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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 USA.

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 be that.

“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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