Anton Corbijn speaks with Jennifer Merin about “Control”

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In his directorial debut, “Control,“ famed photographer Anton Corbijn focuses on Ian Curtis, the legendary front man for the 70’s band Joy Division. It’s a personal film–Curtis and the band were influential in Corbijn’s life.

“I left Holland for England in 1979 because of “Joy Division,” says Corbijn. “A lot of decisions I’ve made have been intuitive. Going to England was that way. I felt a mystery about Joy Division–maybe the graphics on their record sleeve, made me think they had a deeper meaning. They seemed to say all the right things to me. And their music, I thought was really beautiful. I didn’t totally understand the lyrics–I didn’t listen to them much anyway, even when I spoke English. It was the total sound that made it a very important kind of music. I think intuition is quite underrated as a motivation. I wanted to go where that music came from, and did.”

“But I was also fed up with Holland and wanted to take picture someplace else. And the few time I’d been to England, the pictures I’d taken seemed, well, more meaningful–maybe because in England people made the choice to become a musician, but in Holland, it was more like, well, I’m a good musician, so let’s start a band.”

“In Holland, the social system gives you an incredible safety net, where in England, there’s no safety net. So the intensity you have with the art form you choose–music, in this case–is far deeper than what I experienced in Holland, where people were good musicians, but they didn’t live the life.”

MERIN: How did you connect with the bands when you got to England?< COBIJN: I met a guy who said if I came to England, he’d have work for me. But when I got there, he didn’t know who I was. So, I knocked on doors at magazines. One editor brought me to his staff and said, “This is Anton from Holland. He’s a good photographer. Anybody got work for him?” And all the editors who were working at their cluttered desks–very different from Holland, where everything is well organized, even at a music magazine–said, “Tic tic tic.” And, one guy began to sing “I hate the fucking Dutch, they live in windmills and wear clocks“–which was actually a song, but I didn’t know it at the time. The good thing about that song is that in the end it says, “But worst of all I hate the fucking Danes.” So at least I wasn’t a Dane. I hung around long enough and eventually, they sent me to photograph bands.

MERIN: Musicians are the focus of much of your photography, and your first film. Have you thought of joining their ranks?

CORBIJN: I was very shy when I was young, so I never thought of going on stage. We moved to a new town when I was seventeen, and I didn’t know anybody. There was a concert in the town square, but I was so shy, I didn’t dare go by myself–so I borrowed my father‘s camera so I would have something to do, then l thought, well, I might as well take some pictures–and that‘s how I became a photographer. It was very innocent. I didn’t know anything about photography. But it was a great way to get close to the stage–because you had an excuse.

Then, during the next school holiday I worked in factories to earn enough to buy my own camera. And, I knocked on doors to ask if I could take portraits, and became a portrait photographer. Initially it was only musicians, but then it became all artists–actors, directors and painters. I really like painting. I would prefer to be a painter than a photographer, to be honest.

MERIN: You photographed Joy Division. How well did you know Ian?

CORBIJN: Not well at all. My photos of Joy Division became famous so everyone assumes I had a deep relationship with them. But those photos were taken in ten minutes, and that‘s all I knew of them personally. So I don’t recall that much about what they–or Ian– said.

But I’d come from the Netherlands, which has a good social system, unlike England–especially the north of England, where there is poverty and everything was bleak and gray. So I think coming to England left a big impression on me–the movie is in black and white for that reason, because that’s how I remember England, and all the photos were all in blank and white.

MERIN: In your leap from still photography to filmmaking, why make a biopic rather than a documentary about Ian Curtis?

CORBIJN: I didn’t want to make a documentary, I wanted to make a dramatic feature. There is already a documentary about Joy Division. And, “Control” isn’t really about Joy Division–it’s about Ian Curtis.

It would be difficult to tell Ian’s story as a documentary because there is very little of Ian on film–just a few badly filmed live concerts and TV appearances, but no filmed interviews. During the 70s, people like Ian weren’t documented the way they are now, in magazines and all the other coverage on the Internet. So, the material isn’t there.

If “Control” were about Joy Division it would be different film. It’s about a boy–where we see his dream and what happens when it turns out to be different than he thinks, and what happens to him. And, it’s a love story, so it’s universal. That you have great music in there is just a bonus.

The script is based on Debbie’s (Ian’s wife, played by Samantha Morton) book–which is from her point of view, so it‘s her story. To find Ian’s story, we interviewed the band, Ian’s girlfriend Annik-we had to get her point of view, too, to make it objective–and other people who knew him. In the end, they all supported the script. I think they think it‘s accurate. For Debbie and Annik, their not ecstatic because what happened is still raw for them, but I think they‘re both okay with the film.

I wanted to keep it truthful, and I feel that’s what we’ve done.

MERIN: Where have you changed Ian’s story, if at all, to make a more dramatic film?

CORBIJN: Well we’re not making a miniseries or six-hour film, so we have to economical to a degree that doesn‘t effect how Ian is seen. For example, when he visits his parents towards the end, they’d moved to another house–go and explain that in the film. When Ian solicited to become the band’s singer, he’d found a notice at the Sex Pistols concert and called the phone number–but that detail is less important than just knowing that seeing the Sex Pistols gig prompted him to become a singer in a band. When they tried hypnotism with Ian, we changed that. I had the actual tapes, and it was very different, but it could have been confusing in the film. That scene is important just to show that somebody in the band tried to help Ian, and to show Ian realizing the situation he was in. In the film, I used an edited version of all the things that were spinning around in his head, rather playing everything out. That was an okay choice–to be rather economical in telling the story.

MERIN: You photographed Joy Division. How well did you know Ian?

CORBIJN: Not well at all. My photos of Joy Division became famous so everyone assumes I had a deep relationship with them. But those photos were taken in ten minutes, and that‘s all I knew of them personally. So I don’t recall that much about what they–or Ian– said.

But I’d come from the Netherlands, which has a good social system, unlike England–especially the north of England, where there is poverty and everything was bleak and gray. So I think coming to England left a big impression on me–the movie is in black and white for that reason, because that’s how I remember England, and all the photos were all in blank and white.

MERIN: You really do capture that period. Was it difficult to find locations?

CORBIJN: We shot several scenes in Macclesfield–the bits of the house where he lived, was the actual house and it has changed very little since he lived there. And Vaux, is actually where he worked, and is the same place he worked and we shot it in real time, so it’s quite accurate to the way it was for Ian.

But so much has changed since then. We shot in Nottingham because Manchester wasn’t an option–it’s been so built up it doesn‘t look like it did during the 70s. Also for our funding–we had offers from East Midlands and West Midlands. West Midlands wanted us to shoot in Liverpool, which made no sense. So, we shot in Nottingham, which looks quite a lot like Manchester did in the 70s.

This is a very mundane, gray part of England. That fits my work as a photographer, even in photographing famous artists. I don’t generally photograph highlights in peoples’ lives. I feel it’s important to show that beautiful things can come out of that kind of gray mundane environment–that you don’t need the best, most beautiful desk to write a great and beautiful song. A lot of great art comes from very bad circumstances. So it’s quite human, the film, I think.

MERIN: After having lived with the spirit of Ian for such a long time, do you have a sense of why he hanged himself?

CORBIJN: Well, he never called me before he did it, so we will always have to guess. But personally, I think it was the epilepsy, and especially the side effects of the drugs he had to take for epilepsy. A lot has changed since then with medicines, but at that time, they really didn’t know how to control the disease and it was a lot of trial and error with the drugs. They thought epilepsy occurred in people who were a little mental anyway, so they didn’t’ give much priority. The drugs they gave him caused incredible mood swings, and he didn’t understand it, couldn’t control it. He felt responsible for taking the band to America, and was afraid of having a fit on stage and maybe destroying the band’s future. So, all the problems he had with the band and with his girlfriend seemed to take on unreal proportions.

The other thing was that in Northern England, people don’t really talk about emotions and so nobody in the band really listened to his lyrics until he was dead. There was no safety net for him.

MERIN: “Control” is the second feature made recently about Ian and Joy Division….

CORBIJN: Yes, I think “Party People” is quite a funny film. And, apart from the way they treat Ian Curtis, I like it quite a lot. I think you have to realize that was a caricature of events–that’s why it’s so funny, because you can get a lot of mileage out of caricature. It touches on a lot of elements, but not very deep. My film basically touches upon one thing and goes all the way. But Party People shows that there’s a real interest in that period, which is a good thing.

A lot of young people, young bands today seem to know about Joy Division–they reference the band, and play records. “Control” will boost Joy Division’s music, but it’s not made for that purpose.

MERIN: Most of the music in the film is Joy Division’s…

CORBIJN: Yes, but whenever you see the actors playing, they actually are playing the music. And Sam Riley (who plays Ian) actually is singing. It’s quite phenomenal to have actors learning the music and playing for real. It’s far better to hear them playing for real. There are only two actual Joy Division tracks–Atmosphere and Love That Tears Apart.” If people want to hear Joy Division they should play the records at home.

MERIN: Sam Riley’s quite the find. He’s brilliant…

CORBIJN: Yes, and it’s the first real film he’s acted in. He’s a singer who’d acted a bit in his teenage years. He was in a no hope job in a bar–so I think he thought this was his one ticket to get out for his whole life, and he gave it everything he has.

Of course, he looks a lot like Ian Curtis. But he studied everything, went to the Epilepsy Society to learn about the disease and the conditions that it has, and we watched everything we could find on the internet, on Google and everywhere, video and photographs that we could find together.

You know, Sam and me, we were the two virgins on this film and we really depended a bit on each other, we wanted to do well for each other. And Sam was there everyday, and never complained and for him to be on the screen with the best actress of her generation, Samantha Morton, it’s phenomenal to hold your ground. He’s a great guy, Sam. He really is. And the look is a kind of movie star look, so I think he will do some interesting things in the future.

MERIN: How did you get to Samantha Morton?

CORBIJN: I worked with her in a video I did for U2 and she let me know she’d like to work with me again on something else. So I tried my luck. The film is about Ian, but she’s the female lead. I find I love the way she does everything–the way she kisses someone or moves her hands. I could watch her all day.

MERIN: Do you consider this film a natural evolution from your work as a still photographer and directing videos?

CORBIJN: The new thing I got working on this film was working with actors. Storytelling isn’t new to me because I do that in my photographs and videos. And, it’s similar with the look of the film–I always work with visual things. But working with actors was new–seeing what they can bring to a story was wonderful. That’s why I would like to make another film–because I think that was a great experience.

It was the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life, making this film. And that was also because I had to produce it to a large degree. But to come out of the black holes that a film can disappear into and work with these actors was an incredible great feeling, I would say.

This film is about the 70s, and at that time we weren’t so speeded up. We took more time to watch things. I personally like to watch someone walk through a room, see how they move their head, move their body. I like watching these things–maybe that comes from me being a photographer. I like to see them as they are, and not be guided by editing of their image. In my music videos, I tell the story that way–it‘s truthful and direct. I don’t use screens or anything like that, but the videos are more speeded up than the film. The film is paced so you have moments where you just really can watch and take in what‘s happening.

MERIN: You knew both Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain–who is the subject of a new documentary called “Kurt Cobain: About A Son.“ Both were young rock stars, both committed suicide. Do you see any similarities between the two artists?

CORBIJN: Well, they both died. But I think the reasons why they died were very different. And also the places they were at in their work before they died were very different. Kurt Cobain was at the top of his form, and very well known. When he took a drug overdose it was front page news. Ian Curtis wasn‘t front page news when he died. It’s quite different, I think that kind of pressure must have been quite different. They were both in physical pain–Kurt always had back pain. But with Kurt, there was a lot of illegal drug use. With Ian, it was legal drug use for his epilepsy. I know I knew them both, worked with them both. But I don’t see too many similarities.

MERIN: You’ve watched the music business evolve over the years. How is it different than it was when Ian was singing?

CORBIJN: Well, I’m not a music journalist. I’m a music consumer. But I do think that music has become less important in people’s lives and it has become less expensive. I think it’s not longer like the elements in the film where Ian walks home with a record under his arm, and he goes into the bedroom at his parents’ place and only has ears and eyes for that record he bought, for that music. That is something in Ian’s life that resembles my life.

The importance that certain records have in your life, I don’t think we see that anymore–music it’s just one of the commodities that you have in your life. With the internet where you download whatever you like. If you don’t like it you don’t download. It doesn’t matter as much. So, the value of music is looked at very differently now.

We didn’t have a television in at home until I was ten or twelve–not until the Dutch Queen got married, which was a sort of pivotal moment in my parents’ life, I think. I grew up in a very heavily religious family, so television was initially frowned upon. So television wasn’t as big a thing for me as music. I think the first single I got was a Beatles song, but I don’t really remember which one. But I was thirteen or fourteen when I got it. These days, my nephew who is six has loads of CDs.

I loved music. Music was the main motivator for me to pick up a camera–not television or movies, but music. So, now I have the job of putting together a soundtrack for the movie–and it’s great. It’s a boy’s dream come true.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).