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 released in UK cinemas on August 19