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Anton Corbijn on “Control”

Anton Corbijn on “Control” (photo)

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Most films about real life musicians follow one of two arcs. There’s the rise to fame, fall from grace and redemption one — see “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Ray” and “Walk the Line.” And then there’s the rise to fame, tragic end one — see “The Doors,” “Sid and Nancy” and “La Bamba.” The life of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of post-punk band Joy Division who committed suicide at age 23 on the eve of his band’s first U.S. tour, would seem a perfect fit for the latter, but in the careful hands of Anton Corbijn, the Dutch-born photographer and music video director who makes his feature debut with “Control,” Curtis’ tale becomes anything but that of a rock martyr. Shot in bracing black and white, “Control” follows Curtis from his life as a teenager dreaming of fame in a small town near Manchester through his marriage to his high school girlfriend (a fantastic Samantha Morton) at an awfully tender age, observing the onset of Curtis’ epilepsy, and band’s rise to fame, Curtis’ love affair with a Belgian journalist and eventual downward spiral. It’s the unhappy tale of a life cut short, yes, but it’s also a grounded, exhilarating look at a place, time and extraordinary band. And Corbijn should know — hearing Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” was part of what spurred him to move to England in 1979 as a budding photographer who would eventually shoot the band.

It’s become commonplace for directors these days to use their music video work as a launching pad for a film career — having worked in that field and in photography for so long, what led you to finally decide to make the leap yourself?

I wanted to do a film for a long time. But I’d also done a lot of graphic design and stage design, and I like all kind of different visual disciplines — I like architecture, and want to do something in that. Film was something that I didn’t see as a step up from music videos, though obviously, music videos, the fact that you work with a crew and a film camera, are the closest to film I’ve ever been. That is the only schooling I’ve ever had.

And still, the prospect of making a film was very daunting to me — that’s why I waited till the script came around that I had affinity for, and I felt that that could compensate for the lack of filmmaking skills, to a degree. I felt that if you’re driven enough emotionally by the subject, then maybe that does compensate to a degree.

You’ve mentioned your initial reluctance to take on this film because of fears of being pigeonholed as being someone whose work is always music-related. What kind of film did you imagine yourself making?

A movie that has a universal theme in it, whether it’s real, a love story, or whatever. To me, [“Control”] actually is a love story with some great music on the side — it’s not a music film, just like my photography is not rock photography. You know, I feel very insulted, actually, when people say it’s rock photography — “rock photography” is only about who’s on the picture, not how you take the picture. My subjects are so broad these days — from Nelson Mandela to Alan Ginsburg, Miles Davis, Bono and Isabella Rossellini — it’s nothing like rock photography.

So I was afraid to get pigeonholed — it limits your audience, and I think that that would be a real waste of energy.

There is this particular formula for films about musician — the big performance juxtaposed against flashbacks to childhood and the like. Did any of that influence you in making “Control” so grounded and linear?

I have to say, I haven’t seen that many films in the genre, because it hasn’t interested me so much. The few times I have seen them, I was disappointed. I haven’t seen that many movies, full stop, to be very fair.

But [“Control”‘s] script initially was a bit like that — going forward, flashbacks, and it confused me. And I thought that the drama of the film would be better served if it was a very linear story. So I made it linear when I started shooting.

Curtis’ suicide looms so large and has become such a part of his iconicity — in “24 Hour Party People” it was treated in a way that abrupt and almost glib, and I know some people were offended…

Yeah. I was.

I’ve wondered if it was an attempt to demythologize what happened. Was that something you felt you had to deal with in “Control”?

I wanted to show the end scene to the point where you realize how he committed suicide, but not that he committed suicide. Not the act itself, but, you know, that rather than drowning or taking pills or something like that… that’s the only thing I wanted to say, and that’s why I showed only up to that point. I like these things in the film better — the first thing in the house you see is her folding up the laundry, and then the last thing — it connects these elements. I’m not interested in the glamorous side of things, because I think life isn’t really like that. It’s pretty mundane. And I think to show that beauty can come out of these kind of places is far more interesting than making a film that just connects all kind of highlights.

In that sense, did you try to draw visual parallels between Curtis’ performance style and his epilepsy?

I remember him performing, and that — that was his movement. Some people say, well, it was based on epilepsy, and maybe it was, but it was very much his — I’ve never seen anybody he would have taken those movements from. The importance for me to show Joy Division in the film was also motivated by the fact that he became such a different person when he was on stage. He became this other kind of guy, and I think it was important to show that part of his character. And the dancing… we spent a lot of time getting that right.

You have a personal connection to this scene and to the remaining members of the band — what was their response to the film?

They really loved it. And it was a great relief, of course. I showed them all together, the whole band, in November last year. I think they were anxious, and they thought that they probably wouldn’t all agree on it, but they did. They all loved it. And they did the score for the film, so that was beautiful. And they’ve been verbal about it as well now. They came to Cannes, and they did interviews about it — so it’s very nice. But again, you know, I just wanted to be very fair in the film. I didn’t have any bones to pick with anybody.

“Control” is now playing in theaters.

[Additional photo: Director Anton Corbijn, courtesy of the Weinstein Co, 2007]

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