The actor-turned-director talks about Scott Walker, politics in cinema and the dilemma of having a high standard in filmmaking.
Loosely based on the short story of the same name by Jean-Paul Sartre, Brady Corbet’s directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader might be best described as the sum of its parts: historical psychodrama, arthouse horror and period mystery all come together in this demanding but strangely compelling film, which draws its study of the rise of fascism out of an unruly young boy’s tantrums and power struggles as he moves with his parents from the United States to France at the end of World War I. Set against the background of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the 27-year-old American actor-turned-director has crafted a film that is every minute as relentlessly rich and mesmerising as the striking, full-volume orchestral score by the great Scott Walker that accompanies it.
Pamela Jahn caught up with Brady Corbet at the Venice Film Festival in September 2015 to talk about Scott Walker, poetic films about politics and the dilemma of having a high standard in filmmaking.
Pamela Jahn: Your film has been one of the most eagerly awaited debut features to come out this year – no pressure then?
Brady Corbet: I knew that it would be a love it or hate it movie. To tell you the truth, the divided reactions that I experienced were more in the process of putting the film together, because when you are making a movie like this, where there is no exact road map of what it is supposed to be, people get very nervous and shaky, because they are frightened of what the reaction is going to be. And it was hard for myself to anticipate how the audience would take it, but to my surprise, the reactions have all been pretty good. People have been very patient and receptive to it and I am feeling a lot more relaxed now. Also, the film is inherently a little bit of punk, because you open with classical instrumentation but it’s like they’re playing ACDC…
It is also a very loud film.
Yes, I like things really fucking loud and Scott Walker does, too, so it was sort of a request that everything is at maximum volume (laughs).
It’s an impressive film not only from a technical point of view but also in terms of its narrative and production value, especially given that, I believe, it was made for very little money?
I’ve been given instructions to not ever say the budget out loud, but you are right, it wasn’t much and a lot less than what I think it looks like, too. The first person who really made the movie seem possible, in both a physical and creative sense, was our production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos. He designed Amour for Michael Haneke, but he’s also designed video installations for Philippe Parreno or blockbusters for Roland Emmerich, so he’s worked with a 6000-dollar budget right up to a 49-million dollar budget, and I mean 49-million dollars just for his department, not the film. He really had the solution for every problem that arose and he realised that, because of the way we set out to make this movie, we were going to be extremely specific about what we were seeing and what we were not seeing, and that helped a lot. And frankly, the film was so unconventional in its structure: a UK, Hungarian, French and Belgium co-production with an American director and a Norwegian producer and writer… basically the movie was the fucking Paris Peace Conference, at least it was about as effective. The amount of miscommunication was just shocking, on a daily basis. We had contracts that had to be translated into three different languages, the closing of the finances, which usually takes three or four weeks, took like four or five months.
Where did the idea for the story come from?
Part of the idea was to talk about how everybody is responsible for the events that define the twentieth century, that there is a certain sense of culpability, and that partly goes back to Margaret MacMillan’s book Paris 1919, where she gives a very sober account of the events of the Peace Conference. Her book is infinitely more complex and academic and more intelligent and well-rounded than any movie on the subject could ever be, but we didn’t really set out to make a political film anyway, we set out to make a poetic film about politics. It’s interesting though, because historically speaking there already are a lot of poetic film about politics, everything from The Conformist to Saló, not just on the subject of fascism, but those are the ones that spring to mind right now. But weirdly, when we were trying to raise soft money for the project, we were told poetry and fantasy do not belong with history, and I found that really bizarre, because the thing is that history is always only a version of history anyway, it’s always a bit of fiction. And therefore there is a reason why a new book on Napoleon comes out every nine or ten years, and you wonder, what more could you have possibly learned in the last nine years to make it a new definitive account of the events, that the last guy who wrote a book on him didn’t know? It’s always a point of view. So, the fact that we were dealing with history, in a sense, never disturbed us from borrowing from a number of different events and sources and to sort of merge them into something that was original and cinematic.
Looking at your film on some level it almost feels like it could have been made in the 70s, though with a contemporary twist. Do you sometimes feel like you would have preferred to make films back then?
Not really, and I definitely don’t resent my era at all, because I am only 27, and so I think we are going to see a lot of amazing things over the course of the next 30, 40, 50 years… depending how long the universe decides to keep me around. But something that bugs me is that I see probably 200 movies in a year and I come out of my year talking about only five of them. There is a lot of content around these days, and images and films are more disposable than ever, and mediocrity is… it takes an awful lot to make a very good film, and it doesn’t happen very often any more. And of course I can only speak for myself and what I see, but I feel like something happened in the 90s, where a lack of ambition became really celebrated for some reason. It partly happened because of the digital revolution, I think, which first was genuinely exciting but now you are almost expected to do something anti-cinematic, just because you can. And the only reason that frustrates me is that somehow that very low standard in filmmaking has made it very difficult to have a very, very high standard. So I am not resentful of my era, I think right now I am just a little tired. Because you work so hard on something, and although you don’t need it to be accepted by everyone, you want to make sure that it doesn’t just go to the graveyard either, so you work even harder.
How tricky was it to get Scot Walker involved?
A lot less tricky than it was to raise money for the film, for sure. First, I didn’t think he would say yes, but we thought we would really try, because we thought it would be so appropriate given that he has written so many lyrics on the subject of tyranny in the twentieth century, and it’s a recurring theme in a lot of his music. Also because of the architecture of his avant-garde pop songs… and they really are pop songs in the way that it’s very easy to listen to them over and over again, despite them being abrasive and challenging. There is some kind of souterrainian [is this the right word?] melody in his music that keeps you coming back for more. I find everything about Scott Walker deeply inspiring but especially for this project. So we wrote a lot of letters, it was the same letter but we sent it to a lot of different sources, to make sure he would get it. And he did, and three days later he said yes. And I got this email which said, ‘Dear Brady’, and I kind of thought, oh, this is really nice that he made the effort to write this rejection letter himself. I was the most excited I’d ever been to get rejected. But then he said, ‘Great, I really look forward to working together’, and I was just really amazed. I mean I was 23 or 24-years-old at that point and I couldn’t really believe it. And as you know, it took years to finally get the film together, but he’s used to working on projects for a long time and so it all worked out in the end.
Interview by Pamela Jahn