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A Most Wanted Man: Anton Corbijn on Philip Seymour Hoffman

The director one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final films talks about the actor’s icon status, and the narrative thrust of a spy film that has no villains.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman — aka a chameleon, aka the greatest actor of his generation– died in February of this year. Prior to his accidental overdose, he’d filmed roles for four films (he completed three; digital wizardly will complete his final scenes in the Hunger Games finale).

A Most Wanted Man is the first of those films to be released since his death. It will also be his final lead performance. Naturally, that’s how A Most Wanted Man is largely being promoted. The novel’s author, for which the film was based, John le Carré penned an essay about the late actor’s greatness on set. Similarly, Time magazine provided a featurette on A Most Wanted Man that includes a video interview with the actor.

Make no mistake, Hoffman is phenomenal in the film and indeed it’s a reminder that we lost a fantastic talent. But it’s also a very good film on its own merit. 

With that in mind, CraveOnline was happy to interview the film’s director, Dutch photographer-turned-filmmaker Anton Corbijn (Control, The American) about his film, his uneasiness with the nationalist landscape and, of course, the icon-status of his leading man.

A twisting pretzel of a modern day spy film, A Most Wanted Man is set in Germany in 2008. Post-9/11, one operative (Hoffman) attempts to use a Chechan target (the most wanted man, seemingly only wanted because he was once tortured in a Russian gulag) as a chess piece on his own chess board. Unfortunately, numerous other agencies are also monitoring and have their own guarded plays.

 

CraveOnline: I’m sure that today you’ve been fielding a lot of questions about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing, I’m curious if you now feel that A Most Wanted Man is a memorial to the late actor? 

Anton Corbijn: I think he’s phenomenal in the film. That’s how I want people to look at the film. His character is important and he’s always been a phenomenal character actor.

 

Your last film, The American, concerned an isolated hitman, A Most Wanted Man concerns a spy who’s isolated within the spy community. What’s drawn you to these stories?

The hitman in [The American] wants to leave his life, change his life. What appealed to me (about A Most Wanted Man) was 9/11 and how the world changed. The illegal actions of some governments in the name of protecting our liberties sometimes tramples on them and sometimes it does protect them. That was the most interesting element for me in making this film.

 

There’s definitely a feeling of exhaustion from Günther (Hoffman) in terms of dealing with different national interests and their meddling. The world that A Most Wanted Man is being released in right now is extremely aware of borders creating conflict …

I realize that that is a big issue with borders to the south (Mexico). Is that what you’re referring to?

 

No, the whole world. Just this week with Crimea, Gaza and also certain countries that allow asylum, which one of the character’s (Annabel, played by Rachel McAdams) is trying to navigate on behalf of another …

It’s interesting that the tendency seems to be to unite against any penetration. In Europe it’s more the EU which is a larger entity than any single nation and they overlook on all these regions within Europe. And then the nations are independent, so every decision requires at least two commands. And then added to that you have America trying to be the policeman of the world and for what reasons? That keeps me awake sometimes. What proper responses should we have when there are all these conflicting channels and interests? Collectively we cause more problems than we used to.

 

Günther is constructing a very large operation in secret, and attempting to use all these new international interests to investigate a sting that he’s been setting up. His moral code shifts depending on which nation he’s dealing with …

He’s different than the CIA operative (Robin Wright). He knows that he’s targeting someone’s dad (Homayoun Ershadi) who isn’t bad. You know, if one percent of him is bad as far as his contributions go, then following what’s done with that contribution and how that next step effects the world would actually benefit the world to a great extent — if the rest of him the other 99% of his financial contributions are positive — which they are. I think that he’s a pretty decent human being.

 

One thing that is very interesting about A Most Wanted Man, and I guess I didn’t think of it while watching the movie, moreso when writing my review (to be published tomorrow) is that it’s very striking that there are no villains in this filmYou (and novelist John le Carré) are more concerned with the different ideas of how to police potential terror. Was a big appeal for you to make a spy film where there isn’t an actual villain?

Yeah, I think that was very interesting. To pinpoint Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin) from the start and discover that he has pure intent then shifts the narrative to the response of governments. What are the threats when they’re not already present? Funding operations?

 

This is the most modern adaptation of a John le Carré novel, so there’s no retro spy box like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy…

No, you’re right, there was a lot more style in the Cold War.

 

Can you talk about the challenges of designing your film without those larger set pieces?

For myself, I wanted it to look different from my previous films. So, first, I decided to do use more handheld camera instead of full compositions. And the handheld gave the film both a sense of urgency and a sense of intimacy. We needed both of those elements. So there was a lot more movement than in my previous films. At the same time, even though it has the same author, there is a massive difference between Tinker Tailor and this film. They put Tinker Tailor on the poster but this movie is nothing like that. There’s a very different theory, equation and look.

 

And you have to frame a lot more fluorescent overhead lights in our modern offices.

[laughs] Right.

 

There’s a great shot that I loved, where Günther is going to present his plan to all the different national agencies and the elevator doors open up and in the reflection it looks like he, himself, is splitting open. Was this your most difficult film to stylize?

I didn’t want it to be very stylized. I wanted a sense of chaos and presence. I thought less style would be metaphor to how we live now. At the same time I think it’s hard for me to make a film that I can’t stamp so I did look for moments … Is the shot you’re referring to when he’s looking forward in the elevator and he does not want to go into this meeting and he’s looking straight ahead but leads his assistant (Nina Hoss) out of the elevator?

 

Yeah.

Yeah, we shot that from an adjacent elevator and shot it going up at the same time. Which is actually harder to do than it sounds. [laughs]. Yeah, I like that shot. Also the simple way that Philip looks at the door, just the posture, you can tell that he is dreading this meeting.

 

I loved that shot. So far my two favorite shots of this year both involve reflections on doors, with this and The Immigrant.

I didn’t see that. Yet. I’d like, too.

 

You mentioned recently that you were trying to get Philip Seymour Hoffman into your next film, Life. What role would that have been?

John Morris. (Who was a photo editor for Life magazine; and who will be played, now, by Joel Edgerton)

 

Life wasn’t part of the TIFF announcement this morning, is there potential for a 2014 release?

No, that’ll be 2015. We haven’t locked picture yet. We still have two more months of sound and [potential] pick-up shoots.

 

In your background in photography, you’ve photographed numerous icons. Your first film, Control, was a portrait of the iconic Ian Curtis (singer for Joy Division), who died very young. I guess now we’ve confirmed that next year, you have a film that involves James Dean (to be played by Dane DeHaan) in Life. Who also died very young. Is it more difficult to capture an iconic photograph of an individual in life, or to tell their story in death?

I’m flattered that people think my pictures are iconic. That’s not what I set out to be. A lot of people that I worked with in the 70s and 80s were not very well known people, but they became [well known] later. So I’ve not deliberately sought icons. As far as making films for Ian Curtis and James Dean, that is, of course, is very deliberate. Ian Curtis was someone that I knew and I moved to England to make it because I wanted to make it. It was a personal project. And, also, I thought there was a good love story there (between Sam Riley and Samantha Morton).

With Life it’s first and foremost a story about a photographer, Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson), who profiled James Dean (DeHaan). So it’s the story of a photographer and their subject. As a photographer that story interested me: studying the power balance between a photographer and their subject. You know, who influences who? The James Dean portion of the story wasn’t my interest. In fact I’d turned down a straight James Dean project once before.

 

And to you, what makes Philip Seymour Hoffman iconic?

The word “icon” is a bit like “celebrity” — it’s been overused and may be meaningless — but Philip was an actor like no other. His legacy will be very hard to frame. He was an amazing man to work with. I don’t mean that he was all smiles and happy when we were shooting, either. He would defend his character to the point of arguments with me. Very heavily. But he gave the character so much more than you could ever hope for. Once you see him doing it, you can’t imagine it ever being better than that. If you want to call him “iconic” you can, but to me, he’s indescribable. 

 

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Brian Formo is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrianEmilFormo.