Anton Corbijn, born 20 May 1955, is a Dutch photographer, music video and film director. He is the creative director behind the visual output of Depeche Mode and U2, having handled the principal promotion and sleeve photography for both for more than a decade. Some of his works include music videos for Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” (1990) and Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” (1993), as well as the Ian Curtis biopic Control.
Here, Anton Corbijn talks to Stuart Jeffries for The Guardian.
In the years since he used his dad’s camera to snap an obscure prog-rock band called Solution, Anton Corbijn has remained besotted with photography. He’s been such an exhaustive chronicler of U2 and Depeche Mode that he’s known as both bands’ invisible member. You may not know his picture byline, but you will know his images of Nirvana, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Brian Eno. Then, three years ago, he became a film director, making the award-winning Control about troubled Mancunian glum rockers Joy Division.
Corbijn giggles. “I didn’t really know how to make a film when I made Control. I had to create my own language, just as I did when I started taking photographs. I never studied either one.” But surely clueless film directors don’t win prizes at Cannes? “True, but film-making is extreme for me. I can’t use lights. I need others to help me to put shots together. Directing film is the hardest thing I have ever done.” Even though you directed more than 100 rock videos? “I know just enough not to look stupid. Mostly that means I know who to ask.”
That is too modest. In fact, Corbijn has won several awards for his videos, including one for Nirvana’s Heart-Shaped Box. When Kurt Cobain asked Corbijn to direct the video for Nirvana’s next single, Pennyroyal Tea, Corbijn said he couldn’t do better than his previous video, so declined. Cobain said if Corbijn wouldn’t direct it, Nirvana would never make another video. They didn’t.
Now Corbijn has stepped even further from his comfort zone. Aged 55, he has directed his second feature, and it has nothing to do with music. Instead, The American is a hard-boiled, Hollywood-funded thriller starring George Clooney as a hitman holed up in an Italian hill village. It’s already been talked of as an Oscar contender and went straight to No 1 in the US box office over the commercially important Labor Day weekend – even though the critical reaction was mixed. “A lot of critics were angry,” laughs Corbijn. “The trailer made it look like it was one thing – a fast-paced, popcorn, Hollywood thriller – when it was something else entirely. So when they got into the screenings and found that it was a European take on a western, they were furious.”
That makes The American sound funless, which it isn’t, but Corbijn certainly relishes stillness and silence. The gunshots that punctuate the film are startling, and the film’s considerable tension comes from the fact that the audience knows so little about the hitman’s motivations – except that the hunter has turned hunted and he ain’t gonna stand for it.
What U2’s Bono said of Corbijn’s photography applies to his cinema, too: “He sees pleasure through guilty eyes and he sees good and evil in very dramatic ways.”
“I gave them Sergio Leone when some critics probably wanted Spider-Man 13,” says Corbijn. His debt to the Italian maker of spaghetti westerns is overt: in one scene, when Clooney sips an espresso in an Italian cafe, the rest of the clientele is absorbed in a Leone classic on the TV. And, while Clooney’s assassin is not quite a Man with No Name, he plays Jack in the manner Clint Eastwood neglected to patent, as an efficient, hard-faced killer unburdened by backstory or ethical code.
Corbijn says he got the idea for the film from one of many scripts he was sent after Control. It was an adaptation of the novel A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth, in which a British assassin holes up in Abruzzo. “I read the novel and thought there was a better script in it.” More importantly, he thought it would be better if the antihero were American, and Rowan Joffe’s new script adhered to that stricture. “I had worked with English actors on Control which was amazing, but I wanted to experience European and American actors. So I made the protagonist American and put him in Italy.
“I wanted to make a thriller in which you see people walk a lot. I like to watch people walk. I love body language. I don’t like fast editing.”
So how did Corbijn lure one of Hollywood’s biggest stars to play in this outré-sounding project? “George was into it, which surprised me. Maybe it’s because he’s never played such a dark character. Perhaps in Michael Clayton or Syriana he was unsympathetic, but he’s never been this harsh or unappealing. It was fabulous for me that he was able to go that dark. He does so much with so little. He was ideal.”
Making The American allowed Corbijn to revisit his childhood. He grew up in a small village on a small island off Rotterdam. “There was nothing there. I was very shy and spent a lot of time on my own.” His father, also called Anton, was a Dutch Reformed Church minister. “It was such a religious family that we didn’t have a TV or a record player for a long time.
“Before we had a TV, I would go to the neighbours to watch Saturday morning TV. There was either Comedy Capers with Buster Keaton or western stuff like Rawhide. I always preferred the westerns, and this film is a tribute to those westerns. That was my heritage: American not Dutch.” Plus, I suggest to Corbijn, the film is about a loner as you once were and, perhaps, remain. “I was certainly very shy, but I became something else because of photography.”
As the credits roll on The American, we hear two Dutch rock songs on the soundtrack, She Was Naked by Supersister and Windows of My Eyes by Cuby and the Blizzards. “Nobody outside Holland will have heard of them, but I photographed these bands when I was young, and they meant a great deal to me. Putting the songs in the film is my way of thanking those bands for giving me a life.”
Corbijn became a professional photographer for Dutch pop mags after shooting Solution in Groningen. “When those pictures – which weren’t very good – got published, I thought: ‘Bingo! I’m in!'” Aged 24, he decided to try his luck as a photographer across the North sea.
He didn’t get a warm welcome. “Within two weeks of arriving, I was photographing Joy Division. I tried to shake hands with them, but they refused.” That was November 1979. “I met Ian [Curtis, the band’s lead singer] once more and then he was dead.” And yet one of the most memorable images of Curtis is by Corbijn, depicting the singer sitting cross-legged and angst-ridden on an amp.
Not long afterwards, he was made chief photographer at the New Musical Express. “I remember the then editor Neil Spencer showing me the office. The journalists were hunched over their typewriters. I remember one singing: ‘ I hate the fucking Dutch. They live in windmills and wear clogs.’ And the last line of the song went: ‘Worst of all, I hate the fucking Danes.’ At least, I thought, I wasn’t Danish.”
Did being a foreigner help you establish an intimacy with your subjects? “I suppose so – I wasn’t seen as very threatening even though I’m very tall. Perhaps it’s my gangliness rather than my foreignness that makes me less threatening.”
Corbijn detects five periods in his oeuvre. “First came the documentary period – I was outside looking in. Then there was the portrait period – when a lot of doors opened and I was looking from the inside. Then I had a third period in which fame became interesting – I was inside looking out.”
The fourth period was the most unexpected for this shy Dutch boy. He became a performer, emulating the great photographic artist Cindy Sherman. He got made up, put himself on the other side of the camera and shot himself in bleak Dutch settings disguised as a series of dead musicians – John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Sid Vicious, Elvis, Frank Zappa. The resulting book was a revealing document about his obsessions. “I guess I always wanted to be ‘a somebody’, and I only admitted this to myself in my 40s,” he said. One of the happiest moments in his professional life, he says, was when Depeche Mode’s drummer couldn’t make it to the Top of the Pops studio so Corbijn (an amateur drummer) stepped in and was paid by the BBC for his performance.
“Now I’m on my fifth period. I take a lot of photographs of painters like Lucian Freud and Richard Prince.” Why? “I’m a frustrated painter. You’re totally your own boss. You don’t have to travel.”
Corbijn does have to travel for his work. “I’m always on the road. That’s why I haven’t got kids – it would be hopeless for them and for me,” he says. He is divorced and now lives, at least notionally, in the Hague.
At this point, Corbijn stands up and asks to be excused for a moment. His eyes are hurting, and he needs to bathe them in the bathroom. Sore eyes, I can’t help thinking, are the result of a life spent looking. When he comes back, I remind him of what he wrote in the introduction to one of his photography books: “It feels to me like I just hacked my way out of the eggshell and just started looking around me with all the undirected eagerness and curiosity of a young chicken.” After 55 years, that chicken is still curious, though his eager gaze is more directed.
Do you not want to settle down? “Not really. I still love my job, and my friends are all on the road, or scattered around the globe. You have a simple camera and you meet interesting people and have a cup of tea and go home. There’s nothing not to like about that.” But surely photography and film-making are about more than that for you? “Of course they are. They’re about playing with my friends. When I was little boy I didn’t have many. Now I have a few.”