Auteur in the Making: With The Childhood of a Leader, Brady Corbet Comes of Age as a Moviemaker

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MM: On a more technical note, tell me about the equipment, format and lenses you selected for the film and the reasons behind those choices, given that this film has a bold visual language of its own.

BC: We shot 3-perf 35mm. We short 3-perf primarily because we were formatting for 1:66, so we needed more height than width at the neck area. I had originally assumed that we would shoot the film on very old lenses because obviously the first notion you have making a film set in 1919 is, “Hey, let’s get some lenses from before the 1950s,” and we ended up testing a lot of lenses. They were not actually from that early, I think our oldest lens was from the 1960s, but the problem was that they all have this very foggy, warm, golden kind of quality about them. It just made the image look too cozy. We basically decided to use very fast new lenses that shoot in extremely low lighting conditions, so you would draw out all of the grain and texture of the 35mm, but have something quite modern and immediate about the image. I really liked the effect. I think it’s a way that I’ll be shooting for a long time.

MM: With the assertions from many directors and cinematographers that digital resembles film more and more, why do you feel so passionate about shooting on celluloid still? 

BC: I guess my mantra is that I feel like the question is not, “Why would you shoot on film?” but the question should be, “What about your story makes you want to shoot it on video?” There are amazing visual breakthroughs with video and it’s been really exciting to watch films from the Dogme 95 movement, in particularly Julien Donkey-Boy, Breaking the Waves, and The Celebration, where people were shooting with really pixelated early consumer video. I thought that was infinitely more beautiful because it had so much texture and life, and there was something kind of random and wild about it, than right now, where we’ve moved into high-definition, which is all about mimicking the look of celluloid but without actually achieving it. The devil is in the detail. I feel that whether we shoot 4K, 6K, 8K, 12K or 20K in the future, such a small percentage of the spectrum of color is actually being represented, because you are still talking about tiny squares—which you can make smaller, smaller and smaller, but they will be never as infinite as the possibilities of shooting celluloid.

The Childhood of a Leader. Photo by Agatha A. Nitecka

The Childhood of a Leader. Photograph by Agatha A. Nitecka

The shorter answer is that shooting on film looks better. It looks more timeless. It’s longer-lasting. For me it’s like the difference between painting with oil and painting with watercolor.

MM: Taking into account how expensive it is to shoot on film, according to those who advocate for digital, do you feel like first-time moviemakers will have to live without the chance to use this medium?

BC: Yes. It’s extremely frustrating. But it’s easier this year than it was a few years ago, because a few years ago was when Kodak almost went under and that’s when Fuji did go under and stopped producing stock. A few years ago I was really shaking in my boots. Now it seems to me that celluloid will stay alive, due to the efforts of Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Tarantino, etc. It’s amazing that all of these guys are shooting on film. It’s great that the new Star Wars movies are shooting on film. However, what needs to be communicated is that if you are a young filmmaker or a first-time filmmaker, or you are making your first short film, it is absolutely possible to shoot on celluloid. There has been a really unfortunate lie, which has been perpetuated, that shooting on film is infinitely more expensive. Now, it can be more expensive depending on what it is that you are trying to do, but it can also be cheaper than shooting with digital cameras, which are in much higher demand, so the equipment rental is much more expensive. It also requires more time in the digital intermediate to work on the colors. You are spending a lot of money on extra days. There is also a lot of extra equipment that you need when you are shooting on video than you need when you are shooting on film.

It’s one of these things where it’s really a case-by-case basis. For example, Cary Fukunaga said something to me about the fact that he shot Beasts of No Nation on the Alexa, because of the fact that they were shooting in such remote locations that it was impossible for them to ship their negative back and forth overseas. In a scenario like that I completely understand how a film would not exist if it were not for that technology. When Antonio Campos and I worked on Simon Killer together years ago it seemed that shooting on the Alexa made the most sense not only for our schedule and our very limited resources, but also because is suited the story. It was about modern youth culture. I don’t have a problem with the technology when there is a thought process behind using it, but as a standard of image-making it’s certainly not good enough to be our new standard.

MM: Have you or do you plan to screen The Childhood of a Leader on a 35mm print? That must be the most beautiful way to watch the work you’ve created.

BC: We’ve already done special screenings all over the world. We screened 35mm prints in Venice where it premiered—it was the only film to screen on a print at the festival, actually. They had to bring in a 35mm projector in order for us to screen it there. In Rotterdam we screened the film with a live orchestra. We are talking about doing more events like that, especially maybe in the U.K., but we have to wait and see. I’m going to have new prints made with English subtitles because the problem was that our prints from Venice had burnt in Italian subtitles for all the French scenes. As soon as I have those new prints in my possession, hopefully over the course of the next six months or a year, whoever wants to screen it will be able to do some pop-up screenings on 35mm.

Bérénice Bejo in The Childhood of a Leader

Bérénice Bejo in The Childhood of a Leader

MM: Last year László Nemes, the director of Son of Saul, would only allow his film to be screened on 35mm at festivals and press screenings.

BC: The thing is that if you are in a position to make a demand like that, it’s a brilliant demand to make. In my case with Childhood, it’s quite remarkable that it’s going to be screened on as many big screens as it is in the U.S. and around the world. It’s going to be on a dozen screens in the U.S., but in the U.K. it’s going to be on 25 or 30. Considering the film is very niche, I suppose I just have to thank my lucky stars that people are seeing on a big screen at all. In the future I would of course like the film to be seen on as many prints as possible, and my next films as well.

MM: Did you feel any sort of pressure when embracing the director’s chair on a feature, since most people know you as an actor?

BC: I didn’t feel a lot of pressure about that, just because of the fact that because I’m not a particularly famous actor. I never felt like I walked into a room and all eyes were on me. I’ve never experienced anything like that. I felt quite anonymous stepping behind the camera. The one thing that I had that I knew I would not have if I were just starting out or if I was just fresh out of film school was that, of course, it was easier for me to reach out to other actors via agencies because I already knew all of those people. That was the only way in which my prior work was really helpful to the current work. It would never seal the deal for me, but it would usually get me in the room with the right people. MM

The Childhood of a Leader opens in theaters July 22, 2016, courtesy of IFC Films.

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