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Brady Corbet On Childhood of a Leader

Actor turned Director Brady Corbet makes his feature debut with Childhood of a Leader, assembling a stellar cast to tell a tale of fascism through the eyes of a budding post-World War I megalomaniac. To find out more, our Artistic Director of Film, Jason Wood, spoke to Corbet about casting, inspirations and stepping behind the camera…  

JW: The film is based on a Sartre short story but takes in many other credited sources including texts by Hannah Arendt and Robert Graves. How did you and co-writer Mona Fastvold corral together all these elements?

BC: We could have fairly credited Vilhelm Hammershoi or Anselm Kiefer or any number of artists but decided only to include authors that the dialogue or scenarios specifically reference in the film. Those were the texts we were discussing during the writing process.

JW: Did you also have in mind other films dealing with sociopaths and dictator figures? Films as diverse as The Omen and Bellocchio’s Vicente came to mind.

BC: We always were aware that we were subverting certain genre expectations but neither The Omen or Bellochio’s Vicente (as much as I admire Bellochio) are very significant films for me… The film I did think about very often, however, was Young Torless based on Robert Musil’s story. The other films I remember we discussed a lot (mostly for lighting or approach to production design) was Tree of the Wooden Clogs and Barry Lyndon).

JW: You co-wrote Simon Killer and have seemed to be heading towards directing a feature on your own right after acting in some of the most interesting independent films of recent years. Why did the time feel right and what draws you to characters and narratives that revolve around human beings that are inextricably flawed? You seem fascinated by our innate capacity for evil.

BC: Honestly, the time was right as soon as the money came together. It could have taken less time or a great deal more. I have some compassion for characters living in a very personal hell of their own rendering so I have tended to write about them. In regards to Simon Killer, Antonio has an interest in true crime so that is reflected in his film. Childhood of a Leader and my upcoming project, Vox Lux, which chronicles the rise of a pop star are primarily concerned with the problem of worship and the deconstruction of familiar iconographies.

JW: The film has a very specific aesthetic, from the arresting credits, through to Scott Walker’s score and the film’s largely muted visual tone. What was the overall intention regarding the look and feel of Childhood of a Leader?

BC: Classic chiarascuro, light emerging from the shadows.

JW: Can I also ask about how working with Scott Walker arose? He doesn’t accept many invitations, despite his avowed cinephilia.

BC: I sent him a letter and to our great and thankful surprise he said yes.

JW: You draw on elements from the childhood of Mussolini but deliberately also position Prescott as a kind of everyman dictator figure. Was it important that for the film to have the desired effect relating to how such figures come into being you didn’t attempt to actively portray a specific historical figure? In a time in which leaders and political figures in Europe, American and further afield are becoming more and more totalitarian your film certainly stokes a very chilling note.

BC: That’s exactly right.

JW: For a first feature it’s exceptionally well cast. Robert Pattinson, Liam Cunningham and Yolande Moreau are all excellent. Stacy Martin is, I think, becoming one of the most interesting actors of her generation. Was it easy to attract figures of such prominence to the project?

BC: Our great cast and crew were fairly easy to attract. The money for a project like this is the trickier part.

JW: Tom Sweet is a real discovery as the young Prescott. He shows a real mix of intelligence and cunning. Was it difficult to cast the role?

BC: We saw a lot of people but Des Hamilton and his team found tom playing on a football field and brought him in to make a tape. We really knew right away that we had all discovered someone very special.

JW: Some reviews have described the film as a story about not only a maniac but also the story of mass abdication and the story of those who wish to be led. Is that how you view it?

BC: For me, it’s not about a maniac at all. It never was. I was surprised when journalists viewed Tom’s character as a “sociopath,” a buzzword that is thrown around too liberally. He’s not even a brat. He is the result of the bureaucratic failures, oppression of women, culture of worship and general short-sightedness which defined the early 20th century and will define the 21st again if we allow it.

Childhood of a Leader is showing from Fri 19 August. Find out more and book tickets here.

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