Anton Corbijn is a legendary British photographer who’s taken some of the most distinctive pictures of the world’s greatest bands and singers. U2 fan? Then surely you’ve seen Corbijn’s photos of the band that graced the cover of their album “The Joshua Tree.” Depeche Mode? Corbijn directed some of their most compelling music videos including “Personal Jesus.” And that’s on top of the hundreds of photos he took for music magazines like NME and Rolling Stone.
Some of Corbijn’s most memorable early photos were those of a young Manchester band called Joy Division as they made waves in the British post-punk movement of the late ’70s. Nearly three decades later, when the opportunity arose to make a movie about the band, centering around their enigmatic singer Ian Curtis who mysteriously committed suicide just as they were finding fame, it must have seemed like the perfect project for Corbijn to make his feature film directorial debut on. To play Ian Curtis, the director found Sam Riley, frontman for a Leeds band who’d never made a film and who was suddenly thrust into the position of having to carry a film about the legendary frontman of a highly-influential British band.
The results are Control, an amazing look at Curtis’ personal life leading up to the formation of the band and offering some answers to the questions about his untimely death that have lingered for decades, even as they boosted the band’s fame and notoriety.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Corbijn and Riley during the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film had its North American debut.
ComingSoon.net: You’ve been directing music videos for so many years. Why did it take you so long to get around to directing a feature film? Had you always wanted to do one and this was the first time where material presented itself that you felt worth doing?
Anton Corbijn: Both really. I’m a photographer, who did some videos on the side really. I wasn’t a video director, as in it’s not like I’ve nothing to do until my next video offer comes in. It was just experimenting in a sense for me to see what I could do in that medium. Yeah, it slowly crept in that I should do a film at some point and so in the mid-’90s I got some scripts now and then, but never anything that I could convince myself that I should spend a year of my life on. When this came around, I realized there was a connection to my life, there was an emotional connection to their story that I felt I could give it a go. I lack experience in filmmaking, so I needed something to hang onto, and I think the subject matter and the emotions that go with it gave me the confidence that there would be something in the film that I could make a difference as opposed to other directors that might make this movie.
CS: Were you involved very early on in the script-writing phase of “Control”?
Corbijn: No, I was not. The script was commissioned by the time I said “yes” to it.
CS: Casting Ian Curtis must have been the first really big step, so can you talk about why you decided to go with a lesser known actor or a first-time actor for that matter?
Sam Riley: You can say “unknown,” it’s okay.
Corbijn: Well, he was unknown and that was the issue, because you don’t know how to find an unknown, so I would say it was like finding a needle in a haystack to find Sam. If he was a known actor, then you look at all the possibilities you have in this person or that person, but if there’s an unknown somewhere in the world, how do you find this person? To actually find Sam it was amazing, it was a blessing for the film, but that was quite late. We had already found Samantha Morton and Joe Alexander I think was on board, too, so it was absolutely essential to find somebody that could play Ian Curtis and they were very big shoes to fill. There was some other things about meeting Sam that convinced me he was the right choice. It was not just the visual resemblance obviously, which is the first port of call, but there’s something in Sam in his person that gave me the feeling that there was a very interesting person that is not actor-like. There was a freshness to him that was really deep down what I really was looking for. There’s this movie “Kes” by Ken Loach that has this little boy playing the lead, and like Sam, he’s from the North of England. The acting is so convincing that you think it’s a documentary and I thought if he could get anywhere near that, where people look at the screen and think that it’s real, I’d be very happy. I think Sam got very close to that for sure.
CS: Sam, you had a musical background before this, so were you already familiar with Joy Division? What was it like being asked to fill the shoes of this legendary British singer and did you meet with anyone, like his wife Debbie, beforehand?
Riley: I knew of Joy Division and I knew some of their music. I knew “Love Will Tear Us Apart” like most people. It’s their most recognizable song. I knew “Transmission” and “Digital” and I knew the music that was most like the things that I personally like listening to, more rock ‘n’ roll things, and not that I didn’t like them. I just didn’t give them much attention or much of a chance. I knew of Ian, I’d never read the book before. It’s kind of strange really. I was very anxious about a lot of things to do with the movie. The fact that these sorts of movies, a rock movie about a singer, they usually miss rather than hit. That made me anxious, and the fact that I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to act particularly with these two actresses, who I’ve watched movies of theirs before doing this. I wasn’t in any position to say “no” to it, although I was anxious about certain things. I was very confident Anton was the right guy for the job and I liked him, and I thought if Samantha Morton’s on board, there must be something going on.
CS: Had you acted in other things before and did you have any desire to act?
Riley: Yeah, my first experience of acting was in a school play and there was something about it that I loved immediately. I felt comfortable on stage and I was always playing guitar and wanting to be a singer at the same time, and I think really being a frontman and being an actor, I don’t think there’s much of a difference. I think most frontmen are actors. I think even Ian is a performer. He’s a very convincing one, and at times, less so, but there’s performance there in all singers. I’d made a number of television one-line appearances as a teenager and packed it in really, because I wanted my music to be taken seriously. I thought that if I’m going to be on “Coronation Street”, no one’s really going to listen to my music, so I gave it up. My band we did okay for three and a half years, then I was dropped and I was working in a bar, and I’d just taken a job in a retail warehouse in Leeds and thought, “Well, I better give my old agent a call who I hadn’t spoken to in four years.” She said, “They’re looking for an Ian Curtis to go to Manchester next week” and I went to Manchester, met the casting agents and by the time I got back, my agent was on the phone saying, “They want to see you on Friday in London to do something.” It’s kind of crazy. I didn’t know anybody was looking for it, but it couldn’t have come at a perfect time for me. The coincidence that I phoned my agent after not talking to him for four years at exactly the time he was looking for somebody who looked like Ian from the north of England.
CS: When we first see you on the screen, I wouldn’t look at you and say, “Oh, that looks like Ian Curtis” but it’s this transformation over the course of the movie which is so amazing.
Corbijn: Yeah, because he starts at an age that people don’t recognize Ian Curtis from.
Riley: There’s no documented pictures
Corbijn: Well, there’s family pictures but there’s not public knowledge of Ian looking like that at that age, but you grow into it. If you started halfway through the film, you’d immediately know it was Ian Curtis.
CS: Did you try shooting the movie chronologically and would that have been possible?
Corbijn: No, it was impossible. It was too much in different places, and some bits were filmed in Macclesfield, most of it was filmed around Nottingham.
CS: Then how were you able to deal with his different looks
the long hair when younger, etc?
Riley: That’s a wig. I grew out my hair for the part, and then they cut it but then they said they were going to use a wig, so I had to have my hair cut immediately off, but that sort of helped me get into it really. I tried with the younger Ian to have something more playful about him with his walk, something still with the confidence of youth, and then once the wig came off, I went back to moody me.
Corbijn: Well, he had a very promising childhood and he got married, and it goes downwards, doesn’t it?
CS: When did you yourself first meet Ian? When you did your first photos of the band? When was that?
Corbijn: I met him in 1979. I moved in October to London and the first two weeks in November is when I met him I think.
CS: As far as capturing the performances, you’d obviously seen the band play live. Did you see any of the performances that are recreated in the movie?
Corbijn: No, no. I had seen them at the Rainbow twice and none of the gigs we showed were actually in the Rainbow.
CS: Can you talk about how you captured those performances in terms of having them playing live or to playback of pre-recorded music?
Corbijn: Sam can talk it better than I do, but every time you see them performing, it’s real. It’s them playing. The only time that you hear Joy Division songs and you don’t see them performing, that’s the real tracks which happens with “Atmosphere,” “No Love Lost” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart”… although the very ending of that is live.
Riley: I offered to sing in the audition actually when I was doing my dance, but there was always the idea that it would be done to playback. Anton called the four of us in during the two-week rehearsal period, so that we could get familiar with our instrument–that sounds very crude, doesn’t it? I have a potty mind sorry–so that we could become a convincing mime act, but it was really down to the dedication of Harry Treadway, James Pierson (who’d never played guitar before, it’s just incredible) and Joe (Anderson), who’d never played bass. When these three guys were so determined to mime convincingly. I was always frustrated that it wasn’t going to be me singing as a singer, but it was down to them putting in extra time and extra hours. It wasn’t until we started filmingI’d forgotten thatand not long off our first gig scene, a day or two before actually, where Anton came down to the rehearsal and we played the songs and then we started talking about “Let’s do it for real.”
Corbijn: I mean, they convinced me. Harry was the driving force, wasn’t he in that sense. He’d done a movie called “Brothers of the Head” where they also played, so he knew that it could be done. I know it’s more complex so I gave in and said, “Let’s try it for one,” and it became immediately obvious that’s the way to go. It was so good that it benefited the film enormously. It’s the dedication of the actors, you know? It really was. Even if you pay an actor a million pounds, you can’t get this dedication.
Riley: There was something on that set, really, with everybody there. We all really wanted to do it the best we honestly could, everybody there, from Harry, who is a very talented actor but maybe did four lines in the movie, but that didn’t stop him putting four hours a day into that drum kit. It’s really something incredible.
CS: Did you actually record any studio versions of the songs with the actors?
Corbijn: We had a musical teacher.
Riley: A guy called Liam from Nottingham College of Music came in, ’cause I’d been in a band before, but as the singer, I didn’t know how to switch on a guitar amp or anything. There was someone there to help us with that and to help James with the guitar and Hooky… we recorded our own studio version of “She’s Lost Control” and then the trick was with the live scenes was we’d have the audience in there. We’d play a version… we did this once or twice. Sometimes we’d record it in the studio and then mix and match. It was always us doing it but at times, we had to mime to ourselves because of the physical impossibility and our inability to play at the same pace every time if you want other angles.
CS: Did you have very different sensibilities while making this movie then you did when making music videos? For instance, did you have a different DP?
Corbijn: No, I used the same DP I used for some of my videos, and you can use some of the other people you use on videos, as long as they’re good. The real trick really is that you don’t have music as a basis, which you do for music videos, you really try to tell a story and you work with actors. That was the challenge and that’s the beauty of it.
CS: How did movies like Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People” inform the movie?
Corbijn: Well, “24 Hour Party People” was definitely not a researched… It’s quite a funny movie, I have to say, but there’s no depth to the characters, so no, I’m happy that movie exists, but it had nothing to do with preparation for our film.
Riley: I didn’t watch Sean Harris’ performance for any part of my own research either. I’d seen the movie, but that seemed completely unnecessary to copy the copier.
CS: Rob Gretton was still very funny in both movies.
Riley: I think he’s very funny in real life, and there’s a strange connection between the characters. The guy who played Rob Gretton in our movie, Toby Kebbell, played the brother of Paddy Considine, who played Rob Gretton in the other one, in “Dead Man’s Shoes.”
Control opens in New York at the Film Forum on Wednesday, October 10, and in L.A. on October 19. Other cities should follow in short order.