Anton Corbijn Talks Ian Curtis

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It’s clear when watching Control, Anton Corbijn’s beautifully shot Ian Curtis biopic, that the film was made by a skilled photographer–each artfully designed grayscale frame is more striking than the one before it. The powerful movie, Corbijn’s debut as a feature film director, also shows his intimate knowledge of the Joy Division story.

In fact, Corbijn owes some of his success to the band. In 1979, Joy Division’s music affected him so deeply that he left his native Holland for London–without even a solid grasp of the English language–to be closer to their sound.

Since then, he’s shot everyone from Tom Waits to Kurt Cobain and developed a prolific, decades-long relationship with Depeche Mode, shaping their iconic album artwork and imagery. After initially turning down Control, he decided his love for the band made him the right man for the job, and we asked him more about the experience.

XLR8R: Are musicians generally difficult while being photographed?

Anton Corbijn: Sometimes people are difficult, but generally there’s a reason. I don’t want to castigate some people as being difficult, because I don’t think everyone should be open to being photographed all the time. I think they have every right to guard their privacy or the way they want to look on a personal level. It’s very easy to label some people as difficult but that’s quite unfair. I think we need to be more humble in our approach and be grateful that somebody wants to be photographed by us.

I was curious if Kurt Cobain was okay with being photographed or if he was defensive.

Kurt wanted to see what kind of person I was before we did photographs and I totally [understand] that. Because, being photographed, you are getting naked in front of someone, in a way. I am drawn to people who take what they do seriously and I admire them more for it. Kurt was one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with. He was a beautiful man–couldn’t be nicer–but at the same time I had to get past a certain defense system of his.

You’ve done so many historic record sleeves. Which do you think you’ll be remembered for most?

Unfortunately, albums tend to sort of go according to the sales figures; [that determines] how much people remember them. Personally, I’m not always keen on album covers with photographs. I like some of the album sleeves I’ve done but someone like Peter Saville [who designed the Joy Division sleeves], I totally admire and love.

The ones I’ll probably be remembered for are the Depeche stuff and some of the U2 stuff, like Joshua Tree–in its proper version, not the crappy CD they sell these days–but the real vinyl one–and Achtung Baby. I also like the Taxi sleeve for Bryan Ferry.

Depeche Mode’s Violator is a personal favorite of mine.

Thanks. I like Exciter as well because it’s very simple and positive.

Since you’ve been so instrumental in Depeche Mode’s imagery as a band, is it expected that you’ll handle the artwork if they release an album?

At this stage, yes. I think a call would be made if that didn’t happen and they would explain why they wouldn’t ask me. It’s just a great working relationship. I’ve just done the sleeve for Dave [Gahan]’s new solo album. It’s a very beautiful thing because in music, relationships can be feeble. It’s great that people are willing to look that far down the line and realize there’s something to be gained from long-term relationships.

You turned down Control initially. What changed your mind?

I said no initially is because I thought that if I wanted to be taken at all seriously as a director, it would be very hard for me to start with a film that related to music. People might call whatever I do a “rock movie,” and I wanted to aim a little higher than that. Then I started to realize how much Joy Division had meant to me in my younger years, how influential they were to me. I thought about how you felt when you were younger buying an album or when you came to London with no money–that whole period started to come alive to me again.

The film’s much more a biography of Ian Curtis rather than the story of Joy Division…

Yeah, it’s not a film about Joy Division. It’s a film about Ian Curtis, his story from age 16 to 23. A film on Joy Division would be quite different, I think. And it’s not a music film. It’s a film about a boy who chases his dreams to find where he ends up is not where he wants to be, and he becomes very disillusioned. There’s a lot of good music in it, but it’s actually a rather quiet film apart from the performances.

How many people did you look at for the role of Ian and how did you know Sam Riley was the right one?

I looked at quite a few people, actually, because it’s big shoes to fill, really. When I met Sam there was something about him that straightaway reminded me of the ’70s. Not just a visual resemblance to Ian, just the way he behaved. You know: skinny, smoking, shivering in the cold–it was exactly how I remember meeting Joy Division. On top of that, he had the innocence of a non-actor that makes you believe far more in the character. It was a magical find, I can’t stress that enough. Without Sam Riley, it would not be as good of a film, for sure.