I’ve never been one to have problems with my family, save for my twin brother. If we’re visiting, we can usually manage five days together before we are at each other's throats. Once we pass that threshold, every action, gesture, or comment can be perceived as a slight that draws the other into a frenzy of aggression. We constantly give each other one more chance, one more chance, one more chance, and then it’s too much. We spiral down and it gets ugly. It’s not the type of fight with friends where there was a beef, and it gets resolved. No, our fights are primal. Only time and distance can cure the anger.
In 2008 Brady Corbet set his sights on that particular kind of macho anger in his short film Protect You + Me. He captured the ebb and flow of a man’s irritation as it pushes against a wall poised to break. The man, played by Daniel London, eats dinner with his mother at a restaurant. The two of them share small talk, but their minds constantly stray. They bring things up only to dismiss them. Both are victims of noncommittal attitudes, unable or unwilling to confront what truly ails them. A stranger in the restaurant becomes the object of their anxiety for supposedly staring at them. They try to ignore him to no avail. Their uneasiness may or may not be of their own construction.
Corbet leaves the antagonist offscreen and instead focuses on the growing desperation in his main character. London’s reaction to the situation is simultaneously understandable and totally crazy. Repetition is key to conveying the emotions in the film. London obsessively cleans his hands well after they’re clean. The mother mentions things only to circle back to them again. Everything culminates and builds until Daniel snaps and gets stuck in a loop that is unsettling to watch.
Corbet was only 18 when he made the film. He first rose to attention for a brave and harrowing performances in Thirteen, when he was just 13, and then for starring alongside Jospeh Gordon-Levitt in Gregg Araki’s childhood sexual abuse drama Mysterious Skin, at 15. Famed director Michael Haneke tapped him to star alongside Michael Pitt, Naomi Watts, and Tim Roth in his US remake of Funny Games. After that film, he set out to make Protect You + Me. It premeired at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, where it was was given an honorable mention for Best Short Film. Despite being a young dude, he knows his way around some difficult emotions. His performances caught the eye of the Borderline Film boys, and he went on to star in their moody and unsettling films Martha Marcy May Marlene and Simon Killer. Currently, he’s prepping for his debut feature and set to star in a few more pics that come out later this year. He has continued to make smart and mature choices both in front of and behind the camera, and I only expect more from him as he continues to age. I reached out to Brady to clarify and elaborate the process behind his new, unusual film.
VICE: How did this short film come about? What made you want to direct?
Brady Corbet: It was supposed to be a series of three short films on the theme of protection. Each film was concerned with an adult male character being faced with a hostile or aggressive situation and tracked his reaction to it. The films all had a moment where the character would get caught in a "loop of aggression" in an effort to demonstrate the absurdity of violence and the male ego. I was 18 years old when I made the film, so it's all a bit weighed down by it's concept, but I still find the film fascinating when I look back on it. The following two films were meant to be shot in France, the following year with an excellent DP named Yves Cape. But we lost the financing and they were never completed.
I had always intended to direct. I was an early cinephile, so in a way, it had been a long time coming. When I was working as an actor on Funny Games in 2007, I asked our cinematographer Darius Khondji to shoot the film, as well as that film's producer, Chris Coen, if he would be interested in supporting the project. They both said yes.
How did you conceive of the climax? It's pretty fucking disconcerting and intense and I don't know if I've ever seen anything like it.
I have a lot of theories about redundancy and repetition in regards to both the visual language of a film and its narrative content. I've often felt that that redundancy can aggressively reinforce certain narrative themes while also allowing an audience to reassess their relationship to what's happening at that particular moment in the story. It is the same way that by the third time you have heard the chorus of a pop song your relationship to it has changed from the first time you heard it. You've only really processed the melody by the end of the song.
The current project I am working on has shades of these concepts but explored in a more subtle way. My short film was about testing these limits, whereas my upcoming feature will hopefully implement them in a more elegant fashion.
At what point did you decide not to show the antagonist on screen and why?
I guess the antagonist was irrelevant because it never really mattered to me why he was bothering these two people—I was only focused on the paranoid reaction to the scenario by Daniel's character.
What are you working on now?
I am in Paris now doing very early prep work on a feature I am directing called The Childhood of a Leader. The film is, in part, about events leading up to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.