The famous video director talks about bringing Ian Curtis back to life

Oscar Watch 2008 Interview #1: Director Anton Corbijn

Control is the type of movie that seems to come out of nowhere, packing the punch of a Herculean God in a Greek myth. The project marks famed video director and still photographer Anton Corbijn's first trek into the realm of narrative features. The movie follows the life of Joy Division lead singer and songwriter Ian Curtis, one of the more tragic figures to come out of the rock landscape of the early Seventies. Suffering from epileptic seizures and torn between the love of two women, Ian took his own life at the young age of 23.

Corbijn captures this short, powerful life in a series of black and white images that come on like a foggy dream or some kind of distant memory. He brings a new vision and structure to the musical biopic, miraculously expanding the walls of that genre. His lead actor is a real find. Sam Riley brings this dark, violently passionate soul to the surface, and actually makes us care about the life of Ian Curtis. It's a standout performance that pushes the film into the upper echelon of music related docudramas.

We recently got a chance to sit down with Anton and discuss his new film Control, which is being released October 10th, 2007. This is the first in a series of interviews we will be conducting with those rare individuals we feel will be recognized come award season. Here is our conversation with Corbijn:

The first thing I'm interested to know is, how did you decide on Control as your title?

Anton Corbijn: I thought of it the night before we had the first press conference, when I first signed on. It came to me very quickly. I don't remember what the original title was. Probably Touching From a Distance. I just wanted to have a title for myself to focus on. And I never came up with a better title. That's why it stayed. The most obvious reference is the song She's Lost Control. For me, it had to do with the fact that he had no control over his epilepsy while he was trying to be a control freak. He was trying to control most things in his life. He was a nice guy, but then again, he wasn't a nice guy. He had a lot of paradoxes in him. I felt the fact that he tried to remain so in control of his own life, yet couldn't control the side effects of the disease summed it up. I also like just one word for the title. It seemed close to Closer, which was one of their album titles. Joy Division and New Order had a few album titles that were all just one word. And you had that older Joy Division album called Still. It's nice to have just one word, I think.

You're style is so distinct. When I sat down in front of the film, I wasn't yet familiar with your previous work. I hadn't seen the U2 documentary or the Depeche Mode videos. But my girlfriend is very familiar with all of your work. I hadn't told her what we were going to be watching. About five minutes into the film, she turns to me and says "This is a film by Anton Corbijn, isn't it?" After going back, and watching a great deal of what you have done, I see that you have a very distinct, original voice that is instantly recognizable. What were the challenges of staying committed to that certain style while directing your first narrative film?

Anton Corbijn: I don't know. It was very rare that this wasn't a music video. Or a photograph. I tried to find a way to shoot it that was right for a film. I had a DP, Martin Ruhe, who was fantastic, whom I have worked with very closely on a number of other projects. I don't think I really thought about keeping it within the boundaries of my own personal style. What I do comes quiet natural to me. Its not quite studied. Basically, I can't do it any other way. That explains, sometimes, your style. That is the only way that you can do things. Sometimes, on a music video, you have to be more graphic and more direct. With this, I was able to find a little bit more poetry within the film. Because people are taking more time to watch it. A music video is a fleeting thing. Sometimes, they have to be a little bit more gimmicky, maybe. I don't know. I just make images that I like to look at. That is my only way to do it. I can't think about what other people might want to see. In the end, you have to make things that please you. And then you have to hope that there are more people like you around to enjoy it.

The most striking image in the film is the one where he is walking away from the camera, and he is wearing the jacket that says "hate" on the back of it. What were the origins of that particular shot? What was the genesis of that scene?

Anton Corbijn: It was just something I wanted to do. There are some images in the film that I had thought of in advance, that I wanted to keep in. That was one of them. The beauty of that scene is that Sam walks from the actual house Ian Curtis lived in to the actual place he worked. These were actual places. I wanted it to be a real walk. So you have it in real time. I thought it was nice that after he gets through the gate, he changes out of the jacket. You think he is just wearing his shirt and tie, but then he has this jacket on that says the word "hate". Then he turns around, and he is working with handicapped people. So, he is a really nice guy. It's this conflicting idea that you want to be a punk, but you are too nice. These things are so integrated into society, these kinds of things. I thought that it was nice just to have a walk. I like to see people walking. Its very Seventies, to have the time to see someone crossing the frame without having to intercut it with something else. It was just one of those things, and I had to fight to keep it in. We came back with a film that was almost three hours long. So I had to make incredible cuts. I had to cut out some really long scenes. Of course, this was a shot that lasted two minutes. And it was a serious contender for getting the chop. But I really wanted to keep it in.

You say that the original finished film was three hours long. Do you have any plans to release a version of the film that is truer to its original form?

Anton Corbijn: No. I think some of it was too self-indulgent. When you are too close to it, you maybe can't see that. But I think I will be adding another twenty to thirty minutes to it at some point. Maybe on a special DVD.

I know you've worked a lot in the black and white medium in the past. Why did you think it was important to this story, to have it shot in black and white? I don't think we've ever seen a musical biopic that was shot all in black and white before.

Anton Corbijn: Is that true?

I can't think of any older films that were shot in that medium. Maybe Elephant Man, but that wasn't about music.

Anton Corbijn: Maybe Backbeat was in black and white, the film about the Beatles. I haven't seen it, but every picture I've seen has been in black and white. Regardless, it really had to do with how I remembered England at the time. Coming from Holland to England, it seemed really bleak and grey. Especially up north. And then Joy Division was only documented in black and white. Every picture you find of them is going to be in black and white, so I thought this was very appropriate. To show this in black and white. And the way they express themselves, with their album sleeves, was in black and white. So it was not my own preference to be working in the black and white medium. It just felt right for the subject matter. Of course, I have always done a lot of black and white. But I also do a lot of monochromatic stuff. With blue, or brown-black, or blue and white. I experiment in it. But the black and white just felt so right for Joy Division.

How did you become attached to this project? Why was Ian Curtis' story so important that you had to add it into your own body of work at this time?

Anton Corbijn: Apart from photography and music videos, I also do graphic design. I also do stage design. I do small films from that. So, I am interested in many different visual disciplines. Film has been on my mind for a while, I have to say. All of the scripts I had read, they never gave me enough confidence to give up my day job and clean my desk. They never made me say, "The next year and a half are going to be devoted to this." Not until this particular project. Because I am not educated as a filmmaker. I needed something in the story that would compensate for my lack of skills. I felt that with Joy Division being part of the story, it would mean more. Joy Division motivated me to move from Holland to England. To be there and to work with them. And this story with Ian is a dramatic love story. There was an emotional attachment to the whole thing for me, because it had so much to do with my own life. My life changed incredibly when I moved from Holland to England. They were the catalysts for that at the time. My life was beautiful in England. It was my trip to unknown pleasures. I felt that I could make that jump into filmmaking because of my emotional attachment to it. I felt that it would give me enough drive to compensate for any skills I might lack.

What are your own personal thoughts on Ian's suicide? Watching the movie, I didn't get the feeling that he was depressed.

Anton Corbijn: He was not just depressed. I think it was the epilepsy that he had the most problem with. It was the severity of the epilepsy. And the effect of the drugs he had to take for it. I think that had such an influence on his life. The fact that the band couldn't count on him performing, because he would have a fit on stage. He wasn't allowed to hold his baby anymore. He learned that people could actually die from this. At any time of the day. The side effects of the drugs gave him these incredible mood swings. And he didn't stop using alcohol. I think, when you are in a real low, and these mood swings gave him enormous lows, all of these other problems seemed to be compounding it. The problems on their own would be enough to get you very depressed, I think. These two women are in love with you. I wouldn't have killed myself. These things seem solvable.

You just said he wasn't allowed to hold his baby. You don't really go over that in the film.

Anton Corbijn: No, no, we didn't. We had a brief debate about that. But we gave into the fact that he couldn't hold the baby. You have a fit, and that's it. But we never really touched on that in the film.

Now, this film follows a lot of similar themes as other biographies revolving around musicians. Did you look at any of these other recent films like Walk the Line or Ray. all three films have a similar story arc as far as the women in these guys' lives are concerned.

Anton Corbijn: I wouldn't consider this a musical biopic. That's not something I'm interested in, to be honest. I have not seen the movie Ray, so I can't comment on it. To me, this is a dramatic love story. And that is quite a universal theme. I knew we were going to have great music in it as well. It's just beautiful. But I didn't try to make a musical biopic. I don't think it is. Its not a Joy Division film, though they are featured in it. If you like Joy Division, I don't think you are going to be very disappointed with this film. But its not just for fans of Joy Division, it's a far greater thing. I know that it seems to be a very popular medium. I am aware of that. But I am not going to apologize, because I did not choose it for that reason. For me, it was the only thing that I could see myself doing as a first movie. I think I have learned quite a lot from making this film. I am opened to do various different stories now for my next film.

You have another film in the works?

Anton Corbijn: Yes. This was the most rewarding experience I've had in my entire life. Working with actors is something I've never done before. I find it tremendous. Its hard work. Photography seems to be child's play now.

How different was working with the actors compared to the musicians you have worked with in the past?

Anton Corbijn: Everything is different. If you make a music video, you already have the music as an underground. It's very hard to fail, because if the music is great you will accept most images that you put over it. What you see in your mind, people will accept that. It's really driven by the music. Here it is driven by what you see on the screen. It's all about how the actor expresses himself. I was lucky that some of the musicians I worked with were relatively confident on-screen. Like Dave Gahan, I think he has some acting skills for sure. When I make my Depeche Mode videos, I write them for him. I ignore the other two guys in the band. I just write the videos for Dave, because I know he can act them out. But that is rare. There is a massive difference between working with actors and working with musicians, at least in my eyes.

Where did you find Sam Riley, the guy that is playing Ian Curtis?

Anton Corbijn: Well, fortunately he appeared at an open casting call in Northern England. Luckily for us that he appeared, because I can't think of anybody in the world that could do this better than he did it. I think he was born to play this role.

He is quite brilliant in this movie.

Anton Corbijn: To hold your ground on the screen when you stand next to Samantha Morton, who, for me, is the best actor of her generation is quite an achievement, I think.

Was Sam doing his own singing in the film?

Anton Corbijn: Everything you see is done by the actors. If you hear Joy Division, and you don't see the actors, then it is Joy Division. That happens with a lot of the atmosphere, and over the title cards. But all of the other scenes, it's the actors playing the music for real. And Sam is singing for real. His style is very close to Ian's. You can image songs like Dead Souls, where he has the epileptic fit, or Disorder, where there is that riot. You can't do it any other way. There are no Joy Division recordings were the music stops. And then starts again. You have to do it all for real. The actors were adamant about playing everything. They learned it from scratch. James Pearson, who plays Bernard Sumner, had never had a guitar in his hands before. He started in late April, studying it. He had a musical teacher. But to play all of these things in two months is pretty amazing.

Did Sam have to go through any special training for the epileptic seizures?

Anton Corbijn: Well, he did go to the epileptic society for a day. They were also on set whenever we had to do something that had to do with epilepsy. We tried to be very accurate with that, because it was a big thing in Ian's life. In the soundtrack of the movie, in England at least, we put a little pamphlet in their about epilepsy.

How closely did you work with Debbie Curtis? And how much of the film is based on her autobiography?

Anton Corbijn: Touching From a Distance was our source material for the film. That, of course, was limited to Debbie's story. We wanted to have Annik's story in there. We wanted to have New Order's take on things. I spoke to Ian's mother and Ian's sister. All of these things were important. We had to make it both Ian's story and Debbie's story. We took a lot of things from Debbie's book, but not everything. I don't know what the percentage of that stuff is. It's interesting, because nothing in the Seventies was documented. Joy Division were not big super stars. They were not even stars. They were a pretty unknown band, to be honest. They were not on the charts. They never had a hit single. And no one documented them. There wasn't somebody walking around interviewing them or photographing them.

There wasn't even very much video footage of these guys playing?

Anton Corbijn: Playing, there is some. Its amateur video. And there are some recordings. And some televisions recordings. Off stage, there is nothing. There are no interview films of Ian Curtis. There is nothing. There is no footage of him walking around. All of these things were totally open. So we needed Debbie's book, who, of course was very close to Ian, to describe a lot of things. There was no documentation of anything in his life.

What is Debbie doing now?

Anton Corbijn: She is married again, and like New Order, she makes money off of Joy Division, in terms of percentages. She gets a portion of the royalties.

How did you go about casting the rest of Joy Division?

Anton Corbijn: Well, we went for looks. Similarities. And acting skills. We were incredibly lucky to find the other three guys. Harry Treadaway, Joe Anderson, and James Pearson. To me, I think the whole project was very blessed. It was unbelievable how well this all came together, and how well these guys belonged, and behaved like a real band. There was this beauty to how they learned to play their instruments, and how they studied every day. Even when they had no instruments in their hands, they started to behave like a real band. The dynamic of the band was always there, somehow. Because they tried to play like a real band. Sam became a real lead singer, and the drummer became a real drummer. You know what I mean? It had a nice side effect, aside from them being able to play live. It effected all the scenes, too.

Did any of the actual Joy Division band members come in and collaborate with you?

Anton Corbijn: No. No. Prior to the making of the film, yes. But they never did come to the set. They did see an early cut, and they did do the score for the film.

You were talking about doing another film project in the near future. Are you going to do another music related project? Or are you preparing to explore other genres?

Anton Corbijn: My next film will be fictional. I know what it is about, a little. But I think you need to do things first before you talk about them.

Control opens October 10th, 2007.

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