He's got it under control

Famous for his photographs and music videos, Anton Corbijn has now broken through as a film director.

anton88 224 (photo credit:)
anton88 224
(photo credit: )
Only a photographer with a keen eye would have been able to notice anything amiss. Seconds into the Jerusalem Cinematheque's Friday screening of his new film Control - based on the life of Ian Curtis, the iconic singer for late 70s British post-punk cult figures Joy Division - director Anton Corbijn doesn't like what he sees. As he exits the back of the theater for his scheduled interview, the 52-year-old native of Holland apologizes and says he first needs to run up to the projector booth. Returning minutes later and settling into a corner of the theater's library, the acclaimed photographer, music video director and now first-time film director is calmer. "It's a color copy of the film [which is in black and white]," explains the tall and thin soft-spoken director in fluent but broadly accented English. He's dressed stylishly in black, but despite the visual flair, he doesn't carry any show biz affectations. "The problem is that it's a little too bright, and there's a frame around it in black." The frame wasn't meant to be there, so Corbijn asked the man in the projection room to fix the problem. He couldn't, "so I just told him to turn up the volume so people wouldn't notice it," he says with a chuckle. Leave it to Corbijn to find a connection between the audio and the visual. He's been doing it for four decades, since he embraced the worlds of photography and music as a teen in Strijen, the Netherlands. "Music was my big love," he says. "Just by accident, I took my father's camera to an outdoor concert because I was so shy and I didn't dare to go on my own without anything. So I thought if I had a camera in my hand, people would think I had a purpose. "Then I took a few pictures and sent them to a magazine, and they published them. So I realized, 'Wow, I can go to concerts and I have something to do.' I felt that I was looking for a sense of belonging, and the camera gave that to me." CORBIJN BECAME a well-known music photographer in Holland, working for the country's largest music magazine and shooting album covers. But his raw, often black-and-white grainy prints didn't sit well with everyone. "I hit a bit of a brick wall in Holland, because a lot of people said I couldn't take pictures. So in my mind, I was thinking about what to do with my life, and then this album came along." The album in question was Unknown Pleasures, the 1979 debut effort by Joy Division, then aspiring unknowns of the British post-punk scene in the late 70s. "Visually, it had mystery to it. The album sleeve was just black, with white lines," says Corbijn, still speaking passionately about the album 30 years later. "And the music, even though I couldn't speak English very well at the time - you could sense it was about despair, about important issues, about weighty things." Ignited by the music, Corbijn decided to do something about it. Only weeks after hearing Unknown Pleasures, he moved to London. "You have to see it in the light of the 70s, when music played a very dominant role in peoples' lives - especially in my life. So to base moving countries on music is slightly more understandable in that context. Still, England was very far away from Holland in the 70s; the world was a much bigger place, so it still felt like an incredible move," he says. WITHIN TWO weeks of his arrival, he had already met the band and done a photo shoot for them, which resulted in their still most identifiable portrait - the quartet walking down the stairs of a Tube entrance with only Curtis glancing behind him at the camera. "It's a funny thing that in a very short time you can take a photograph and the picture becomes very well known. People then assume you spent a lot of time with the subject, but it was really not the case," reflects Corbijn. "That shoot took maybe 10 minutes. My English wasn't good enough, and I was too shy to start a conversation." While Corbijn may not have expressed himself verbally, his photographs quickly began saying a lot. He became a regular photographer for the British music paper of record New Musical Express, and soon developed into an international star photographer for Spin, Details, Vogue and Rolling Stone. By the mid-80s, he had branched out into directing music videos with the same stylistic adventure he brought to his photographs. With over 80 music videos to his credit, he's been behind the concepts for some of the most striking videos of the MTV era, including many early U2 and Depeche Mode clips, the award-winning video for Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" in 1993, and more recent clips by The Killers and Coldplay. BUT THE music of Joy Division and the haunting story of Ian Curtis, who took his own life in 1980 at 23, continued to be an obsession for Corbijn. Although he had regularly been offered movie scripts to direct over the years, he rejected all of them until Control, based on the book Touching From A Distance by Curtis's widow Deborah, was submitted to him. "I initially said no, because I was afraid that if I made this film, people would call it a rock film. It's a love story, and you really kill off a potential audience by labeling it a rock film," says Corbijn. "Half a year later, though, I decided to do it, because it was such an important part of my life and I wanted to stop basing my work on obsessions from my teenage years. So I thought that this film could capture all that and end that period so I could start something new," says Corbijn. Corbijn self-financed the film initially because he couldn't find any backing. "A black and white film [to capture the band's mood] about somebody committing suicide with a first-time actor [Sam Riley] and first time director didn't seem to be too appealing," chuckles Corbijn. "I really wanted to make the film so I financed it for three months, then we cut a production deal. I haven't gotten my money back yet." THAT MAY soon change, however. Debuting in May 2007 at the Cannes Film Festival, Control has received rave reviews and awards at film festivals. It's currently being screened locally as part of the British Film Festival sponsored by the British Council of Israel. Upcoming showings are at the Haifa Cinematheque on January 23 and a repeat performance at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on the 26th. Control will be released in general cinemas next month. "It's about a boy between the age of 17 and 23 who had a dream and chased the dream, and how it ended for him as somewhat more of a nightmare," Corbijn told the Jerusalem audience during his introduction of the film. With the experience of Control behind him, along with a sense of exorcising his Joy Division past, Corbijn feels ready to move on to other directing projects. "All these years, I got scripts but I never thought I was the best guy to make this kind of film. Directors study films, and I had never done that. I haven't even seen that many films in my life," he explains. "With this story, however, I felt connected, so I felt that I could possibly be the guy to make this film. I've learned so much that I feel that I could possibly make a film that I'm not so emotionally connected to. And now, with a track record and people willing to finance it, I can focus on being a director."