On Wednesday July 20th, we were invited to attend a special preview screening of Brady Corbet’s new film The Childhood of a Leader at The IFC Center.
The film, which is set in France at the very end of World War I, tells the story of a young child of an American diplomat who will grow up to become a fascist leader. After the screening, IFC hosted a Q&A with Corbet and his co-writer Mona Fastvold.
I wanted to start off, you mentioned in the introduction that this was a long time in the making and I want to just talk about the idea that this is your first film, it’s a very complicated production and clearly a very intense film and you went with a historical drama set almost a century ago. What were you thinking?
Brady Corbet: [Laughter] I still don’t know, fuck. When we were in our living room it seemed like it would come together pretty easily.
Mona Fastvold: Yeah it seemed like a good idea.
So what was the inspiration? There was obviously something about this moment in history that really spoke to you. It seems like a very specific moment and I’m not sure what it was?
BC: Yeah, I had read a book by Margaret MacMillan called Paris 1919, which was a chronicle of the seven months leading up to the signing of The Treaty of Versailles. I was really haunted by it. And at that time it seemed really relevant, because we were at war in Iraq and it seemed to be a defining moment. Maybe the moment when American foreign policy as we know it was established. My family is mostly Hungarian, so anybody who’s familiar with the events following the First World War was the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and Hungary became, as we know it today, without a coast. A nation divided. But mostly I just thought it was a very good story. And then I started to write on it and it seemed too ambitious to get made and the film was rejected from the Cannes residence…
The project of the film, not the film itself?
BC: Exactly, the project, where you submit a treatment and the first 30 pages, which is what I gave them and we didn’t even make it to the finals. Then Mona and I were working together many years later on a film which she directed called The Sleepwalker and we had a very healthy collaboration and she said, “I think that you should pick this back up and I have some ideas about how to make it all function.” And then we finished together.
So what was the actual shoot like? Where did you shoot? How long was the shoot?
BC: It was 24 days in Hungary. We shot in Hungary for two reasons, one was that to shoot in France with a child is virtually impossible because you can only have three hours with the child per day, so obviously that didn’t work for us. And then the other reason was there was not just a film lab, but two film labs. That meant that we could shoot on celluloid and it would not be particularly expensive.
The child that you mentioned [the film’s young lead, Tom Sweet], how did you cast him and was he the first character you felt like you needed to cast?
BC: Actually he was the last character we felt we could cast because kids grow so fast and the movie was constantly falling apart, so we had to cast him just about three and a half months before we knew the film was actually happening, because we thought the film was actually happening many many times before it was actually ready to go in terms of all of the money being released, so we cast him last. And our casting director spotted him on a soccer field playing soccer and then we saw him and we knew.
I had a question about the story and the title. Did you study the childhoods of infamous fascist leaders and if not or if so how do you feel like this child’s childhood provided the DNA for him to become someone like them?
BC: We did study them.
MF: We did study them and…
BC: There was not a lot of consistency. The truth is about anyone who grew up to be anything frankly is that their circumstances are always quite unique in particular. If we’re looking at the backgrounds of the childhoods of different kinds of fascists of the 20th century… they all came from very different economic backgrounds. So there was a discussion of whether or not the character should actually come from a wealthy family, etc. But the thing was it’s an allegorical drama so we used that as a bouncing off point, but then just decided to use certain stories or characteristics of different people that sort of worked for the story that we could tell with our resources and primarily one set.
MF: We kind of played with including every kind of characteristic that are known to create sociopaths so in a way that would equal each other out so it just became more of a fable.
BC: Yeah, I mean the only thing all of them have in common is a God-complex, whether they used religion as the sort of foundation for the offshoot of their own ideology or if they completely rejected the idea of God, that there was no room for God and them in the room essentially. Not to be mixed up with atheism, it’s really antitheism. That was relevant in every one’s childhood. But we were really trying to use characters that were completely archetypical, I mean like very, very basic in a way. Like they were supposed to be empty vessels for the audience to project their own notions on to. So there is sort of an authoritarian spirit that exists inside every single character that at one point demonstrates their ability to be authoritative. And so we kind of put it together in that way.
Can you talk a little bit about the music, because I really liked the music and it was a very peculiar kind of music and there seems to be a lot of narrative inside the music? Can you talk a little about how that came along?
BC: The music was made by a guy named Scott Walker, who is a very, very, very brilliant composer and pop artist, and I still think its appropriate to call him a pop artist because he still actually makes very melodic music. He used to write and sing ballads, which he no longer does. But he kind of constructs songs now as if they’re three acts and so the idea was that we would hire someone, he had written a lot of music on themes of tyranny, and we thought that would be an interesting element to incorporate. And then also because we knew what the scope of what we would be able to pull off visually, that we needed something to counteract that aurally, so we decided to hire someone that would make something gargantuan
What was the process like? Was he already composing from a script stage or did he compose after he saw a first cut of the film.
BC: He started the overture from the script stage, so that was the sound of the film. And then he built on that for a year and a half and developed the 36 minutes of music that’s in the film.
How did you find this cinematographer to bring this story to this life?
BC: There were several different cinematographers that were attached to the project, because the film was supposed to happen I guess three or four times and then Lol [Crawley] actually came on board very late in the process and he is very intuitive, so basically he didn’t arrive with a million ideas, he arrived and he reacted to the space. The space was extraordinary, because our designer Jean-Vincent Puzos was a really particularly great designer and we were talking a lot about doing sort of like Anselm Kiefer, but Victorian style or something. The walls would look like they were sprayed in acid or something. And Lol is just a really soulful guy. We’re both like, him especially, he’s really a working class personality and so there’s nothing pretentious about it. We’d go in and we’d try and find the most beautiful shaft of light that existed and if there wasn’t enough light for us to use it then we would try to recreate it in a way that would sort of emulate what we saw when we walked on to the set.
Brady could you talk about your involvement with Berenice Bejo? How did she come to be involved in the film and how did you get that wonderful performance out of her?
BC: It was originally Juliette Binoche that was cast in the role and then after a run-through she felt it was a little dark and she dropped out. And then Berenice came on board and then Mona and I worked very intimately with her because basically we divided up a lot of duties on the set because we had a very short pre-production. Like a pre-production that was way too short. It was essentially three and a half weeks, so it was quite ridiculous. And so Mona was working with Berenice on the text and the vernacular and the cadence, trying to find what worked. I was working on it too, but I was working mostly with Tom Sweet and then we had such little time that we had to conquer it together. And so Mona was directing second unit, so all these overhead shots that are very grand Mona directed, and I was on the ground doing everything else. It was the only way to get this film made.
MF: Berenice [was] very open and ready to kind of conquer this role in a very short time, but the way that we wrote this character originally was really wordy, like a lot of text, so we just had to sit together and figure out a way to make all these words and lines fit in her mouth and just rewrite all of her text.
BC: Same thing for everyone.
MF: Yeah, which is something we really enjoy doing that we did a lot on our previous film together.
BC: Cause the text is so stylized, as opposed to the sort of Bressonian quality which is weirdly kind of vacant and rigid, and the idea is that the performance, the camera, etc. is creating a rhythm which is so hypnotic that you’re sort of lulled into a trance and then of course the music is breaking this trance.
MF: And we want the actors to have freedom in the blocking and also in their text so just taking that time to prepare with the actors in advance and find the exact words that fit in their mouth so that we can do that again and again and again without improvisation is really important to us.
[To Brady] As a very experience actor, were you ever tempted to cast yourself in this film?
BC: Oh my god, if I was worth five million dollars I definitely would have done that. There were days where I was like, “Are you sure that I have zero international value?”[Laughter]
It’s what you get for committing yourself to art house cinema for the majority of your life; it means that you always stay mostly poor. No, I mean listen, I was not interested in directing a movie that I acted in. I think it’s a very foolish thing to do for the most part. And of course we have great examples, we have Orson Welles and whatever, but it doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t understand how you’re supposed to be objective.
MF: I don’t understand either, how they do that.
BC: It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me and if I did it I’m sure I would’ve been really bad in it.
We don’t have much time left but I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about collaborating and collaborations that you’re planning in the future.
MF: Well we also live together and have a baby together so we always collaborate in different ways.
BC: On the dishes.
MF: But no, it was an incredibly symbiotic process on both The Sleepwalker and Childhood. In both projects we had a very intensive, short prep period so that meant we split up different departments and would work with different department heads. But on our next two projects, hopefully we are gonna have a little more prep time and more freedom, so hopefully we are gonna collaborate a little bit in a different way. Brady’s making a film about a popstar. I’m making a film about whale fishermen.
And whose film do you think will go first?
BC: We’re trying to figure that out. Trying to plan our life. We’re like fuck, if you go in November, then maybe I can babysit the kid for the first three weeks. I mean it’s tricky, we don’t really know. The truth is both of our next films are a lot easier to make than our previous films were, which is great, but they’re also bigger, they’re more ambitious, they’re more complicated. You’re offsetting one thing with a new problem or challenge. Mona is gonna make a movie starring four movie stars and a whale, and it’s not a Ron Howard movie. And then I’m making a movie about a popstar, but I don’t have like Sony’s budget, so it’s complicated. But we’re doing our best.
The Childhood of a Leader opens in limited release July 22nd.