The making of a fascist: "You get into a sticky area if you try to psychoanalyze a fictional future despot"

Salon talks to Brady Corbet about his directorial feature debut, "The Childhood of a Leader"

Published July 21, 2016 10:59PM (EDT)

Tom Sweet in "The Childhood of a Leader"   (IFC Films)
Tom Sweet in "The Childhood of a Leader" (IFC Films)

Brady Corbet’s bold performances as an abuse victim in “Mysterious Skin” or a lonely, horny, and lost young man in “Simon Killer,” illustrate his commitment to challenging material. As an actor, he has worked with some of the biggest names in contemporary world cinema, from Michael Haneke (“Funny Games”) and Lars von Trier (“Melancholia”) to Olivier Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria”) and Ruben Östlund (“Force Majeure”).

Now Corbet is embarking on a new phase of his career with his stunning feature directorial debut, “The Childhood of a Leader.” In this compelling drama, set in 1919, nine-year-old Prescott (Tom Sweet) manipulates his family and household with dramatic consequences. Prescott curries favor from his housekeeper (Yolande Moreau), and leers at his tutor (Stacy Martin). He also enacts power plays with his mother (Bérénice Bejo) and father (Liam Cunningham) — who is working on the Treaty of Versailles — as the film builds slowly to a powerful conclusion.

“Childhood of a Leader” is a complex drama that explores the intimate nature of family dynamics and manipulation that draws larger parallels to fascists like Hitler.

Corbet spoke with Salon about the process of making his new film, his own childhood, and the subject of evil.

You’ve taken some risky roles as an actor. “Childhood of a Leader” presents a new risk. What can you say about your career path?

I think I got to a point in my career where I could choose projects and not have them choose me. I was never at any point in a powerful place, but I could dictate the direction, if not the outcome of the jobs I was pursuing. I came to terms with the fact that if I was going to work almost solely with the filmmakers I was interested in working with, I wouldn’t make a lot of money, or work very often. I’d do one or two projects a year. So I found other avenues of getting by so those things happened organically. 

You have supported other independent filmmakers, such as Matt Amato and his film, “The Makings of You.” Was this helpful in your process of becoming a director yourself?

It is important to have generosity of spirit and the support of anyone and everyone that I believed in. You are frequently calling on people to do that same thing for you. It’s important not to be stingy, and be willing to pull all-nighters for colleagues, because eventually, you have to call on them as well.

You have worked with Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Gregg Araki and Olivier Assayas. How did you draw on your experiences as an actor to direct the actors and compose the film?

I think that the number one thing I gained from everyone, was seeing them struggling to get their films made even when they were accomplished in their careers and lives. When I saw people I admire that much struggle that much, it taught me to be fairly patient and not lose my cool. I did lose my cool in pre-production. I found it easier to shoot, and that’s really enjoyable. Setting up is a fucking nightmare.

Can you talk about the process of getting “Childhood” made?

You are sending your screenplay out to the abyss, especially if you are a first-time filmmaker. My experience and credentials as an actor didn’t help me that much putting the film together. I was surprised they didn’t help me more. I thought I demonstrated a pretty specific trajectory. I didn’t think it was hard to see my work and look at this script and wonder what it’s going to be, look, feel, and sound like. We had an impressive cast and crew signed on. My background as an actor was a detriment — understandably so — because there is a bad association with actor-directors.

The process took longer than I expected it to. During that process, my life changed; I had a child in the middle of it. Mona [Fastvoid, the film’s co-writer] got pregnant before shooting and the film fell apart just before shooting. We had no money. We had to stay in Europe. When we finally got the film off the ground, Ada, our baby, was 5 months old and Mona was directing the second unit with Ada on her back. We shot in 24 days, and the whole thing was quite bananas.

What drew you to “Childhood of a Leader” that you wanted to write and direct it?

It’s one of those things where—because no one has read my unproduced material—they don’t have a sense of what my oeuvre is. [Laughs]. This film is very consistent with themes I’m exploring in general, for example, my next film, which takes place in 1999-present, is about the rise of a pop star, but it has a lot in common with “Childhood” as well. There’s a character who is at the center of the world, and is a [product] of the times. I’m interested in generations, and trying to explore the times in a way that is in a microcosm.

Can you talk about creating the film’s visual style? You favor deep, rich indoor spaces, both bare and ornate. You tend to use tracking shots and circular pans to create emotion. Can you discuss your approach to the material?

I have a pretty specific idea of how I like a camera to move. I hate shots where the camera is moving for absolutely no reason. I want the audience to feel it’s all there for a reason, especially for a film that is very objective, and where the style has an omniscient quality to it. Those things are intuitive.

We painted every room seven times because we couldn’t afford that much furniture or have that much time. So if you came in at different times, the eight or nine rooms would be more visually dynamic. We talked a bit about painters and texture and creating something amiss, like the walls were sprayed down in battery acid.

The tragedy of war, one character says, is not that one man has the courage to be evil but that so many do not have the courage to be good. This is an apt metaphor for Prescott, who realizes that he can misbehave because others allow it. Likewise, the film includes Aesop’s fable of the lion and the mouse, Can you discuss these themes in the story?

Basically, we decided to incorporate as many sort of quotes, fables, and parables because we liked the idea that this young man uses language as a weapon. He misinterprets Aesop’s fable about generosity of spirit, and his perversion of this story of generosity and human righteousness is used against everyone. That was the idea. By the end of the movie, even certain conclusions the audience assumed about this character are challenged. The closer you get to describe or explain a tyrant, [the more] it is about how the masses allow for people like that to come into power.

For me, I think there’s an interesting relationship to the news. I perceive politicians as celebrities, or a brand. I grew up working with and around celebrities, so when I see a magazine stand at an airport, I see these people not as heroes or people better than me. I don’t worship them for being beautiful, or wishing to be them. I look at it like a high school yearbook. I’m happy she’s doing well. Or that guy is a fucking asshole. I think the idea of prophets, which is my feeling about politicians — even well-meaning ones — they drink their own Kool-Aid. They think they are prophets. I find that disturbing. We are born in to this world believing there are people and power that are greater than us. I think that’s unhealthy. I’m more disturbed by the onlooker in a crowd than opportunistic puppets like Trump, or [Viktor] Orbán in Hungary, or any number of these kinds of figures. 

Prescott misbehaves, throwing stones, grabbing his tutor’s breast, refusing to eat, or leave his room. He also slaps his mother. The adults try to control him with decidedly mixed results. What can you say about these incidents and individuals that shape his experience and force viewers to continually recalibrate our impression of him?

It’s designed that way. All these people around him are treating him as if his behavior is unusual, when it’s not. These figures in his life are accidentally shaping him. By reprimanding him, they are empowering him, and that forces him to rebel. I wanted the boy to be something of an innocent. As if he was a victim not of his own circumstances, but of himself. You try to imagine great personalities alone, looking in the mirror. They must develop a perverted sense of self. Prescott is coping. He’s trying to figure out who he is. It’s not to say he’s completely reacting. There’s a fair amount to be broken down in a literal psychological way, and biological, but we leave room for interpretation, but that leaves room for misinterpretation as well. People who have a bad reaction to “Childhood” perceive it as an extreme, morally simplistic film about a cold mother and abusive father. I think the film avoids anything that ridiculous. Parenting in 1919, children were spoken to, not heard. That was the standard. I didn’t see this family as cold, but very prototypical of aristocratic families and how they treated their young. When the boy’s father attacks him, he doesn’t [injure] him on purpose. He’s just trying to get him dressed. He’s an absent father, but not an abusive one. There is a hierarchy of power in that house. You see constantly that dynamic.

Did you deliberately choose not to tell the story exclusively from Prescott’s point of view?

There was a strong knee-jerk response to make [the narrative] more focused, and from Prescott’s vantage point, but I don’t like that kind of storytelling. It doesn’t interest me. It’s didactic. It indicates too much. I don’t like a character to be only one way. I like narrative to be as ambitious as possible. For one reason or another, everything I write has a very formal layout. I wanted an overture, three parts, and an epilogue. I thought that it was a way of giving emphasis to seemingly banal events. Not a lot happens in the first 45 minutes, but inside part one, you think of the defining moments and actions. I design an experience to be as organic as possible. The boy’s vanity of not cutting his hair off, and the irony of finding him later without hair are tiny moments that make the man.

Did you see any of yourself in Prescott?

Possibly. I never thought of this film as a literal psychological study. I always perceived the characters as archetypes and the story as allegorical. You get into a sticky area if you try to psychoanalyze a fictional future despot. It can blow up in your face. The boy was directed to be fairly blank in a Bressonian way; an empty vessel for the audience to project their feelings. Tom [Sweet] wasn’t directed to be sinister, but very present — which is very hard. It’s hard to get most kids just to be there. Tom was naturally that way.

What were you like as a child?

I was outgoing and extroverted when I was very young. After age 7 or 8, I was working in a used/rare bookstore, and I started reading a lot. That formed my interest. I was a collector of films, books, and records, and became more introverted. For me that was like collecting baseball cards. It was nothing more special than that. But I gained an education.

When are you at your best and when are you most evil?

I experience or am confronted with that almost every day, ever since I had a kid. It depends on how much I’ve slept. Today I slept for 10 hours. I’m fantastic. My baby slept in.

The experience of making this film, I came across someone on a daily basis who was getting in the way of making something good. But that’s moviemaking. Every time you have a good idea, someone will tell you it’s a bad idea. You have to fight for absolutely everything — posters, trailers, stills. The process has so many beautiful images, but we saw bad designs. You try to craft an experience from top to bottom that is rich and evocative. It’s so frustrating to be constantly dealing with an army of people that want to do something that is considerably less interesting. That happens when you send the screenplay out. People try to force you to shoot digitally or on film. The most amazing thing about this film is that it is uncompromised. It’s 35mm. It’s set in 1919. It stars a 9 year-old boy. There are no special effects. It has a large cast. They are quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater, or to find a solution that works economically and creatively. It’s difficult to make movies like this anymore.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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