Interview with The Childhood of a Leader Director Brady Corbet

Actor Brady Corbet was in Edinburgh to discuss his directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader.

Though only 27-years-old, Brady Corbet is a veteran of the movie business. A role in Catherine Hardwicke’s teen drama Thirteen, at the age of just fifteen, lead to a prominent role in the ill-fated Thunderbirds reboot but it’s in impressive roles in the likes of Mysterious Skin and Funny Games that brought Corbet to the attention of indy audiences.

Recently Corbet has spent his time in supporting roles for a diverse and talented group of directors, including Noah Baumbach, Antonio Campos, Lars von Trier and Olivier Assayas, so it’s no surprise then that he has made the step behind the camera with The Childhood of a Leader, a dark and quietly mesmerising study of a future fascist growing up in post-World War Europe. Corbet brought the film to the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year and was on hand to discuss the film, directing for the first time and the current state of cinema…

How would you describe your new film, The Childhood of a Leader?

I’m terrible at summaries, especially with this film! Basically the film is a chronicle of the early experiences of a would-be fascist just after the first world war. It is sort of a virtual history, or historical fiction.

Where did the story originate from?

I read a book that I loved from Margaret MacMillan, who was a relative of Churchill’s, that was an account of the six months leading up to the signing of the treaty of Versaille which would incidentally pave the way for fascist uprising 15 years later. I decided to try to create a character metaphysically linked somehow to the events that defined the early 20th century.

Were you ever tempted to do the story of a real, specific person?

No, I never thought about it. I mean, even my next project is sort of about many people but all inside one. I’m not that interested in biopics because there’s just not a lot of freedom and there’s this annoying thing where there’s no way to really do it justice somehow. So I’m much more interested in sort of poetic reimagining with these kind of things.

What was it about this story that made you want to direct for the first time?

It’s just that it stuck with me for a long time. I first started work on it a long time ago but I kind of thought it was too ambitious to finish and decided – I had submitted it to the Cannes residence where you would just submit projects for development and it had been rejected – so I just kind of felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere with it, and without very much support it was kind of hard to continue. Then years later I met my wife and co-writer, but before we were ever a couple we were writing together for years, so back when we were just friends she convinced me to pick the project back up and finish it. We had new ideas for new characters and new scenarios so she and I finished it together.

Through the course of your career, you’ve worked with a lot of big directors – Michael Haneke for example – did you carry those experiences into directing this film?

Yeah, I absolutely did. I never arrived anywhere with a notepad or anything but I have always carried those experiences with me. I think the only thing I reflected on a lot while I was making it was that I saw how much people I loved and admired struggled and when I was struggling – and I was struggling a lot with this project – it was comforting to know that other people I knew had struggled so much and still succeeded. A lot of people I’ve worked with have struggled a lot, simply because they’re a lot of people’s boss and things just don’t always go your way.

How did you cope with that on this film?

Well, I coped very well with it during the shoot because I’d been through the experience of working in a stressful environment on a set before so I was actually very confident and collected during shooting. But what I have never been through before is raising the money for a project, which at that point was impossible for me to imagine how difficult it was going to be and the stress was so horrific that I think if I’d been older, it would’ve killed me.

How did you go about raising the money for the film?

We basically spent several years taking the package round to various institutions that rejected the film the film outright and some that were supportive but five or six months later, they changed their mind. We didn’t have a lot of luck with the traditional European route so I went back to America and started working with financiers there and my producer also raised money via a company that’s based out of Canada, and then we put together a budget based on a pretty straight forward tax break in places like Hungary and a tax shelter in places like Belgium. It took a very long time to figure out how to do it.

You shot the film in Europe and have worked on a number of European films recently. How does the experience of working in Europe compare to working with American directors on American films?

I guess the goals of European projects tend to be a little bit different. You’re exploring certain themes and rhythms whereas American movies it’s a slightly different philosophy to the storytelling. I like things about both. There are things I dislike about both too.

Such as?

I’m not a huge fan of how tiny most American films feel, pretty unambitious and kind of like social dramas, kitchen sink dramas or the kind of quirky…

The Sundance style dramedy?

Yeah, where it’s kind of like…I find movies like that torture. It’s probably my least favourite thing. I actually am sad to say that I have a lot less patience, especially now that I have a kid ’cause I don’t have much time, but I have a hard time watching anything that’s super mediocre now. I’ll turn it off or I’ll leave. I’ve seen so many movies in my life, I just find it too boring to sit through something where I know more or less how it’s going to come together. I just can’t believe people keep making the same fucking thing over and over again and expect a different result. The thing is that European arthouse cinema, while it’s a little bit healthier, there’s a lot of great people, you have the Bernard Dumaines of the world, Sergie Loznitsa, there’s also a lot of films that follow a very dogmatic way of filmmaking. Again, social drama, no music, usually something about the current state of things that’s kind of like these portraits. I think a lot of that gets made because there’s a lot of people running these institutions that find it very easy to push projects like that through. But then again, maybe I’m just speaking a little too generally because I don’t exactly have my finger on the pulse of absolutely everything.

I think it’s a fair comment. Especially in Britain, most of the films we get here are either kitchen sink dramas, Ken Loach-style, or gangster pictures that are just all the same.

Yeah, the thing that’s funny is in America we have the studio system so then you have like six or seven people dictating, more or less, the entire culture. Even though it’s a different goal for government subsidies, they support things that will be good for their culture at large or whatever, you still only have a handful of people in a position to make any decisions and they’re frequently in power for many, many years. So basically, if you have an asshole who has really shitty taste then all of the shittiest projects are being supported while the ones that are the most interesting and ambitious are not.

Did casting play any part in securing financing for the film?

Yeah, absolutely. There were only a few actresses, because I needed a bilingual actress that spoke fluent French and English and there are only a handful who are the right age, that I liked, that could get the film off the ground. If one of those three people couldn’t do it then maybe the movie wouldn’t get made. So it’s not just one cast member, it’s a combination of different cast members getting together for foreign sales, so it was instrumental.

You cast Juliette Binoche at one point and she left because the film was too dark. Is that true?

I don’t really know; I mean I was told that after that quote came out. But it’s not exactly what happened. Basically she was attached to the project for a long time and she had given us very specific dates and by the time that date rolled around, we had still raised zero dollars. So I had told her a few months earlier that she was free to work on something else and then later she dropped out simply because of the fact that she had done a lot of very heavy films in a row and at that point, she was offered a lighter film, a comedy. I think she just didn’t feel as connected to the film as she did when we started but it was a very civilized thing. It was hard at the time but then Berenice (Bejo) came on very quickly and really saved the project. I had a great relationship with her on the film, and Juliette and I are on very good terms too.

Robert Pattinson appears in the film as well in quite a crucial role. He’s done a lot of interesting films since the Twilight franchise came to an end and tends to generate interest from his fanbase in quite interesting, difficult films. Have you found that’s been the case with your film?

The film hasn’t been released in very many territories yet so it’s hard to say. But I know Rob and I were both very excited about this role and how surprising it would be in a way. Due to the size of it and the way that it’s used and ultimately what it communicates, it was important to have someone very recognizable in that role. It was kind of like a Janet Leigh in Psycho kind of thing, we needed to pull the rug out from everyone in a way. The role was created for a charismatic, handsome 30-year-old guy who was kind of the junior of the female lead and so for me, he was literally the first person my wife and I thought of. There was no-one that we could think of who would fit the bill who would be interested in a film like this but we knew Rob and knew his taste so we knew this would be something he would be interested in doing. We always try to offer roles to people who we think will like the material. I’ve never gone out of my way to offer Will Smith or Tom Cruise a role, ’cause it’s just not gonna happen.

I don’t think they would fit anyway.

Yeah. Tom Cruise might’ve been interesting. Now that I think of it, I should’ve recast Rob with Tom Cruise, I think he would’ve improved it.

He doesn’t mind doing some interesting stuff now and then.

Yeah, it happens once in a while! Once every ten years or so.

You could’ve caught him in that sweet spot! Another Tom we need to talk about is Tom Sweeting, your lead. How did you find him?

I had a very simple casting process in some ways. I had a half a page of text in English and half a page of text in French that the kids would read out loud. The casting assistant saw Tom playing soccer in London and thought he could be brilliant. So she reached out to his parents and brought him in for an audition and he had never acted before but he spoke his lines in a very natural way, so I flew out to meet him. He was very smart; I knew right away it was him. It was surprisingly easy. If you cast the right person when you’re working with a young person, it’s very easy because they’re so open. Where adults would question why they’re doing it that way, a kid just goes “ok!”. I could’ve been very unlucky and discovered I had a real problem child on the set but I wasn’t, because he has great parents who were really creative people and stuff and that helped a lot.

You worked on films as a child actor. Did that help in working with him?

I think so. I think it only helped in that I remember how I wanted to be treated as a kid, I remember wanting to be treated like an adult. I was doing the same things everyone else was doing and even though I was only a kid, I wanted to be treated like an adult, treated with respect. I know what it’s like to be at that age where you’re on the verge of young adulthood so the only thing I did with him was not speak to him any differently to anyone else. He didn’t get any special treatment, no-one was like “Oh Tom, are you ok?”. The first day was a little stressful because we had to do many, many takes of him getting beaten up and it was really hard because he was getting dragged across the floor and quickly got a burn on his back and it was the first day! It was like a five-minute shot and that was at the end of the shot, so a lot of things had to go right for us to get it, so that day was the only time he got a little special treatment. Other than that, he was just like everybody else.

You mentioned shooting in Hungary. How did you come across those locations?

My production designer is a fucking god. A god amongst men. He was working on the film for a long time, I actually got introduced to him by Michael Haneke who worked with him on Amour, and he’s a really smart designer. He’s an architect and teaches design in Paris, he’s a wonderfully warm guy. He and I just travelled a lot and ultimately our art director found the main location. We were looking for something with a certain kind of texture, the bones of something we could work with because we couldn’t afford to build much so we ended up blending some real locations with ours, like we built a village on the property. So it’s a mix of things that were really there and things that we brought in.

The combination of the locations, the score, the atmosphere – it’s all really cinematic. But considering how hard it can be to get films made, financed and released, did you ever think about releasing it digitally right away or were you committed to a cinematic release?

I’m pretty old fashioned, I shoot everything on film including like my short films. I’ve never shot anything digitally except one music, that was my one experience digitally and I did not like it. I was happy with the photography, but I wasn’t happy with the quality of the image and there’s nothing I can do about that. I love going to movie theatres. I think cinemas are going to become a little bit more like going out to a live theatre or like a specialized, niche, ephemeral kind of thing. But that’s ok. The one thing I don’t love about going to the theatre right now is there isn’t a lot of difference between a DCP and the screen of a laptop. I feel often when I go to a cinema that is digitally projecting, I feel like I might as well have stayed at home because the quality of the image and the texture is the same.

It’s quite difficult to see a movie projected on film now.

My movie has been projected one time in 35mm and that was in Venice. It’s really a shame, I would love to send our prints all over the world but nobody wants to pay for it.

So what’s next for you? Do you plan to do more directing, are you still going to act?

Yeah, I’m planning another film. This time the project’s sort of about the turn of the 21st century. It’s different and it’s more personal, it touches on a lot of events that I actually experienced or was present for so it’s a different kind of feeling.

Have you ever thought about starring in your own film?

I’ve thought about it and I definitely hate the idea! I don’t know how you could do that, it’s sort of crazy because I don’t think you can be totally objective. I personally think that watching myself and hearing my own voice is not a very satisfying experience. I mean, most people hate their own voice but when I hear it on a voice recorder I’m just deeply ashamed of my voice. So I think for that reason alone I think I would always do shit in pro tool where I’d just pitch my voice down so I have a better voice. I think it’s a bad sign if someone wants to direct themselves and I know there have been some good examples of it like Orson Welles. Who else has done it?

Martin Scorsese was in Taxi Driver briefly…

Well maybe briefly is different to starring in your own movie. Maybe I’ll be in a position one day where someone will drop out and I’ll look at everybody on the crew and go “None of these fucking people can do it, I better do it!” So I’ll never say never but I definitely will never star in my own movie.

You wouldn’t go full Affleck?

I would not go full Affleck. I would not go full Clooney. I would not go full Gibson.

Well that’s a good thing…

Definitely, in every sense of the word!