For music fans, Anton Corbijn needs little introduction. He has garnered numerous awards as a rock-world photographer, art director, stage designer and video director. Like many first-time filmmakers, Corbijn personally financed most of his debut feature, Control, a labor-of-love biopic of the late Joy Division front man, Ian Curtis. It opened the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar of the 2007 Cannes festival to great acclaim and arrives this weekend in local theaters. Over tea during a recent visit to L.A., the Dutch native spoke about his new medium, German art and the beauty of the record album before jetting off to Cologne.
L.A. WEEKLY: Many years ago, after your second book of photographs came out, I asked you when you were going to make a film, and you replied, with great disdain, that you preferred photography because it was over faster. What made you change your mind?
ANTON CORBIJN: Well, that’s a true statement. [Laughs.] I started reading scripts in the late ’90s. For a long time, there wasn’t anything that came along that I felt I had a connection with, that would overcome my lack of skills in moviemaking. With Control, the fact that there was this emotional attachment to the subject matter made it possible for me to compensate. But having said that, I think there is an incredible beauty to photography — not just in the sense that it doesn’t take so much time, but in the sense that a single image can be at least as powerful as a whole movie, and that single image I can do in a day, whereas this movie has taken me almost two years now. Then again, it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Because of the subject matter?
Well, working with actors and making something that involves so many people. It’s a first for me.
After starting your photography career in Holland, you moved to England in 1979, and did your first shot of Joy Division within two weeks. Have you come full circle with this project? Does this mark a transition in your career?
Yes, to a degree. I’ve moved back to Holland now. I came to England for Joy Division, I’ve done my thing, and now I’ve gone back. I bought a place in the Hague.
You designed the new logo for the city.
Yes. It’s on the sea. It has different air. Culturally, not so much happens there. I didn’t go back for the inspiration, I went for the quality of life. Paul Verhoeven also has a place there. There are some very simple things in life that I missed, like being on my bicycle. I know it’s crazy to say it, that things can’t be that simple, but they are. I’ve had more highlights in my life than I could ever think of, in terms of career or whatever. I won’t stop at anything — I love making things. I travel a lot anyway. I’ll probably spend more time learning to cook.
What in your background or personal experience did you have to draw from to make such an emotional film?
I was very melancholic when I was [young]. It was partly the small-town experience, but more about what music meant in the ’70s. The opening scene, when Ian comes home with the record under his arm — that’s me. Your connection to the world was through records. You studied the sleeve. I knew which albums had gatefolds — I knew the B-sides of things. There’s a lot about records that you cannot feel from a CD. I know that’s an era that’s gone, but for a lot of people my age, it was a very important thing. How a record slips out. The crackle when it plays. It’s lovely, very alive. CDs are not alive. I know everything’s about comfort these days — that’s why there’s digital instead of analog. Analog is more beautiful than digital, really, but we go for comfort.
Which was the most difficult scene ?to film?
If you’re not talking technical difficulty but emotional difficulty, I think it was the epilepsy scene. It was incredibly hard to watch. I wanted to stop the camera. But you can’t because you know you need it. It was heartbreaking. And Sam [Riley, who stars as Curtis], of course, had to do it more than once. All hats off to him. He was so dedicated to the film; he studied with people from the Epilepsy Society and had them on set. It was much harder than the preparation for the suicide itself.
The black-and-white look of the film seems conceptually necessary for the story, but it also has a beautiful effect. The blacks are crunched, and the whites are so crisp that they disappear sometimes. Was it a natural choice?
Black-and-white is definitely accurate for Joy Division — it had nothing to do with my preference. We did camera tests with different film stocks. Black-and-white film actually fell by the wayside. It was so grainy it looked like Super-8 even in 35 millimeter. So we shot color and transferred it to black-and-white.
You can tell the film was made with a strong photographic eye. It reminded me of Conformist-era Bertolucci.
That sounds about right. [Laughs.] It’s an English setting as seen through European eyes. I don’t think England has very good filmmakers. England knows how to use visuals very well; they have the best ad people in the world; they make great magazines. But even English art is packageable. I prefer German art. It’s more organic, more individual. It’s a European eye, not an English eye.
You’ve enjoyed decadeslong alliances with some of the musicians and bands that you’ve photographed. Is there anyone you’ve worked with lately where that kind of relationship has developed?
It’s very hard, because you grow old with these things. And I think you cannot start relationships like that in your 50s. I started all those relationships in my 20s. I’ve worked with Tom Waits for almost 30 years. U2, 25 years. Depeche Mode, 20. Even with R.E.M. and Metallica, it’s been a long time. I’ve worked a bit with Arcade Fire and the Killers, and I really enjoyed it. You can’t do too many of these, because you could become a cliché of your own making. I like the challenge of filmmaking, I like stage design, I like architecture. I like everything visual, really. In the end, it all goes into the mix.
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What’s been the most fun part of the process for you?
This interview! [Laughs.] No, this is the hard part for me, to talk about the same thing for so long. I’m a simple guy making things that he enjoys; I’m not Brad Pitt. I suppose if you’re good looking or you’re Stephen Hawking, then it’s interesting. I found the best experience being holed up in Nottingham for three months while we shot. It sounds like hell, and it is quite a lonely place, but I only have these great memories of the summer in England with the whole team. Working with the actors was the single most rewarding experience.
To quote [music journalist and Curtis’ paramour] Annik Honoré in Control, “What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve seen in your life?”
Oh, there’s so much in nature that I love. Colors and compositions in nature — I can watch a tree for a long time. I saw some beautiful girls in Brazil recently. But I get invariably angry with bad architecture.