Most Wanted Man: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Last (brilliant) Film

At once both a tense, exciting spy thriller and a portrait of loneliness, A MOST WANTED MAN is the third film to be directed by Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn (Control, The American), and is based on on the best-selling 2008 novel of the same name by John le Carré.

It is a very European story and so we were looking for a European director,” says Gail Egan, one of the film’s producers. “We thought Anton’s style and the whole way he saw the story was just so exciting. We had all seen Control and thought it was absolutely brilliant. The Americanwas just about to come out when we first approached Anton.”

Corbijn, who knew the German city of Hamburg well and had directed his very first music video (for Palais Schaumburg) in the city back in 1983, was intrigued by the subject matter. “We are dealing with a world that has changed so much since 2001. We judge people very quickly, everything has to be black or white. I feel this is something that is affecting all of our lives,” he says.

A MOST WANTED MAN is produced by Potboiler Productions, The Ink Factory and Amusement Park. Potboiler Productions, headed by Gail Egan and Andrea Calderwood, had previously turned le Carré’s novel The Constant Gardener into a multiple award-winning feature film directed by Fernando Meirelles in 2005. In contrast to the sunshine-infused African setting of the earlier film, this time the producers needed a director who could capture the grey moodiness of contemporary Hamburg, one of the most diverse, vibrant and rich cities in Europe.

The Ink Factory is the production company set up by Simon Cornwell and Stephen Cornwell, the sons of John le Carré (who was born David Cornwell). Los Angeles-based Stephen is also a screenwriter whose credits include the Liam Neeson thriller Unknown. A MOST WANTED MAN is their debut feature as producers.

Amusement Park, based in Hamburg and Berlin, is headed by Malte Grunert, whose credits include David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense. Malte joined the production at an early stage and ensured the film retained an authentic German flavour.

Writer of Lantana

With financing from the UK’s Film4, Australian writer Andrew Bovell, best-known for the complex, sophisticated drama Lantana, was asked to write the script.

“We all had a huge respect for Lantana which really spoke to a lot of the levels of character intrigue and deception we wanted to have,” says Stephen Cornwell of the choice of Bovell. “Lantana also has the same richness of characterisation and storytelling.

“One of the interesting things about A MOST WANTED MAN is that it doesn’t really have an antagonist,” Cornwell continues. “It has lots of people who all believe they are doing the right thing but their reasons are all different. They come into conflict around one central objective, which is the most wanted man who they all see from a different perspective and want for different reasons.”

Corbijn and Bovell met a couple of times, including once in Hamburg, to talk through the adaptation. Bovell wrote most of the script in Australia, with Corbijn preferring to wait until he had a finished version in his hands before putting his own mark on it. “I find it much easier to reach to the writing on the page,” Corbijn explains. “Once it’s finished I try to make it a little bit more mine. That’s the nature of how I work.”

One way in which Corbijn made the project his own was by insisting on an autumn shoot. In this, he colluded with his leading man, Academy Award®-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman.

“I wanted the film to be autumnal in its look, with the colour palette of the autumn leaves. Philip wanted the summer off. So I told him to push for that with the producers!” Corbijn quips.

A MOST WANTED MAN shot wholly in Germany – 38 days in Hamburg, with a further two days in Berlin at the end of the shoot – in September and October 2012. The producers were able to access financial subsidies from Germany’s federal incentive programme, the DFFF, as well as the regional German funds, the FilmForderung Hamburg Schelswig Holstein and the Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg. FilmNation has international sales rights to the project. Senator Film’s Helge Sasse is co-producer, and Sam Englebardt, Michael Lambert and William D Johnson of US fund Demarest part-financed the project with Film4. A MOST WANTED MAN also received support from the European Media Production Guarantee Fund.

Le Carré himself visited the set several times, lending his backing and encouragement to the process. As a seasoned observer of the journey from page to screen, le Carré believes his novels need to evolve to make that transformation successfully. For that to happen, he is happy to take a step back.

“The novel is his, but the movie will be Anton’s and that’s a transition he really supports and enjoys,” says Stephen Cornwell. “What’s interesting about the adaptation is that it is quite distinct from the novel. There is a whole aspect to the novel that isn’t in the movie. It finds its own language and its own way of telling the story. But at the same time it is incredibly true to the intent of the story. It’s exactly what a really good adaptation should be. It takes a novel, respects its intent but it becomes something of its own.”

For many of the cast and crew, including Corbijn and Philip Seymour Hoffman, A MOST WANTED MAN was their introduction to le Carré’s novels.

“This is a human and humane story about governments and spy organisations which is usually told in a flashier, romantic style,” Hoffman observes. “There’s nothing romantic about this. The book is in there for which I’m glad, as the book is amazing.”