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

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Hours prior to the end of the world, he becomes a bride’s object of desire.

He’s part of a malevolent duo, clad in white, that disrupts the idyllic life of an affluent family. In Paris, his relationship with a sex worker awakens a disturbing sociopathic streak.

Working with some of the world’s most prominent cinematic artists, the multifaceted Brady Corbet has enhanced many a film (like, mentioned above, Melancholia, Funny Games and Simon Killer) with his presence, sometimes in just one scene. Beyond racking up his impressive list of acting credits, though, Corbet himself is a well-rounded moviemaker whose ardent obsession for the medium extends to writing, producing and editing. After directing a short film early on in his career, Corbet completed his feature-length debut last year—astonishing the Venice Film Festival jury, who rewarded him the “Luigi de Laurentiis” Venice Award for a Debut Film.

In The Childhood of Leader, a historical fiction drama set at the end of World War I, Corbet exhibits the stylistic bravado of a seasoned director. The story centers on Prescott (Tom Sweet), a long-haired young boy whose French mother (Bérénice Bejo) and American father (Lian Cunningham) are too occupied with their own turbulent realities to witness the gradual transformation, both transfixing and terrifying, of their child from innocence to perversion. Ominous in its tone and adorned with a dark visual palette, Childhood is a ferocious first feature.

Frank and heartfelt, Corbet discussed his intense affair with filmmaking with MovieMaker, how his extensive acting paved the way for his feature, and his firm position regarding the value of shooting on celluloid. A cinephile, a performer, and now an award-winning filmmaker, Corbet has broken out as an auteur-in-the-making whose future work should be awaited with expectation.

Liam Cunningham and Robert Pattinson in The Childhood of a Leader

Liam Cunningham and Robert Pattinson in The Childhood of a Leader

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Was stepping into the role of director in a film like Childhood was a radical undertaking, or a natural progression, given everything else you’ve done in film?

Brady Corbet (BC): I’ve been making things since I was a teenager. I was always working on my own projects, making short films, video installations and things like that. In a way, it’s just what I’ve kind of always done, but obviously this is on the grandest scale.

MM: What was it about this project, in comparison to other features you have co-written or produced, that ignited the need to also be the one to bring it to life on set?   

BC: It’s hard to say what specifically drives you towards a certain theme. I was quite obsessed with the interwar period. For a period of time I was reading a lot about it and I was just very interested in this period of world history. I think that the period in between the two wars is particularly fascinating and I feel there is a lot that is still relevant today. It developed so slowly and so organically over a course of a long period of time, so it’s hard to point to any one instance that was a turning point. That just happened to be a theme that I wanted to explore and a period I wanted to evoke.

MM: The film is a very contained period piece that takes advantage of mostly a single location, but it’s nonetheless trying to depict a particular period of time with specific costumes and production design. Tell about achieving this vision with limited resources.

BC: It was hard [laughs]. It was really tricky. We didn’t have a lot of money, especially for production design, but I was very insistent that we hire a particularly great designer named Jean-Vincent Puzos, because he was the only person I knew that could make it work for the money we had. He did everything from Michael Haneke movies to Roland Emmerich films. He has a wealth of knowledge and tricks up his sleeve. At one point we decided that the village was going to be something a lot more impressive [than it is in the finished film], but when we looked at our restrictions we just decided to do a set with coal and mud. Basically we took a lot of cues from Ermanno Olmi’s movie The Tree of Wooden Clogs from 1978, which is a film that is set around the turn of the century in a farming community. We sort of modeled a lot of our art design after that.

MM: What was it about the concept of childhood as a defining stage in a human life that you found particularly fascinating? Can we really trace a lot of our adult decisions to specific moments or situations we experienced at a young age?

BC: I suppose that I was very interested in doing an anti-origin story. I knew that people would come into the film with very specific expectations because we have a title that’s explicit. It sets people up to be like, “Oh, ‘The Childhood of a Leader’—of what? Who is it?” I thought it would be very interesting to subvert those expectations and do something which was poetic as opposed to something that was like, two plus two equals four. Or like, “Oh, this is the moment when everything changed for him.” I just don’t think that’s the way life works. I don’t look at the events in my life and go like, “This all happened because of that one moment.” It’s many things and many moments that shape who we are and what we become.

Brady Corbert and X in Force Majeure

Brady Corbert and Karin Myrenberg in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (2014). Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

MM: In recent years you’ve appeared in a lot of independent and international films in very small roles. These were all films directed by renowned artists such as Olivier Assayas [Clouds of Sils Maria], Mia Hansen-Løve [Eden], Ruben Östlund [Force Majeure] or Bertrand Bonello [Saint Laurent]. Were these roles you took because they were small and would allow you to work on your directorial debut? What can you tell us about working with such an impressive group of moviemakers?

BC: Some of those shoots were spread quite far apart and they just sort of happened to come out around the same time, but the majority of them came around at a moment when I was in preproduction on Childhood, so it was, basically, ideal. Certain friends of mine, who happened to be great filmmakers, allowed me to come in and work on their projects for a few days or a week. It was about as much time as I could spare while I was working on my own film. It was perfect. Then it just so happened that they all ended up on the same festival circuit. It was like I had gotten lost in some European backlot [laughs].

It was great to work with all of them. I adored Mia. I think she is a brilliant filmmaker. She’s accomplished so much at her age, and it’s just really astonishing and inspiring. Obviously Olivier is just the sweetest, warmest guy and a brilliant filmmaker and cinephile. Ruben I’ve known for years. Bonello I had met but I didn’t know very well. He is one my favorite filmmakers in France and actually a number of years go I wrote him a letter to tell him how much I loved his work. Then, he reached out to me about working with him on Saint Laurent, so that was really a treat.

MM: Further back, you also worked with two of the most provocative and intriguing directors of our time: Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke. What sort of lessons or valuable experiences do you remember from working with them, and dealing with their approaches to art form?

BC: I think that probably what I’ve learned from all of them is that there is not one way to bake a cake. Michael has a very different approach than Lars does, for example. Their films, or their results, are both rigorously controlled, but the environment or the process of shooting is completely different. Lars shoots in a very lose way. He shoots a lot of takes. He just sort of lets you find it. With Michael, he has something very specific in mind that he wants in terms of performance and he sort of molds the performance to be just that. I mean in terms of choreography, the rhythm, the cadence, everything. He is really more like a puppet master, and some people love that and some people really don’t like it. For some people it’s really frustrating to be getting line readings, but for me it was a really positive experience because I basically always just wanted to be in the hands of somebody who knew exactly what they wanted. I found it really comforting to be given very specific instructions. But the truth is that I think the only thing that all of these really great people have in common is that they are pretty brave and they are pretty radical. They are all pretty daring artists and I think that’s the most enjoyable kind of work to look at, whether it’s a painting, a composition, a photograph or a movie.

Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet in Michael Haneke's Funny Games (2007)

Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2007)

MM: How much do you feel your work in front of the camera helped you when working on Childhood?

BC: I’m sure that it helped. The number one thing that I think it gave me an edge on was simply just compassion for what the cast is going through because it’s very, very difficult to act in a film which is so formally rigorous. There are some processes in movies where the camera and the blocking are just there for the actors. It’s just completely set up to serve them and to capture what they are doing. The way that this film was made, the way that I’m accustomed to making movies, is a lot more precise and controlled than that. I knew how difficult it was at times, especially for a 9-year-old boy. Tom had never been on a movie set before in his life. He was not an actor. It was painful for me to make him do 15 takes of a five-minute shot where he keeps getting beat up at the end of it. That was his very first day of shooting, the scene where his father accidentally dislocates his shoulder. It was like throwing this 9-year-old boy right into the deep end. I’ve done a lot of physical scenes in my life as an actor, and so I knew how hard it was.

Sometimes filmmakers are very caught up in the moment and they can get very frustrated because things don’t look real, but it’s very, very hard to make something look real without it sort of being real. The truth is that 99 percent of the times when you are doing a scene where it looks like you are getting hurt, you are getting hurt. It was a very difficult balance and I hope at least that my experience as a performer made me kinder.

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