With Life being released in Australian cinemas on Sept 10th The Sydney Morning Herald spoke to Anton Corbijn, Robert Pattinson & Dane DeHaan.
When the actor James Dean died in a car crash in 1955, the second and defining film in his short career – Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause – had just come out. Dean was 24.
East of Eden had put him on the map earlier that year; Giant was in the works. In retrospect, three films doesn’t seem much of a basis for what Dean was about to become: the embodiment of a generation’s bohemian disaffection with their parents’ post-war world. Fact was, however, they didn’t come any cooler than Jimmy Dean. They still don’t.
You can see that in the clutch of photographs taken of Dean for Life magazine by ambitious young Magnum newcomer Dennis Stock.
It was Stock who took the photograph that would grace millions of teenage bedroom walls in the decades to come, a photograph familiar even to people who don’t know who Dean was: Dean with his collar turned up against the wind in wintry Times Square.
It is that photograph that forms a kind of backdrop for Anton Corbijn’s new film Life, which traces the brief relationship between Stock and his equally ambitious subject.
Any actor would show due trepidation before agreeing to play James Dean, not just because of his hallowed status but because it would be so easy to slip unawares into mumbling, fidgeting parody.
Dane DeHaan, who is most familiar as Green Goblin in the recent Spider-Man films, kept saying no.
“I didn’t really think I could do it. Then I had a meeting with Ian Canning, the producer, and he explained to me how for him it wasn’t simply a movie about James Dean, it was a movie about how a normal person could be turned into an idol. Which I think is a really interesting topic.”
DeHaan felt some kinship with Dean, whom he describes as “a really bull-headed, uncompromising artist, pretty mistrusting of the world around him.”
From the start, as Corbijn shows, Dean was at loggerheads with the studio heads; Ben Kingsley does a spectacular turn as studio mogul Jack Warner, telling Dean exactly how much of a rebel he wants him to be.
“I know what that’s like, although I have a different take on it,” DeHaan says. “I don’t let it get to me as much as he does. When I made this film, it was right before the press tour for Spider-Man. There was this looming sense of what was going to happen, in the same way as before East of Eden came out.”
Stock was a slick but snitchy character who, having walked out on his wife and a son in whom he felt no interest, was desperate for validation as a photographic artist.
Robert Pattinson, the former Twilight heart-throb who plays Stock, watched taped of interviews of Stock that were recorded when he was in his late 70s.
“He had all these resentments still, all these things he envies James Dean about, all these chips on his shoulder all still very evident,” Pattinson says. “In his eyes, someone like James Dean is just living freely and doing whatever he wants, he’s the artist he wants to be. It’s crazy, but I related to it. He’s a kind of tragic figure.”
You might think that if Pattinson related to anyone it would be the heart-throb star, who is portrayed in Australian Luke Davies’ script as being only too well aware that his image is being manipulated.
Not at all, Pattinson says: playing Dean didn’t interest him. “I don’t know if I’ve had like a James Dean thing. For one thing people were really looking at James Dean like a leader. Young people, both girls and guys, saying, ‘Tell us how to live. It looks like you know the secrets!’ Well, I don’t think anyone has ever looked at me like that.”
And, for another thing, Dean had a vision of his future that he knew was being deliberately thwarted.
“In this movie, he is already disillusioned and disappointed,” Pattinson says. “Whereas when all that stuff was happening to me, it was kind of exciting and fun because I had no idea what was going on … I felt like there was a door in front of me left open and you could just keep pushing the door with no idea of what was on the other side. I was just curious. I didn’t realise until years later that you can’t turn any of it off: the door has slammed behind you.”
Corbijn is now 60, as old as the Stock pictures; his life overlapped with Dean’s by just five months.
He was (and is) a hugely influential still photographer of rock musicians before he broke into the film world with his striking biopic of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Control, in 2007.
For him, he says, the Times Square picture of Jimmy Dean is “like jazz”. “It is a symbol of the change in society, the emergence of rock’n’roll and a generation who wanted to own their own time, who wanted a life that was not their parents’ lives.” It was always, he says, about “more than just James Dean”.