Losing ‘Control’Joy Division’s story comes to the big screen courtesy of music video vet Anton Corbijn
By Drew Tewksbury
October 8, 2007
On May 18, 1980, Ian Curtis was found dead in his kitchen hanging from a improvised noose, only one day before his band Joy Division, burgeoning with the success of their revolutionary post punk sound, was to depart Northern England for their first American tour.
Today, the surviving members of Joy Division still perform under the successful guise of New Order, and Curtis’ soulful, monotone voice lives on in myriad imitators (think Interpol, the Editors, She Wants Revenge).
“Control,” a film based on the book “Touching from a Distance,” by Ian’s wife Deborah Curtis (played in the film by Oscar nominee Samantha Morton), chronicles the life of the late singer (played by newcomer Sam Riley) as he copes with the pressures of conflicted love, unrealized potential and the constant torture of his epilepsy.
It’s also the feature directorial debut of acclaimed Dutch photographer and music video vet Anton Corbijn, who has a long-running connection with Joy Division. He had photographed the band in the late ‘70s and provided the iconic imagery that would later come to represent the time period as much as the band itself.
Metromix sat down with Corbijn to discuss his first foray into feature films and his memories of Ian.
Did you feel that by making this movie you were reliving parts your own life?
I had moved to England to be close to that music at the time, and I was very into Joy Division. I worked with them, took pictures of them that became synonymous with their music, and I was forever linked. Then eight years after [Ian Curtis’] death, I did the video for “Atmosphere.” So in other people’s eyes I was always connected with them.
There are elements in the film that are very much how I lived, especially the opening scene where we see Ian coming home with a record under his arm. He was a teenager, and back then you’d just go into your bedroom and play your records. I know that’s what I did. It meant everything to me in the late ‘70s. Records were your connection to the world in a way. You study the sleeve, you listen to the record and turn it over. It’s very beautiful. It’s a bygone era.
So much of the film is very still, at times it even feels like a black and white photograph. What was the purpose of that?
Pacing is important in a film. This film dealt with the ‘70s and in the ‘70s people had much more time for everything. Life was slower than now, and I thought it’d be nice to show that in the film. I think the best way to observe people is to just look at them, the way they walk across a room, they way they sit.
Ian was torn by his love for two women. Was it difficult to tell a dual love story, and how did you go about creating it?
I tried to be very neutral about it. I did not want to defend [his wife] Debbie’s point, or [his mistress] Annik’s point. At the same time I was defending both points. Ian married young and felt, when he began to travel and see the world, that he was trapped in this little small town life. Annik represented the world, something exotic, somebody who was interested in many different cultural expressions.
Ian was really in love with her. I’ve seen the letters he wrote her, I’ve had them in my hands, and it’s obvious. So I think that Annik [today] was happy to help people to see that this [relationship] was Ian-driven.
Sam Riley was such a perfect choice for Ian—he was in a band and is from Northern England—yet he had reportedly given up on acting before making this film. Can you talk a little bit about casting him?
I had seen quite a few people by the time we got to Sam. Of course there is a visual resemblance to Ian, but he stood out to me by a mile. There is something about Sam that was really lovely and fresh and Northern English. He felt like Ian to me, not like an actor who wanted to play Ian. That is such a beautiful quality to have on screen; somebody who you feel is real, not like an actor.
The live performance scenes, especially the televised performances, seemed like they were almost shot for shot replications of the real thing. Was that deliberate?
I wanted to be very accurate with the Joy Division material, because that is documented. I thought it would be nice if it felt so real that you thought it was a documentary, if you started to believe that it’s the real thing.
The performances also seem to be structured in a way that makes the lyrics of Curtis’ songs part of the narrative.
The songs that Ian wrote are very autobiographical. All of his songs were about him, to a large extent. So it seemed very easy to fit those in and tell a story through “Isolation,” “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Atmosphere.” They’re really quite haunting.
Many accounts of epilepsy involve the patients recalling moments of ecstasy or even religious experiences. How did you want to portray the role did Ian’s epileptic fits played in his life?
Part of [Ian’s] dance movements came out of the epilepsy, those weird jerky movements. Of course, it had a devastating effect on his life, I think that’s the reason he committed suicide. Really it was the epilepsy that did it. He felt responsibility for the band. He felt that if they went to America and he had fits on stage it would hamper their future. He felt all these things become bigger and bigger in his mind. And he drank alcohol with the drugs, which wasn’t a good thing. There were side effects to the drugs too, but the combination magnified the problems.