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.”
Heslov adds, “Jack is someone who is only now finding moments of beauty in his life. Even if he now makes the right choices, does fate have a different idea for him?
“George brings this stillness to the role of Jack, who spends a lot of time in silence. That’s a challenge for an actor, to keep the inner life going on-screen.”
Green offers, “This role reminds me of George’s work in Michael Clayton, in that he can convey so much through his eyes alone.”
Carey notes, “Audiences instinctively place their trust in George, which is important to our establishing the character of Jack.”
Wingate says, “It’s a much darker role for George, yet he embodies the character so well. We were all rather ecstatic to get him to play the part.”
For the casting of the Italians who have an impact on Jack, the filmmakers were set on hiring actors who were established in their native Italy yet not necessarily known internationally.
Veteran actor Paolo Bonacelli was cast as the priest, Father Benedetto. Whether the role is large or small, Bonacelli feels that “every scene is useful to know the role, know the character. The ‘little scenes’ are important – and one must study, study, study.
“Father Benedetto wants to be a friend, but Jack is very cautious. To me, as an actor colleague, George Clooney was professional and kind.”
To play the prostitute Clara, the woman who cues Jack’s realization that another life might conceivably be on the horizon for him, Italian leading lady Violante Placido was cast. The director says, “Violante is a classic Italian beauty, and is an intelligent actress in front of the camera. She doesn’t overplay, with big gestures all the time, which was important because she has to represent heart in the film. She is a sexual being on-screen, which the role absolutely required, yet she also has that old-fashioned movie-star quality…
“…as does George, of course, which is why chemistry between them came naturally. That was a tremendous asset, because directing intimate scenes was new to me. I wanted to impart a raw feeling to them, given the darkness in Jack’s character. In their first scene together, I shot it to focus on Clara; through looking at her, you see what he sees in her and you sense a change for the characters. I wanted to achieve tension and sensuality, without cutting away.”
“Those scenes aren’t easy,” admits Placido. “But, any scene can be difficult; in a way, you’re naked any time you act. George put me at ease; I appreciated this because I’ve worked with actors who are insecure and try to make the other actor that way.”
Placido sees Jack and Clara as “two souls brought together because they each have something extreme in their lives – their jobs – that isolates them. They first relate to each other with their bodies, with animal instincts, but then they become more intimate personally – which scares them both.
“Neither is used to trusting other people, but Clara communicates to Jack her dream of changing her life. Each feels their own identity changing because they are being seen through the other’s eyes. They are both searching for something within themselves and also outside themselves.”
Despite – or, rather, because of – already speaking English well, Placido had to work with dialogue coach Dianne Jones. The actress laughs, “She helped me to make my English worse! Because Clara comes from a small town, what made sense was that maybe she studies English, and only so well; she needed to have a bit more Italian in her way of speaking.
“At the first audition with Anton, there was a translation from English to Italian that sounded a bit strange to me. So I asked him if I could freely improvise some Italian slang and swearing, since Clara is a bit rough. He let me do that, and I think that’s why he wanted to meet with me again – and when they told me I got the part, I read the script and saw that they had written in the switch for that exchange.”
Placido’s familiarity with Abruzzo was also helpful in her playing Clara. Placido reflects, “When you’re there, it’s like going back in time. My best friends come from there. A few years ago, I recorded an album of music and spent three months in the area; it inspires creativity. This countryside is so beautiful, with its powerful mountains and the milky sea close by. Making our movie, I got to be in parts of the area I didn’t know before.
“In my work, I am getting to collaborate with people who bring something that can be a treasure to experience. On this movie, Anton and George were so focused and so generous.”
For the other key female role opposite Clooney, that of Jack’s enigmatic client Mathilde, the filmmakers tapped Dutch-born Thekla Reuten. The actress speaks several languages and has made movies all over the world, and so possesses “a chameleon quality, which is great for the role,” notes Carey. “Thekla contrasts with the Italian actors by having a different acting style, and a different physicality from Violante, all of which registers strongly on-screen.”
“I met a lot of people for that role. It was very sought-after,” confides Corbijn. “But Thekla shone, embracing the character’s ambiguity, and the part was hers.”
Reuten reveals, “I’m half-Italian, so it was exciting to come back and work in the country, and speak the language with the crew.” Born in Holland, she was “so impressed by Control – with a little Dutch pride about Anton – and was hoping that he would continue doing features; it’s a gift to cinema that he has decided to make, as they say, ‘moving pictures.’”
The actress assesses her character as “a woman who has the same skills, and probably the early ambition to become as good, as Jack in a world revolving around money and adrenaline. Her encounters with Jack are a warning of what her future looks like – she could be him in 10, 20 years.
“There’s no room for heart in her profession, but she on purpose tries to let her guard down around him a little bit. But the way their scenes together are, even when they’re just facing each other and talking, it feels like a duel.”
Reuten’s time spent with Clooney was a lot less fraught then Mathilde’s with Jack. She remarks, “I admire the choices George has made in his career. On the set, I learned from his professionalism, whether he was joking around, applying his producing eye, or making you feel the lonesome and cold soul of Jack.”
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.
“Anton and I thought, let’s see how Abruzzo influences Jack and his choices. So we storyboarded only two sequences; the nighttime pursuit, and the climactic set piece.”
Carey comments, “Anton and Martin really move as a unit; I think Martin’s eye is wired to Anton’s brain. The widescreen lensing of The American is so elegant.”
With L’aquila too heavily damaged, the production chose nearby Sulmona as its base. Sulmona, a thriving market town, is dominated by the surrounding mountains, and by a central piazza with an 17th-Century viaduct running alongside. Sulmona is well-known among Italians as the home of the “confetti” – those national favorite sweets (almonds covered in sugar) bought and gifted to celebrate birthdays and marriages.
The mayor and people of Sulmona welcomed the predominantly Italian cast and crew with open arms and full cooperation. Many town residents can be seen in the film, as passersby in scenes where Jack cautiously ventures out and about.
For filming of a marketplace sequence in the town square, veteran Italian actress Silvana Bosi was playing the role of a cheese seller tending to Jack. When the cameras started rolling, Anton Corbijn was startled – not by Bosi’s performance, but by an older woman who entered the shot and began to confer with the actress. This take-ruiner turned out to be the real-life owner of the cheese stall; the same disruption happened two more times, as the older woman disdained the technicalities of filmmaking. Her professional pride necessitated her interceding, given that Bosi was apparently not selling George Clooney the choice piece of parmesan cheese.
Clooney was the recipient of something even more coveted when Sulmona hosted its annual film festival and honored him with the inaugural presentation of the Silver Ovidius, for his achievement in film. The award is so named because Sulmona is celebrated as the birthplace of the Latin poet Ovid.
While Sulmona was a key filming location, scenes were also shot in the villages of Calascio, Anversa, Castelvecchio, and Pacentro. Given the earthquake and the resulting designated frozen zones, “we were never able to set foot in L’aquila for any filming,” says Corbijn. “I had found some locations there in January 2009, but in the end we couldn’t use them.”
Wherever the production went, Corbijn – given his vocation as photographer – had his Leica camera with him to capture images that will likely not make it into the movie. “I work with available light and I don’t work with digital,” he notes. “My photographs from the shoot are snapshots. Some days, I won’t take any; some days, I’ll take five.”
Among the most striking filming set-ups were the ones by the River Aterno, in the national park of Grand Sasso. A bend in the river was the setting for two crucial scenes in the film, one for Clooney with each of the leading ladies. Production designer Mark Digby and his team had to make some cosmetic adjustments to the spot. Then, in the early hours of the morning of the first day of principal photography, came the unwelcome discovery that marauders had invaded the set, uprooting the art department’s carefully placed greenery. Neither prankish teenagers nor aggrieved locals, these destructors were a pack of wild boars who clearly objected to their territory being visited. These animals can be aggressive if approached, so the unit was careful to monitor the undergrowth for any sign of the return of the cingiale. The set was hastily replanted, and security guards were posted on subsequent nights to stave off the porky invaders.
Animal behavior aside, Digby clarifies that “it’s important, for a location-driven film such as this one, that you don’t fight locations. That said, this location was in fact a river, and for the scenes we needed a lake. So we made it more wild, with a lot of flowering plants – while simultaneously making its scale seem not so big.”
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.
“To cover all options, we had three sizes of cases made, including one for long shots where Jack is carrying it around. Ultimately, we had to cheat the barrel and the silencer by an inch or two, and the manufacturer of the cases made one with a hinge and a depth for us that they don’t normally do.”
Also on the weaponry front, armourer Jon Baker worked closely with the filmmakers, crew, and actors on everything from specs to safety. Reuten spent nearly two weeks training with him, preparing for scenes in which Mathilde assembles and/or disassembles a weapon. “She started out slowly, learning from scratch, and then got very good at it, always chasing herself to beat her [previous best] time,” says Baker. “George has had so much training from past movies that he already knew about firearms, and saved me a lot of work!”
For the village where Jack makes his temporary home, the production headed up in altitude; Castel del Monte, perched high in the mountain range at 5000 feet, is a village that often seems to be suspended in a sea of clouds, as the weather swirls and shifts below it. Within the hillside fortification, little has changed in decades. As a citadel, it was first held by the Romans, then overrun by the Goths. By the 16th Century it was part of the fiefdom of the Medicis, who commissioned many of the fine Renaissance buildings therein. The Bourbons later declared it part of their Spanish Empire, and it finally became part of Italy in the early 19th Century.
“Castel del Monte hosts more people in the summer,” notes Corbijn. “Outside of that season, when fall arrives quickly and it is so cold at night, there are a lot of empty houses – which I found quite spooky. I saw it as a beautiful environment that could turn dangerous, and was reminded of the Venice settings in Nicolas Roeg’s film Don’t Look Now.”
Wingate adds, “It’s almost medieval. If you live in a village where almost every road you look down shows you mountains, that must affect the way you behave and live.”
Heslov says, “Some parts really are walking-only. We had times where heavy equipment that we had ordered showed up – and then later we couldn’t get it out.”
Digby marvels, “The locale is small enough to be able to know what’s happening around you, yet large enough to deliberately get lost in; there is a maze of streets and arches and houses – perfect for Jack to disappear into.”
Costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb elaborates that “Jack is trying to blend in and not call attention to himself, so I had to think in those terms for his costumes. Mark and I discussed muted colors, and what was being done both tonally and visually, with Anton and Martin.
“But here I was, working with one of the best-dressed men on the planet and having to make him look less sartorially considered. We went with timeless classic pieces for Jack to wear, nothing branded or slick.”
Larlarb adds, “We also had to balance out the other characters in relation to Jack; for instance, equalizing Mathilde to get across the idea that they’re in the same line of work. Also, perhaps they’re kindred spirits; perhaps Jack is checking her out a bit.
“Clara has to pop out in some ways, yet retain a level of naturalness that attracts Jack. We worked on eliminating red for the most part, but we gave her just the right kind of red for her purse.”
Corbijn clarifies, “The color red is only in the movie a few times; when you see it, that’s linked to danger or to love…or, to both.”
With the influx of cast and crew, in one fell swoop the existing population of Castel del Monte – 129 people – was more than doubled. When one crew member needed emergency dental work, it necessitated travel to a nearby town, as the answering machine of Castel del Monte’s dentist declared that he was “unavailable, due to his appearance in a Hollywood film.”
Indeed, the majority of the Castel del Monte villagers appear in The American, many in the sequence of Father Benedetto’s procession. Originally scripted as the Procession of the Snakes, which takes place annually in the village of Colculla, the movie’s procession had to be changed to the Procession of the Lambs, when the inhabitants of Colculla raised strong objections to their procession being hijacked for a rival village – even if only on film – and nearly called for the intervention of the local bishop.
Sharp-eyed viewers will notice the recurring appearance of a black dog in the Castel del Monte-shot sequences. Wally, as the dog was known, lived in the piazza and was adopted by the crew; he responded to calls of “Action!” by blithely trotting into the shot, time and time again.
Not to be outdone by Sulmona, Castel del Monte boasts its own artisan cheese maker, who per tradition uses her family’s herd of sheep and goats to produce delicious cheeses that are sold only to local restaurants. As filming wrapped, she was still working on the recipe for the perfect “Capra di Clooney,” a goat cheese that would commemorate the production’s stay there.
Above Castel del Monte is the Alpine plain of the Campo Imperatore, part of the National Park of San Grasso and site of a driving sequence in the movie. Until the early 20th Century, this vast and imposing landscape was the summer destination for the transumanza, the annual migration of shepherds and millions of sheep, herded from their winter pastures near to the coast. Nowadays, it is a winter ski resort while in summer hosts cattle, wild horses, wolves, and – reportedly – bears.
The production ventured into much more familiar territory at the end of the nine-week Italy leg of the shoot to film an early scene, where Jack arrives in Rome prior to being pointed towards Abruzzo. But to shoot in Termini, the bustling city central train station, and on the surrounding streets with a recognizable movie star posed a challenge. While one train platform was made partially available, the production adopted stealth tactics to get the needed shot of Jack crossing the busy main street; a camera was hidden in the window of a café and George Clooney, costumed as Jack and toting the character’s suitcase, was quietly dropped off alone from a car, on the opposite side of the street. Rome’s morning commuters going to work on a weekday, barely registered the man striding through their midst, and the filmmakers got the shot as Clooney made it across and ducked into the car that was waiting for Jack to drive off in. “We never even put it on the call sheet,” reveals Carey. “We had a fallback plan of a double doing the shot, but George was very game.
“Since the Italian crew has good relationships with the authorities, they knew how to work in Rome, and what permits we needed. It was as controllable as filming in any big city in the world can be.”
Corbijn was impressed by the cooperation that the cast and crew received all across Italy. He remarks, “The townspeople were honest and hard-working, with a mountain mentality and not a city mentality.
“In Italy, there is a lack of hierarchy amongst the crew. Everybody is either friends or related, so the atmosphere is like that of a family.”
Heslov concurs, “It’s very much la famiglia. Everything is a lot less formal. Sometimes things are set by handshake.
“When you get to the set in the morning, everyone kisses each other, has coffee, and talks for about half an hour before things get going. I loved that way of working!”
With respect to the citizens of the Abruzzo region, Carey comments, “These are a people who pride themselves on having a history, a moral strength, and a sense of secrecy and privacy. All of that informed the character of the locations.”
Green adds, “Aside from the locations, Anton has also made use of some very dramatic landscapes – distant mountains, deep wide valleys. Wherever we went, the Italian crew members were highly skilled, and we were thankful to have them.
“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.
“Herbert’s score also helps you get what’s going on through Jack’s mind, such as when he’s completely alone working on making the weapons.”
Principal photography was completed, several weeks after the wrap in Italy, with five days of location work in Ostersund, Sweden. The wait was in part to capture the harsher beauty of this country in deepest winter, as built into both the script and the visual scheme to contrast with the warmer imagery of Italy. As Corbijn notes, “We filmed the start of the movie at the end of our shooting schedule. Aside from the below-zero weather, we loved being in Sweden with its amazing landscapes.” Clooney had grown a beard to further contrast with the Italy-set remainder of the movie, where Jack is clean-shaven.
Of his leading man, Corbijn states, “The fact that George is always on-set, not wasting time in his trailer…people might not realize how much having your lead actor be ready for you benefits a director’s shooting schedule. It is a great bonus that he thinks not just about his own role, but about the film as a whole and about the other actors. His sense of continuity amazes me, and when we got stuck on something he would always volunteer a solution.
“He is a serious actor yet keeps everyone entertained on set, so cast and crew enjoy his company, and he takes pleasure in the work. He’s so good at keeping everyone motivated; the one joke I tried to make fell flat. George also knows how to deal with the attention he gets in public with charm and grace, which was invaluable when we were shooting in such small villages.”