Having been responsible for some of the most iconic photographs since he picked up a camera nearly five decades ago, Anton Corbijn seamless transition to music videos then narrative features and now, with Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis), he’s helmed his first documentary. Charting the entertaining tale of Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey “Po” Powell’s album-art design studio Hipgnosis, the film features quite a roster of interviewees: Roger Waters, David Gilmour, and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd; Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin; Paul McCartney; Peter Gabriel; Graham Gouldman of 10cc; Noel Gallagher; and more.
As the film begins playing at NYC’s Film Forum today, ahead of an LA opening on June 16 and nationwide screenings on June 20, I spoke with Corbijn about embarking on his first documentary, his favorite album covers, his involvement in the marketing process of his films, reflecting on The American, and his forthcoming Patricia Highsmith adaptation starring Helen Mirren.
The Film Stage: With this being your first feature documentary, could you talk about the process of wanting to tell this story?
Anton Corbijn: Yeah. Ever since Control I’ve been very wary of doing film stuff that relates to music subjects because you get so pigeonholed if you do that. But I was persuaded by Po, really, who came to Amsterdam and he’s a good salesman, as they say. [Laughs] He’s very enthusiastic about the story of Hipgnosis, telling so many anecdotes and stories that are quite rich. And because I made some album sleeves and do photography, I felt I was quite close, to a degree. And when I was younger I looked at Hipgnosis sleeves and I could never figure out how to do things. My favorite sleeves were actually the more simple ones, like the Peter Gabriel ones, which felt more photographic to me. That’s why I thought, “Maybe I can do this.” It was a possibility to do a film because I had no feature film waiting for me. And I’m happy I got on board, I have to say. It was a really fun project to work on. I’m not sure I’m a natural documentarymaker––I don’t think I am––but I enjoyed this.
There are certainly stylistic touches that I feel like only you could provide, especially the way you should in this beautiful black-and-white that gives it a very timeless feel. What was your approach to finding beauty in the talking-head interviews?
I mean, it’s unfortunate you have to do these talking-heads interviews in a way, because it was also during COVID and people were reluctant to go anywhere. But what I wanted to do was make the film black-and-white. Because we had so much archival footage that when every direction aesthetically, and I wanted to keep it more together to make everything black-and-white. Then the record sleeves were the great color thing in your life, and I guess that was a bit like that when you got a record at the time. So that’s how this was set up. And I knew the structure I wanted to have, in terms of the beginning and the end. It just came together quite nicely.
The documentary is also a testament to this lost art of album covers and even, by extension, movie posters nowadays. One thing I was always struck by with your films, especially Control and The American, were the posters. How involved are you in that marketing process when you’re making your feature films?
It’s the hard part. It’s not your money. The people who supply money always want to have a say, but that’s just the rule of law. And my first movie, Control, I put up the money for almost the whole film, so I had a lot more freedom. And I think that’s why, probably for me, it’s the strongest poster. But I always try to get my way with the posters, but I haven’t been able to with the other films. On this I got the square and the circle, the writing, and the idea of the square and the circle and all the points of the eye and how it comes together. That’s all my idea. But the poster itself was more for the film company and Po––basically it’s a still from the film where he sits with the poster at the beginning.
Speaking of the title, I have to admit I didn’t realize where it came from until you reveal it in the film. When did you decide on it?
Well, I don’t know who mentioned it at some point, but then I was the great defender of the title and not a lot of other people were actually. But I think it’s grown on people. To call the movie The Story of Hipgnosis––I didn’t like that because that means fuck all to people these days, unless you’re already a convert. Squaring the circle means doing the impossible in English and it’s just a nice visual.
I really loved the story about Pink Floyd’s Animals cover. Did you know that story going in? Were you surprised by any other stories you heard?
Yeah, I think that some of these stories are already out there because there are a couple of books on Hipgnosis, but it comes alive when you hear other people telling the story, and all the archival footage. Yeah, it’s amazing. And then in the end it’s still a mock-up––the pig is put there in position because they couldn’t get right. I think it’s fantastic, these stories, and it’s very much of its time. People wouldn’t go through that effort anymore. Now nobody would put up the money for it. It’s great to hear and see how these records came to be and it’s an art form that’s kind of lost. Although people buy vinyl again, it doesn’t have the same importance.
You don’t shy away from capturing Storm’s tough personality, which was part of his genius. How important was it for you to capture the full character of your subjects?
I never met Storm. He passed away by the time I came on board and I would have loved to have known him in real life. He’s a really interesting man, and somebody to like and dislike probably at the same time. But I like him, but of course I never had any difficult dealings with him. I just want to make sure that he got enough credit in the film for his ideas, because he was the idea man, really. And I think we managed to do that. I like Nick Mason’s characterization of Storm a lot: “He was a man who wouldn’t take yes for an answer,” and that’s fantastic.
There’s so many talented musicians in the movie. Was it a tough process to get everyone on board, or once you got someone, then another person came on, etc.?
Yeah, it was not easy to get three guys from Pink Floyd in the film and to get Paul McCartney. In the end, they all said yes, and I think their love for the work that Hipgnosis did for them overrode any reluctance that they might have had. I really wanted Peter Saville in there. And for Noel [Gallagher], we were looking for the voice of somebody who didn’t have any dealings with Hipgnosis––a slightly more modern, modern voice. And Noel was very good and had a great sense of perspective.
When was first introduction to their work, and what was your music taste at the time?
Well, I love Peter Gabriel and saw him for the first time during The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, when he played in Holland; then when the first solo album came out, I went to England to see him play. I also like [Pink Floyd’s] Atom Heart Mother very much––with the cow. It’s one of my all-time favorite covers, the audacity to do that and have no title or anything on it. And again, it’s simple. It’s a real photograph. I had quite a few Pink Floyd’s. I didn’t have Dark Side, but I had Wish You Were Here and Ummagumma.
Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother
Going a bit further back, I really love The American and think it’s one of George Clooney’s greatest performances. There’s a real kind of Jean-Pierre Melville quality to it that you just do not see nowadays. Do you have any special memories of making that film?
I’m really happy with the film. There are maybe a few things I would have liked to change. Yeah, Melville. Absolutely. I don’t think you can make this film anymore these days. There are quite a few people that said, “This is the kind of films George Clooney should be making,” but George has his own strategy. I think the difficulty for him in my film was that he couldn’t be the funny guy, George Clooney. That’s an element that was missing, of course, but I’m so happy he did it. And it was such a wonderful time to be in Abruzzo, in Italy, for a film––because unlike photography, which is my other experience, is that you spend a lot of time in one place and you fall in love with the place. And when you think of the film, you think of this two months or three months that you were in this one place. When I think back to The American, I always think of that great Abruzzo with these empty villages. I really enjoyed that about filmmaking.
Lastly, I know you are working on the Patricia Highsmith movie Switzerland with Helen Mirren. What is your prep process for it? Are you reading a lot of her books or is it all focused on this script?
Focused on the script and the casting but I’ve been so hectic because I also have Depeche Mode on tour that I designed. So I have to start properly in July for that. But Helen Mirren is playing the lead; that’s wonderful.
I know you probably can’t say much, but the tone you are going for, is it very much like Highsmith’s novels?
Yeah, there are elements of that flowing through the film. It’s a thriller-of-sorts.
Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) is now playing at NYC’s Film Forum and opens June 16 at LA’s Laemmle Royal, followed by one-night-only nationwide screenings on June 20.