CORBIJN, ANTON - CONTROL
The 70s UK band, Joy Division, was responsible for two life changing moments,
photographer and Control director Anton Corbijn tells Jimmy Thomson when talking
about his biopic of Joy Division’s ill-fated lead singer Ian Curtis.
Photographer and rock music video director Anton Corbijn can credit British
post-punk band Joy Division with two life-changing moments. The first was his
decision to leave his native Holland to live and work in the UK, the second was
as the subject of his first and highly acclaimed feature film Control, his
biopic of the band’s short, stellar career and the tragic death of its lead
singer, Ian Curtis.
“Ian and Joy Division had such a huge impact on so many people’s lives,” says
Corbijn as we swelter on the rooftop patio of a nightclub in Cannes, where
Control has been showing as part of Directors Fortnight.
“I was the photographer on a Dutch music paper when I heard the first Joy
Division record for the first time. It was such a strong, and a different,
sound, I knew I had to be closer and half a year later, I moved to England.” The
band repaid the compliment, choosing Corbijn as their photographer when their
record company was dead set against the idea.
“I met Joy Division within two weeks of moving. Things like that were very easy
to arrange in those days. I did pictures of them that no one in England liked,
and no one would publish, but the band actually liked them. Their publicity shot
was my first arranged photograph.” That photograph would become part of the Joy
Division mythology that helped to launch the whole Goth culture of today.
"I’m kind of a naďve film-maker"
“It was my idea to have them walk away from me and have one person look
back,” says Corbijn (see phot). “Of course, that one person was Ian. And when
Ian died, people thought it was a real premonition and it became like a classic
picture. But that’s a weird thing. I had no insight.”
With the many deserved plaudits cast in Control’s direction yet to come, Corbijn
was still in mild shock that the film had been selected for Cannes. And even his
reputation as one of the world’s top portrait photographers – his subjects
ranging from actors like Robert De Niro and Clint Eastwood to his specialty,
musicians such as Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen and
U2 - had not prepared him for this high profile launch into the world of movies.
“I’m kind of a naďve film-maker,” he says with genuine modesty. “I made the film
and didn’t think about being invited to a place like Cannes. Now I’m here, it’s
amazing. At the screening I was nervous as many of the cast hadn’t seen the
film, but the audience reaction was beautiful for me.”
The black and white film follows Curtis’s life from his teenage engagement and
marriage in 1974 to Deborah, to his affair with a female rock journalist, to his
increasing bouts of epilepsy, his depression as a result, and eventually to his
suicide in 1980, days before the band was due to leave for its first tour of the
The look of the film is very European which, ironically, perfectly captures the
grim feel of pre-Thatcher England and, specifically, working class Manchester, a
city that would spawn so many seminal bands in a relatively short period.
“It is a very British film, but through European eyes,” says Corbijn. “The look
is not English, but what we’re looking at is very English. I haven’t seen many
films. I’m a very uneducated film-maker. You work from something in here.” He
taps his head and his heart.
“Kes really strikes me as a really strong portrait of that period and I wanted
to get a good portrait of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Sam Riley who plays the main role
is very much that for me. I didn’t ever think I would find someone like him, but
then I found Sam. I realised he had the potential to create that strong, honest
and believable portrayal.”
Corbijn’s work with a still camera has clearly influenced the look of Control,
possibly even more than the 80-plus music videos he has directed for the likes
of Nick Cave, U2, Nirvana, Metallica and The Killers. However, he claims that
was not his intention.
"the aesthetic is beautiful, but very subtle"
“People think it’s very photographic because it’s in black and white but I
wanted the film to be carried by the actors and story, and just wanted images to
support that, rather than hitting people over the head with really thought-out
pictures. I think the aesthetic is beautiful, but very subtle.”
Even so there are several set-ups that look like moving stills rather than movie
scenes; for instance the moment where Curtis (played by newcomer Riley) is
literally cornered by his wife, Debbie (played by Samantha Morton), when she
discovers he has been unfaithful.
Corbijn admits he had visualised that scene exactly as it is played, with the
frame three-quarters empty. “I told Samantha to push him into the corner and
keep him there,” Corbijn concedes with a wry smile. “It worked.”
Ironically, considering how well received Control was and continues to be, it
was not Corbijn’s preferred choice for his first feature. What seemed the
obvious topic for a man who had known Ian Curtis and Joy Division, had directed
music videos and designed more than 100 album covers, was actually the last
thing he wanted to do.
“I felt if I was going to be taken seriously as a movie-maker I shouldn’t touch
anything related to music,” he explains. “So at first, I said no. Then two
months later, I reconsidered and realised how important that period had been in
my life and I sort of wanted closure for that period and I felt the movie would
“This is a one-off for me, it was about a part of my life,” says Corbijn, 51,
the same age Curtis would be if he were alive today. “I wouldn’t want to do a
film, for instance, about the life of Bono, although I’m very fond of him. That
period really inspired me when I was younger, but I want to make my future work
on more recent inspiration.”
So what kind of film would he like to do next? He ponders only briefly, glad to
embrace the notion that he has a future as a film maker beyond dead rock stars
and moving stills. “A psychological thriller,” he says with relish before being
swept away for the next round of interviews in the publicity whirl that had
suddenly become his life.
Published October 25, 2007
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