Feature: Director Anton Corbijn talks about new film Life

For director Anton Corbijn the unlikely friendship that developed between photographer Dennis Stock and fast rising star James Dean was a complex relationship that he understood completely.

Indeed, when the script for Life arrived on his desk, he knew instantly that it was a story – a very personal story for Corbijn himself, in a way – that he had to tell.

Corbijn began his career as a photographer – and indeed still works as one – before directing his first hugely acclaimed feature, Control, the story of Joy Division’s singer Ian Curtis, in 2007.

“Funnily enough, what drew me to this story was not what most people think,” he says. “They all think it’s James Dean but for me it was the story about a photographer whose subject is somebody in the public eye. I could really relate to it because I’ve been doing it for a good 40 years.

“That was a nice way into a sort of James Dean bio, and the story of the balance between the subject and the photographer. I think that’s always an interesting one.”

Set in 1955, Life focuses on the brief, intense friendship between Stock, then a struggling photographer trying to build a reputation with the Magnum agency, and the fledgling star wary of the studio controlled publicity machine.

Dean eventually allows him to take revealing, intimate pictures, including shots with Dean’s family on their farm in Indiana, which would launch Stock’s career when they are published in Life Magazine. Those images became some of the most famous pop culture photographs of the 20th century.

Robert Pattinson plays Dennis Stock who took the iconic photographs – including one image, showing Dean walking through a windswept Times Square in New York – just months before Dean’s tragic death, aged just 24, in a car crash in September 1955 after making just three films.

Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Kill Your Darlings) plays Dean the rebellious young actor who is on the cusp of stardom after making his first film, East of Eden. In the following months he made two more, Rebel Without A Cause and Giant, before crashing his Porsche 550 on a California freeway.

“I had Robert on board first,” says Corbijn. “I never saw him as Dean. Most people assume, when they hear he’s in this film, that he’ll play James Dean, because you equate a big name with a big name.

“But I love Rob playing the part of Dennis Stock because, as you know, he’s very famous through the Twilight series, which came when he was young, and it came relatively easy, I guess, to him. Now he wants to prove to himself that he’s worthy of being an actor, so he takes all these left-of-centre roles – with directors like (David) Cronenberg and Werner Herzog.

“So he is a guy who wants to prove himself as an actor playing a photographer who wants to prove himself as a photographer. I thought it was a nice parallel universe, and also to turn the camera on him.

“He’s always being chased by photographers and now he plays a photographer himself. There’s a kid of perverse pleasure there. Then for James Dean, you try to find somebody who looks a bit like James Dean, but you don’t want to end up with a model.

“We were very lucky in the end to get Dane [DeHaan] because he said ‘no’ many times. Although we would enhance his physical appearance to be more similar to that of Dean, it’s really the power of the actor that transforms the character into James Dean, so that after a minute or so on screen, you’re looking at James Dean – you’re not looking at the actor anymore.”

Corbijn began his own career as a photographer in his native Holland before moving to England and capturing the vibrant music scene in the early eighties. He does, of course, understand the dynamic between a photographer and his subject from personal experience.

“Yes, and it’s one I didn’t understand very well in the beginning. When I was young I was quite naïve and I didn’t realise how that balance worked. I had a friend who I did a lot of work with, and he became the biggest rock star in Holland, and suddenly everybody fell in love with him, and he was no longer mine.

“I was really young and I thought, ‘What’s happened here?’ It’s really interesting, and in the film, they say to each other, ‘I’m doing this for you,’ ‘No, I’m doing this for you’ – that kind of thing. They each think they’re doing it for the other.”

Filming on location in Ontario, Canada – doubling for rural Indiana – the production worked in freezing, sub zero temperatures.

“We started in mid February last year, and it was the coldest winter in a good 30 years. It was between -20 and -28 most days. All the farm scenes, they were incredibly challenging. I had layers of clothes on, but the actors couldn’t always, so for them it was incredibly cold. But then of course they are young, “ he laughs.

But the scenes on the Dean farm provide a revealing glimpse into the stable, loving home life of a young actor who came to epitomise rebellious youth. “I think his stance was rebellious at that time but he loved his family so there was nothing rebellious there and he was a nice guy,” says Corbijn.

“But he stood for this incredible change that was happening in the mid 1950s that was symbolised by the start of rock n’ roll, the emergence of jazz and the fact that he wanted to be an actor on his own terms – so he was rebellious in the way he dressed, how he spent his days and the people he spent time with,” says Corbijn.

“But you know, he was not somebody who would kick the cows on his family’s farm – he wasn’t that kind of rebel.”

Life, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, is Corbijn’s fourth feature film, following Control, The American and A Most Wanted Man. It is out in Irish cinemas on September 25th.