Life is a 2015 biographical drama directed by Anton Corbijn and written by Luke Davies. It is based on the friendship of Life photographer Dennis Stock and Hollywood actor James Dean, starring Robert Pattinson as Stock and Dane DeHaan as Dean.
Dane DeHaan plays James Dean
The cast and crew of LIFE all agree that Dane DeHaan is perfect for the part of James Dean; however, he took some convincing. Anton recalls that “There were a lot of people wanting to play James, but the one meeting I really wanted to have was with Dane, who didn’t want to meet me because James Dean was his favourite actor and he didn’t like the idea of stepping into his shoes.” Although he thought the script was excellent and he admired Anton, Dane readily admits to his reluctance and says it was a long process before he agreed: “The script came to me about a year before production, and when I first read it I thought there was no way I could do it. I think I said no to this movie five times before I finally agreed to take it on.”
Dane says people were confused by his reaction because he was offered what he considered “a great script and a great director.” How could he be “enthusiastic about a script and director and still not want to do the film?” The answer, Dane explains, was “because of my love for James Dean and my respect for him. He’s somebody I’ve kind of put up on a pedestal, and I don’t think of myself as like him.” A turning point in Dane’s thinking came from a conversation he had with producer Iain Canning: “He explained what the movie was about, and he said it is an opportunity to show people who James Dean really was. They have an idea of him, but it’s inaccurate.” In addition, many younger people “don’t know who James Dean is now,” so the film is a chance to introduce him to a new audience.
Ultimately the nature of the story, the challenge of the role, and his love of acting convinced Dane. The part scared him, but he knew it would stretch his abilities and help his acting grow: “The appeal was totally the impossibility! It’s not fun to do stuff that would be easy.” Others were convinced he was perfect from the beginning.
Iain Canning recounts that “Dane DeHaan as James Dean was our dream from the start, and it was quite difficult for us because as more of Dane’s films came out, we became more obsessed about him playing the role.” The goal was to sign the best actor and not “fall into the trap of wanting to find an exact look-alike.” In fact, Anton says, “For Dane it’s quite a physical change. He’s quite slender, so he had to get this kind of body from the fifties which is different than all the abs the actors have these days—more like a farmer’s—and it was amazing.”
Dane talks about the physical challenge of playing James Dean: “I had to gain twenty-five pounds in three months for the role. I worked with a trainer and ate a lot of food to get myself to look physically more like that.” He also had makeup artist Sarah Rubano, with whom he had developed “a great collaborative relationship” on Spiderman. “I asked her if she thought she could make me look like James Dean,” says Dane, and she did. Her attention to eye colour, hair (Dane calls James Dean’s hair “the best there ever was”), and even the details of accurate eyebrows and ear lobes lend authenticity to Dane’s portrayal. “So all in all I think every day it’s about two hours of makeup that I go through before I’m onto set.” Dane also praises Gersha Phillips, the costume designer, who he says “did a really amazing job of finding wardrobe that is pretty much exactly what he wore, like the Times Square coat that I wear a lot throughout the movie. A lot of the clothes are actually from the period.” The effort isn’t just for the audience: “When I can look in the mirror and actually see that I look like him, that gives me a lot of confidence.” His co-star is sold on the performance. Robert Pattinson thinks that DeHaan “has really locked into the character. You can see Jimmy’s mannerisms in Dane’s performance.”
But the role called for much more than physical characteristics. Canning says, “although Dane looks staggeringly like James Dean throughout the film—what was important to us was that we got the earthy beauty of James Dean. Dane has brought the voice and the physique and the temperament of James Dean, but he’s also brought the person, and that’s what’s so special. It’s not a caricature. He’s not playing the James Dean in the films, which were roles for James Dean. He has found a real person in the character behind those films.”
DeHaan was well aware of trying both to capture the real individual and to acknowledge the legend: “Everyone has an idea of who he was. So you do have a responsibility to in some ways honour that but also try hard to break down conventions and to show who he really was as a person, not who people think he was. That’s a fine line and that’s where the big responsibility lies because people are going to go into the film with an idea of who he was—and they might see flavours of that—but ultimately—hopefully—they’ll learn something about him.”
Dane agrees that LIFE is not a standard biopic. “It’s two weeks of James Dean’s and Dennis Stock’s life, but it’s a crucial two weeks.” Dane calls it “more a character study than a biopic” and notes that “At this time, no one really knew who James Dean was beyond Hollywood and his hometown. East of Eden hadn’t come out; Rebel Without a Cause and Giant weren’t even shot yet.” The James Dean of LIFE is on the cusp of success, and Dane says, “I could relate to what’s it like to have impending fame and the mixed emotions that go along with that.” In contrast to the 1950s, celebrity culture has changed in terms of the speed and access to information and photography, but says Dane, “What hasn’t changed and what’s interesting about the film is that fame is complicated, especially for those people going through it. The film does a really good job of showing how what looks shiny and perfect and new and exciting on the outside can be a struggle to go through personally.”
As far as that personal experience, Dane researched his character extensively: “I had a solid three months to read every book I could get my hands on, watched a lot of his interviews and found a really great recording that he did when he went home to Fairmount with Dennis. He had one of the first hidden spy recorders, and he recorded the conversation that he had with his family at the dinner table.” Dane describes the opportunity to prepare so thoroughly “a luxury…an ideal situation.” He searched for and found the James Dean beyond the legend and the roles, the James Dean that influenced Dennis Stock’s life.
Dane reflects on the relationship at the heart of the film: “Dennis especially has a huge arc in the film, and Jimmy is kind of a catalyst for that arc. They learn from each other. Jimmy’s going through a lot of changes in his life, and I think in these two weeks he starts to realize how the family and the home life that he had is slowly slipping away from him, and Dennis helps him to realize that.” At the same time, Dennis “is always worrying about the future,” so he is affected by “Jimmy’s ability to live in the present.” DeHaan sees LIFE as “a movie about two artists of a different mind coming together and finding out things they have in common and growing from that experience.”
Robert Pattinson plays photographer Dennis Stock.
He was attracted to the project as “an interesting period in history and an interesting take on such a massive character as James Dean.” Pattinson says, “I read the script for quite a long time before I decided to do it,” and he was impressed by the “elegant, poetic telling of the story.” The idea of co-starring with an actor his own age was also appealing, and Robert met with Luke Davies and Anton Corbijn to discuss the film. However, he says, “My decision was so dependent on who was playing Jimmy.” Robert notes that a director of Anton’s calibre would not have cast a mere “James Dean look-alike,” but he wasn’t fully committed until Dane DeHaan came on board. (As for the idea of playing James Dean himself, Robert laughs: “Oh no. Not in a million years. Dane’s brave.”)
And just as Anton and the producers knew they wanted DeHaan, they were equally convinced of Pattinson’s part in the film. Anton recalls, “Rob was quickly on the horizon for me, and after we met I didn’t meet anyone else for that role.” The director also liked that Robert and Dane “are such different actors, and that’s a great thing for the roles they play” since the characters contrast “and you can imagine they could be friends because they’re different and that’s interesting in friendships—you offer the other person something that they don’t have.”
Writer Luke Davies said the casting was “dream news.” He describes Pattinson’s performance in The Rover as “incredible,” and he knew Robert would be perfect for the part of Dennis. And Dane DeHaan comments, “I really respect Rob’s bravery in jumping into films like this. He continues to challenge himself as an artist, and I’m glad I could go on this particular journey with him.”
Iain Canning observes that Pattinson “is not interested in following a sort of matinee idol concept, he really wants to play characters that are multi-layered and complicated.” Canning finds it “very interesting that Robert Pattinson’s playing a photographer taking a photograph of somebody who is on the cusp of stardom given what has happened to him in his life and his early fame through the Twilight films.” Christina Piovesan remarks on the circumstance as well: “As a young actor who has been at the center of all these photos all the time, now he gets to play the other side. It’s so exciting.”
Robert took the photographic element of his role seriously. Iain says, “Rob has been obsessed about the details of the photography and getting it right.” Robert discusses that attention to his character’s art: “A few months before production, I started shooting on the same Leica that Stock had.” He describes traditional photography as a dying art and says, “There’s something quite gentle about it compared to digital photography because you can’t force a picture. You can’t shoot as if you’re on an iPhone and just put a filter on it afterwards.” Robert even went to the Leica office in London for guidance but says, “it takes a long time to be able to take even okay pictures, let alone good ones.” Still, he wanted to understand his character’s world, both his professional and personal experiences.
Canning remarks that “In embodying the role, Rob has grappled with how important it is to understand the emotional dynamics of Dennis at the time, to understand that it was an era whereby men of twenty-seven were expected to have settled down, to be living a certain life, and Dennis Stock wasn’t living that life.” Dennis was struggling with where he fits in in the world. Canning remarks on the energy Robert brings to his performance, “a beautiful mix of empathy” and “vulnerability” in his character’s resistance to “the expectations of settling down and living your life in a certain way” and “how emotionally complicated it is to be a good father.” The character is grappling with the price of success and weighing it against the value he placed on fatherhood.
Robert was intrigued by the conflict and Stock’s rejection of his parental role: “I liked that Dennis Stock is written as being quite a bad dad. Regardless of the period or of James Dean, in a movie you don’t normally see a guy who had a kid pretty young and thinks it’s restricting his life as an artist, or whatever it is that he wants to be, and is very open about it. It’s quite frankly dealt with in the script.” Pattinson adds, “the idea of having a seven-year-old kid is interesting for me. That doesn’t happen very often for people my age.”
Dennis also questions his professional role. Robert says, “He was a step above a paparazzi and forced for financial reasons to be a commercial photographer, and he doesn’t really have any artistic flexibility in his work. He just does what he’s told, and it’s kind of suffocating him. He’s been in L.A. for a while and is beginning to think that he’s wasting his life. He’s approaching thirty and he hasn’t proven anything, doesn’t have any money, and he’s abandoned his family in New York.” At the same time, says Robert, Dennis has a degree of professional status. “The world wasn’t so saturated in images of celebrity, so the images in LIFE magazine were heightened, and they weren’t trying to knock celebrities down in the photos. There was a fascination for people, and I think the subject could trust the photographer a lot more.”
But gaining James Dean’s trust was still part of Dennis’ challenge. Ultimately Jimmy gave Dennis a lot of access, but it took time. The effort was worth it. Robert says, “Dennis realized how famous Jimmy was going to become quicker than Jimmy did.” It was a great professional opportunity for him, though Robert says, “I think Dennis’s biggest problem is he can’t appreciate his own work. He was taking good photos before he met Jimmy, but he just didn’t regard them as anything worthwhile and wasn’t being rewarded for them.” The photo assignment was going to bring Dennis acclaim, but perhaps more importantly, at a personal level, “because Jimmy likes him and gives him approval of the photos, it allows him to think of himself as an artist because he respects Jimmy’s work so much.”
Sir Ben Kingsley plays studio executive Jack Warner
Producer Christina Piovesan calls the casting of Kingsley as the man who may control James Dean’s acting future perfect “because we needed someone who’s charismatic but also endearing to the audience.” Iain Canning comments on Warner’s embodiment of both power and mentorship, and Dean’s response to the executive. Jimmy doesn’t want to be controlled, but he can’t ignore Warner’s success in building stars, directors, and films. Canning remarks, “What’s so fantastic about the performance is Warner’s mixture of being an absolute tyrant and also being the uncle you would go to for advice, and I think Ben Kingsley brings those two qualities, sometimes in the same line.”
Dane DeHaan experienced the impact of that cameo: “I feel in a lot of ways that Ben shocked me into the movie because it was about the second or third day of shooting and all of a sudden he was there playing Jack Warner, who’s such a powerful, intimidating kind of person.” The impact wasn’t limited to the performance. Dane recalls, “And then they called cut, and he started reciting Shakespeare between takes. It was the full Ben Kingsley experience, and it was really amazing. To have him on this set was something special.”
Joel Edgerton plays the head of the Magnum Photo office in New York, John G. Morris who helped put together Dennis Stock’s photo shoot with James Dean for LIFE. Writer Luke Davies is a friend of Edgerton, who had casually joked with Luke about finding a cameo in the film.
Joel’s initial interest came from knowing about the project through Luke, but ultimately he thought the screenplay was excellent and the subject matter a “fascinating” treatment of “one of the most mysterious figures in the history of movie making.” Joel liked that the script didn’t try to cover the arc found in many biopics: “there are some fantastic ones, but a lot of them feel like the same movie as in a shopping list of a person’s entire life” with a formulaic rise, fall, and redemption pattern. He praises LIFE‘s “intense look at something very important” and relates to its message about the “dance with fame.”
Furthermore, Joel was a fan of Anton’s work and confident in the director “having the right team, the right aesthetic, and understanding how to tell a good story.” He also knew Robert Pattinson through The Rover (“I was very impressed,” says Joel. “He knocked me sideways a bit.”) So he was pleased to take on the role of Morris, a character Iain Canning describes as “gruff but warm,” qualities that Edgerton captured. Canning describes “Joel’s fantastic sort of older brother and mentor quality.” Morris knows “when to push and pull on Dennis Stock and the other Magnum photographers in order to set the benchmark which they’ve got to hit.” Joel’s delivery, says Iain, makes “you understand the gravitas of Magnum…because it was such a place of excellence” as an agency devoted to photojournalism and the art of photography.
Davies had interviewed the real John Morris, and Joel asked Luke a lot of questions about the agency executive. The critical thing, Luke says, was to capture Morris’ “incredibly centered” personality and awareness of the important purpose of Magnum’s work. Luke says, “John Morris was there on the ground making that work possible, and I think Joel got that and played him to a tee.” Morris assists but also challenges Dennis. Joel says that Morris serves as “kind of a call to arms” for Dennis and reflects Dennis’ progress because he has to “keep checking in with Morris, and through those conversations you see Dennis’ struggle” and Morris’ evaluation of him. Iain says the part “is essential to our film because it makes you feel that Dennis had to achieve something, not just for himself, but just also to deserve the title of being a Magnum photographer.” And in the end, Morris validates Dennis’ accomplishment with James Dean.
Alessandra Mastronardi plays Italian-born actress Pier Angeli, who had a romantic relationship with James Dean. She is a significant presence in a story predominantly focused on two men. Iain Canning says it was wonderful to have “the energy and soul” of Alessandra’s performance woven into the film. As well, he calls this “an important role to get right because we definitely wanted to bring an Italian actress into the film for the flavour of European filmmaking and film stars at that time.” Although she is a counterpoint to the male characters, Pier also serves “to show an actor who knew how to play the game, which is at odds with what James Dean was willing to do,” says Iain. “She understood that was not a bad thing for actors to do, that they weren’t passive in that relationship.” Pier knows how to make the career and fame work for her, and Iain says Alessandra’s performance captures that understanding. She also delivers “an energy that reacts very differently when in scenes with Dennis Stock and then in scenes with James Dean. You can feel the slight friction in the Dennis Stock/Pier scenes because in some ways they both know what James Dean is and the potential that he has.”