On its own, Anton Corbijn’s “A Most Wanted Man,” based on the 2008 novel by John le Carré, is a taut, post-9/11 spy thriller about a government’s attempt to avert future terror attacks. But consider the events that transpired outside the film, and it morphs into a more substantial, sad, and definitive piece of work.
This past February, the movie’s lead, Philip Seymour Hoffman, died of a drug overdose. In the film, one of Hoffman’s last, he portrays German spy chief Günther Bachman with the same passion and aplomb he’s shown throughout his career. That the slowly unraveling Bachman is rarely seen on screen without a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth or a shot of whiskey splashed in his coffee mug makes the performance that much more fraught with emotion. On-screen substance abuse is always difficult to watch, but even more so when it originates from an actor who suffered from it himself (the movie also co-stars Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Nina Hoss and Daniel Brühl among others).
Witnessing Hoffman’s on-screen portrayal first-hand was the film’s director, Anton Corbijn, and the mark the late actor left on him is clear. Corbijn has spoken highly of both Hoffman’s performance in the movie and his off-screen persona. In fact, before Hoffman’s death, Corbijn was trying to cast him in a small role in his next project, “Life,” which focuses on the relationship between icon James Dean and legendary photographer Dennis Stock (played by Dane DeHaan and Robert Pattinson).
I sat down with Corbijn prior to the release of “A Most Wanted Man” to discuss working with Hoffman, as well as his confidence as a filmmaker, why he didn’t like directing to begin with, and what stopped him from quitting movies and returning to photography full-time.
I was wondering if you could talk about your first meeting with Philip Seymour Hoffman, on a photo shoot for Vogue in 2011. What was your initial impression of him?
He didn’t flaunt a lot of opinions. I remember I drove to the location and he didn’t say much. I thought, “He really dislikes me” [laughs]. It was an odd situation because we arranged for me to meet him to talk about the film, and then Vogue had also asked me to shoot him, totally unrelated. They put them on the same day, so they kept telling my agent “No, you can only meet him after one o’clock because Phil has to do a photo shoot in the morning,” without realizing I was also the guy doing the photo shoot. It was very odd. So on the photo shoot, Phil was like “What’s the story?” While we were waiting for some pants to be tailored, we talked about the project.
What was it about him that made you think of him for Günther?
Well, his amazing body of work. I liked also how Phil looked for that role. You could see him as a German who ate too much food. His physicality was there. I always felt that the role of Günther was someone slightly overweight. He’s so focused on his work and his relationships fail. But he’s an intelligent guy, he’s well-read, he’s educated, he speaks Arabic, he’s not Islamophobic. So Phil looked like the kind of guy who could do that. Phil could make a guy in sweatpants look great. He can play any character and make him believable. That was his incredible talent. I can’t fault him in any of his performances I’ve seen. But you know, there’s a lot of performances like “Boogie Nights” and “The Master” that are out there. Bachman was less out there. So it’s more of a challenge for an actor I think to make him three-dimensional and make him stand out. You need a really great actor like Phil to actually make that happen.
It shocks me that the same person plays those roles, in “Boogie Nights,” “The Master,” and now this.
Totally. I mentioned to some people before that when Phil came out to Berlin to look at an early edit we were doing. So I showed it to him and I looked at the screen and then I look at the guy next to me and go There’s no way that this guy is that guy. It’s not possible. Because it was so complete, what was on screen. It was just a person you believed in that it couldn’t be that guy here. He was amazing. All these people, to me, they’re all alive these characters.
How was Philip on set? Did you notice anything amiss?
Well, Phil was not in great shape as you can see in the film, but it was fitting for the role. But if you know Phil apart from taking the photograph of him and filming him, I don’t know how different it was. I did think it was an unhealthy lifestyle, of course, if you carry that weight. But I thought it was just a tortured soul, and I guess he was. But I never thought Phil was doing drugs. He probably wasn’t during the film either, if that’s the question. He’s an artist, and artists are sensitive people, and they need other people to help them, make them feel good. They need opinions, they need encouragement. There’s a lot of insecurity. There’s a false sense of security. It’s a really mixed bag. I have a lot of artist friends, and they are all kinds of people. Sometimes there’s a lot of drugs involved because of them wanting to get to a certain place.