He knows of what he speaks. When he was 14 he was cast in the starring role of Alan Tracy in the Thunderbirds movie. Embarrassed by the results – but also quickly realising this type of filmmaking just didn’t fit his own sensibilities (his favourite director at the time was Claire Denis) – he turned his back on blockbuster fare altogether. “Until I was about 20 I was still getting offered pretty high profile, but kind of shitty, projects and it was actually hard to say no, especially when there was a dollar sign attached. But the thing is, that could be the last paycheck I ever make and it still wouldn’t be enough for a lifetime.”
In the handful of years since, Corbet has remained true to his word, working for the likes of Michael Haneke (Funny Games) and Lars von Trier (Melancholia) and forming a close association with the New York-based Borderline Films, the cutting-edge production company behind Martha Marcy May Marlene and the Corbet-fronted Simon Killer.
When we meet in Edinburgh, though, it’s to discus his directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader. A study in megalomania that chronicles the early years of a future fascist dictator in the aftermath of the First World War, it’s as artistically audacious and uncompromising as the movies with which he’s thus far chosen to define his career.
Taking its title from a Jean-Paul Sartre story and its real-life inspiration from a childhood picture of Mussolini looking like a little girl, the film is structured as a series of “tantrums” involving the young son of an American diplomat. As his father (Liam Cunningham) works on the Treaty of Versailles and his mother (Bérénice Bejo) defers childcare duties to a series of paid servants, the boy (newcomer Tom Sweet) responds to the ensuing parental neglect and sense of isolation with small but increasingly transgressive acts of disobedience.
If these tantrums can seem a little abstract over the course of the film, especially as the finale jumps abruptly forward with a disorientating conclusion featuring a bald and bearded Robert Pattinson as the adult leader, that’s the point. “I was thinking about these kinds of things as they’re stretched over a period of time,” says Corbet, who wanted to tell a story about a vain young boy who is “metaphysically linked” to the events that would define the 20th century. “What seem like inconsequential experiences might be just as important in dictating who you grow up to be as things that are a bit more evident or obvious. The film really became about trying to attach a trail of breadcrumbs, one where you have scenarios that suggest the possibility of causality, but primarily leads viewers to think about the prompting factors.”
Making the boy American and blond might, of course, make audiences think of a more current leadership contender. “I’d been living in Europe for three-and-a-half years and it was only when I got back to New York that I realised that Trump was a real possibility,” sighs Corbet of the inevitable parallel. “If the film has anything to say – and I didn’t intend for it to be all that didactic – it’s that wherever these people come from is almost irrelevant, because in the end, it’s all down to the people that put them there.”
Artistically speaking Corbet is certainly fighting the good fight, though he remains a little despairing of the state of film culture in his home country. Despite winning two major awards at Venice last year, The Childhood of a Leader was rejected from every major North American film festival. “I’m not shocked someone disliked the film, but I’m a little shocked that a lot of film programmers didn’t even think it was worth their while to show.” Still, this isn’t enough to make him reconsider his anti-blockbuster stance – even if he has kind of made peace with Thunderbirds. “Now that I have a two year-old I can’t wait to show it to her,” he laughs. “I’m going to try and blow her mind with it: ‘Look, your dad, at one point, was a very unsuccessful action star.’ There was even a little toy made of me so maybe she’ll play with that in a few years. Now she’d just swallow it.”
l The Childhood of a Leader is on selected release from 19 August