‘People were panicking over whether I could do the Ian Curtis dance’: how we made Control

‘The first time we played She’s Lost Control they had around 150 Joy Division fans there. I ran to my trailer and vomited. One guy said to me: “You had better be good!”’

Sam Riley, played Ian Curtis

After leaving the National Youth Theatre, I spent a year trying to be an actor then decided I wanted to be a rock star instead. I did that for three years with my band, 10,000 Things, but with moderate to zero success. We played in a pub called the Primrose in Leeds and, because of my appearance, they billed us as “Ian Curtis fronts the Rolling Stones”. I didn’t even know who Ian was. We got dropped by our record label and I ended up in a retail warehouse folding clothes and working in a bar.

I rang my old agent and said that I would do absolutely anything. Control had nothing to do with a deep love of the music of Joy Division – it was pure chance that they were looking for an “Ian” the week I rang. For the casting, I told work I was going to the dentist, but there were three auditions and I kept having to go back. My teeth never looked any better though.

‘We’ve been together ever since’ … Sam Riley and Alexandra Maria Lara.
‘We’ve been together ever since’ … Sam Riley and Alexandra Maria Lara. Photograph: Momentum Pictures/Allstar

My life was a mess in Leeds. I wasn’t in good shape. But I got the job on my 26th birthday and the movie saved me: just by coming to the set, having a purpose, being relied upon, being Ian. Samantha Morton, who played Ian’s wife Debbie, was incredible and led rehearsals. In one scene, she improvised and talked me into a corner. I burst into tears at the end of it. I thought, “Wow! This is acting.” I fell in love with Alexandra Maria Lara, who played the journalist Annik, and we’ve been together ever since, living in Berlin.

I think Anton Corbijn, the director, ended up remortgaging his house because when people heard his lead was some pub rock singer from Leeds, everyone wanted to run. I knew how much he was risking and didn’t want to make any mistakes. Before we started shooting, he asked me to do “the Ian Curtis dance” for him again. Some people were panicking over whether I would do it right.

The concert scenes were insane. In all my previous gigs, I had never had anyone in the audience look at me like that. The first time we were going to play She’s Lost Control, they had around 150 Joy Division fans as the crowd. I ran to my trailer and vomited. As I came out, a guy in his 50s said: “I saw Ian about 10 times. You had better be fuckin’ good!”

Ian was a torn personality: a young, married father and a rock star being pulled towards America and glory, dealing with epilepsy and the side effects of medication. He was just a boy. I wonder if that’s what I was like: confident on stage, insecure in life. Maybe that’s why Anton hired me.

During rehearsals, we went to see New Order play. That was strange. Backstage, all the actors playing band members sought out their corresponding musician – and I obviously couldn’t.

Anton Corbijn, director

‘I didn’t believe I was capable of it’ … Anton Corbijn.
‘I didn’t believe I was capable of it’ … Anton Corbijn. Photograph: Stephan Vanfleteren

I moved to London in October 1979 to be closer to Joy Division and 12 days later took what are now famous photographs of the group on the underground. There seemed to be a conflict in Ian between his belief in himself as an artist and his insecurity as a man. I realised this not from first-hand conversations, but from observing. Similarly, Sam was at a difficult stage in his life. Control was almost written for him in a way.

I was shy by nature. As a photographer, I could overcome that. However, to work with 100 people, who all knew more about film than me, was intimidating. Although friends had told me I should make a movie, I didn’t believe I was capable of it. I was the first director to try to film Ian’s story: given the band’s cult status, it could really go wrong. But I was emotionally involved in the band and thought that might give me one up on real directors.

Samantha Morton had worked on a U2 music video with me, so I gave her a call. Once we had her on board, things started to open up. We filmed in Nottingham and Macclesfield over the summer. Nottingham, fortunately, still looked like the 1970s, and we shot outside Ian and Debbie’s actual house in Macclesfield. The walk Sam did to the Job Centre in the movie was the walk Ian did every morning.

I never thought the actors could play the songs. I knew Sam was a singer, but that was not the reason we gave him the part. They were adamant about singing and playing their instruments, so we recorded them playing live on the set until we had a good take. It all felt so real.

Interviews by Lee Campbell

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