- 11 Sep 14
The U2 collaborator and acclaimed photographer and director opens up about his new film and its star, the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman.
When Anton Corbijn talks about his new film, A Most Wanted Man, he finds himself in a strange position. The first thing people want to talk about is not the director himself, or the film, but about its star, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
“Yeah, it’s a strange place to be, and not a place you want to be,” says Corbijn. “At the same time, I feel that Philip gave an amazing performance, and you want people to be aware of that. There’s so much depth and nuance, so much to enjoy watching.”
Renowned for his work directing music videos, Corbijn’s latest film is his first since 2010’s The American, an adaptation of A Very Private Gentleman by Martin Booth. A Most Wanted Man is also based on a book, adapted from the John le Carré novel of the same name. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy proved that the British writer’s works make for ideal film adaptations; Corbijn is in little doubt that the modern world, post 9/11, brings a new depth to the world of espionage.
“I feel that we live in a very polarised world, and in the last few years we have become even more so. We judge people so quickly and it’s so black and white. It’s not like this film offers solutions; it questions some of the answers to the issues.”
Set in Hamburg, the film sees Hoffman star as Gunther Bachmann, the leader of a spy unit; a boozy and manipulative man, but with a certain charm and intelligence. He and his team are tracking Issa, a Chechen-Russian refugee with terrorist ties. When a CIA agent (Robin Wright) and Russian authorities try to hijack Gunther’s masterplan, the battleground spreads from the streets to the boardrooms, as we get a window into the characters themselves, and the greater powers at work.
While Hoffman’s character may well be the fulcrum of the piece, he is supported by staggering performances, none more so than that of Grigoriy Dobrygin, who plays the focus of the spies’ attention.
“I wanted to find an unknown actor for the role,” Corbijn explains. “I wanted somebody who was from that region, so I looked a bit in the Middle East, the Balkans and Eastern Europe in general. I saw Grigoriy very early on, but I dismissed him. Months later, he came back into casting and I thought ‘this guy is perfect’. I don’t know why I didn’t see it at first. There’s an intensity to his performance, and the way that he prepares for a role.”
If the casting of an unknown raised eyebrow, then so too did the recruitment of more established names; Daniel Brühl and Nina Hoss – both major names in Germany – are handed smaller parts than they are accustomed to, while Hollywood starlet Rachel McAdams finds herself in a very different role than those which made her a star.
“Daniel was a special case, because I could only offer him to be part of the gang. It’s fantastic to have that kind of calibre actor for a smaller role. It brings everything up to a level that is amazing. In Germany, Nina Hoss is a very big name for a very good reason. I have wanted to work with her for a while actually, so it was great that it worked out for this film.”
As for McAdams, Corbijn says: “Rachel’s a naturally charming woman. I just thought that it would be interesting to have her in a more demanding and serious role, and that kind of charm will stay. That’s how she gets people to be on her side. She plays this young girl who gets in over her head really, but she means really well, she’s idealistic and kind of naïve in her handling of it all.”
Indeed, McAdams’ performance has drawn praise from many; Hot Press’ own Roe McDermott wrote she “shines as a lawyer whose quest for justice may not be as pure or enlightened as it seems”.
Indeed, questionable motives are a pattern throughout the film; as the tale unfolds, the audience can never be sure who to root for. “Everybody betrays somebody in a way and thinks it’s for the other person’s best interests. John le Carré’s writing is very layered; characters are never one-dimensional. As for the audience, I didn’t think about it but I guess the audience also shifts a little bit. But I feel that they stay with Gunther for most of it, because you feel the emotions through him.”
The character is a complex and thoughtful man, drawing the major struggles of the film together. Corbijn believes that Gunther’s reasonable nature is a key part of the story. “I think his approach is that some people – who are maybe not totally good – can still have a place in our society. Then there are people who can lead us to others who are bad. Philip could bring that inward struggle to the forefront. And the character is not Islamophobic, he speaks Arabic, and he has no issues with the culture, so I think he is sympathetic to all.”
It might seem opposed to the nature of your typical edge-of-the-seat spy caper, but neither le Carré nor Corbijn are your typical storytellers. In fact, the spying game isn’t quite what you’d think.
“It’s still a very mundane job. It’s watching and sitting and breaking it down, and taking care of the people who spy for you; that is the norm. If that person has a problem, you have to be there for them, like a father or a mother, or somebody that they can tell their problems to and you can comfort them.”
A Most Wanted Man hits Irish screens Friday, September 12