The producer of this influential band's documentary talks about the movie and the infamous band
Tom Atencio may just have this one credit under his belt as a producer, but he sure picked a dang good one in this documentary, Joy Division, which revolves the band whose influence still can be heard in today's music. Atencio has had long ties with the band, and was the manager of the group New Order, which formed after singer Ian Curtis' passing. I had a chance to speak with Atencio over the phone and here's what he had to say about his film.
First of all, how did this documentary come about? Was it always considered a follow-up to Control?
Tom Atencio: You know, they started about the same time, long before the current set of players were involved with Control. Deborah's book was optioned by some Hollywood producers and when I read or heard the book has been optioned - I managed New Order in North America for 18 years - I went to them and said, I don't care if Martin Scorcese directs this film. You're not going to come off well because you weren't that close to Deborah. Indeed, if you look at Control, the rest of the band members are farting, belching pranksters. It was kind of prophetic. That was the genesis for the idea for the documentary. It's all fine and idealistic to come up with the idea, but to execute it, you have to think about the story and find assets and there weren't many, because they were only around for two and a half years. Ian (Curtis) passed before they became widely recognized so there aren't any videos. They were on a small label so there aren't a lot of photo shoots and that was the gift of finding the criterion for it. Somebody who could make something other than a talking-head documentary, and that was (director) Grant Gee, who is a visually-gifted guy.
Documentaries are becoming increasingly more popular in recent years. I've always been curious as to the process of actually making one. Since there isn't a narrative structure, how does the shooting process work and how do you really know when you're done?
Tom Atencio: (Laughs) The most challenging thing about documentaries is they're not exceedingly commercial. Even with a subject like Joy Division, a widely influential band and a certainly well-known brand, if you will, the first challenge is how do you fund it. I ended up funding it with my partner and getting it to the Toronto Film Festival and finding worldwide distribution, which we did. It's a challenging and daunting thing to even think about making a documentary and then the process, if you're doing a historical piece of work like , Joy Division, it's a bit like a detective novel. You're constantly finding that you either don't have the material to tell the story or that somebody's turned in material you didn't know existed. Some of the performance footage, like the early rehearsal scene stuff, nobody had seen before. Sex Pistols audio goes with their performance, we discovered. You know when you're finished when your budget says 'The End' (Laughs) and you hope you've told a story. There are constantly things that the director wants to add and thinks will tell the story more fully or bring a new perspective to it. But under the constraints of making documentaries, budgetary constraints, it's a pretty tough discipline.
If you would've had a somewhat bigger budget would it have been easier to make or a better film? Were there any interview subjects that you couldn't get for the film or what other sorts of challenges were there?
Tom Atencio: We kept it pretty tightly focused about who we tapped to participate in this film and we stayed away from celebrity endorsements, that kind of approach. I don't think anybody needs to hear famous, successful people tell us why they think somebody's important. Either it's self-evident, and you play to the viewer's intelligence, or you pander to making a point. We got all the participants that we wanted, possibly budgetary constraints make archival resourcing more limited, and we overspent wildly as it was, being our first production (Laughs). We probably didn't say no enough, so if anything, we wildly overspent. I don't think the film could be any finer. I think Grant just did an amazing job and it's a Dolby-mixed film. We spent a lot of money in the post-production process of upgrading the audio to 5.1. Financially, we were probably foolish.
The DVD is coming out as a part of The Weinstein Co.'s new Miriam Collection. What was Harvey and Bob like to work on this DVD? How did they embrace this movie?
Tom Atencio: I think that it's a brave thing for a distributor to pick up the rights to a documentary. You have to give them credit for being almost fans. I think they respected the band and they really liked the film. Financially, I think it's very brave of them to pick up the distribution rights for something like this. I think it was done more from an aesthetic fanbase more than a financial grounding.
Has Ian Curtis' widow, Deborah, seen the film and, if so, what was her reaction to it?
Tom Atencio: She has seen it. She is notably absent on camera because she is one of the producers of Control and I don't think she wanted to conflict with that enterprise. But, she was very generous with her personal archives and those notes of Ian that appear in the documentary and obviously some of those personal photographs are from her archives. She was very generous with access to that material. She has seen the film and she thought it was - I'm trying to think of exactly what she said - it was a very flattering comparison to Control.
I know it's difficult to speculate now, but what sort of an influence do you think Joy Division would still have if Ian Curtis was alive today?
Tom Atencio: You know, I think that's the remarkable thing about the band. They had a two-and-a-half year career and 30 years later, how many bands have any kind of legacy? I think that you can only conjecture about what path Ian would've taken. Would the band have continued? Would he be in some other kind of intellectual pursuit? Maybe a writer? He certainly was a talented writer and had certainly a keen intellect. It's hard to say what he'd be doing, if he'd be in a band at all. I think the legacy of the band is authenticated by the number of bands today that are under the influence. You can hear the influences of Joy Division all over, from Interpol and She Wants Revenge, directly, to more subtle things in other bands. The influence is there and it's quite contemporary. There are very few bands that have a 30-year career and I know these records sell very well and people reference them all the time in press and you have musicians echoing the music. His influence is here, current, I think, without him actively orchestrating anything.
Do you have any more documentaries that you're looking into or any other narrative film project?
Tom Atencio: We are producing two films right now. One, Hudson Productions is developing a film on the cult comic book Johnny Nemo, who is a pop detective in the near future, created by a wonderful comic book author by the name of Peter Milligan. That's kind of an exciting, contemporary, kind of like a James Bond for kids. That character is pretty cool. We have the rights to a wonderful Spanish documentary called Lucio. It's the story of a Spanish anarchist, anti-Franco anarchist who later became a forger and brought Citibank to its knees by forging their travelers checks. He was a very ethical guy because he used 100% of those proceeds of this nefarious scheme to fund insurgencies around the world. He's a really interesting man, very charming and an incredible character. He actually, when he was arrested, Citibank actually had to negotiate with him to stop the printing and the distribution of these travelers checks because they couldn't stop him even though he was in jail. So they actually dropped the charges and they funded a study center in Paris. It's an incredible story.
Wow. So when was he arrested?
Tom Atencio: This was all in the 60s. 60s and 70s.
Wow. It sounds like a riot.
Tom Atencio: Yeah, it's a great story and Endeavor is our partner on that and things are coming along really quickly on that.
Finally, Joy Division didn't get a wide theatrical rollout at all, and this will obviously be a nice supplement for Control. But for other music fans, what would you like to say to draw in the fans to pick this movie up?
Tom Atencio: Well, this is the band's story, told in the first-person. To me, it's not just for fans but it's an incredible story about four people who overcame incredible economic odds to have a career and to do something original and that's around and still valued because of its originality. I think that they took a brave route, not trying to be hit-propelled but be quality-propelled. The lesson, possibly, that you can pull away from Joy Division is that don't be afraid to do something inspired and original because you just might end up with something fantastically successful. It's not just revolving around Ian's Shakespearian demise, but around the creativity and pioneering efforts that that band did. They're still enjoying the fruits of their labor. It's meant to be inspiring, not just a tragic story.
Well, that's all I have for you. Thanks a lot for your time today, Tom.
Tom Atencio: Great. Thank you.
Joy Division can be found on DVD shelves everywhere on June 17.