Anton Corbijn on Ian Curtis

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Anton Corbijn---Looking in from a distance

Cristoph Mark / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
"Twenty-eight years ago, I heard a Joy Division record while I was living in Holland--I moved to England to be closer to where that sound came from." It was a move that would launch the career of Anton Corbijn, a man who has become one of the most influential rock photographers ever.
A mere 12 days after his arrival in "gray, 1970s England," Corbijn--whose monochrome photographs defined the images of such chart-toppers as U2, Depeche Mode, the Killers and Arcade Fire--found himself taking pictures of Joy Division for Britain's NME. The resulting shots became closely associated with the band and served to permanently link Joy Division with Corbijn--making him the only obvious choice to direct Control, the biography of Ian Curtis, Joy Division's enigmatic singer, who hanged himself on May 18, 1980, the eve of the band's first North American tour.
"The collective memory of Joy Division is really in black and white. All the photographers who followed [the band] around at the time took black-and-white photographs. The band themselves expressed their music in black-and-white sleeves," Corbijn says, explaining the look of his directorial debut, which has received rave reviews worldwide and taken home several awards, including the Golden Camera special mention at Cannes.
Control's breathtaking cinematographic style immediately recalls Corbijn's own photography, with its unconventional framing and emotional compositions. The man himself, however, doesn't see it that way: "It is black and white, and I used the grading that for sure looks like my photography--I like my blacks to be black and I like solidness and I like a bit of contrast. But I use available light, I don't carry lights with me. The movie was lit, so it really looks different than my photography."
Of course, Joy Division--and Ian Curtis in particular--was about lyrics and music. That was why people bought their records and bands such as U2, the Cure, Radiohead and Fall Out Boy have covered their songs. And though the band only had one album out when Curtis killed himself, his music is known around the world today, and the band's catalog continues to grow.
Formed in 1977 in Macclesfield, outside Manchester, England, Joy Division--whose name comes from the "racially pure" women selected to keep Nazi soldiers happy--was one of many influential punk bands that followed in the wake of the Sex Pistols' legendary 1976 gigs. Curtis and the three other members of the band, who debuted as New Order within months of the singer's death, soon found a niche with their dark vision of punk, with Curtis' beautiful lyrics and awkward stage presence helping to catapult them upward. Following the release of their 1979 LP Unknown Pleasures and the following year's single "Love Will Tear Us Apart," Joy Division was quickly moving toward real success.
But during all of this, Curtis discovered he had epilepsy, something he would have to control through medication. Despite warnings to cut down on alcohol, he continued to drink, exacerbating his mood swings. He married his high school sweetheart, Debbie, at 17 and had a daughter, Natalie, with her. But his newfound success and desire to get out of his drab suburban existence was heightened when he met Annik Honore, a beautiful fanzine reporter who worked at the Belgian Embassy by day.
Curtis found himself feeling trapped in his marriage and at the same time longing to be with his family. "You feel very badly for him, although he's quite a bastard to people throughout the film, but I think your emotions stay with him," Corbijn says.
Though nobody can say for sure, it appears this combination of trouble at home, an incurable illness and intense mood swings pushed him to hang himself at his home, where he was found by Debbie the next morning.
Much of the story was taken from Debbie's 1995 biography of her husband, Touching From a Distance--Ian Curtis & Joy Division. But despite being produced by the estranged widow, Control takes a much more neutral stance than the book. "I think you have to realize that the film is not only not about Debbie, it's also not about Joy Division," Corbijn says.
"The book was a great source of information, because--it might be very unlikely these days because everybody is filmed all the time--but Ian Curtis, even just before he released his second album, he was not ever filmed for any interview, so there was no visual information we had on Ian Curtis," he says. "There was no footage of him walking or talking. The only footage we have of him is performing. So it was a lot of information we needed on Ian Curtis. So we got in touch with Annik, New Order, Tony Wilson [the late founder of the band's record label and coproducer of Control], Ian's mother, Ian's sister and a few other people, and we gathered all the information together and tried to make a coherent picture of the person that was Ian Curtis."
"This was sometimes difficult because the New Order guys, all three of them, would remember events differently. Of course, it's a long time ago, but there were also some drugs in the '80s. We took the line that if two people confirmed it, it probably happened."
Corbijn stresses that Control is not a film about a band, but instead about youth, talent and a troubled soul, something we can all relate to. The same, of course, could be said for the 1986 Gary Oldman film Sid and Nancy, the story of the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious and his girlfriend, Nancy. As with that movie, the band's fans will have a hard time seeing it as anything but a rock movie, albeit it one with a twist: The movie is often silent, with small sounds, such as breathing or the rustle of clothing, taking the foreground.
"We paid a lot of attention to the sounds, when they were performing, for instance," Corbijn says. "We did a lot of mixing later on to get an incredible sound 'effect,' if you like, that you're in a cinema, but it feels like a real live performance. But because it's not a music film, I wanted quite a pure approach to the film. There's a lot of scenes where there's no sound whatsoever. I guess that's rare these days.
"Maybe it's because of a lack of content or people are fearful of quiet moments, but there always seems to be a sound in movies these days. So you really notice it when there's no sound, and personally I like that very much. I'm not sure if I will do that in my next movie as well, but for this film I thought it worked really well, because once you get music, you really pay attention to it, and it's really very effective."
And then there's the music itself--the actors performed all their own music. Even hardcore fans would be hard-pressed to notice the difference. But that was never a consideration, Corbijn explains.
"I deliberately cast actors, rather than musicians, because I really wanted to make a film, I didn't want to make a music thing. I asked the actors if they could play some they would look believable for playback," Corbijn recalls. "Even with Sam Riley [who plays Ian Curtis], it was elements of his character that made me choose him, not the fact that he had been a singer for six years. I actually ignored that fact. He even asked me at the casting if I wanted him to sing for me. I said, 'That's unnecessary; I don't need to hear you.'
"It was just that the actors themselves were so determined once we started rehearsing to do this for real that it was them that got me to do it. And of course, once we did it once, we realized how good it was going to be.
"It was easy, but you would never believe these people could learn these songs in just a few weeks. James [Anthony Pearson, who plays guitarist Bernard Sumner] had never touched a guitar in his life, but he was amazing."
Surprisingly, there are those who would rather have Riley lip-sync, instead of recreate Curtis' baritone. To them, Corbijn's response is clear and to the point: "We're talking about a movie that potentially brings the beautiful work of Ian Curtis to a much larger audience. If you want to listen to Joy Division, go play the record at home."
(Feb. 22, 2008)
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