The producer of the Joy Division frotman Ian Curtis' biopic talks about the film and the legendary band
It's funny how movie's start sometimes. Control got started when producer Orian Williams picked up a book about the infamous band Joy Division and, several years later, Control is the result. The film revolves around the band and its lead singer Ian Curtis, who took his own life at the age of 23, just as their career was taking off. I had the chance to speak with Williams over the phone and here's what he had to say about this unique project.
So how did this whole project come about? Did you hire (screenwriter) Matt (Greenhalgh) to adapt Deborah Curtis' book, or was it the other way around?
Orian Williams: Well, the project started, for me, in 1997. I had purchased a copy of the book, "Touching From a Distance," and thought this might make a great film. Cut to 2001, I met (director) Anton (Corbijn) and I randomly emailed him and said, 'I'd love it if you'd be interested, one day, in making a movie. Are you interested?' He said, in response the next morning - coincidentally, I had no idea he'd even respond to my email - that he was excited about the idea of directing a film and, oddly enough, in that week that I had emailed him, he'd been thinking about it more than ever. In that first email, he said, 'I have no interest about making a movie about a musician or a rock star or a biopic, so don't send me a script or a project that has anything to do with that.' I said, 'You got it' (Laughs). The project officially came to me, as far as the rights, it took several years to get them. That came to me right after I had spoke to Anton the first time by email. I mentioned that I had the rights to the Joy Division story and he said, 'Good luck.' That was it, zero interest in making a movie about a musician, especially someone he had photographed. It was after that, an actor friend of mine suggested that I contact this writer from Manchester, who had written some TV stuff but had never actually written a script that had made it to film. So, I just randomly emailed him, got in touch with him and then went over and met with him in Manchester. It's funny. Matt was not a huge fan of Joy Division, but a huge fan of New Order. We talked and he just had a great understanding of the North and the separation of London to the North and the dark, bleak sort of times that it was in the late 70s/early 80s, and he came on board. I had him write a first draft and that's how it came to life. Eventually, Anton came on board because him and I had met for lunch one day and he said to me, 'You know, it's funny to me that you've been so pursuant. The reason that I moved to London in 1979 was to follow my favorite band, Joy Division. I think you're probably right. I should direct this film.' He went on and directed it (Laughs).
So how did you and the filmmakers come to choose Samantha Morton and Sam Riley to play Deborah and Ian. Samantha, obviously, can play anything in the world.
Orian Williams: (Laughs) Yeah! She's fantastic. When I had an idea, early on, I felt that perhaps Samantha would be perfect. She's from the North, she is a versatile, incredible actress who can morph into so many different characters. It wasn't until Anton came on that the connection really happened. It wasn't until he approached her that she officially said yes. She always loved Joy Division and she loved Anton and it happened immediately. We just approached her, via the phone, and she was really excited about it. Sam Riley, you know it's funny because we were sort of in that position where we were looking for actors who meant something, on a financial level, that could help get the movie made, but we were also looking for unknowns. Sam came through a casting call, in sort of a random, U.K.-wide casting search and he came in and we saw something in his eyes and we saw something in his performance that was just fantastic. He really did a fantastic job, just did an amazing job.
I read that all the actors learned to play the songs themselves. Did they all have musical backgrounds or did they have to learn how to play instruments from scratch as well?
Orian Williams: Well, James Anthony Pearson, who plays the guitarist Bernard Sumner, never touched a guitar in his life. The drummer had played drums for about six months and the bass player had never played bass, but knew how to play guitar. Then, Riley was in a band and clearly knew how to sing and play guitar but Ian didn't play much guitar. His voice is much different than Ian's, so what we thought we'd do is have them mime to the music. There was always this sort of weird process in the development and pre-production, thinking, 'How do we get the studio tracks that Joy Division recorded that are so clean and pristine but sound rough and live and how do we get the live versions to actually sound clear enough so you can make out what they're saying?' That was sort of the frustration with Anton and myself, figuring out how we make that work. I think the band sensed that and we thought we'd do it in post somehow. The band ended up actually practicing and learning how to play the songs on their own. When they perfected it, they called us in one day and they sat us down and said, 'We want to do something for you,' and they played "Leaders of Men," which is by Warsaw. I tell you, it was an incredible thing to watch that come to life. It was incredible, just absolutely incredilble. They said, 'We've actually learned three more songs,' and they played those. That's how that happened. It was crazy.
Did Anton bring a lot of his own personal experiences to the movie, or was it still strictly based off the book?
Orian Williams: It started with the book and then it went with interviews with the band, to conversations with Tony Wilson before he died, it went to people who knew him, Ian's mother. It's a big process of talking to these people that Ian was around at the time, and getting the stories and then sort of coming together. Matt Greenhalgh did a great job, actually, in his research process. Natalie Curtis, Ian's daughter, actually helped in that process as well. It was a responsibility that we all held and felt like we were, in many ways, Ian's protectors and also Deborah Curtis and having New Order involved and composing the score to the film. All of these little details actually gave the film a little bit of authenticity, I think, I hope (Laughs). It went really well and, the fact that some of the people in the story were still alive, we told the story as true as possible for them.
Has Deborah seen the film and what was her reaction to it?
Orian Williams: Deborah saw the film. I think it's an emotional thing for her. The band saw the film and they were completely gutted. They were very moved by what they saw, as was Debbie. I don't think Debbie looks at it as her favorite film on the planet, because it really brings up a lot of history and emotion for her that I think now her and the band can kind of put to sleep, that chapter of their life to rest and move on. I think it's resolved a lot of the issues that came up at the time. It's a very emotional thing, Ian passing on at the beginning of their career. She saw it, she was involved through the process of the script, interviews, as was everyone, but it started with her book. There were moments she wasn't around to actually see, so we had to get other people involved in this process, and it was great. I was really happy that everyone that was a part of the film got to see it, except for Tony Wilson. He saw clips and he saw a trailer and he saw some of the filming but, before he died, he didn't get a chance to see the film, which just kills me. He approved of everything that he saw and was so emotional just from those few scenes that he thought we had done it.
Finally, now that this is out on DVD, what do you want audiences to take away from this story?
Orian Williams: I think the movie has really opened up the music to a whole new audience. I've met kids recently, kids of people I know who are 14 and 17 who love Joy Division and have been a fan before the movie, which is really weird (Laughs). How does that happen? I have no idea. But, the music that's out there today is heavily influenced by these bands from the 70s and 80s like Joy Division. I want them to take away a little bit of what Ian was and, at such a young age, he had so much going on. We all did, in those times of family strife and emotional upheaval, but this isn't obviously the answer. It's not about suicide, it's not about epilepsy, it's not about everything else, but it's about an individual who was thinking out of the box and took his own passion and created music. His negativity and whatever else, he bottled them up and spilled them out onto his world of music. I think a sense of hope comes from the end of the movie, in my mind. Some people come out of the movie and think, 'That's the saddest thing I've ever seen,' and others come out and think, 'God, there's optimism.' I think they should also take away the story behind the movie, the people who helped make the film and why we were all a part of it. Anton, myself, Sam Riley, our lives have changed, 100%.
Well, that's about all I have, Orian. Thanks so much for your time.
Orian Williams: Hey man, thank you.
You can find Control on the DVD shelves now.