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LAist Interview: Orian Williams, producer of Control

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Whether you are a devoted fan of Joy Division or simply a casual listener, Control should be high on your must-see list of movies. It is a masterfully and intimately told story about one of the more opaque musical figures of the last thirty years, Ian Curtis (my LAist review of the film is below). Yesterday, I had the chance to speak with one of the film's producers, Orian Williams, who spent ten years bringing this film to the screen.

When did you come aboard Control?

In 1997 I was driving down Sunset Boulevard. I'd seen an advertisement for the book Touching From a Distance and I walked into Book Soup, saw the book there, bought it and threw it in the back seat of my car. About four days later, a producer friend of mine noticed the book and said, "Wow, that's a cool book. What are you doing with that?" And I said I thought it might make a great movie one day. So he said, "Let me take it. Let me read it over the weekend." So he did. About four months go by.

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We talked a couple times and he kept saying, "Yeah, yeah, I'm gonna get to it." Before I know it, I was focused on Shadow of the Vampire--a film I shot in 1999. It took me away from my home in L.A. and sent me off to Luxembourg and London to get this movie made. Well, I came back and reconnected with this guy. We met for breakfast and he gave me the book back and said, "Hey, man. I've had this on my shelf for three years. I'd like you to have it back. And I said, "So what did you think?" And he said, "Well, I never read it." (laughs)

So I just kind of secretly put it my knapsack there and didn't say another word. About six months later,Bob Gosse saw the book on my wall and said there were some people trying to get the movie made and that I should call them. In fact, one of the guys had written the script based on the book and was going to direct it with someone he knew. So, sure enough I called this guy. I didn't think anything would come from it, but I became involved in the project through a series of meetings with this guy. And shortly thereafter, after communicating with Debbie (Curtis) and New Order and various other people back in the U.K., we decided that maybe this guy wasn't the right individual. So one thing led to another and I suggested a couple of directors, one of which was Anton.

Were you aware that Anton had shot those guys all those years before?

Yes, I knew he had photographed them. I didn't know that he moved from Holland to London to follow his favorite band. I had no idea that was Joy Division. He relocated there in 1979 and basically his mission was to photograph the band. He took that one epic photograph of the four of them descending down this tube station. And before you know it--within three months Ian committed suicide--that photo became the iconic image of Joy Division. So he's sitting there telling me this and he says, "You know, this really isn't just a movie about a musician." And I say, "No, it's a love story. That's where it comes from. That's the way I've thought about it the entire time." And he says, "Why don't I go back and re-read the book." So he did, called from London and said I want to do it. The rest of the story--getting the financing--is a complete pain in the ass.

Yeah, because it's really--and I say this in the best possible way--it's a very non-commercial movie. You're shooting in black and white, casting mostly unknowns--I can imagine how tough it was to sell that.

Well the financing was quite difficult. There weren't a lot of people out there that had a lot of money who wanted to finance a film about a guy who committed suicide.

How does it end? He kills himself!

Yeah. Can he NOT die? Is there a way? (laughs) But the thing that was amazing was that there were a lot of people trying to get a Joy Division movie made because there was so much left unsaid. There was a story that people were dying to hear and find out more about through not only Deborah's book, but from the band, from Tony Wilson, from everyone. There was this absence of truth and this mystery surrounding the suicide. There was a limited amount of footage that existed out there of Joy Division and Ian Curtis. There's no footage of him talking. Nothing. So, with all of that, I went about it the most--I don't know--heartfelt way possible, and that was just finding people who loved Joy Division that had links either to sales agents or film distributors or whatnot. It was sort of a little scavenger hunt in a way and before you knew it people started rising to the occasion. When Anton came on board, that's when the band got serious. That's when everyone got serious. Like, "Oh, my God. This makes sense." A sales agent came on first. We had Samantha (Morton) loosely attached. Warner Music put money into the movie.

Do they own Joy Division's catalog?

That's correct. But they had never done that before. A guy named Korda Marshall--who was just incredible. And we kind of pieced it together--a percentage here, a percentage there, the Japanese invested in the film, a few pre-sales--and before you knew it we had a little bit of foundation, one thing led to the next and there we were in pre-production. Having not closed our financing, Anton stepped up to the plate and cash-flowed the entire film until the film was actually cash-flowed which was after principal photography.

I hadn't heard that before. That's ballsy.

It was.

How did you guys find Sam? I thought he was amazing.

Sam came to us through our casting director doing just random casting calls. He'd never really acted before--did a couple plays, got an agent and then focused on music. He was trying to make money and acting wasn't going the way he'd thought. But he came to us, he read, he came back for a callback and we signed him. And he sang the music for the film as well.

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Yeah, I was reading that. I don't think they were going to at first, but then they started rehearsing and they showed it to Anton and he kind of signed on after seeing them actually perform.

Yeah, that's it. We were basically going to have them mime. And the guitarist had never played guitar before, the bassist had never played bass before but knew how to play guitar. The drummer, Harry Treadaway, was really the backbone of the band. And he had never really drummed before either! I mean, they all sort of picked up their instruments and went after it. And, of course, Sam had been in a band. He'd been a singer. But they were planning originally, to sort of mime everything, but one day--a few days before shooting--they asked us to come in and they played a set of songs that they'd been learning. And we were blown away by it. It changed everything. So immediately we had to re-think things. And what's interesting about those four guys is they became a band before they became a troupe of actors making a movie. Although they had never been in a band before except for Sam. It's kind of the way it had to be. They found themselves--they called each other by their character names--not in a method way, but just in a respectful way.

You guys sold the movie at Cannes to the Weinstein Company. I can imagine the lead-up to that. What was that like?

Well, we'd pre-sold a couple of territories--Australia, the U.K., France. Just to give us a foundation to help us with the financing. So we were accepted into Cannes. So excited about it. Getting the opening slot for Director's Fortnight which was an even better, more amazing thing than we could have imagined. Just because getting into Cannes is one thing, but then opening the festival is another.

And then winning some awards?

And then winning some awards. We were so excited about it all. We won three awards. It was just the perfect venue, the perfect audience and the perfect atmosphere. The Weinstein Company had viewed the film a couple times prior to the end of Cannes. We set up a screening for Harvey, and he went in, watched the film and loved it. Called immediately and bought the film in Cannes. We were excited. I was excited because it was an American company that I had so much respect for. Obviously, in the Miramax days you dreamed of being associated with those guys. Initially, I don't think they knew what they had, but now they really do and they've just surrounded it in such a loving way and they're getting it out there in the right way. Every week, this week it's like 10 more cities, 10 more cities. They're really pushing it.

That's what I was going to ask you next. A lot of these movies, you get a few weeks at the Nuart or the Laemmle and then suddenly you're gone and you have to wait for DVD. And some movies you can see on DVD and they're okay, but I can't imagine seeing this movie on DVD and it having the same effect as it would in a theater.

It's incredible. I went and saw it over at the new Landmark where it's playing right now. Everytime I see it on the screen it just blows me away. Anton really crafted a beautiful film and a lot of the credit goes to Martin Ruhe who Anton had worked with before many times on a lot of music videos. Just together they were a great team.

So what's next for you? What are you doing after this?

I'm doing a few things. I finished a documentary on twenty days in the life of Jack Kerouac. He went up to Big Sur and wrote Big Sur right after On the Road had come out and was such a success. He was sort of depleted of all his energy and had turned to drinking and drugs and whatnot. So his buddy Lawrence Ferlinghetti suggested he come up and stay in this cabin and kind of detox. And he did, but he went darker and drank a bit more and went into a pretty crazy place. This documentary has Sam Shepard in it and Tom Waits and there's some great music threaded through it by the guys from Sun Volt and Ben Gibbard. That's something that I've finished. We're in the final stages of post. Also doing a film called The Boom Boom Room. Lian Lunson who directed the Leonard Cohen movie,I'm Your Man is directing this film. She also wrote it. It stars Dita Von Teese, Willie Nelson and Katherine Helmond who was in all the Terry Gilliam movies and Soap.

And Who's the Boss?

There you go. Who's the Boss? That's right. So she's in it. But it's very cool. It's a beautiful story. It's like a fairly tale, a family story set in Texas.

Control is currently playing is Los Angeles.