Craftsman's care

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 November, 2010, 12:00am

As the Dutchman behind The American, Anton Corbijn is more than just the latest director hired to make George Clooney look good. With a CV that sounds like most people's CD collections, he's shot music videos, styled album covers and designed stage sets for everyone from Depeche Mode to Nirvana and Coldplay.

But pandering to stars is not his thing: when he first met Bono, the U2 singer asked Corbijn to make him look tall, skinny, intelligent and humorous. 'So you wanna look like me?' he quipped, beginning a relationship that has seen him document the band across two decades. If he managed to make Bono look all of the above, shooting the ever-photogenic Clooney in the beautiful Italian setting of Abruzzo is child's play. Not least when you consider Corbijn's last film, the multi award-winning Joy Division biopic Control, cost him his house. 'In the end, I paid for it,' says the grey-haired, denim-attired director when we meet in his London hotel suite. 'The whole shoot was my money. If I hadn't done that, we wouldn't have made the film. But I was standing at a crossroads where, if I didn't pay for it, it wasn't going to get made.'

It's this sort of attitude that sets the 55-year-old Corbijn apart from most others. A visual artist, he's long outgrown the 'rock photographer' tag that has accompanied him since his days of working for the influential British music paper, the New Musical Express. 'My horizons have broadened,' he says, and he's serious. 'I like almost all visual disciplines. Architecture, graphic design, stage design, filming ... all these things converge at one point.'

It's why you won't find him constantly studying life through a lens. 'It's not like I take a picture every day,' he says. 'Some days I take five pictures. And then I may go for three days and take no pictures. That's how it goes.'

Still, when he does, he usually makes it count. The American is a beautifully composed work, its pacing deliberate and its dialogue minimal. Shorn of his insouciant charm, Clooney offers a subtle, steely and silent turn as Jack, an assassin forced to hide out in a remote Italian village after he becomes a target himself. Adapted from Martin Booth's 1990 novel A Very Private Gentleman - in which the hitman is an eccentric Englishman - The American is a tale of a lonely man undergoing an existential crisis as he reckons with the blood on his hands. His only hope seems to be the local prostitute (Violante Placido) he falls for.

For Corbijn, it feels a notch up from Control - not least because it was made in collaboration with Hollywood outfit Focus Features. 'I threw in a lot of elements that I'm unfamiliar with,' he says. 'One is Hollywood. Another is a big actor.'

Then there's the fact The American is in colour, not black-and-white, and fictional rather than a biopic - meaning 'your options are endless', he groans. He points out that Control was determined by events in the life of Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis. 'So you can't alter it too much. But here you can, and that I found harder.'

The film is full of signs pointing to its creation and creator. Take the fastidious way in which Clooney assembles the gun he's been hired to build as his one last job before he quits his profession. Corbijn argues this fetishistic behaviour is all about craftsmanship. 'For me, it's symbolic of how we put the film together. It feels like the film has been put together in that sense - the look, the sound, the acting, the locations. All these things. Maybe it's not a big step up from Control because it feels like we paid attention to all the details.'

Then there's the image of the butterfly, glimpsed both as a tattoo on Clooney's back and for real in the Abruzzo countryside. If the creature suggests the 'metamorphosis' the protagonist goes through, one can easily think of Corbijn and his desire to evolve from photographer to filmmaker. Likewise, as the director tells me, the insect also stands for freedom: it recalls his childhood, growing up in the tiny village of Strijen on a small island off Rotterdam, which he yearned to escape. 'There was nothing there,' he recalls. 'To me, everything outside the island looked mysterious and exciting.'

The son of a vicar, also called Anton, Corbijn was left with little by way of visual stimulation in his teenage years 'and the strict religious way of life in the village' was oppressive. Rather bizarrely, years later, he returned there to shoot a series of self-portraits of him dressed up as various rock stars, from Janis Joplin to Bob Marley and John Lennon, a collection he tellingly called A Somebody.

It took a long time before Corbijn became one. He describes himself as 'shy' in his early days, even when he left home and got work as a photographer on a Dutch magazine. 'I never saw myself doing anything like I do now.'

He dubs his career a 'happy accident' - such as the fact he only went to England in 1979 (where he famously shot Joy Division in a subway) because people in the Netherlands regarded his pictures as too dark. Yet his modesty prevents him from saying his work feeds off an intimacy that comes from knowing his subjects. He's just finishing up a book, Waits/Corbijn, that casually documents his 30-year friendship with American singer-songwriter Tom Waits.

Even with Clooney, Corbijn manages to get under the skin of a usually skin-deep actor. And, yes, he makes him look good too.

The American opens on Thursday