A Most Wanted Man director Anton Corbijn on Philip Seymour Hoffman getting it right: "When we had done a take and he wasn't sure he didn't want to look at the monitor, he would just listen." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Anton Corbijn's A Most Wanted Man, with a script by Andrew Bovell, stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Nina Hoss (star of Christian Petzold's Barbara) and Grigoriy Dobrygin. Anton and I spoke about his supporting cast: Bernhard Schütz, terrific in Frauke Finsterwalder's Finsterworld, Martin Wuttke, Adolf Hitler in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, and Herbert Grönemeyer, who played Ian Curtis's doctor in Corbijn's debut feature Control and is the composer for The American and Anton's latest. Homayoun Ershadi, known for his work with Abbas Kiarostami rounds out the superb cast. We also discussed Wim Wenders' The American Friend and the character of Hamburg.
Anton Corbijn: "Well, Herbert [Grönemeyer] was instrumental in me believing that I could make a film some day. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
John le Carré's novel is the basis for Corbijn's A Most Wanted Man, about an anti-terrorist group working out of Hamburg, the city where the 9/11 attacks were planned. Günther Bachmann is the head of the team, played by Hoffman as a determined, smart man who uses drink as a crutch to get through his complicated secret work and hardly existing private life. A young man called Issa Karpov (Dobrygin), who declares to be half-Chechen, half-Russian, and tortured in both countries, appears out of the Hamburg Harbour to claim a multimillion inheritance from a private bank headed by Tommy Brue (Dafoe). Bachmann is using him in his plot to ensnare important Muslim academic Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Ershadi) who is doing a lot of good but might, in order to do so, be also working with terrorists.
The CIA, represented here by agent Martha Sullivan (Wright), has their own agenda. Human rights attorney Annabel Richter (McAdams) is trying to help Karpov. With cross purposes colliding and motivations left opaque, Corbijn's film resembles the murky water in his opening shot.
Anne-Katrin Titze: One of the central themes of your film seems to be that good has to compromise itself with evil in order to do good.
Anton Corbijn: Well, it's an interesting question whether somebody who does one percent bad things, whether he is considered to be a bad person or not. At the same time, what kind of measured response can there be to people like that? I think in a world after 9/11 which is so polarised, in the view of some governments one percent bad is 100 percent bad. That's what we see a little bit in the film. The Bachmann character [Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last role] doesn't believe that but some others do.
Willem Dafoe as Tommy Brue with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Günther Bachmann
AKT: You have some great German actors. Nina Hoss, Bernhard Schütz…
AC: Daniel Brühl and the actor playing the Admiral. Martin…
AKT: Martin Wuttke. And Herbert Grönemeyer. Is he a good luck charm for you, a little bit?
AC: Well, Herbert was instrumental in me believing that I could make a film some day. So I always told him… He always said, you have to make films and I said yeah, yeah, yeah. I couldn't believe that I ever would make a film. So I always said if I make a film he has to be in it. Because I knew he retired from acting. He was an actor before. So when I did my first film, I asked him to be in it and he reluctantly did that. But he kept postponing, so in the end, on the very last day in the very last scene that we filmed was with him. Then in The American he did the score and here, he does the score and plays [Michael Axelrod]. I think we stimulate each other. I do things for him. I design sometimes the [concert] tour and do pictures.
AKT: I loved the opening shot of your film. The dirty filthy harbour water in Hamburg and that dolphin etching.
AC: Yeah, it's a wild shot. I don't know if it's a dolphin but it looks like a dolphin.
Robin Wright as Martha Sullivan with Bachmann (Hoffman)
AKT: It looks like a dolphin. Hamburg itself is one of the main characters in the film. From the Hotel Atlantic to the Reeperbahn. How did you pick and choose the places in Hamburg that you wanted to film for the scenes?
AC: First of all, the first scene was not scripted, as was the last image of the film that was also not in the script. I felt instead of having a shot flying over Hamburg, or whatever, to introduce the city, this was much more of a metaphor for the film. You have the calm water and it becomes a big big dangerous wave. At the same time, it says something about a city at the water. In port cities there's always a lot of foreign influences. In England, the oldest Chinatown is Liverpool, because it's a harbour, it's a port city.
I took the scriptwriter [Bovell] to Hamburg about four years ago now and I forced the poor guy on a bicycle. Because I always think on a bicycle or walking is the best way to see a city. So we go to Hamburg and look at places that interested us - you know, the juxtaposition between the anarchist area and the very rich areas, because Hamburg is an incredibly rich city. To work with both. There's very few films made in Hamburg.
Willem Dafoe (Brue) with Rachel McAdams as Annabel Richter
The Wim Wenders film The American Friend is the only one that comes to mind. It's a fantastic movie, but even he acknowledges that Hamburg is so underused. It's used for some film productions but not for movies. I was surprised because it lends itself very well for movies.
AKT: You show Willem Dafoe's character's private life mostly in this one shot of his house at night, that is almost Edward Hopper like in that villa. Did you decide to have this visual back story instead of anything verbal? We don't get anything else on his private life and yet know.
AC: No, but I think it does show you a very lonely man trapped in some kind of world of money and a trophy wife. I fought for that to be in the film. In the original script there was also no apartment for Bachmann and I felt that it was so essential to show that he was a well-read and cultured man. There was another scene in Willem's house, Brue's house, that was taken out. I also wanted actually a backstory on Rachel's house but we never managed to get there.
Nina Hoss as Irna Frey on the job: "At the same time, what kind of measured response can there be to people like that."
The spoken language in A Most Wanted Man is English. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rachel McAdams had voice coaches to help them with their English German accents. Willem Dafoe's character's family background is Austrian-Scottish, which absolves him of all phonetic accuracy.
AKT: What was most difficult for them learning the German accent? Vowels?
AC: I actually don't know but I know that Phil was very focused on it. When we had done a take and he wasn't sure he didn't want to look at the monitor, he would just listen. That was for him really important to get that right.
A Most Wanted Man opens in the US on July 25 and in the UK on September 12.