Catching Up With... Anton Corbijn

Movies Features Anton Corbijn
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Anton Corbijn has been a prominent rock photographer for more than 30 years, getting his start with concert photography while still in high school. Since then he has worked with Spin, Vogue, Rolling Stone and others to create some of the most iconic images of Clint Eastwood, Miles Davis, William S. Burroughs, Tom Waits and many others. What Corbijn is best known for, though, is 100 or so album covers he's done for U2, The Rolling Stones, R.E.M., The Killers and others.

I've Done" by The Killers and "Atmosphere" by Joy Division, many of which were collected by the Director's Label series in 2005. This eventually led him to the opportunity to direct Control, a biography of Joy Division Ian Curtis. Pastehis first feature, the significance of Joy Division and why his love for music drove him to photography.

Paste: You've been working on music videos for so long, did you feel the need to differentiate things stylistically from what you've done there?
Anton Corbijn: Sure, I was very aware I was using a film and not a music video. I think if you look at my music videos I never use cranes or any of these things. I’ve never been impressed with all that. Also, we’re making a film about the seventies and I felt we had more time in the seventies to look at things. It was less speeded up, our lives, and I personally always liked to watch somebody walk through a room or move their head or move their body. I like watching these things. It maybe comes from being a photographer, and if I see them on stage I quite like to see them and not be guided by anything as to what I should be watching. I think there’s enough pace for the film not to be too slow but it has moments where you really kind of watch.

Paste: Has filming this changed the you're approach to directing in general, then?
Corbijn: The one great experience I think I got from filmmaking is working with actors. The thing of storytelling I’ve kind of done in my photographs and in my videos so that was not so new. Of course it was all different but it was an extension of, similar with the look of the film. I always work with visual things so that’s not so new. But working with actors, seeing what actors bring to a story and how they interpret things, I think that was wonderful. That’s why I would like to make another film, because I think that was a great experience. I mean it was the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life, also because I had to produce it to a large degree, but to come out of all these possible black holes that the film can disappear in and come out with a film in your hand work with these actors is just an incredible, great feeling, I must say.

Paste: The actor playing Ian Curtis in the film, Sam Riley, is new. How did you prepare with Sam for the role?
Corbijn:everything that existed on Joy Division or Ian Curtis on the internet, on Google, everything that existed on photographs and film, and really prepared well. Him and me were both the two virgins on this whole film and we really depended on each other, we did want to do well for each other. Sam was there every day, never complained, and for him to be onscreen with maybe the best actor (sic.) of her generation, Samantha Morton, is phenomenal to hold your ground. He’s a great guy, Sam really is, and the look is a movie star look and I think he’ll do some interesting things in the future.

Paste:Did you find yourself reflecting on your own experiences from that period?
Corbijn:to Joy Division’s album I actually moved to England and met with them and did photographs and they became quite fond of them, the pictures, but at the same time those pictures suggest I had a very deep relationship with Joy Division which I didn’t really have. Those pictures were only ten minutes, it doesn’t mean I had days with them and had great conversations. So I don’t recall that much personally about Joy Division and what they said. But what I remember going to England coming from the Netherlands. The Netherlands has quite a good social system; there is not that kind of poverty as there was in England, so England was a big, big shock to me especially going to northern England. To me it was very bleak, very gray, and that’s how I recall it, so I think the movie in black and white is also correct for that reason. It’s how I recall it. Of course the other reason the movie’s in black and white is all the memory is documented of Joy Division, all the photographs, are in black and white.

Paste: How did you decide on how close you wanted to stick to what actually happened?
Corbijnafter the Sex Pistols concert and he called the number. That becomes not so important in my eyes as the effects things have on a person; the Sex Pistols gig prompted him to become lead singer in a band. Hypnotizing, the importance of that scene is that someone in the band tried to help him with something and for him, for Ian to realize that the situation he was in, whatever came out of it… I used a sort of edited version of all kinds of thoughts throughout the film, all kinds of things in that happened in the film that spin around in his head rather than saying that he fought in a war in France and Spain or something. That in itself you can make a film about. I’m very open about this, but I feel it was a choice that was an OK choice to make, to be kind of economical with some things.

Paste: How were the people actually in the film, such as Debbie Curtis or New Order, involved with Control and what did they think of the film?
Corbijn: Everybody was involved to a certain degree. Some people were involved on the level of talking them to get the script right and me talking to them after the script’s been written. And of course Debbie was very involved because her book is the basis of the story. But it’s the story on Ian Curtis, the movie, and Debbie’s book is of course her story and I wanted to make a real distinction on her, that we needed to talk to Annik and it was important to get as much of an objective story as possible on Ian Curtis.

New Order talked to a script writer. I went to meet them individually with the script in hand after they had read it to listen to their comments. It was shown to them November last year they all liked it. Actually, they loved it, so that was great because they usually argue about everything but they all agreed on this, and then they did the score on the film. At that point we had some classical music in there so they did all the score. Debbie and Annik had both seen the film also well before release. They both are OK with it, I don’t think they’re ecstatic, because I think their emotions are still very raw from that period but they’re OK with the film and I think that’s good enough for me at the moment.

Paste: Why do you think Joy Division is, if anything, more significant to the youth today than before?
Corbijn:a film about Joy Division. It’s a film about Ian Curtis who became the singer of Joy Division. Therefore there is an element of the film that deals with Joy Division. But If I were to make a film about Joy Division I would make a very different movie. I was making a film about this boy from ages seventeen to twenty three and following his dream and we see how it all doesn’t work out for him and he has this dramatic love story in there. So it’s quite universal in its appeal I think, the themes are quite universal. The fact that you have great music with it is a great bonus in my eyes.

A lot of young people, funny enough, seem to know about Joy Division  again. Dunno how they discovered it. A lot of young bands these days, new bands-- Arcade Fire, Interpol, Editors, Killers-- they all name check Joy Division as an influence, so I think people followed them up and buy the records and listen to them again. You see a lot of young people with Joy Division t-shirts. I think the movie will probably do well for Joy Division, for their music, but it’s not made for that. It’s really made as a film about Ian Curtis.

Paste: You've said that it was Joy Division  that made you move to England. What was it about their music in specific that was so important to you?
A: The story of me going to England because of Joy Division is a short story, it’s a shortcut. The longer version is I was kind of fed up with Holland and with the kind of photography I was doing there and I wanted to maybe go somewhere else to take photographs. The few times I went to England the pictures I came back with seemed to be more meaningful than the pictures I took in Holland. I don’t know if that was because people choose in England to become a musician it was more of a choice than in Holland, where in Holland it was maybe more like, “Well I’m a good musician, let’s start a band.” You have an incredible safety net in Holland, whereas in England there is no safety net so the intensity you have with the art form you choose, say music in this case, is far deeper than what I experienced in Holland. People were good musicians but they didn’t live the life.

When Joy Division came out I thought there was a gravity to the music, a weight, an importance, and a mystery as well because of the record sleeve had that little graphic thing on the cover. It just seemed to say all the right things to me and the music was really, really beautiful. I didn’t totally understand the lyrics, I didn’t really listen much to lyrics anyway, not even when I spoke English. I just thought well, “I’ll just go closer to where that music comes from,” and I did, but it’s not because he sang a certain lyric or it was me understanding what he was singing about. It was a sense of the total, of the whole sound, that felt that this was very important music that you were listening to.

Paste: You've also said that music lead you to photography. Why did you decide to on that instead of playing music yourself?
Corbijn: I was very shy when I was young so I would never would have dreamt to go onstage. We moved to a certain city when I was 17 in school holiday so I didn’t know anybody, and there was a concert in daytime on the local square and I didn’t even dare to go to a concert on my own. So I asked my father if I could borrow his camera, so it gave me something to do. Then I thought, "Well, I might as well take a few pictures." That’s how that started. It’s very innocent and I didn’t know the first thing about photography. I then thought, "Well, this is a great way to get closer to the stage because you have an excuse," so that just went on for a year and the next holiday I worked in a factories to earn my own camera. Then slowly I dared to knock on people’s doors and, “Can I take a portrait?” So I became a more portrait photographer rather than a life photographer. I got to know a little bit about photography and the photographers I liked and then during the 80s I tried to expand a little bit my subject matter. Initially it was only music but then it became all kinds of art forms. I photographed quite a few people in the acting world and directing and painters, I really like painting— I would prefer to be a painter than a photographer to be honest- and writers.

Paste: Was it tough to get started with the newspapers there?
Corbijn: It somehow all fell into place. I had sent some pictures to NME at some point and said, “If I move to England will you give me some work?” and they said, “Sure.” So after I moved to England I knocked on the door and they said, “Who are you?” The Dutch are very organized; even the offices of our music paper was very organized. In England it was absolute chaos. I knocked on the door, the editor said, “Okay, I’ll introduce you to the staff,” who’re all sitting at very chaotic, unorganized desks. He says, “This is Anton, he’s a good photographer, he’s from Holland. Anybody got some work from him?” Everybody went tick tick tick and one guy started to sing, “I hate the fucking Dutch / They live in windmills and wear clogs,” which was a song I didn’t know but existed at the time. The only good thing for me was that, at the end of the song he sings, “But worst of all I hate the fucking Danes,” so at least I wasn’t a Dane. But then they actually asked me to do a very small picture of Bill Haley at a concert and three months from there I did covers for the NME, it was very fast.

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