Best known for his performances in Funny Games and Martha Marcy May Marlene, Brady Corbet released his first full length feature film as writer-director in the US last year.
We caught up with him and his brimming creative energy and stream-of-consciousness style of expression to talk about The Childhood of a Leader:
The Metropolist: When do you feel you first made the transition from actor to writer/director?
Brady Corbet: It was always there, it was always there. The thing that was more unusual in my life really was that I was ever an actor. I mean not in a bad way – obviously it’s been really, really great – but it was a little bit surprising even for me at times. Initially when I was very young I had been taken to auditions when I was a kid, because my family knew that I was a cinephile and were like, “Hey there’s an audition for a movie, you should try out for it.” And then it went really far and I got an agent out of it. It was like, suddenly I was a 7-year-old with an agent.
But from the age of 16 I was doing ghostwriting jobs, I was learning to edit, I was just sort of focused on everything else. Then I directed my short film [Protect You + Me] when I was 18, that I worked on with Darius Khondji, and you know, I was lucky because since I’d grown up in the profession I had a way of accessing a lot of people that I wanted to work with. But this film just took many years to get off the ground.
TM: About ten years, is that right?
BC: Well, I started writing the project 10 years ago, so if we do that math I was 17. So when I was 17 years old I was not — even then I wasn’t under the impression that the film would actually be made. I just started working on the shell of the thing, and started mapping out the structure. I remember I even submitted a version of ‘The Treatment’ [the first quarter of the film] and the first 35 pages to the Cannes residents, when I was I guess, 20 or something? It didn’t even get to the first round, and basically I put it away but after a few years had passed I was still thinking about it.
At that point I was writing other projects and doing other things, and I was writing with my then writing partner and now significant other, Mona — because we were working together before we were a couple — and she convinced me to pick it back up. She had a million new ideas for how to approach it and had ideas for new characters and variations of characters and so we finished it together.
TM: So it was born in a 17-year-old’s mind, and finessed by the both of you.
BC: Yeah, exactly. The bravery of an imagination of someone less experienced is kind of interesting for me, because of course over the years I have developed a great deal more control and rhythm, and frame. My first short projects were pretty similar to Childhood in a lot of ways, but the end of the film was always the end of the film. So it’s interesting that I capped it, as it was, ten years ago.
TM: Do you feel you compromised in any way on the original vision you had when you were 17?
BC: No, you know, strangely the film is… This is a crazy thing to say, and I actually mean it, and I hope that I’m able to say this about at least one or two other movies that I make in my life, because maybe I’ll never be able to say this again, but, the film is almost exactly how I imagined it. It’s as I always imagined it. And that is amazing, because there’s a million things that were out of my control. I could have met five hundred kids and maybe never found Tom [Sweet]. But when I saw Tom… Tom was exactly what I had imagined. And I was amazed. I was amazed at his cadence, his rhythm, everything. He was exactly what I’d pictured. And you know, the locations, and everything. There’s very few compromises. The compromises are things like, maybe the village was a little bit bigger: in the original draft, the village was less rural and more developed.
TM: What else drew you to Tom?
BC: It was how he looked, it was how he behaved. He was so… He was the perfect age. He’d just turned nine. And he was very well behaved, and really clever, and really like a little adult in some ways. But also still a child. So it was very easy to communicate with him, because I didn’t have to manipulate him or trick him. I just explained everything to him exactly the way I would explain it to an adult.
And yet the way that he would interpret that, or however that might manifest itself would be different. It would be something surprising. One of my favourite things about Tom is that — it’s kind of a dream — he’s always reacting. He’s always really like, working with the people he’s in a room with. I mean, I have a really hard time getting adults to do that. Usually people are very focused on their lines, and they forget that there’s a camera on them in between their lines. But with Tom it was the opposite: he was incredibly present, always reacting, doing things. It was exciting to work with him.
TM: He has such poise.
BC: He’s incredibly self-possessed — and then it’s so funny because then you yell, “cut!” and suddenly he’s off playing a game. But his parents are super wonderful. There are a lot of ways in which I was extremely unlucky making this movie, but Tom and his parents were sort of like, my first gift in the process. Because up until that point I had been extremely unlucky in terms of how the movie was coming together. It was just years of problems, and angst, and Mona and I were having our first child in the middle of all of it, and we were so broke. We had spent all of our time, and all of our money, waiting for this film to happen, and it was so ambitious and so unusual that most institutions were just not that interested in developing it with us. So they would always see that there was a big cast and a big crew attached, but then they’d read the script and they were just like, well, what’s all the fuss about? Why do people want to do this?
It was interesting because it was the kind of script that most financial institutions hated, and a script that cast and crew loved, because it was a script that was almost only in service of subtext and nuance, and allegory, and it was really about the negative space and not the positive charge. And I think that that’s something that people really were excited about and related to in terms of how they wanted to tell stories.
But financial institutions are… They’re ultimately more interested in things that are incredibly formulaic and it’s amazing to me (laughs) it’s like sometimes I would go into a meeting with someone, and they would assume that I had forgotten to write a scene as if it was a mistake or something, as if the film wasn’t really precisely designed.
TM: It’s so interesting that the film is set during an ‘in-between’ lost moment between wars, while relating to contemporary politics.
BC: Absolutely. When I read Margaret MacMillan’s book [Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War] on Paris 1919, it was right around the time that we had gone to war in Iraq. And as I was reading Margaret’s book it was really dawning on me how little American foreign policy had changed, and in fact it had sort of been established during this period of history, like American foreign policy as we know it. And I was incredibly disturbed to see that we really hadn’t pushed the needle very far.
But it’s interesting, like when I look at it now, I understand that I was dealing with a period of world history that not a lot of people, especially in America, are that familiar with. And then on top of it, I was dealing with it in a very poetic way, so there was also like a, sense of, by the end of the film we’ve leaped off into pure, total allegory. Like nothing literal at all in the last fifteen minutes of the film.
So I understand now how people had a really hard time with that. I would go into these meetings and they’d say, yes but, this didn’t happen. And I’d say no, I know, I remember! Don’t worry! (Laughs) People get very attached to the idea that you’re supposed to make a historical piece that is totally presentational, really like a documentary, as opposed to something which is representational, and makes you feel the impact of history, but through a process of reinvention.
The reason that I was not, at that point, that interested in making a film that quite literally portrayed the events between 1918 and 1944 was because, especially when it comes to stories about the rise of fascism and Mussolini’s reign of terror, and Hitler’s holocaust, is that we are so familiar with those images and facts that in a way we’ve become a little bit desensitised, of course. So part of what I felt would be interesting was to feel that when the movie ended, the idea was for the audience to feel completely lost in the annals of history. It’s a different thing to know the expression “history repeats itself”, and to feel that history repeats itself. At the end of the movie I just wanted to have this sense of tragedy, and guilt, and violence being passed through generations almost like a disease. So that you feel that quite literally in this character at the end of the film, and you also feel that you’re in another room; it’s another document; it’s more bureaucracy; it’s everything we’ve seen but just again.
That’s a very difficult thing to explain to someone, because if you sit across from somebody and you say, ‘oh yes’, but at the end you’re going to have this feeling that history repeats itself, they’ll be like, ‘oh, great, bravo, never heard that one before’.
TM: Yes, and I think people might have a craving for it to be a concrete historical figure, like Hitler — but this is precisely why it’s so important that it’s not.
BC: Of course, of course, and that’s definitely the reason that the film is so playful in that way. You’re sort of deprived of a name until the end of the movie. One of the ideas of the last ten minutes of the film is that, I knew if I laid down a lot of imagery and a lot of ideas, and a lot to unpack right at the very end of the film, then things that could otherwise feel overt, or obvious, or be a little bit of an eye-roll, they would be reinvented and they would work, because they would start to cancel each other out. There would be so many things happening in the last ten minutes, and so many possibilities, that in a way people would ultimately just be left with the sensation, when the sensation is the most important thing to be left with.
The film is also about the fact that even though we’ve spent a great deal of time with this young man, there’s a good chance that we were mistaken about his biology to begin with. At the end of the movie we say, we know this is his mother and his father, and then we go oh actually, this other man is his father. But then you also have this weird sense that because you’re seeing this face existing in the late 1930s that we also saw existing in the 19-teens, we also have this sense of time folding in on itself in a way. And that twenty five years apart or twenty years apart, or a century apart, that everything is related. And that feeling at the end that everything is related is really what’s important.
TM: So people can choose which parts speak to them and make them feel that.
BC: It’s so hard, that’s actually one of the things that’s been tricky with presenting the movie. There are so many audiences and critics that get really, really pissed off, as if I’m trying to fuck up their night. Which is funny, because I really do care how people feel. It’s something you’re constantly talking about, you’re talking about what’s going to be most effective for people, when they’re watching it, and we’re trying to figure out how to give them an experience which is really unusual and fresh.
And then there’s a lot of people who are very quick to dismiss something if they’re frustrated by it, as opposed to just spending a bit of time with it. The movie takes time.
TM: Scott Walker’s soundtrack really facilitates that kind of introspection. Did you always envision him doing the soundtrack to the film?
BC: Yes I did. I’m really a creature of habit, I think I listen to like five artists or something (laughs) and Scott’s one of them! I’ve been a big fan of Scott’s since I was a young teenager. I always wanted him to do the score, and I was also very inspired by Scott’s music, to write the script in the way that I did.
The script actually has a lot in common with the structure of a lot of his storytelling in his songs. There’s sort of a way that his lyrics are highly evocative and really suggestive, and yet he’s always documenting a period of history or a geo-political situation. I mean he has his very own brand of storytelling. There’s a lot we can say about Scott as a voice and as a composer, but people often forget to talk about his lyrics, which are just fucking amazing. He’s one of the best poets around. And there’s not a lot of great poetry that you come across these days. It’s a little bit of a dead practice. But it does every once in a while bubble up in other mediums, and I think that Scott’s one of the best in that regard.
I actually thought that having him involved was sort of integral to the project. Not only would he create something massive — and it really needed to be — the word that we were using when we spoke about it was ‘gargantuan’.
Then we mixed the film outside of the Dolby standards. So the end of the film in particular is louder than what Dolby says you’re allowed to be. And people have a very funny reaction to Scott. They either really go with that — I mean people can hold on their ears, you’re in a movie theatre, it’s fine, you can protect yourself if something’s too loud. The images are so evocative but they’re really quite removed so we needed there to be a kind of aural assault, in order for people to feel the impact of what all these images really mean.
But it’s amazing, I mean Scott’s music, which I think is extremely melodic and and I literally can like, do the dishes to it, but it sends some people into a fit of rage (laughs). I don’t know what that is, people always talk about it being really atonal, I think it sounds extremely melodic.
TM: It makes you look inside yourself, maybe the people who react to it badly are the people who struggle with that.
BC: I mean, as soon something is sort of extroverted, and somebody’s really putting themselves out there, there’s like an instinct in most people to shut it down. And I think that Scott stands as a little bit of a lone wolf and a personal hero for me in the regard that, when it comes to his work, he has no problem with putting it all out there. I think he compensates for that by also being a very private person — and I understand that as well.
The more you put yourself out there through your work, the less you want to actually be there to represent it somehow, because you’re just so tired at the end of the process. You don’t want to have to defend it anymore. I had to defend the project for so many years that at a certain point I didn’t feel like defending it in an interview anymore. And at his age I can really understand why he doesn’t feel obligated to do much press anymore.
It’s really a miracle that we got him. And I’m really excited that so many people do love the score. That’s the good news. There were some very nasty, catty early reactions, but then people that don’t like the film have started to talk about the score. And Scott really deserves to be talked about, so I’m really happy that that’s worked out.
TM: It’s the perfect match! Like your creative partnership with Mona. Did having a child affect how you both worked on the film?
BC: That’s an interesting question. It didn’t, it didn’t really affect how we made it either. I guess I never thought about the movie as being about parenting at all: it was only about the hierarchy that exists within this sort of microcosm. It doesn’t even have that much to do with childhood — it has to do with the seeds of origin mostly in regards to ideas.
Mona was directing second unit on the film with a baby tied to her belly (laughs) and Ada was on my lap in rehearsals. It was actually a very warm environment that we were making the film in. It was a very Ibsen-like style of performance, and so I guess in that way it didn’t affect my feelings about my own parenting, and my parenting wasn’t affected by it either.
It’s about when and how certain poisonous ideas are introduced into the bloodstream, and how organically and slowly, and naturally, that can happen. You arrive in the middle of a situation at the beginning of the film, and you feel like something is already going on — but during the course of the narrative you see things getting even worse.
‘the childhood of a leader’ is a history lesson that’s difficult to ignore
Brady Corbet spent his formative years acting in credible, left-field dramas under the direction of auteurs like Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin), Michael Haneke (Funny Games), and Lars von Trier (Melancholia). So when the 27-year-old turned to directing, he aimed for a debut as singular in vision of any of the masters he worked under before.
The Childhood of a Leader is uncompromising cinema in many respects. The story was inspired by the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 after World War I; its title is taken from a Sartre short story. It follows the journey into darkness of one small, blonde boy who, as the name suggests, will ultimately turn fascist leader. It is also bracing stuff. A score from Scott Walker is turned up to ominous and foreboding effect. The film’s style is strict and austere, in the style of Haneke’s The White Ribbon. The Childhood of a Leader’s cast, including Robert Pattinson are oblivious of the doom to come. Here, Corbet talks about some of the aspects and challenges of keeping to a most singular vision.
On making a movie out of academic history:
“It was around the time we’d gone to war in Iraq. I was struck by how little American foreign policy had changed since it was established, as we know it, in 1919. As an American, I was particularly interested in that aspect of the tale. I decided then I would like to work on a film about it. But unfortunately most documentaries on the subject were quite dry. I didn’t even think Steven Spielberg could get a $100m movie about the six months leading to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles off the ground! So I realized I’d have to scale it down quite a lot. So I thought about this character who is the consequence of the Treaty, a character that anticipates the oncoming doom. The Treaty was the result of the dark ages of 18m dead during the First World War but then it paved the way for even darker ages.”
On using elements of Mussolini’s childhood as plot points:
“The thing about Mussolini’s story is that it’s full of these awe inspiring contradictions. He was an extremely effeminate little boy who would grow up to be a notorious philanderer and womanize, macho to the enth degree. That figured its way into the film. He attacked one of his teachers, he threw rocks at parishioners leaving mass, he attacked his mother. He was on a warpath. A character that well defined at such an early age was an appropriate benchmark.”
On the film’s contemporary resonance:
“The climate allowed this to occur. The recipe of the oppression of women, the emphasis on spiritual doctrine, a general moribund and authoritarian atmosphere is probably the biggest culprit more than any one individual. I people coming to see this film would come to experience the climate that allowed that to happen then and to tie it to a lot of the problems we still have today. We still have a major problem with the oppression of women, with religious doctrine, all of these things still exist. Those weaknesses allow inept self interested individuals to rise to the top.”
On working with Scott Walker:
“A friend of mine said recently, what are you going to do for music for the rest of your career after Scott Walker’s written it for your first film?”
On his next film, Vox Lux, about the rise of a popstar in 1999:
“We’re going to move immediately on from Scott Walker to some super saccharine bubblegum pop music. I think I wrote it in a reaction to that. I spent many years up to my neck in period costumes and gas lamps. I had decided really early on when I was finished with Childhood that I’d make something very, very modern. There’s an entire album’s worth of songs in the film so we are in the process of putting together what will be our character’s album. It’s a musical but it’s a very upsetting musical.”
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“The whole thing is a ride and you’ve got to do your best to get not too excited when things seems to go very well nor to despair when things are just horrible.” – Brady Corbet
If you thought that indie cinema’s darling Brady Corbet had fallen off Hollywood’s radar, truth is the extremely talented and underrated thespian purposely chose to take his acting career on a relatively low profile. Rather than cash out on his looks and seek out to lead yet another teen dystopia franchise, Corbet picked a path of, so to speak, “minor roles” in auteurs’ films.
The reason behind this move stems from the fact that Corbet’s true calling and passion is to be a filmmaker and after working for many years as a screenwriter (not always credited) for films he sometimes also starred in (Antonio Campos’ Simon Killer is 2012), the Arizona native has finally released his feature film debut as a director, The Childhood Of A Leader, and what a debut it is!
There is nothing common or predictable about Corbet’s first feature and that’s quite a statement to make as usually debuts often tick the Sundance-y boxes of feel-good, coming of age, quirky tales. Funny enough, the film is indeed a coming of age tale but not the one you would expect. It’s a chilling, dream-like, slow-burning look at the rise of authoritarianism in the 20th century through the eyes of a young boy whose father is an American diplomat working for President Wilson in Paris.
Inspired by the actor-turned-filmmaker’s interest in the pivotal albeit flawed Treaty of Versailles and the Interwar period it set the stage for between 1918 and 1939, The Childhood Of A Leader is a stunning, stylish debut brimming with personality and vision. Starring Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones), Bérénice Bejo (The Artist), Robert Pattinson in yet another credit for his post-Twilight redemption and young British newcomer Tom Sweet in the title role, this is a hypnotising film that’s certainly not for everyone to stomach but that rewards its audience with an explosive outcome to its underlying and ever-mounting tension as it traces this little boy’s developing evil, tantrum after tantrum.
We spoke with Corbet on the phone from Los Angeles for a good half hour and the brilliant auteur-in-the-making, who has just turned 28 this week, graciously gave us a generous insight into his outstanding first film, inevitably starting with where “the directing bug” came from.
“When I was a kid I always assumed that I would make films one way or another. I always planned to make my own films and actually at one point I planned to make this one much sooner but the screenplay was rejected from the Cannes residence and such programs, which was kind of disheartening. Then, I decided to go and make the film anyway and when I really focused on it, it took several years before we could see it come to life because we had so many problems. However I’m happy the film didn’t get made when I was 18 as now it’s a much better movie than it could’ve been, especially because it was worth the wait in order to find (lead actor) Tom Sweet. One year earlier and he would’ve been too young for the role. I guess sometimes you have to put your faith in life that things will happen as they should although the road to get there was quite painful.”
A key moment for Corbet in the path to making his directorial debut a reality was meeting Norwegian actress Mona Fastvold (Love And Other Impossible Pursuits) and help her write her own directorial debut, indie drama The Sleepwalker (2014) that Corbet also co-starred in. From friends and collaborators Fastvold and Corbet became partners in life as well and recently welcomed a daughter.
Corbet reveals that when he decided to pick the script back up, ignore the previous rejections and set out to make it on his own, Fastvold breathed new life into the project.
“When I had started to work on it many years ago, I had written the sequences up until the priest’s sermon which happens about 40 minutes into the film and I was very stuck on this sermon for a long time. It was one of those things where you come at a crossroad and can’t quite figure out how much personal, historical, political detail, to include and I basically just stopped there. Mona looked at everything and thought that the movie was missing a character. So we added the loving and caring French maid played by Yolande Moreau which didn’t exist at all in the previous draft and that’s actually why she’s called Mona by the way. I know this isn’t the warmest movie ever made but the bit of warmth in there is definitely due to Mona’s contribution. I have a rather theoretical approach and at times it can be a bit suffocating of a narrative. Mona grew up performing Ibsen and such when she was very young and she’s classically trained and actually I think all that classical know-how is what gave the film its sort of classical feel. It was one of those cases when one night at dinner I was telling her how the rest of the story was supposed to be in detail and she was like: just finish it for Christ’s sake! So we sat down and we finished it together.”
Getting the script to the right stage was just the tip of the creative iceberg for Corbet, who faced many challenges in order to produce a period piece set in between the two World Wars, shot on 35mm film as his feature debut.
“The thing with the movie is that frankly, there were too many duties for one person to pull off. So we started to divide up certain tasks. Mona was directing second unit on the film but in general we were supposed to have 8 weeks of prep which ended up being 3 and 1/2 and that’s unheard of and quite ridiculous. We shot the film in 24 days, in four 6-day weeks and it was a relentless production, so Mona was the only person I could trust to be my other set of eyes and ears and I’ve always been that for her as well. We know what the other one likes and although we have different preoccupations and a different approach and style, at the end of the day they’re very similar so it’s not difficult for us to be each other’s support.”
Despite initial speculations that the titular leader was meant to be either Hitler or Mussolini, ever since the film premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival (where it won the awards for best first feature and best director in the Horizons section), Corbet has made clear how the project is meant to be a fictitious tale and an allegory rather than a history lesson.
“The film is about how the bureaucratic rhythms, the religious doctrine, the oppression of women, the authoritarian status quo of parenting partially paved the way for this kind of uprising. It’s almost as much about the weather as it is about a moment that defined this young man. I don’t think we’re defined simply or in one moment. I was thinking a lot about Camus’ The Stranger, when the protagonist finally sort of unleashes the reason why he’s pulled the trigger and shot this other man six times or so. I was fascinated by the idea that this sort of depression is shaping this young man but because the film is about a time that already happened I didn’t want to be didactic.”
It’s a pleasure listening to Corbet speaking so passionately about his craft. Incredibly cultured and sophisticated, the young artist surely has had the best kind of film school experience, working with masters like Haneke (Funny Games’ US remake), Araki (Mysterious Skin) and Von Trier (Melancholia). No surprise then how his view on the eternal dilemma of art versus commerce is unapologetically bold.
“Anybody who thinks that anything should be a certain way and that there’s only one kind of narrative is ridiculous. I have no problem when I make something that someone just doesn’t like but it’s always frustrating when someone assumes that there’s only one way to bake a cake and that this is not as good a piece of cake because you didn’t include as much sugar. The thing that was very painful for me during my experience with Childhood is how between Venice and now the film was being rejected from every single top tier film festival and basically everywhere in the US and in North America. It wasn’t shocking that a programmer didn’t like the movie but it was bizarre that so many programmers did not think this film was worth exhibiting, especially with festivals showing between 50 and 300 titles like Toronto or 130 titles like Sundance. It’s been a very strange experience because the movie was very divisive in Venice and then it won two prizes. Yet it was very painful that my film wasn’t valued in the country I’m from. Now it’s been released in the US and it’s been mostly acclaimed but we had a year of feeling quite sad because I thought there would be more people that wanted to support this kind of film. In the long run it’s just a very important lesson for me to keep close to my heart: you’re not really making movies for other people, you are making films that you yourself would hope to see and in the way you’d hope to see them made and you hope that some other people discovered it as well. I think in a way if you’re making something for other people is quite presumptuous and ultimately it’s quite a corporate attitude to think you know what the masses want. You have to make what you want to make and you can’t be afraid of it because it’s commercial, yet you should never make something because you think it’s going to be seen by a lot of people, that’s the wrong approach.”
The young filmmaker is already hard at work on his sophomore effort, Vox Lux, which is a completely different kind of story, genre and cinematic style. Corbet reflects on his evolution as an artist and how his personal life has informed his artistic choices.
“It’s funny that I had a child whilst I was making this movie. I didn’t have that many opinions while I was making it because I was such a new parent and yet my next film I wrote specifically in reaction to becoming a parent. That’s going to be a movie about mothers and daughters and it’s focused on different generations of women and I wrote it for my daughter, thinking about my daughter. It spans from 1999 to practically present day and it’s a little bit more of a political film in a way because actually it’s protesting something that’s sort of ongoing. It’s about the rise of a popstar and it’s got a much stronger connection and message associated with youth than my first one. The most exciting thing is that we’re shooting 65 mm so it’s going to be quite an experience. I’m in LA right now doing some preliminary work on the soundtrack, which we need to have prepared quite in advance of shooting. It’s going to be a pop musical in 65mm and we’re starting to shoot at the beginning of the year.”