When producer Orian Williams originally approached you out of the blue to do a film, you told him you were actually considering a change from photography…
For the last 5 years I was thinking at some point I should make a film. When you do photography for such a long time, it’s good to experiment in other disciplines. I’ve been doing video, short films, graphic design and stage design, and in photography, I’ve developed a lot in the way I shoot and the choice of subject matter. It was in the back of my mind, that I’d like to do a film, as I’d photographed a lot of movie people and directors and I wanted to tell a story other than through photography.
Having turned down the project initially, eventually, did you feel you should be the one to tell Ian Curtis and Joy Division’s story?
Looking back on it, yes. At first, I wasn’t sure, because I’d never directed a movie. I also didn’t want to mess up the project for others. You don’t want to make a bad movie, because it might take a long time for Ian Curtis to get a proper movie.
Can you remember your personal experiences with Ian?
I met Ian two or three times. The first photo shoot in the tube station was very brief, five to ten minutes. My English was very poor, and being Dutch, I tried to introduce myself and I remember they wouldn’t shake my hand. After we’d done the pictures, they shook my hand. So, there was something they liked already, before they saw the pictures. I sent the pictures to them and they liked them, unlike anybody else. Nobody liked the photographs, because they didn’t like to look at the back of people’s heads. Nobody published them. The band however used a picture on a single release. Then Rob Gretton asked me to come to Manchester to shoot them again while hanging around when they did the video to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. So, I met them again, and I couldn’t strike up a conversation, because my English wasn’t that good. I was also incredibly shy. What’s also quite interesting is because of my poor English, I didn’t know what Ian was singing. But I could feel there were weighty issues at the heart of it; because of the way he sang it, it felt like it mattered. And that was one of the reasons I moved to England. When I photographed people in England, the few times I’d been here, it felt more essential than in Holland. With musicians in Holland, it felt like a subsidised hobby, in England it seemed to be an escape from a certain life.
Do you think you got anything from you first-hand experiences to inform your feeling of Ian Curtis?
I think the fact that I hung around a little bit, helped me with the context of the film, and with the people that are left over in New Order. My pictures and video Atmosphere became well liked, so I’m very accepted, and I’m not a foreigner, in that sense.
The film almost stands or falls on the casting of Ian Curtis. Did you feel that pressure?
Yes, I agree with you. That was a scary one. You always start with actors that are known. I approached a couple of well known actors, I have to say. Then we did a lot of castings in London and the North, and I looked at tapes, and I saw a tape with Sam Riley. There was something in him that made me think of my time with Joy Division. When I came to England in the late 1970’s, there were these musician kids who had no money, who were underdressed, underfed, and they would stand there smoking cigarettes. And Sam Riley was exactly like that. He was skinny, had no money, and stood around smoking in the same way. Not only was he an actor, who might be able to play it, but he felt like he was from those days in the 1970’s. I felt it was totally the right guy. Of course, I was quite nervous about the choice, because I thought he had no experience. But, when ever I doubted it, I just thought of Ken Loach’s Kes. I like the innocence of that boy, because he has no luggage, and I wanted the same with Sam Riley. There’s a beautiful honesty and realism in somebody inexperienced. It is so believable what Sam did; he really worked really hard and gave everything to that role.
Did you always envisage shooting the film in black and white?
No. A lot of people assumed that I just shoot in black and white, but actually that’s not the case - I shoot a lot of colour photography. But my memory of Joy Division is very black and white. If you look at the visuals that are available of Joy Division, especially stills, I would say it’s almost 99% black and white. The reason being that in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, all the important music magazines were printed in black and white. A band had to have a hit to be photographed in colour for more commercial publications, but a band like Joy Division had no hits (yet). Also, their record sleeves were black and white, and the way they dressed was quite grey zoned. So, I felt this was the right way to think of Joy Division.
The look of the film is very clean and simple, which is not always the case with film’s on the subject of music…
Yes, that’s true. It’s just how I wanted it to look like.
Where did your apprehensions lie in directing a feature film for the first time?
In directing actors, which was a new thing for me. In my photography, I direct a bit, but I’m also quite natural. I was hoping to get a similar thing going on, but I soon learnt a lot about acting.
Has your experience on Control made you want to do another film?
I’d like to do another film, an action film with more tension, a thriller, if you like. Making a first film, especially by someone who isn’t educated in film is a real mystery. But once you make one, you understand more. You can be much more focused on making the film. I liked the experience very much, it was the most full-on experience I’ve ever had in my life. As a photographer a lot of shoots are very intense, but they’re very brief.