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  • Interview: Control producer Orian Williams

    Tue, 17 Jun 2008 14:38:16

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    Control, director Anton Corbijn’s nuanced portrait of Ian Curtis’ tragically truncated lifespan and the genesis of Joy Division, has garnered international critical acclaim, made a star out of lead actor Sam Riley, and cinematically satiated long time fans of the band. Its numerous accolades aside, the project began as a modest, yet ambitious, attempt to realize Curtis’ story within the film medium, combining arresting black-and-white visuals and haunting performances to construct a narrative replete with emotional resonance.

    For producer Orian Williams, the journey began a decade ago, when a series of occurrences—some accidents—led to him acquiring story rights, thus catalyzing the process of assembling a robust creative team to make the movie. From its photographer-turned-director to virtual unknown Sam Riley, Control’s cast and crew consisted of relative newcomers who shared a passion for Joy Division and the filmmaking process. This inspired spirit defined the production, which Williams speaks of with the highest regard and affection. For those involved, Control was a nonpareil experience which, quite literally, changed several lives. Williams spoke to ARTISTdirect about the film, now available on DVD, and introducing Joy Division to a new generation of appreciative viewers.

    Control took over a decade to bring to screen. Can you talk about the production process and why it was wrought with some difficulty?

    The film was—I hate to consider it a “passion project”—something I was sort of obsessed with. My whole life has been focused around music and photography and literature. Film, of course, is the perfect medium that collaborates all those passions and interests. I moved to Los Angeles to, oddly enough, be an actor and to pursue my interests of photography, or work in the music industry. Entertainment intrigued me. The whole story for this project, Control, started many years ago. I think it was a combination of things. I was always a fan of Anton’s work. Anton is, for me, the one guy that represented the aesthetic and could generate an image based on the music that I loved. You can show [someone] an image and say, “This is the band I love. This is what I like,” and the image [conveys] the sound in a way.

    For Control, in 1997 I had driven down Sunset Boulevard and pulled into Book Soup and saw the book which I had been reading about being published: Touching From a Distance, the book Deborah Curtis wrote about her husband. Finally it was out; I went and bought it. It stayed in the backseat of my car and I didn’t think much about it. A couple days later, I’m driving around with a producer friend of mine. He had made several movies and saw the book and said, “Dude, you like Joy Division?” I go, “Of course.” The image on the book—the first edition—was so beautiful. [I thought,] “Wow, there’s something here. I don’t know what it is, if it’s a documentary, if it’s a movie. I don’t know.” There was just something there that was intriguing. So he said, “Let me take this book. Let me read it and maybe we can make this into a movie." I go, “Great!” This guy was producing for David Lynch. He took the book and shortly after that, a film that I went on to produce came to life called Shadow of the Vampire. That had John Malkovich in it, Wilem Dafoe. Literally weeks after that initial run-in with my friend [where] I had given him the book, I was completely focused on something else, and that was this other movie. About a year-and-a-half later we’re shooting and within two years I’m back and I’m done with this film, and I’d kind of forgotten about the book. The producer called me up and said, “Man, right after you finish your movie, let’s go to breakfast.” We go to breakfast and he comes and he hands me this envelope, and in it is the book. And I’m thinking, “You have this?” He’s like, “Yeah!” I go, “What’d you think?” He goes, “I never read it, but good luck.” It took me out of that conversation. I had forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind. I ended up shoving it in my backpack and not thinking much about it.

    About a year later—2001—I had, randomly, because of a series of circumstances, decided that I should approach Anton with the idea of making a movie. I had collected some of his books of his photographs and just thought, “Man, I would love to work with this guy on some level, any level, one day.” So what I did is I randomly e-mailed him. I said, “Anton, you don’t know me. I’m a fan of your work. I’ve been following your career for a while. The music that you’ve photographed I’ve been buying for no reason other than [because] you’ve photographed it, and if you’re interested in making a movie, let me know.” Well, the next day, oddly enough I get a response. He said, “It’s funny you’ve contacted me at this point in my life. I have been considering the idea of making a film, and specifically this week. But, if you send me a script, or an idea, or thoughts that have anything to do with the music industry, or a musician, or a biopic of any sort, I’ll return it. I’m not interested in that. I will not do that.” And I said, “Okay, I like that.” He kind of knew what he wanted. He’s very specific about his taste. I kind of forgot about [the] idea of doing anything music-related with Anton, but was searching and thinking of something that had that element of what he was looking for.

    Within a few months a friend of mine, a director, was in my home and saw my book on the table—Touching From a Distance—and said, “What are you doing with that? I know people who are trying to get a movie made about that book. You should meet them.” So I meet them and find out that they don’t really have anything going on. There [were] a couple people attached, but not directors or actors. Anyway, I meet these people, and they’re like, “We need you.” So, I [came] onboard. Suddenly I’m bestowed the wonderful gift of having the rights to the story. I start talking to Debbie Curtis, I start talking to Tony Wilson, the band, and they’re like, “Look, you’ve made a movie. These people haven’t, so here’s the project." And they gave me the rights. Suddenly, there I am with the rights to the Joy Division story, and I mention it to Anton, and he’s like, “Well, you know what? I hope it goes well. Good luck.” And I knew he had photographed them; that was all I knew. So I went on a trek to find a director, to find an actor, financing, a writer, the whole thing.

    What was it that convinced Anton to step onboard? It seems like a natural fit given his history as a photographer, and it seems like your aesthetic temperaments really intersect as well.

    Absolutely. What happened was, cut to about eight months later, after that initial sort of, “No. Good luck with your project on Joy Division.” I e-mailed him one day and said, “Hey, Anton, I haven’t talked to you in a while, I hope you’re well. I’m still up to talking to you one day and meet[ing] you. Have you found any projects to direct?” He responded immediately and said, “I’m actually in L.A. I can meet tomorrow.” And I go, “Yeah. [Laughs] I’d love to.” So, the next day comes and we’re having lunch at the Sunset Marquis here in West Hollywood. I bring my book, Touching From a Distance and I bring some photographs I had told him about in an e-mail. We sit there and we talk for about two hours. And in that process he asks me how, of course, the film is going. I said, “Wow, it’s great, I’ve got this director, I’ve got this actor sort of interested, these people might come onboard as a financier. And he’s looking at me with almost disgust, but in the sense that he’s curious as well. He goes, “Well, you know, I gotta tell you a story.” So he says, “Listen, the reason I moved to London back in the late ‘70s was to follow my favorite band, Joy Division.” I went, “Anton, are you kidding me?” He said, “No. Then of course I sought them out, I photographed them, and that’s why those photographs happened.” Within a couple months, Ian kills himself. Those images became the iconic images of Joy Division. I said, “Anton, you are the man to direct this film. It’s not about the fact that you’ve never made a movie before. It’s about the fact that you have a personal connection with this movie, which is why I’m involved, which is why everyone I want to be involved is involved. I would love it if you [did] this movie. This isn’t a biopic; this is a love story about an individual who just happens to be in a band.”

    That’s what struck me about it. This is not your typical biopic. It really is just an intense character study.

    Exactly. We never wanted to use that moniker, that word, “biopic.” We wanted to move as far away from it as possible. We wanted people in the middle of nowhere to love and appreciate the film. We were hoping that Joy Division fans would see the film, regardless. I think people that had never heard of the band could appreciate the film for what it was. So we steered clear of that. Anton went back to London and called me and said he wanted to do it. I went out to London and had dinner with him and shook his hand and said, “You’re the guy.” He really felt like he was the perfect person to make this film, not in an arrogant way, but in almost a protective way. I couldn’t believe he was onboard. I was just excited to be working with him.

    I’m also curious about the collaboration once he jumped onboard as a director. From a producer’s standpoint, how much creative input, provided your history with the project, did you feed into the film?

    Well, the writer, for example, was someone that I met through a mutual friend. I wanted someone from Manchester. I wanted that Northern soul to speak through the words and the script and, of course, through the movie. He had never written a script before, Matt Greenhalgh. Matt, from Manchester, spoke the language. I could barely understand him the first time I talked to him on the phone. I went over and met him and loved him right away. He wasn’t a huge fan of Joy Division. He was more of a fan of New Order. I looked at one of his writing samples, but it was something about him in person, his personality, things that inspire him, that really excited me. The fact that he was a successful T.V. writer was one thing, but the fact that he was from there, spoke the language and understood everything that was going on, the spirit. I just felt like he was the guy. Why not? I went with a first-time director, let’s go with a first-time feature film writer. That was my initial creative input. Of course picking Anton was another. There were a lot of directors that were very keen to be a part of the film, but for me it was working with people that I liked. I initially thought, “Will the movie even happen?” It was such an uphill battle because it’s a band that no one’s really heard of. Of course the people who love Joy Division love [them]. The other idea I had was to have New Order compose the score to the film. Many conversations with those guys led to them actually doing it. In fact, it’s one of the last pieces of music they did compose as New Order, and it’s just beautiful.

    Being on the set everyday, working with Anton, I gave him as much creative freedom as I could because I wanted him to make it. Anton—and he’ll tell you this—he really works on inspiration and on his own, in his own way. I wanted that natural occurrence of whatever it is that he puts into his photographs to come through in this film, because they all seem like an accident, and yet they’re perfect. You look at a contact sheet [of his], every one of the images is just perfect and speaks of Anton. His initial ideas weren’t well thought out but they came together as I think he evolved through the process and as the script came to life. He, too, had a vision. I monitored as much of it as I could and let the guys do their thing. Matt the writer and I had one conversation a week during the six weeks he went off and jumped into Macclesfield, Ian’s home town, and wrote the first draft. Anton was learning and, of course, Sam Riley, who was the perfect find. We wouldn’t have known that early on. We felt like he might be good, but he was also a first-timer.

    How exactly did you come across Sam?

    Initially we were looking for both an actor who meant something financially, and at the same time looking for an actor that was an unknown that could become a star and dissolve into the role and become Ian. We thought it would be great if a real actor could do that. It’s always the distraction of having someone well-known. You know, “Oh, it’s Brad Pitt playing whoever;” “Oh, Johnny Depp did a great job.” I don’t use them specifically because they were interested in playing Ian, but I use that as an example of someone who’s well-known [trying to] morph into a character. We saw Sam at a casting call, we liked him, we watched him on tape, and suddenly we were like, “Why not? Let’s take a chance.”

    How did the actors prep for the [performance scenes]? That is them actually performing in the film?

    That is, indeed. In fact, what’s crazy is they actually had two weeks to rehearse prior to the first day of principal photography. Half the day was spent [with] actors going over their dialogue, learning their lines, and learning their steps and their paces within the scene. The rest of the day was the band [rehearsal]. Basically, what was going to happen was they were going to mime the lyrics and mime the positions of their hands on the guitar and the drums. The guitarist had never touched a guitar before in his life. The bassist had never played bass but knew how to play guitar, and the drummer had played drums for six months. Of course, Sam Riley is a singer in a band and knew how to sing, but [in the movie] his voice is so different than what it was in his other band. So, they just go off for about a week-and-a-half. About two days before shooting, they call Anton and I into the studio where they were rehearsing, and they go, “We want to do something for you.” We sat down, just Anton and I, and they played “Leaders of Men,” the Warsaw song, the first song you seem them perform in the movie. And we’re like, “What?” We can’t believe it. We really couldn’t figure it out.

    There was always an issue of, how do we make the studio tracks sound live if they’re miming? Or, how do we make the live tracks sound good enough coming from them? They were really muffled; there was always this issue of, how do we make it perfect? We couldn’t figure that out. Well, this was an answer, at least for one of the songs. After they performed it they looked at us and said, “Well, we have six more that we want to play for you.” They played three more. It was just unbelievable. And they knew the songs, they learned the music. By putting their fingers on the guitar and pretending to play, they actually plugged in and played. Joy Division weren’t an amazing band back in the day. They didn’t know what they were doing. They were learning their instruments, and it just worked. [The actors] got better as the movie moved along.

    So the process [of them learning] actually matched the history of the band.

    Absolutely. It was a perfect, perfect alignment with what was going on with Joy Division. They were moving closer to the end of their short life as Joy Division; they were getting better and better, just like in real life. That was a moment I’ll never forget.

    During pre-production, did you find people coming out of the woodwork because this was the Ian Curtis biopic, the Joy Division film, or were people a bit hesitant? What type of access to material did you have?

    Well, even the people that were coming out of the woodwork were so very hesitant because it was a band that meant a lot to them. They were quite nervous about a movie getting made about their icons, their heroes, the music that has inspired them through their life and their troubles and dark times. They didn’t want to change the movie, necessarily. There were people who were like, “God, I love like New Order and Joy Division. I’d love to help out.” But it was still difficult. They didn’t want to put the money into it. They start thinking on a business level, and they think, “Well, it’s a small movie. It’s black-and-white”—all these issues came into play. But ultimately that was the saving grace for the film. I think that’s what helped move it to the next level in the world of films and respected movies, that it was black-and-white and it was very minimal and very different and off-the-cuff. At the same time, there were people in the States that I went to who were friends who I’d worked with who were so intrigued with this project, i.e., the guy that I met in the car and gave the book to. He was a massive Joy Division fan, could’ve been a part of this film, could’ve helped out, but just didn’t think it would ever get made. A lot of people didn’t. And I many times didn’t. [Laughs] I swear, I thought it was falling apart. Even in pre-production, I was like, “God, this isn’t going to happen.” But the financiers that came onboard were equity sources that were friends of ours or they were the record label—Warner Music, U.K.—who actually held the catalog for Joy Division and New Order. We shot it in a territory in Northern England, in Nottingham. That, too, was a perfect setting because Manchester has changed so much, but they gave us the money to shoot in that territory. And we shot in Ian Curtis’ real home, by the way, I don’t know if you’d read that or not. The home that he walks out of every time in Macclesfield, with Debbie, that’s the real house. That was kind of a cool little added element. I don’t think the movie had a face, really, until Cannes, when it premiered there. That’s when everybody was like, “Whoa, what is this?”

    Your modest black-and-white indie film—it opened Cannes, correct?

    It opened the Cannes Film Festival Directors Fortnight and it won Best European Film. It won two other awards and that’s where the Weinsteins picked up the film, as well as several other distributors. Sam Riley became a star and Anton was suddenly finding that he could direct more movies pretty easily. It was kind of crazy—how did this happen? For me, it was overwhelming. It was incredible. I couldn’t even explain what was going on because it’s something that you live in. I’m in the same house that I’ve lived in for the past eight years. This is where the gestation, the idea, the whole thing came together, in the office that I’m standing in right now. To think that, at one point, it was just me here with my computer and my cell phone, and then suddenly it’s all over the world. It’s such an incredible experience. That high that I got, not only at Cannes, but at the premiere, the awards ceremonies, the BAFTAs—we won a BAFTA—and all this other great stuff that happened was just overwhelming and hard to comprehend.

    Our mission as a group of people, all the way from the cinematographer, who was [essentially] a first timer—this was his second feature. He made a small one back in the day. He’s been successful as a D.P. on commercials and music videos, but this was his first feature, really. From Sam Riley to Anton, seeing his life change and seeing all of our lives change—I could’ve been happy with that, you know? Just making the movie, getting it done and letting a few people see it. We were happy about the film, and ultimately that’s all we wanted. The people involved—Tony Wilson, who sadly enough didn’t see the film, but saw clips of it and there [were] a couple days [when he] watched filming. Before he passed away he was very clear about how he was so happy about this process. New Order—they love the film.

    Regardless of whether one is an avid Joy Division fan or not—I think we touched on this earlier—it’s a human story, and you guys must have been conscious of the fact that this is going to introduce Ian Curtis and Joy Division to a completely new generation of people. Young people, especially, who may have never heard of the band.

    Case and point: two days ago I’m at an event here in L.A., some Dennis Hopper party. There was a kid with these people that I knew who was 17-years-old. He’s a composer and he composed music for some short film that Anthony Hopkins was in. I don’t know the name of it, but it played at Cannes. So we were talking about Cannes, and he asked me if I had been and I said, “Yeah, I had a film that came out there last year.” He goes, “Which one?” He couldn’t believe it when I said Control. He said, “Oh my God—about Joy Division! I’ve been listening to Joy Division forever.” I said, “What? Forever? Seventeen years? You’re a kid.” But he’s like, “All my friends love Joy Division, we love that band, we love the movie.” And I was like, “Wow, he’s 17.” It was crazy. A lot of those bands that are out there today are influenced by Joy Division and New Order and the bands that came out around that time. So, it was absolutely amazing hearing that. But that’s just one example. There was a girl who was the daughter of someone I know who was 14 who had seen the movie and just loved it. She’s very advanced, very smart, very cool, and she grew up in that world so, [it’s] kind of crazy.

    Now the DVD’s out there, so the people who didn’t get to see it, [those] who missed the wave of awards and accolades you were accruing through all of this, are going to get to see it on DVD. How involved were you with the production of the DVD, and is there anything on there you’re particularly proud of in terms of supplemental material?

    Well, I’m proud of the movie that’s on there.

    That’s important. [Laughs]

    I love the image that’s on the cover. That’s Anton’s image of Sam Riley, and I think that’s really special and kind of an important connection. None of his photos are really part of the publicity stills, except that one image which made the cover and all the posters. He did compile a book called In Control, which is a special, very personal book that came from the film. I suggested [it] one day; I said, “Would you take some photographs [on] the set, maybe you should take a photograph a day to compile a book?” He’s like, “No, no, no.” But he did, and he compiled a book. [Laughs] With the DVD, I was back in L.A. working on another film. I was back working on a Jack Kerouac documentary that I had been on and wasn’t involved too much with the details of the DVD. It’s pretty basic; we put this music video for The Killers on there. The commentary is Anton. I don’t need to do a commentary. There’s a little featurette that’s very basic and could’ve been expounded upon a little more, but I think it’s just enough. It’s minimal. Where you have unanswered questions, I think the documentary about Joy Division will help on many levels as well. It’s a beautiful, beautiful film that I support completely, and that’s Tom Atencio’s Joy Division, the documentary. That will accompany a lot and back up a lot of what happens in the movie. It’s very cool. I’m so glad it’s out on DVD.

    —Heidi Atwal

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    Tags: Anton Corbijn, Sam Riley, Orian Williams, Samantha Morton

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