It doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived in a big city; it’s still fun to look up and pretend all the buildings are giant severed robot penises, to quote Liz Lemon. I couldn’t find my way into The Hempel Hotel — a big, old, white chode of a building in West London — without explicit verbal instructions from my soon-to-be interviewee, Anton Corbijn, over the phone. Even with his concise directions, I found myself exasperatedly knocking at a window through which snooty middle-aged fat cats eating breakfasts the size of baby fists watched me like a goldfish trapped in a bowl, a musty service door kind-of beneath and in front of the hotel, and finally a fake front-door that seems to have been designed to keep people like me out.
Anton Corbijn came out of the elevator to find me sitting on a couch sunken into the floor of the expansive hotel lobby, about half an hour after we were due to meet. He’s a tall, softly spoken Dutch fellow with a welcoming smile, tired blue eyes and an accent largely unaffected by years of travelling the world. “I like staying here,” he told me after we’d taken a seat in tall armchairs as soft as a baby’s fontanel. “When I moved here in 1979, I lived in a basement across the road on this street. 32 years ago, this area was quite a different story. It was even this time of year that I arrived — late October. When that smell comes in during autumn, it brings me back to that time. Sometimes I find it depressing; it reminds me of the no-hope situation that I was in.”
At the age of 22, Corbijn had moved to the big smoke from a sheltered existence in Holland — he’d actually spent the first eleven years of his life in a conservative, religious village on an island off the coast of his home country. In his late teens or early twenties, he worked at a factory to save up for a camera, and then began snapping pictures of international artists touring locally for Dutch magazines and newspapers, dreaming of becoming a part of the world they’d come from. Compared to the local musicians and photographers, for whom their creative work was more of a hobby than a career, the touring young artists were all or nothing, do or die, and the inherent excitement in that way of living was what inspired him to keep snapping. “I don’t think the scene in Holland inspired me, but I was very inspired by the London scene,” he explained. “There was just something about the music scene here that I wanted to see in my photography. I felt my best pictures were always taken when I went for a little trip to England or when some English musicians visited. I definitely didn’t think I was capable of all this when I was young.”
By “all this” he means the kind of career that any kid (or adult) with band posters plastered all over their bedroom walls would murder their own mother for. He’s shot iconic portraits of artists like Ian Curtis, Bono, David Bowie and Morrissey, directed video clips for the likes of Nirvana, U2, Echo & The Bunnymen, Joy Division and Depeche Mode, and, most recently, directed feature films with stars like George Clooney. Back then, he was just happy to be in London, living in the basement of some ramshackle dwelling. And as much as he loved meeting new artists in the scene, he admits that he never really became part of it, favoring hard work and honing his skills over partying and trying to meet the right people.
“I worked,” he told me with a shrug. “I mean, there are definitely people in the music business that are very ambitious and have succeeded and lasted, but there are a few important elements that make you successful: talent, discipline, and luck. You have to have all three. You have to recognize luck and use it, and I was incredibly disciplined.”
So, how did luck come into it in his case? “Well, you know, in retrospect, going to England, it was the perfect timing,” he replied. “I did it on a gut feeling that I wanted to be there. When you meet a musician, you can’t tell how important they’re going to be. If Joy Division had of continued, who knows?”
Corbijn decided against use a flash or a tripod when shooting his portraits — he claims that he’s never been good with the technical stuff — and because of that he developed an instantly recognizable style early on. “Your handicap is your strongest asset,” he explained. “I made it work for myself, and then somehow that becomes how you take pictures, which is different to a lot of people. I mean, you always strive for the perfect thing, but then life gets in the way, if you like. A lot of my better pictures have slight imperfections... I look back at the old pictures, and I made so many mistakes.”
His biggest one nearly cost U2 their Joshua Tree cover, but I don’t think he ever told anyone, so Monster Children readers might be the first to find this out. Yay! “I don’t think I ever told U2 this, but I shot many films when I did Joshua Tree in ‘86, because it was three days of traveling and shooting,” he explained. “Just before Christmas, I’d been asked to shoot a businessman for a Dutch newspaper. I only used one film, and the next day he needed to go to Hong Kong, and by the time I developed that film, there was this businessman sitting in an office with the Joshua tree sticking out of his head! I had used the film from the U2 shoot for the photo of him! I couldn’t shoot him again, so I had to crop that picture and pretend it was a reflection from a window or something, but I knew exactly that it was a Joshua tree.”
The interesting thing is that despite being credited as the creative director behind U2’s visual output over the past decade (on Wikipedia, anyway), Corbijn was verbally banned from working with them in the eighties. Thankfully, Bono remained a fan of his work, and approached him again some years later. “I remember, a year after I’d done my first music video — I was still not so easy in that medium —I tried to make a really advanced video for U2, and their manager said, “Anton Corbijn is never going to get close to you anymore with a camera.” It was an over-reaction because it was not expensive. You know, it was a learning curve. I was just starting out. So then I was asked in ‘92 by Bono to do the ‘One’ video, eight years later. I was very happy with it, because it was an amazing song, and then the video was turned down. I’d put so much into that, so it was a difficult moment. Months later they started to use it. You have to separate your friendship with people from the work that you’re doing, because it’s not always suitable.”
As I discovered, Corbijn is a consummate professional. He wouldn’t even gossip about Kurt Cobain with me, but he did share a quick story from when they worked on the film clip for ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ together. “Kurt Cobain was really sweet,” he began, after explaining how careful he is with what he says about the artists he’s worked with. “He was a really nice guy. I spent a few days with him doing the video clip, and because the whole process with the video was so long and drawn out, we had to keep communicating. When I met him the first time, he didn’t say much at all. One really weird thing was that he fell asleep once, when we were on the phone. I was on the other line, and I thought he was not agreeing with what I was saying, but he had fallen asleep!”
Unlike most of the artists Corbijn worked with on video clips, who trusted his vision completely, Cobain had the whole video planned out in his head. “Kurt Cobain was the exception. He had a whole thing worked out. He faxed me ideas. He had drawings. He was meticulous. He was very… I’ve never seen a person who writes music to be that intricate with the vision for the song. It was Kurt’s idea to do the Wizard of Oz kind of landscape. But I made the butterflies fake, and I made the birds fake… Where as he wanted real ones.”
In many of Corbijn’s video clips, there are obvious theatrical elements, like the aforementioned crow-puppets, a King’s costume (Depeche Mode’s ‘Enjoy the Silence’), or a theatrical stage (numerous videos). I can’t help but wonder whether Corbijn was projecting his own awkwardness with being in the spotlight onto those musicians, by taking them away from the musical stage (and all the glory it connotes) and placing them on a theatrical stage. As a shy-but-determined youngster, Corbijn had needed a camera as an excuse to push to the front of the crowd at concerts, and as a director, he’d taken bands like Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and Echo & The Bunnymen out of their element, asking them to perform in situations reminiscent of high school plays. “The reason that I did theatre stuff was because I was never comfortable with directing a band live, like, playing with instruments,” he explained. “A school theatre play was what I thought was a nice thing because you can still do things with the energy of something that’s live.”
Unfortunately for the music industry, he doesn’t shoot video clips any more, preferring to focus on feature films. In 2007, he directed the Ian Curtis biopic Control, which won numerous awards at the Cannes Film Festival. His next film, 2010’s The American, was perhaps more ambitious in that it took him away from the world of music and into the world of bigger-budget Hollywood films. He even worked with George Clooney, whom he has nothing but high praises for. The spontaneity of shooting portraits had inspired his earlier work, and while directing video clips he’d been forced to work at a frantic pace to meet tight deadlines, so does he find directing feature films — which require far more time, planning and consideration — as stimulating? “What I’m working on now excites me,” he told me. “If you don’t develop, you stop, and I don’t want to do that. You know, there’s a lot more in me than I ever thought there was, and I want to see what else is there.”
I couldn’t help but wonder whether — after years of hard work and dedication that have resulted in a prolific output of work and endless accolades — he is truly happy with the way his life’s panned out. Arranging this interview had taken a lot of work due to Corbijn’s hectic schedule, and when I met up with him, he looked more tired than inspired. If his driving force is working hard and tackling new projects to challenge himself creatively, does he take the time to stop and smell the roses? Towards the end of the interview, I asked whether the untimely deaths of particular artists he had worked with and adored, like Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain and Herman Brood, had altered his outlook on life, and as you may have guessed, the answer was yes.
“There are a few people that I’ve worked with that I liked very much who died too young,” he told me, as a slick-looking waiter poured him a green tea. “That is something that I find difficult with photography, because I look at old pictures, and a lot of these people are no longer around, and it saddens me looking through them. Having these pictures reminds you so much of them. The thought that they couldn’t find something that could get them through the day… For those reasons, I think that maybe I was in contact with those people because I’m very attracted to artists for whom what they make means everything. I used to think that way — that nothing mattered to me but photography. That’s why I moved into a squat here. The drive to do what I did meant so much to me that it was everything. [There were] no vacations, no personal life. There was an intensity to those people, and an intensity that I felt was corresponding with what I felt in my world. That’s why I was attracted to all of those people. I think that when you’re young, sometimes you don’t see it any other way. It’s dangerous, if that’s the only way you feel… But it’s also exciting. In balance there might be an element of boredom. Nobody goes into the music world to get bored. There’s excitement and now that I’m older it’s different.”
Does he mean that’s he is slowing down now, and if so, how does that feel after thirty years of non-stop work? “It’s really difficult,” he explained. “I think it’s an old protestant thing, this work ethic that I have. I feel guilty when I don’t work. I have to say that I am happiest when I’m on my bicycle these days, and go to the dunes, because I can’t believe that luxury, you know? Just feeling the air; seeing the dunes. It’s maybe because my life was fairly imbalanced before now. I think happiness comes from very simple things basically, and that goes for my work too. When I go and meet a painter and take a few pictures, that is probably what makes me happier than making a film, almost. It’s a simple, very personal achievement. All the other things involve lots of meetings and lots of other people, and you can be very satisfied with things, but… Happiness in a way is good contact, or feeling at one with myself or nature, you know? There’s nothing new about that idea, but I feel that it’s true. A nice morning where you wake up with your girlfriend, see something beautiful like an exhibition — these are the things that make living worthwhile. But in my mind, the protestant element in me says happiness is when you work a lot. So… I do that very often, but smaller things bring me more happiness.”
After our interview, Anton Corbijn had to meet up with a documentary maker with his agent, before heading to the printer on his way to the airport. He had an exhibition coming up Stockholm and a film opening in Germany, and would soon receive Holland’s highest arts honor, the Prince Bernhard Culture Fund award. He was also building a studio near his home in Holland, in case he ever wanted to really slow down.