Actor Brady Corbet serves up a bold directorial debut about the origins of evil.
One hallmark of a daring piece of filmmaking is a surrender to ambiguity. When a filmmaker refuses to provide answers in her movie, she relinquishes control over the audience. Interpretations become wildly personal; in the spaces within the narrative, a thousand new stories emerge.
Brady Corbet took this approach with his 2015 Venice premiere and debut film Childhood of a Leader, opening in theaters today. The multi-hyphenate, whose acting credits include Funny Games, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Thirteen, investigates the confluence of elements that engender evil. The film's seven-year-old protagonist, Prescott (Tom Sweet)—whom we can understand to be, for all intents and purposes, a young Hitler—is coming of age at the dusk of World War I. His father (Liam Cunningham), an American diplomat stationed in France, is emotionally and often physically unavailable; his mother (Bérénice Bejo) lacks maternal instinct. Were it not for the family friend (Robert Pattinson), there would be little signs of life in the family's ornate mansion. As such, the child creates excitement for himself. At first, it seems like innocent child's play, but quickly the manipulation takes on darker proportions as Prescott wreaks havoc on the rigid social conventions that characterize his time.
Corbet, meanwhile, wreaks havoc on narrative convention. We're exposed to scenes that, though rich with texture and emotion, seem disconnected from a larger narrative framework. Childhood of a Leader is not a story, per se; it's an evocative experience heightened by exquisite, Barry Lyndon-esque cinematography (Lol Crawley) and a disquieting score that imbues seemingly innocuous moments with resounding malice.
No Film School sat down with Corbet to discuss his allegorical approach to filmmaking, his fruitful collaboration with Crawley (resulting in a thrilling final shot in which the camera is passed from person to person in a crowd), and why more films should be transcendent.
"Calling the movie The Childhood of a Leader is like calling your movie The End of the World. You know where it's going."
No Film School: Your film is unconcerned with answers. From the get-go, it becomes clear that you're more interested in evoking a mood—a psychological state—than you are in creating a linear framework for the development of this young sociopath's behavior.
Brady Corbet: The idea was to make a film which was totally allegorical. In fact, [the movie] avoids any literal psychological breakdown of this character. For me, this character is sort of the physical manifestation of what is happening around him, which is a combination of fairly ingratiating religious doctrine, the oppression of women during the period, and the incredibly naïve foreign policies that were established at that time. Basically, American foreign policy as we know it was forged in 1919 and it hasn't changed hardly at all in a century.
It's about how everything informs this young man, but not in a very literal way. I never was interested in looking at him absorbing information, because it is, in its own way, a coming of age movie, so people kind of assume all of those things. There's no reason to spell anything out because you already know what it is. Calling the movie The Childhood of a Leader is like calling your movie The End of the World. You know where it's going.
Corbet: It's more about how and what. Having worked as a ghost writer for many years on various formulaic and not-very-good projects, when Mona [Corbet's writing partner and wife] and I are writing together, I think that we just know that most audiences that are going to be watching our movies are pretty film literate. They enjoy searching and uncovering things on their own.
You're always in the corridors of the narrative. There's always something happening in the room next door, but you never have access to that. That's how you kind of feel about information, in terms of my early memories.
NFS: As a kid, everything is just out of reach.
Corbet: You know you feel it, but you don't know it yet. I think it would be virtually impossible to make a two-hour movie that summarizes exactly what turns someone into a tyrant. I mean, it's not a nature versus nurture story. It really is just a fable and an allegory.
"I thought of the characters and of the story as being this empty vessel for audiences to project their own feelings and suspicions onto."
NFS: These things are unknowable to a certain extent. We're obsessed with trying to find out what went through the mind of a mass shooter. What led up to the decision to commit an act of evil? We're never going to be able to access that full truth.
Corbet: Of course. At the end of this film, certain things that you've even assumed about this young man's bloodline have been incorrect. It's kind of about how there's no way to reflect on history and truly know it. There's something about that which is devastating, nauseating, dizzying, overwhelming.
Corbet: If you scroll through Netflix or Hulu or whatever and you go to the documentary section, there are at least 11 fascist dictator origin stories. You'll watch these docs and they're like, "When he was 16 years old, his mother...." It's all quite absurd, in a way, because it's impossible for anyone to really know that. I don't think that my wife or my mother could really write my entire life story down and be totally accurate or precise.
NFS: There's that barrier of subjectivity.
Corbet: Always, always. I thought of the characters and of the story as being this empty vessel for audiences to project their own feelings and suspicions onto. Now, it's a little bit dangerous, because when you leave certain things open for interpretation, you also leave your movie open to misinterpretation, which is tricky. But I can't exactly go around telling everybody that they're wrong. It's really funny when people come out of the movie and they're either excited or pissed off about something sort of being simplified. They mis-perceive the film as being morally or psychologically simplistic when, in fact, it's about the opposite. It's about how the seemingly inconsequential moments in our lifetimes are often just as traumatic and defining.
I remember, for example, the scent of certain perfumes, or I remember my first crush, and those things informed me forever. Your first crush is actually a nice sort of innocent example how it frequently will define your type for the rest of your life. You'll always be attracted to the same kind of men or women of based on a lot of those first impressions. Maybe you were just wired that way. Maybe you would've been that way forever. Maybe it is just that you sort of carry one thing with you for the rest of your life.
Corbet: I felt like it was very, very important that the film maintain a totally poetic and objective kind of logic, and that the filmmaking is more or less omniscient; we can dip in and out of subjectivity, but for most part remain fairly objective. I don't see a lot of films being made that way, but I love them when I happen upon them. I just saw Embrace of the Serpent for the first time. It's just such a masterpiece, you know? It's just so brilliant and it's the first modern movie I have admired that much in a couple of years.
NFS: I felt exactly the same way.
"If you're going to demand two hours of someone's time, you have to at least attempt to give them moments of transcendence."
Corbet: Its primary goal was to create as many transcendental moments for a viewer as possible. With humor, wit, and grace, it just has you hooked. Transcendental style in film is a bit too rare. If you're going to make something and you're going to demand two hours of someone's time, you have to at least attempt to give them moments of transcendence.
NFS: This philosophy was writ large in the cinematography, which was thrilling to watch. How did you communicate your vision?
Corbet: I think I have a natural instinct to create images which are at least graceful. Those are traditions that existed so early on in the medium that now when people see it in a modern movie, they just go like, "Oh, it's like a retro thing." Like you're like....
Corbet: Right. So basically, the person that I worked with the longest was my production designer, Jean Vincent Puzos. Michael Haneke had introduced me to him; he was the designer of Amour. I had met this guy and I just thought he was like the bee's knees. I just thought he was the most brilliant person that I had ever met, honestly.
NFS: What did he have that the others didn't?
Corbet: Well, he's an architect and a landscaper and a cinephile, and he is the head of design at La FEMIS in Paris. He basically has a sensitivity to light, rhythm, and texture, and he and I were frequently talking about where the sets were in relationship to one another. He said, "Well, we need this space to be roughly a 30 to 40-second walk from this space, as opposed to a three-minute walk or a five-second walk, where you don't have enough time to allow any kind of tension to build."
"When you leave a film a little bit shaggy, it gives it life. You start playing this really wonderful game with an audience."
He came to me one day and he said, "I have kind of a difficult proposal to put in front of you. Either we can spend the next four weeks"—because we were running out of time—"and just fill up our set with a lot of furniture and drapes and shit, or we can do one room very, very dense and every other room is going to have about two or three pieces of furniture in it. It'll be sparse, but it'll be perfect. If you choose that second option, I will be able to paint the walls seven times in the next four weeks. What'll happen is that when you come in at 8am or 11am or at 1pm, you will always be looking at a different shade of color. You will never not have an angle in the house; there's always going to be something to look at. The space will be infinitely more dynamic as a result; when you're in the same rooms, there are still elements of the space which are revealing themselves to you." We opted for that.
Corbet: And then my cinematographer, Lol Crawley, is extremely intuitive and very rock and roll. His operating is extremely formal and super precise—he's got some very kind of punk rock spirit—but he also is extremely experienced. When we were talking about the last shot, I was like, "I think we're going to have to bring in like five or six operators to do this and they're going to have to pass the camera through the crowd, because, you know, with insurance and whatever, I'm not sure that we can just hand the camera to the crowd."
"I need to have someone that is operating with their gut enough to say, 'Well, fuck it. Let's just throw it all out the window and do something else.'"
He was like, "Fuck that. We're going to build a cage. We'll build a lightweight aluminum cage around the camera. We'll just pass it through the audience. You said we have 1,000 extras, so let's just give them the camera." He was the only person in all of my meetings that had said that, so I said, "Okay, yeah. Let's do it that way." That's what we did.
I definitely need things to be precise and to be formally coherent, but then I also need to have someone that is operating with their gut enough that we say, "Well, fuck it. Let's just throw it all out the window and do something else." You have to do that at least a couple of times; otherwise, the experience would be too dogmatic.
NFS: I noticed that you frequently made the decision to linger on shots long after a subject leaves the frame; that definitely tied into the philosophy of this being a vessel for interpretation. There was no room for dogma with those shots.
Yeah. When you leave a film a little bit shaggy, it gives it life. You start playing this really wonderful game with an audience where it's like, sometimes something might happen. Then other times, we might be waiting for something to happen, but nothing happens, but maybe there's a moment or something beautiful that's just worth looking at. We can always talk about the banality of evil, but I also think that there's an interesting conversation to be had about the evil of banality.