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Anton Corbijn: "I’m telling a love story"

Translated Tuesday 2 October 2007, by Helen Robertshaw

Cinema. The film which opened the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, Control by Anton Corbijn, brilliantly portrays the life and death of Ian Curtis, singer of the band Joy Division.

Anton Corbijn first made his name as a photographer, taking portraits of people in the rock and film world. He is also a graphic designer and he directs videos. Born in the Netherlands, he arrived in London in 1979, the England of the group Joy Division and their singer Ian Curtis, in order to feel “closer to the source of their music”. In his first feature-length film Control, he retraces the life and death of Ian Curtis who committed suicide on 18 May 1980, on the eve of an American tour which promised to be a resounding success. Interview in a Chinese salon.

Over a period of barely three years, between 1977 and 1980, Joy Division became the most important band of the post-punk era and Ian Curtis, who committed suicide at twenty-three years of age, emerged as a kind of “black star” whose dazzling success had a dark and tragic side. The group and its singer still remain shrouded in myth. Was it a particularly difficult challenge to tell their story?

AC: A first feature-length film is always a challenge, whatever the circumstances. Most importantly, I worked with Joy Division. I mixed with or knew the different members of the group so they didn’t embody a myth for me. What’s more, Control is not the story of Joy Division but the story of Ian Curtis who is portrayed as a very young man who had a dream and tried to pursue his dream. In that sense, it is not a rock film.

HUMA: You also avoid the rapid and tight editing associated with rock films and let the chronology of the events unfold at their own pace. How important to you is this linear approach?

AC: I think that throughout the linear and chronological progression of the film, the story gathers its own dramatic momentum. The screenplay wasn’t written in this way. In reality, I filmed far more than the sequences selected to be shown on screen, especially in the part which retraces Ian Curtis’ younger days, his adolescence. But apart from not wanting to make a film over three hours long, I was concerned about the rhythm of the film and its internal structure; rapid editing techniques didn’t seem appropriate in this case. Essentially, I’m telling a love story.

HUMA: And why did you choose a black and white format?

AC: Joy Division was a group which existed in black and white. They were only ever photographed in black and white. This format also complemented the backdrop of post-industrial Britain, the poor grey suburbs where the band members were born and from which they desperately wanted to escape. That’s how they experienced that environment in any case. The black and white format also enabled me to harmonise the light and the passage of time, as the film retraces events spanning a period of seven years. I almost introduced colour during the retransmission of extracts of the group’s appearances on television which, at that time, was no longer in black and white, but this concern for realism produced a completely artificial effect. It clashed with the accurate reconstruction of an era, which was not an easy task. The 1970s don’t seem all that long ago, but an awful lot of effort was needed to transform the streets and decor, to reconstruct them and avoid anachronisms.

HUMA: What resources did you use in order to put together such a unique story?

AC: A lot of research needed to be done in order to make the film. We read the book written by Debbie Curtis, Ian’s wife. I met her and I also met Ian’s mother, sister and other close relatives. In contrast to the “Joy Division” dimension, where the band as a whole is the focus, for which there existed archival information relating notably to their public appearances, there was no archival information available about Ian’s private life. This allowed us a certain freedom when making the film and also gave Sam Riley, the actor who plays Ian, a creative freedom in his role. Sam Riley also did a lot of research. He even read all about epilepsy, which Ian suffered from, and met some other sufferers. I had no preconceived ideas about the film. I met Ian but the film may give the impression that we were closer than we ever were in reality. I spoke to him very briefly. Besides, at the time I couldn’t speak English very well. I really got to know Ian by doing research into his life and by making the film Control. We tried to present him in as human a light as possible.

HUMA: Why today?

AC: Not because of any feelings of nostalgia. Perhaps because it’s only now that I understand who I was at that time.

Interview by Dominique Widemann

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