Anton Corbijn, the 52-year-old Dutch photographer, music-video director, designer and now film director, almost didn’t direct Control. He initially turned down producer Orian Williams’s offer to make a movie about Ian Curtis, the iconic lead singer of the British band Joy Division, who hung himself in 1980 at only 23. “I was so fed up with people just calling me a rock photographer when that’s really not what I’m doing,” says Corbijn. “I felt if I did a movie that was connected even slightly to music, people would say it was a rock film and therefore not take me seriously as a director. I felt it was not a great start for me. But then I rethought [it] after a few months.”
It’s a good thing he did. Control is not only an exceptional debut but also one of the most compelling, moving and visually arresting films of the year. Though the idea of a film about Joy Division — especially one made by someone best known for being a “rock photographer” and promo director — inspired dread in the hearts of the band’s fans, Control avoids being a hackneyed biopic of Curtis, the James Dean of the postpunk generation. Corbijn instead creates a complex and deeply human portrait of the man in the context of the times he lived in. As one would expect from someone with Corbijn’s background, Control — shot in piercing black-and-white — looks stunning, but his ability as a great director of actors is the real surprise: In the lead role, first-timer Sam Riley, an ex-indie singer, is astonishing as Ian Curtis, giving a performance that merits a Best Actor Oscar nomination; Samantha Morton, one of Britain’s best actresses, is typically excellent as Curtis’s wife, Deborah; and Toby Kebbell, so good in Shane Meadows’s Dead Man’s Shoes, has a great scene-stealing turn as the band’s manager, Rob Gretton.
Though Control’s script, by Matt Greenhalgh, was adapted from Curtis’s ex-wife Deborah’s memoir, Touching From a Distance, the film also draws on Corbijn’s own experiences during the late 1970s when, as a shy, young photographer (and Joy Division fan) in Manchester, he was hired to take pictures of the band. I briefly spoke to Corbijn after the Edinburgh International Film Festival awards ceremony (where both he and Riley won prizes for Control), and then caught up with him a few days later to discuss his memories of Joy Division, working with Riley, and the film’s success at Cannes.
I believe you moved to the U.K. in 1979 because of Joy Division.
I’d been there a couple of times prior to that. I was sort of thinking of leaving Holland anyway, and when that music came out I felt I should really be there, where the music comes from. So they were the catalyst, in a sense. The few times I’d been to England prior to that I felt that my pictures were stronger when I took them here, and that had a lot to do with the atmosphere of music, which people took very seriously. It was much more of a choice: You get a job, or you go make music. And there was an intensity to what people were doing here too that I didn’t feel so much on the continent.
What was it about Joy Division’s music that you particularly connected to?
It’s difficult to describe. I guess I felt a kind of strength in it, a gravity, a sort of weight and seriousness that I must have responded to at the time. My English was pretty poor, so it wasn’t the lyrics, but maybe just the way that they were sung in combination with the music. There was this whole atmosphere about it.
I love that Control shows Ian Curtis’s warmth and humor, particularly in the scenes where he’s working at the job center. Were you personally very aware of that side of his personality?
No, not so much. Because of my lack of English at the time, I wasn’t a great conversation-maker. I was also a little shy and they had a bit of an accent, so it was not that easy for me to speak to them. They really liked my pictures, and one time they asked me to come to Manchester. The initial picture I did in the tube [station], where they walked away from me, that was my idea and they really liked that picture. I got a lot from the book [Touching From a Distance] and from talking to people for all these kinds of [personal] details.
How did you approach the casting of the film? It seems like you were trying to find new faces rather than use well-known actors.
Well, initially there were some people involved on the production side that would have liked more well-known faces, but for the role of Ian it was very hard to get a well-known person to want to play that. I think it’s a very difficult role to play, very big shoes to fill. So we talked to a couple of people but we also did a lot of open castings both in London and in the North [of England], and that’s where Sam Riley was spotted — and I can’t tell you how much of a blessing that has been for the film.
Did you know instantly when you saw him that he should play Ian?
Well, I saw him on film initially, and when I met him I then thought he was very much the only option we had. There was something about him that was very reminiscent of how I met Joy Division, who I also met in the winter. There’s a Northern English thing where people underdress and they don’t eat too much and they have these long overcoats on and they’re smoking a cigarette and trembling with their hands. When I saw Sam doing that, I thought that’s exactly what I remember when arriving in England and meeting Joy Division. So that was quite a good omen, I thought. There was a beautiful thing about Sam that didn’t feel so much like an actor and therefore would probably be more believable, where you really believe that the person you are watching is a real person. I watched Kes, this Ken Loach movie about a young boy, a couple of times and he’s so believable that you really feel that it’s a documentary. I was hoping to get something close to that.
What was your relationship with Sam like during filming?
Quite close. We were both first-timers and a lot of our success depended on the other. In a way he saw me as a father figure [laughs] on the set, at least. I really wanted him to do well, and he was just amazing, he didn’t need much pushing at all. He worked very hard and studied everything that there was to study. There was never a problem for Sam that he didn’t give 110 percent, including the epileptic fits, which are very hard to do. And the fact that he had become a singer helped us in the film, because initially I was just going to do playback, but then the [actors] became so good that they really wanted to play for real — and thank God they did.
So the actors decided they wanted to actually play the Joy Division songs rather than just mime?
Yeah, they did. I just wanted them to study [their instruments] so that they could look believable for the playback, but they wanted to go further. They rehearsed every day with the musical director, so that was brilliant for those live scenes, but it was also great for non-live scenes because throughout these rehearsals there started to become a dynamic that was like a real band.
Did you know that Sam had been in a band when you cast him?
I did, but the only thing I thought was that it was quite good that he knew how to hold a microphone and probably had the right pose. But, of course, it might also have been a hindrance because you probably get used to your own pose at the microphone and we wanted an Ian Curtis pose. But he did that so well. I was quite adamant to get the live stuff correct, because although it’s not a Joy Division film, I knew that it would potentially be a film that Joy Division fans would go to and that they would be scrutinising the performances. [The performances] are the only thing we actually have film of. There’s nothing of Ian walking in the street, that sort of film doesn’t exist.
How closely did Sam connect with the character of Ian over the course of filming? There’s a nice irony in that Sam and your actress Alexandra Maria Lara fell in love just like their characters, Ian and his mistress Annik, did.
Yeah, Annik said to me that she thought that was the most beautiful thing about the film, that in the afterlife, her character and Ian Curtis’s character fall in love. That happened after the film. They’ve [been] a couple now for a year.
Did you prepare especially for the aspects of directing you were not so familiar with, like dealing narrative concerns?
Well, in photographs you tell a story too and in my little [promo] videos I often make a little story. So I think that’s something that I’d had some experience with. How you tell the story was the most important thing to me, and that was through the actors and of course your choice of framing and these kinds of things. But that’s something I do quite easily, that’s not such a great achievement for me. If I do [the visual side] well, it just comes very natural and, of course, [cinematographer] Martin Ruhe did a fantastic job. The other things I really had to work on and I find that a much bigger achievement for me. To get the actors to do well, that’s a very proud moment for me.
How did you decide on the look of the film? At what stage did you decide to shoot in black and white?
Very early on. My own memory of Joy Division is very black-and-white because that’s all I shot in those days, and also the album sleeves were in black-and-white. The only magazines that published anything on Joy Division were black-and-white magazines because Joy Division were a cult band. They didn’t appear in color magazines.
Were you concerned that people who didn’t know Joy Division’s music wouldn’t appreciate the film so much?
No. The thing is it’s not made for Joy Division fans. I was telling Ian’s story and Joy Division is connected to that. I thought if I do justice to Ian it’s going to be fine from every angle you look at it. I feel it’s a much broader film than just for people who like Joy Division’s music. It’s a sad, tragic love story.
You said before that you’re perceived as “just a rock photographer,” but how big a passion has cinema been in your life?
I’m a photographer and as an artist I make little films and do graphic design and some stage design and my photography is quite broad. I’m interested in artists, whether it’s musicians or painters, actors or directors, but I’m interested in people who make things that I like and rock photography is limited by what’s in the picture, not how you photograph. [As for] cinema, I don’t think I’ve seen a massive amount of films in my life. I don’t really know a lot about film but I’ve always liked [Andrei] Tarkovsky and I also like [Jacques] Tati. The Big Lebowski is one of my favorite films of the Coen brothers. I like Fargo, I like Blood Simple. I like the Italian movies of [Federico] Fellini and [Michelangelo] Antonioni, and John Cassavetes and [Jean-Luc] Godard. I like Martin Scorsese — Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Raging Bull — the films of my generation, as it were.
Were there any films that were particularly an influence when you were making Control?
No, not really. I didn’t watch any films except for Ken Loach’s Kes before I made this. I was quite adamant about not seeing films that I thought might influence me because I didn’t want that. I think unconsciously [I was] probably influenced anyway by some of the people I mentioned, but then it’s dreamlike. I don’t think I’ve seen a Tarkovsky movie in the last 10 years, but maybe something of that creeps into your work.
The film won three prizes when it premiered at Cannes. How have you reacted to that success?
Well, I bought a smaller car! I bought a hybrid car instead of a big 4x4. But mentally it’s been great because as much as I was focused on making the film, I think I was very unfocused on what happens once you finish the film, a little innocent to what was to come. So to be asked to open the Quinzaine [The Directors’ Fortnight] at Cannes was amazing, of course, and then to get the reaction [the film] did was unexpected for me. I had no idea that film was such a massive industry. When you walk in Cannes... in photography that does not exist, let’s put it that way! So that really overpowered me, and it’s just been beautiful. You make the film you want to make, so you love what you’re doing, and when you send it out into the world you’re just lucky that people want to see it and react as well as they do.