This story first appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
“The film doesn’t look like a Dennis Stock photo, it looks like the world he took photos in. That’s important because a photographer always translates the world into his pictures. The pictures don’t present themselves to you; you have to find the pictures.”
Anton Corbijn is talking about Life, one of the buzziest titles in the Berlin lineup, which tells the backstory behind arguably the most iconic images in Hollywood history: the photos Stock took of James Dean during a road trip on assignment for Life magazine in 1955, just months before the actor’s death.
Starring Dane DeHaan as Dean and Robert Pattinson as Stock, the project seems particularly ideal for Corbijn. Before he started directing, Corbijn was best known as a photographer of rock stars. In 1979, on assignment for music magazine NME, he did a photo shoot with an up-and-coming new British band called Joy Division. Months later, the band’s singer, Ian Curtis, hanged himself. Corbijn’s photos of Curtis, like Stock’s of Dean, became lasting images of a young artist whose life was cut short.
Instead of copying Stock’s visual style in Life, Corbijn went about replicating the world of 1955 America, going so far as to totally rebuild Dean’s apartment in New York. “We had an art director who measured everything — the distance from the desk to the bed, that sort of thing.”
The moment Stock captured with Dean, and Corbijn re-creates in Life, was a turning point in American culture. “It seems very simple now, but it was revolutionary at the time seeing pictures like this,” says Corbijn. “Pictures like Stock’s symbolized the rebelliousness of the time. The fact that Dean died of course adds to the mystery. You couldn’t take those shots again. If it were today, and we had thousands of paparazzi shots of James Dean, I wonder if it would destroy the mystery?”