ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
Thanks for listening. It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Eric Westervelt. When actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose in February, he left behind several unreleased films. His most significant role - the haggard German intelligence agent, Gunter Bachmann in the spy thriller, "A Most Wanted Man." Here he is in the scene with actress Robin Wright.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A MOST WANTED MAN")
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Bachmann) You ever ask yourself that question - why we do what we do?
ROBIN WRIGHT: (As Sullivan) Sometimes. But I always come back to the same answer.
HOFFMAN: (As Bachman) And what is it?
WRIGHT: (As Sullivan) Make the world a safer place.
WESTERVELT: Hoffman's character leads a fictional intelligence unit that's tasked with recruiting informants within the Islamic community to uncover terrorist plots. The film's based on the 2008 John LeCarre novel by the same name. It's set in Hamburg, Germany more than 10 years after 9/11. It's a riveting spy thriller but one without explosions, chases, and kung fu fighting. Director Anton Corbijn says one of his goals was to capture the mundane intensity in the art of spycraft.
ANTON CORBIJN: People get so used to spy films being like Jason Bourne or James Bond. And of course they make great action films that way. But it's not so close to reality.
WESTERVELT: The film comes out at a delicate time following revelations of NSA spying on ordinary Americans, civil liberties concerns, and Germany's recent expulsion of America's CIA station chief for recruiting agents within the German government.
CORBIJN: One of the reasons that I wanted to make the film is that after 9/11 I think the polarization of the world has taken another pace. And what worries me is that we judge people so very quickly, you know, as to be good or bad. is scary. And in the movie we look at the person and think, well if 1 percent of this person is bad does it make the person 100 percent bad? And some people in the film think that is the case. And other people - it is difficult when there is no middle ground anymore where we can judge people properly.
WESTERVELT: In real life, Anton, Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 conspirators did plan and plot attacks based out of Hamburg. They sort of hid in plain sight in that city. In your movie "A Most Wanted Man," I mean, is that embarrassment sort of still hanging over the characters in the film?
CORBIJN: Yes. I think that's why there are two secret services working kind of together. They split the secret services up in order to avoid missing these kind of signs. And the main character, Bachman played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a sort of alternative if you like - part of the secret services that has its own way to do things.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A MOST WANTED MAN")
HOFFMAN: (As Bachman) Your choice is between us and nobody. The clock is ticking.
WESTERVELT: The film stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. And you are relatively new to feature film directing. I mean how was it working with Hoffman? Did it click right away or did it take a bit of work?
CORBIJN: Great actors all have their own way of working and their own insecurities. As much as directors have, I guess. So you always have to feel each other out, as it were, when you start working together. But after a while we knew exactly where we were standing I think. I so enjoyed working him, and it was such a delight to watch him take on that character. You know, as a photographer, I guess I could watch him for hours just smoking a cigarette.
WESTERVELT: Right. I want to play a clip for you of Hoffman talking about working with you from a promotional video.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HOFFMAN: If I need to go to him for help he'll give what he can. But he also will let me do what I need to do to kind of get where I need to go. He just doesn't get your way, and in fact he lets you run with the ball.
WESTERVELT: I mean, were there things that he needed help with that he came to you for, Anton?
CORBIJN: Probably small things, you know. It's not unlike my photography - I direct to a degree and let people be themselves. So Philip knew that character better than anybody. I think maybe knew him better even than John le Carre. It was scary how he inhabited that person so fully. In a way it was more a sign of an amazing actor to make the ordinary extraordinary, rather than creating an eccentric figure.
WESTERVELT: Well, it's a terrific performance and in your film he plays this intense, hard drinking agent sort of on the edge of a wipeout. And he's looks pretty, you know, physically rough in the movie. How much of that was for the role as an actor versus what we know now as his real-life demons and problems?
CORBIJN: Well, I mean the physicality is what he did bring to the role. I always wanted the Bachman character to have a physique not unlike Philip's. And there may be are some similarities to how he lived at the time, which makes it a little harder to watch for me, knowing that in hindsight. But for the character it was fantastic of course. Maybe he let some of the own life spilling through that character.
WESTERVELT: Well, I found it all the more poignant and powerful knowing that this was his last role. And it's hard not to look at his performance through the lens, at least a little bit, of his own personal struggles. But is that unfair for viewers to look at Hoffman's art in part through his personal life?
CORBIJN: Well, it's very hard to erase something that you know. But I like to think that Philip's performance is amazing full stop, whatever happens. And it's worth watching just for the performance alone.
WESTERVELT: It seems like your work as a photographer obviously deeply affects how you approach directing films. But do you ever find these two things less than incompatible where you're the sort of photographer self wants to linger longer than say producers would want you to?
CORBIJN: Yeah. Yes. yes. You know, I'm a very European kind of director. And as soon as Americans get involved, my films start to be called slow. But especially with this film, I wanted the film to have an urgency. And I used handheld camera. But a step from being a photographer to a filmmaker was harder and much less logic than people assume, I think.
WESTERVELT: So you've done several terrific films, but you feel like you're still learning, still growing as a filmmaker?
CORBIJN: Oh, I like to think so, yeah.
WESTERVELT: Film director, Anton Corbijn's new film is "A Most Wanted Man." Anton, thanks so much for talking with us.
CORBIJN: Oh, my pleasure.
WESTERVELT: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. Thanks for listening. I'm Eric Westervelt.