The suspense thriller The American stars Academy Award winner George Clooney in the title role for director Anton Corbijn (Control). The screenplay by Rowan Joffe is adapted from Martin Booth's 1990 novel A Very Private Gentleman.
As an assassin, Jack (played by Mr. Clooney) is constantly on the move and always alone. After a job in Sweden ends more harshly than expected for this American abroad, Jack retreats to the Italian countryside. He relishes being away from death for a spell as he holes up in a small medieval town. While there, Jack takes an assignment to construct a weapon for a mysterious contact, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten).
Savoring the peaceful quietude he finds in the mountains of Abruzzo, Jack accepts the friendship of local priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) and pursues a torrid liaison with a beautiful woman, Clara (Violante Placido). Jack and Clara's time together evolves into a romance, one seemingly free of danger. But by stepping out of the shadows, Jack may be tempting fate.
About the Production
Following the success of his award-winning first feature, the drama Control, director Anton Corbijn was deliberately looking to work on a new film centering on as different material as possible. He reveals, "I started reading thriller scripts. The theme of The American, of a loner trying to find redemption from the deeds he's done, interested me - as did the tension and the romance in the story. Here was something I saw could be not only suspenseful but also thoughtful.
"My career for over 35 years has been as a portrait photographer; filmmaking is a new adventure for me. I'm still finding my voice. I feel that where The American does parallel Control is in the idea of trying to change one's life; how can you maybe make good after doing wrong? Can you overcome things that might be in you which define you?"
Music - both motivator and subject in Control - was a key inspiration to Corbijn in his formative years. A certain genre of movie was as well; he remembers, "I haven't seen all that many movies in my life, but Westerns have long made an impression on me, starting with - in childhood - Rawhide [the 1960s TV series starring Clint Eastwood]. The look, the stories, the morality of movie Westerns always attracted me. Although The American is not actually a Western, it is structured in that genre; a stranger comes to a small town and connects with a couple of the people in it, but his past catches up with him - and there is a shootout."
Producer Anne Carey concurs, noting that in The American, as in Westerns, "there is a man who has lived by the gun, and the violence that he's lived by threatens to infect the peace that he's tried to find in a place that he thinks he could live in.
"I read Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman over a decade ago, and immediately thought that it could be a sexy and entertaining genre piece with a complex and interesting lead role. [Producers] Ann Wingate and Jill Green were simultaneously closing on the rights. We decided that, rather than compete against one another, we would join forces and make the picture together."
Wingate recalls, "I had started working on getting the book made into a movie back in the 1990s, with BBC Films. They had let it drop, and later Jill and I had been working together and I suggested reviving the project. I'd always been drawn to the love story for the lead character, a man who has had enough of escaping his life yet seeks to escape what he is."
Green elaborates, "What also attracted us to the book was the insight into this character as a solitary figure who wants to find romance and redemption, despite his escalating inner turmoil. To have a lead character who is both an expert gun maker and assassin put me in mind of The Day of the Jackal, which also was adapted from a novel. At the time, Martin Booth was still alive, and he insisted on English/European producers for the movie from his book. So that was Ann and me.
"But Anne Carey was so keen on the project that we said 'Why not,' and so we got together in a happy marriage, spending probably 6-7 years working on the script."
Carey adds, "It then took a while to find the right director and star."
Green remarks, "When we first met with Anton, his vision for the piece very much suited Martin's original book, and we liked his articulated visual sense of the material."
Wingate notes, "Inevitably, after all these years, there had to be updates to the material. We had to do that more than once. What's happened is that the movie got much closer to the feel of the novel, much leaner and as a result stronger."
By the end of the decade, Carey reports, "Anton had become the linchpin, the one whose involvement got this to jell. In our conversations with him, it was clear that he envisioned this to be at once a classically framed and told film as well as a contemporary one in the style and the shooting."
Producer Grant Heslov, who joined the project in 2008, notes, "Because Anton comes from the world of photography, he is able to compose his frames in a striking way - something that many directors spend their entire careers striving to achieve.
"But he also brings a perspective where he doesn't see anything straight on; everything comes from a bit of an odd angle, which is a plus."
Screenwriter Rowan Joffe came to, and at, the material from several angles. He comments, "When Anton, Anne, and Grant asked me to write The American, I was thrilled at the chance to adapt such a morally rich, visually arresting, and unusual novel. Though there had been several previous scripts, I decided to start completely afresh, inspired by Anton's brilliant idea to re-conceive the story as a kind of contemporary Western.
"With that in mind, I wove together my favorite passages from the book, simplifying the overall structure into a character-motivated thriller with a streamlined plot, a powerful redemptive theme, very spare dialogue, and a wild Italian landscape that acts like a character in its own right, exerting its transformative, melancholy beauty on our hero and assisting him in his journey to redemption. George Clooney's interest in my first draft allowed me to continue refining subsequent drafts with him in mind; that was a considerable dramatic boon for the script as well as a rare opportunity to craft a character for one of the greatest movie actors alive."
For Corbijn, the question of just where to film in - as called for in the script - Italy was critical to pre-production planning. He reflects, "The surroundings had to be a character in the movie. I had a clear idea of how the landscape should look, and I wanted to use towns and villages as a back lot." Accordingly, the filmmakers were loath to attempt "casting" another country instead.
The name of the movie, however, did change; after going by the novel's title, Corbijn baptized the film as Il Americano before it finally became The American.
In terms of specific Italy locales, all concerned had been transfixed by Abruzzo, a mountainous region located east of Rome and spreading from the base of the Apennine range of mountains towards the Adriatic Sea. Remote and majestic, the area is "a raw environment, an honest landscape of a type that is rarely seen in movies," marvels Corbijn.
By the winter of 2008, the filmmakers had chosen their Abruzzo locations, as Corbijn and Joffe together and, prior, Carey had all made scouting trips. Then, on April 6th, 2009, the Abruzzo region was hit by an earthquake. There were over 300 casualties; 60,000 people were suddenly homeless; and many parts of the ancient town of L'aquila - less than 70 miles northeast of Rome - lay in ruins.
It was also on April 6th that Corbijn was meeting with Clooney to finalize the latter's plans to produce and star in the movie. Corbijn remembers, "We discussed our shared hope that filming The American would help to boost the region economically, what with the money spent during production and the finished film encouraging tourism in the future."
Executive producer Enzo Sisti adds, "I started with the production in April. Everyone - Anton, George, Focus Features - was saying, 'We must go with Abruzzo. They need a film like this, and our movie needs a beautiful region like this.'"
Wingate notes, "The atmosphere gives you a different view and a different feel; it's not the pretty Tuscany or Umbria, or the beautiful Florence or Rome, of so many movies."
Corbijn says, "The terrain is rugged and rocky; it's not generally where tourists go. But it's a wonderful area that needs preserving; beyond even the earthquake, oil drilling is harming the landscape."
Heslov sums up the region's appeal to the production as "not just an Italy we haven't seen, but one filmed in a way we haven't seen it, by way of Anton's take."
The filmmakers also immediately stepped up to avail themselves of Italy's new financial incentive, which was 10 years in the making and had been formally passed just a few months before the earthquake hit; The American was the first movie to do so before filming began. Carey offers, "The big benefit is that you get the money during production, unlike with many tax credits where you have to wait 1-2 years."
Clooney visited L'aquila with actor Bill Murray on July 9th to support quake victims who were living in tents, and to inaugurate a movie theater in a tent camp in San Demetrio. He promised that filming of his new movie would begin in the region in September.
As the production firmed up its commitment to the region and the fall filming schedule, casting continued. Corbijn already knew that he had found the right actor to play Jack, stating, "This is a character George hasn't played before; it's always interesting when an actor finds something new. He's so good with dialogue, and in this movie he is playing a man of few words who is always on the lookout and constantly in a state of tension." Read more
Shooting The American
Eyeing them all was director of photography Martin Ruhe, who had worked with Corbijn prior. Corbijn reflects, "We share a liking for the simple approach, for the most part avoiding complex camera movements. Martin makes the ordinary look beautiful by the way he lights it."
Ruhe clarifies, "Once the decision was made to film The American on location, we knew that we didn't want to overrule the locales but, rather, wanted to be inspired by them - particularly with their fast-changing weather. Read more
Digby and his department faced a different challenge in realizing the weapon that Jack has been commissioned to craft. He explains, "It sounds simple - get a gun, find a suitcase for it - but it wasn't. The gun was being made in England, and there's a lead time for permits and organizing bringing it over. To do that, we had to work out how to cut it down. At the same time, in Italy, we were working on a briefcase that was of the correct size, style, and elegance for the weapon. Measurements and pictures were shared, but there were 3-4 elements that needed to match up yet couldn't be brought together until basically the last moment.Read more
"Visuals aside, in speaking to Anton during production I knew that he would be doing something interesting with the sound and the music in the picture as well."
Indeed, even before filming had wrapped, music was becoming an important part of Corbijn's concept for the movie; while The American is not music-centric like Control was, the director engaged another longtime creative partner, Herbert Grönemeyer, to compose the music for the new film. Corbijn praises Grönemeyer's music as "bringing emotion into the movie at key points. It's piano-based, and it adds a lot. Read more
ANTON CORBIJN (Director)
Anton Corbijn, who was born in the Netherlands and has lived in the U.K. for over 29 years, is globally known as an influential portrait photographer, having worked with painters, directors, actors, writers, and musicians over 35 years. He photographs mostly in black/white and his photography can be seen on over 100 record covers, in magazines and books as well as in galleries and museums. Over a dozen volumes of his photography have been published, with titles such as FAMOUZ, 33 Still Lives, WERK, and U2&i. He published a book of the making of his last film Control, In Control, and to coincide with the release of The American he will publish a book entitled Inside The American. This will consist of photos he took on- and off-set during the filming and preparations for the film in 2009. The publishing house is Schirmer/Mosel Verlag in Munich.
He also works as a graphic designer, designing posters, magazine covers, logos (the logo of his hometown The Hague in Holland is his), and 10 album sleeves for, amongst others, Depeche Mode and The American composer Herbert Grönemeyer. He also works as a stage designer, having done all of Depeche Mode's world tours since 1993, for which he has won international acclaim.
Mr. Corbijn has directed short films, including Some YoYo Stuff, an interpretation of and with artist Captain Beefheart, alias Don Van Vliet, starring David Lynch. He has directed over 75 music videos. Among the latter have been over a dozen Depeche Mode videos, such as "Enjoy the Silence" and "Personal Jesus;" Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box," for which he won an MTV Video Music Award; U2's "One" and "Electrical Storm," starring Samantha Morton; Johnny Cash's "Dehlia's Gone," with Kate Moss; Nick Cave's "Straight to You;" Metallica's "Hero of the Day;" the Killers' "All These Things That I've Done;" Coldplay's "Talk" and the original "Viva la Vida," the song being based on Mr. Corbijn's video for Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence" and which he shot in his hometown The Hague; and several for Herbert Grönemeyer, amongst which was "Mensch," the biggest song Mr. Grönemeyer ever released. He was the first director ever to receive a Golden Frog at Lodz' Camerimage film festival, in 2007, for contribution to music video. A collection of his video work was released by Palm Pictures in 2005 on the DVD The Work of Director Anton Corbijn.
The American is his second feature film as director, following the 2007 drama Control, which won 5 British Independent Film Awards (BIFAs) as well as over a dozen other awards worldwide including the Best New British Feature award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Control starred Sam Riley, a new acting discovery, who went on to win several awards for his role as Ian Curtis amongst which was a BIFA, as did Toby Kebbell, who played the manager. Samantha Morton, who starred as Ian's wife Debbie, was a BIFA nominee and earned a BAFTA Award nomination, as did the film itself.
ROWAN JOFFE (Screenplay)
Rowan Joffe recently completed production on his feature directorial debut, Brighton Rock, which he adapted and updated from Graham Greene's novel of the same name. The film starts Sam Riley, Helen Mirren, John Hurt, and Andrea Riseborough.
Mr. Joffe won a BAFTA Award for his direction of the telefilm The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall, which starred Kerry Fox, Matthew McNulty, and BAFTA Award nominee Stephen Dillane. The telefilm was also BAFTA-nominated as Best Single Drama; and received an International Emmy Award nomination for Best TV-Movie/Miniseries. Mr. Joffe also won the Monte Carlo TV Festival's Golden Nymph award for Best Director.
He has also written and directed the telefilm Secret Life, which brought Matthew Macfadyen a BAFTA Award nomination, and a Royal Television Society Award, for Best Actor; scripted the short telefilm Turkish Delight, directed by Adrian Bean and starring Denise Welch, which was televised on BBC1 as part of "The Afternoon Play" showcase; and co-wrote the horror adventure 28 Weeks Later, directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo.
With director Pawel Pawlikowski, Mr. Joffe wrote the award-winning independent feature Last Resort, which starred Paddy Considine and Dina Korzun. The screenplay received a British Independent Film Award nomination, and the picture won the Best New British Feature award at the 2000 Edinburgh International Film Festival. The latter award was also won at Edinburgh the following year by the telefilm Gas Attack, directed by Kenneth Glenaan from Mr. Joffe's original screenplay, for which he received his first BAFTA Award nomination.
MARTIN BOOTH (Novel)
Martin Booth (1944-2004) was a novelist, critic, biographer, children's books author, and social historian.
Mr. Booth completed his acclaimed memoir of his childhood in Hong Kong, Gweilo (published in America as Golden Boy), shortly before his death. Among his notable novels were Hiroshima Joe, based on the real-life story of adown-and-out Briton who had survived the Nagasaki atomic raid; The Industry of Souls, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize; and A Very Private Gentleman, which was adapted into The American.
THE ART OF ADAPTATION