"George said, 'I'll bet you he doesn't stop on the right place for 100 dollars.'"
Celebrated photographer Anton Corbijn, who probably has the best eye on the planet, very much established himself as a filmmaker via Control, the harrowing Joy Division biopic he produced and directed. The next film the Dutchman directed was The American starring George Clooney and Corbijn admits that the first day on a new film set is always "scary and exciting". "The American was my first studio film — and it was with George Clooney — and I so remember walking on the set and realising, 'I'm the person with the least experience that's here [laughs]; whether it's the guy doing the lights, or the catering, or the people in front of the camera. So, you know, it's quite humbling."
Clooney's renowned for his on-set pranks, so did he try it on with Corbijn? "Oh, he did," Corbijn recalls. "In the scene where the train had to stop at a precise point, the first time the train didn't stop precise so we had to send the train back to do it again. And then George said, 'I'll bet you he doesn't stop on the right place for 100 dollars.' So we took the bet and, of course, the train was much further away from the right point than [it] originally was. So I think my producer went bananas to the train driver and George was in stitches. And it turned out that he had secretly gone to the train driver and said, 'Why don't you just stop ten metres further away?'" Corbijn laughs. "And he pocketed 100 dollars, yeah."
"Everybody, of course, wanted to photograph him and I was so young I didn't understand it; I thought he was mine."
Corbijn's latest film, Life, explores the friendship that developed between James Dean (played by Dane DeHaan) and photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson). After a chance meeting with Dean at a party (before the release of East Of Eden), Stock was intrigued enough to pitch a photo essay on the actor to his Magnum Photography editor, John Morris (Joel Edgerton). The iconic photos were taken just months before the actor's death and the resulting spread was placed in Life magazine. "It really is two guys who kind of touch each other's lives in the period of two weeks," Corbijn says of his film Life.
Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter
To provide this film with added context, Dean was also fighting to get cast in Rebel Without A Cause throughout. Given Stock met Dean when he was on the cusp of greatness (and tragedy), was Corbijn taken back to his work behind the lens when photographing Joy Division prior to Ian Curtis's untimely death? "Um, yeah, although it's slightly — I mean, it's quite different. I think the mindset of these people is so different: James Dean obviously was on the way up [doing] something he loved doing and I think he enjoyed life, Ian Curtis's mindset was very negative — very black, black thoughts, I think. So I guess the people are very different. I had much less contact with Ian Curtis than Dennis Stock [did] with James Dean.
"It was a bit more, for me, comparable to something ten years before that, in the early '70s, when I had a Dutch musician who was kinda playing in a band [Herman Brood & His Wild Romance], and I photographed him once and I had just started. And he liked the pictures and, you know, I did a few more and he became a singer and we travelled together — in a train, often — to gigs, 'cause neither of us had a driving license. And I would do pictures and, um, then overnight almost he became the biggest rockstar we ever had in Holland. Then everybody, of course, wanted to photograph him and I was so young I didn't understand it; I thought he was mine.
"And I felt lost and I didn't understand the balance, and we refer to that a little bit in the film too — Rob Pattinson's character [Stock] tried to persuade, ah, Dane DeHaan's character [Dean] to do pictures with him, you know? And he calls him up and then James Dean said, 'Yeah, yeah I understand. I want to help you,' and then Dennis Stock said, 'No, no, no, I'm helping you'. And that, that I understand — the photographer doesn't understand the balance, you know?"
Life was "a very quick turnaround as a project", director Anton Corbijn acknowledges. "I mean, compared to A Most Wanted Man; I think I started that already on September 2010 and the movie came out last year... I think I was still editing A Most Wanted Man and then this came around as a script, and then we put it together earlier because of some people's schedules — we had to pull it forward. We only shot [for] 28 days, unfortunately during the coldest winter they had in 30 years in Canada."
Although working in this way is "a little bit more risky 'cause you just dive into it", Corbijn extols, "But I was blessed with a good script and really good actors" for Life. "There were a few 'day players' as they call it — people came in for two or three days — and they were all great, too; like, ah, Ben Kingsley [Jack Warner] and Joel Edgerton. It was a real good energy on the set." Kingsley is almost unrecognisable as the studio head. "He's an amazing actor, yeah," Corbijn enthuses.
"It's very hard with photography now, because everybody's looking two seconds later for the next image."
There are some scenes in the movie where Stock develops his images in a darkroom and we discuss the likelihood that young viewers may not have seen proof sheets before. "That's true," Corbijn agrees. "And actually there's a photographer called Thomas Struth in Germany who just did a project about negatives, 'cause his kids didn't understand the word 'negative' anymore… When you see the [photographic] film you have a negative and when you print [photographs] you have a positive." Corbijn stresses he's "still old school" and shoots on film.
When watching the scene in Life that depicts Stock shooting what became the iconic photos of Dean in Times Square, New York, this scribe was struck by the spontaneity of it all. "Yeah, that's not just what you think, that's what the producer think too," Corbijn shares. "So that was a benefit that I was a photographer, I think. With similar situations, you know; you don't realise [in] these moments that you are making pictures that will have that kind of importance... That moment of the Times Square shoot, they wanted to make that a very big emotional moment for the photographer but I said that it's not how this works.
"I think pictures like the one in Times Square with James Dean; that picture was published in a time when not everybody was taking pictures and people had more time to look at one image and, therefore, [it] could gain this kind of status. You know, when this picture went around to the world people looked at it and — over the years, of course; after he died, especially — it gained a weight. It's very hard with photography now, because everybody's looking two seconds later for the next image. And it's very, very hard to find pictures that hold a certain weight."
Considering Corbijn has looked through his lens at legends such as Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Keith Richards, Nick Cave, Björk and Bowie (just to name a few), is he aware that magic is happening while he's snapping away? "It's more later," he explains. "I mean, sometimes you realise you're with this very special person, and you've been given permission to photograph somewhere, and you think, 'Oh, god, this is quite special that I am in this situation'; that doesn't mean that your pictures must be any good. And so, you know, you can feel that that is a great moment, but what you are doing might not have the same greatness as the moment. Um, so it's always later that you look at that. Now, of course, with this whole digital stuff, you look at the back of a camera and think you have it. I think the beauty of using analog is that you don't know this and it feels more like an adventure than a job. And you have this kind of nice tension between the moment you take a picture and when you see the contact sheets, which is, for me, it's usually a week, I think, because I travel. And I don't develop in Holland — but in England — and so it always takes a while."
During our discussion on how camera phones have affected photography as an art form, Corbijn offers, "It's really complex, because photography is more popular than ever 'cause it's in museums, it's in galleries — it's incredible, prices at auctions. And there is this whole school of, you know, internet, where everybody is a photographer and everybody thinks that picture's worth looking at and, at the same time; no picture has value. So photographers at the lower end, they find it really hard to make a living because nobody wants to pay for photography anymore. And all the art directors think they can do it themselves, too. So it's [laughs] a very interesting time for photography."