DATE June 9, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: David Sedaris, author of the new essay collection
"When You Are Engulfed in Flames," on embarrassing medical
procedures, the book, smoking, and fidelity
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Good news for David Sedaris fans. He has a new collection of humorous
personal essays called, "When You Are Engulfed in Flames." In an era when the
number of people reading books seems to be dwindling, Sedaris is so popular,
he's become--excuse the expression--a brand. A Google search will lead you to
people described as the David Sedaris of punk, the David Sedaris of graphic
design, as well as the David Sedaris of wine writing, indy rock, hip-hop,
knitting, Sweden, Israel and "Project Runway" blogging. We have the real
David Sedaris with us today, which I guess makes him the David Sedaris of
David Sedaris, the one that is a regular contributor to public radio's "This
American Life" and gets on the best seller list each time he writes a book.
Sedaris and his boyfriend, Hugh, now divide their time between homes in France
David Sedaris, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's really great to talk with you
again. As an ex-smoker myself, I have to ask you to start with your piece
"Smoking Section," which is all about how you started and how you stopped
smoking. It's the longest piece in the book. I'm going to ask you to read a
short section of it.
Mr. DAVID SEDARIS: Sure.
(Reading) "As with pot, it was astonishing how quickly I took to cigarettes.
It was as if my life was a play and the prop mistress had finally showed up.
Suddenly there were packs to unwrap, matches to strike, ashtrays to fill and
then empty. My hands were at one with their labor, the way a cook's might be,
or a knitter's. It's popular to believe that every smoker was brainwashed,
sucked in by product placements and subliminal print ads. This argument comes
in handy when you want to assign blame, but it discounts the fact that smoking
is often wonderful. For people like me, people who twitched and jerked and
cried out in tiny voices, cigarettes were a godsend. Not only that, but they
tasted good, especially that first one in the morning, and the seven or eight
that immediately followed it. By late afternoon, after I'd finished a pack or
so, I'd generally feel a heaviness in my lungs, especially in the 1980s when I
worked with hazardous chemicals. I should have worn a respirator, but it
interfered with my smoking. And so I set it aside."
GROSS: That's David Sedaris reading from his new collection, which is called
"When You Are Engulfed in Flames."
David, it's amazing to me that you stopped. You know? That you were able to
do it. And, you know, when I'm thinking of all that you went through to get
there, one of the things I think about is that your mother smoked. And you
watched her wheeze, you watched her unable to do normal activities without,
you know, having serious difficulty breathing. Did that have an impact on you
as a smoker when you watched her like that?
Mr. SEDARIS: It had no effect whatsoever. It just didn't occur to me that
any of that would ever happen to me personally, no matter how long I smoked.
And I would have continued to smoke. I mean, the only reason that I stopped
was I go on these lecture tours twice a year, so 60 nights a year, I'm in a
hotel, and all the decent hotels went nonsmoking. And when the Ritz-Carltons,
all the Ritz-Carltons went nonsmoking, I said, `OK, that's it. I have to
quit.' And I hated to do that. I hated to. I felt like I'd been forced by,
if not society, then at least by the Ritz-Carlton people to do it. But I'd
never thought of quitting before. So I didn't have a history of trying and
failing. So I think that made it a bit easier.
But with my mom, like, my dad would always say to my sisters and I, like, `I
can't believe you're still smoking after everything that happened to your
mother. Look at you. I can't believe it.' And friends of my parents' would
say the same thing, but, really I have to say it had no effect on me at all.
GROSS: How come? How come it had no effect on you?
Mr. SEDARIS: Because you just tell yourself that won't happen to you. I
mean, it's just very abstract. I went to a medical examiner's office. I was
there for 10 days. I was in the autopsy suite. A pathologist handed me a
lung that had belonged to a heavy smoker. He put it in my hands. But that,
too, was just abstract. It was like going to a butcher shop and having them
hand you a cut of meat that you'd never seen before. Plus, I often have my
hands full worrying what the outside of my body looks like. You know? I
don't lose sleep over my internal organs. I guess it's mortality. It's the
inability to conceive that you are going to die, I suppose.
GROSS: Now, you're kind of obsessive compulsive, right?
Mr. SEDARIS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: So could you harness that? I mean, I think that feeds into a habit
like smoking because you can smoke obsessively and it's really hard to give up
a habit like that, particularly if you are obsessive compulsive. But is there
a part of that obsessive compulsive part of your personality that you could
draw on to stop the habit?
Mr. SEDARIS: No. I had sort of hoped that there was.
Mr. SEDARIS: But it didn't exist. Like a device that would let you not do
something over and over and over and over and over and over again. So, no, I
was--sort of felt alone that way. The only thing that I thought would help me
would be to tell a lot of people that I was doing it. Plus, I went to Japan
to quit. I read in a book that the best way to quit was to move. So I didn't
have anything tying me down, and Hugh was free, so we went to Tokyo. And...
GROSS: And so how did it help to change venues?
Mr. SEDARIS: Because if I'd told myself in Paris, if I said, `OK, from now
on, I no longer smoke. Like, I had my last cigarette at midnight and now I'm
going to bed and when I wake up tomorrow, I will no longer be a smoker,' then
I would sit at my desk for two minutes and would say, `This is ridiculous.
Give me a cigarette.' But we rented an apartment in Tokyo, so I had my last
cigarette at Charles de Gaulle Airport, got on an plane to Tokyo. You know,
getting from the airport to the apartment, getting up to the apartment,
speaking to the concierge in my little tiny baby Japanese, that was all an
adventure. And everything was so different. I'd never sat at that desk
before. I'd never seen such a view before. It just made it easier.
Everything else was different, so I thought, `OK, well, this can be different,
too. I don't smoke.'
GROSS: Was part of the deal that you would try to stop smoking and go to
Japan so you'd have a great piece to write about, stopping smoking in Japan?
Did that help?
Mr. SEDARIS: Well, I went to Japan, I went to the Philippines on a book tour
a couple years of ago, and on the way home I went to Japan. And I just went
so I could cross it off my country list, right? I was never terribly
interested in Japan. I didn't know anything about Japanese food. I just went
for a couple of days. And it was fantastic. It was the greatest place I'd
ever been. And, all right, part of that is that I love shopping. I love it.
It's my hobby, I think. I'm at my best in front of a cash register. And I
thought that in Tokyo it was just going to be like fans and kimonos, and it's
not. It's the greatest stuff. It just boggles your mind, and a lot of it I
didn't know what it was, right? And even that didn't stop me.
Like, all the big department stores have homemade stuffed animal sections.
And I'm not like a teddy bear person, but these would be like creatures, like,
just, I don't know what kind of imagination it would take to invent this kind
of thing, but then to sell it on top of it. Even the department store
shopping was great. So I went for three days, and I thought I've got to come
back here one day. So when I thought about quitting, I thought, well, that
will be my reward. I mean, I know I want to go somewhere, and I know I want
to go somewhere where I'm going to feel like the rug has really been pulled
out from under me. So my first thought was going back to Japan.
GROSS: My guest is David Sedaris, and his new collection is called "When You
Are Engulfed in Flames."
David, I'd like you to do a short reading from the first personal essay in
your book, and it's called "It's Catching." And this is a short reading.
Would you set up where we are in this?
Mr. SEDARIS: Sure. This is a story about--well, it begins by talking about
sort of a germ phobia. And then it goes on to--somehow becomes about
Christmas. I don't know how these things work. I finish them sometimes and I
think, `How did the hell did I get there?' But this is--I talk about seeing a
parrot in a grocery store and about my friend Patsy thinking of germs in a
GROSS: Yeah, so in this piece, you talk about how one of your sisters and one
of your friends are so germophobic that they won't touch grocery carts because
of the germs, they won't, you know, lean their head on a seat in a movie
theater in case there's, you know, lice on it. They won't--just all kinds of
things in public that they just won't touch because of the germs. And that
leads you to these thoughts.
Mr. SEDARIS: (Reading) "The only preventive thing I do is wash clothes after
buying them in a thrift shop. This, after catching crabs from a pair of used
pants. I was in my mid-20s at the time and probably would have itched myself
all the way to the bone had a friend not taken me to a drug store where I got
a bottle of something called Quell. After applying it, I raked through my
pubic hair with a special nit comb, and what I came away with was a real
eye-opener, these little monsters who'd been feasting for weeks on my flesh.
"I guess they're what Patsy imagines when she looks at a theater seat, what
Lisa sees lurking on the handle of a grocery cart. They're minor, though,
compared to what Hugh had. He was eight years old and living in the Congo
when he noticed a red spot on his leg. Nothing huge. Mosquito bite, he
figured. The following day, the spot became more painful, and the day after
that, he looked down and saw a worm poking out."
GROSS: That was so horrifying, David, when I read it. It's just...
Mr. SEDARIS: And his mom had one.
GROSS: It's such a horrible image. And his mom had one, too. Yeah. It just
leaves the perfect image for me about how, you know, the human body can be so
beautiful, but there are times when it can just be just like so horrible.
Like, did you recoil in horror when you saw that?
Mr. SEDARIS: When he told me about the worm, then I thought, `Oh my God,
I've kissed this person?' But when he told me that his mother had a worm like
that, too, I mean, if I saw a worm crawling out of my mother's leg, I would
have just marched to the nearest orphanage and said, `Take me.' I would have
burned everything she'd ever given me, all pictures of herself, because that's
somehow worse than having a worm in your own leg is having a worm in your
mother's leg. I mean, if her leg was wooden and it was a termite in there,
even that would be bad. But a worm, a real worm in a flesh leg, that's
repellant. But they lived in Africa, and such things happen.
GROSS: Are you squeamish about your body or about bodies in general?
Mr. SEDARIS: I have this book called "Medical Legal Investigations of
Death," and it's pictures of every possible way that you could die. Like,
this is what you would look like if you were run over by a truck. This is
what you would look like if you were run over by a tractor. This is what you
would look like if you were run over by a tractor and then dumped in a creek
for one week, two weeks, three weeks. No problem with books like that. I
went to the medical examiner's office, and I was there for a week. And I
think part of what bothered me there was the smell. You know? That took a
little bit of getting used to.
But with my own body, I can't bear any of that. Cannot bear any of it.
Sometimes you'll see in pictures, you'll see somebody with a goiter, right?
The size of a--oh, I don't know, like the size of a beach ball, right? And
you think, `How on earth did that person allow it to get to that point?' I
would. I would. I would just tell myself, `It'll go away. It'll go away.
I'll get a turtleneck. It'll go away.'
GROSS: You had one of the more famous boils in American history because you
got this boil on your behind that coincided with your book tour and your
appearance at the American Book Seller's Association convention a few years
ago, and this like the big book convention, and it was the launch of your book
tour. And I remember being on a panel with you at breakfast where you talked
about the boil and, you know, it's kind of funny timing to talk about it. And
we talked about that a little bit when you were on the show back in 2004. But
in your new book, you write about that a little bit and you write about how
you asked your boyfriend, Hugh, to lance it for you, eventually. And when he
did, you write about how horrible the stuff that came out of it was, how it
smelled like evil. And that this evil had been trapped in your body. And I
just would like you to reflect on how it felt at that moment, feeling that you
had been the host to this stuff.
Mr. SEDARIS: Well, it was my second time when I realized that I was a host
to really what had to be like the foulest liquid on earth. I mean, it was
more horrible than anything smellwise. But a couple years ago, when Hugh did
lead me to the dentist who led me to a periodontist, and the periodontist cut
my gums from top to bottom and then he lifted them up and he scraped that very
same thing from the roots of my teeth, it smelled just like that. And I
couldn't feel a thing because he had shot me full of novocaine, so it was this
odd sensation. And I saw him, you know, sticking a knife into my mouth, and I
saw his hand going back and forth. And I could taste blood, and I knew that
there was stuff going on in there.
But it wasn't until I smelled it, and then I just said, (muffled) `I'm sorry.'
And what I was saying is `I'm sorry.' I was so sorry that I subjected anybody.
It must have cleared the building. And to know that that was just there,
hidden, hidden beneath my gum line, and this boil, maybe there was a bit of it
here, a bit of it there in my body, and it said, `Let's all meet on the
tailbone.' I don't know how that worked. But really, I wrote a story about
Hugh lancing the boil, and it sort of turned into a love story in a way.
GROSS: Yeah. No, exactly.
Mr. SEDARIS: Because the fact that anyone would do that for you. And he had
never lanced a boil in his life, but he can do anything. He really can.
Like, if you said, `Oh, we need to build a--flood's coming. We need to build
a dike out of these big stones,' he's never built a dike before, but he could.
He could do it if he set his mind to it. He would mix the cement and you'd
have yourself a dike and it would be the best dike around. He can do
anything. Anything. And he lanced my boil. And this came at the end of sort
of a long essay about fidelity, and really that, at the end of the day, that's
sort of what it's all about, you know, is finding somebody who will lance your
GROSS: You know, when you get to a point in a relationship where your lover
can do that for you, or your spouse can do that for you and not feel like they
can never touch you again. Seriously, right? I mean...
Mr. SEDARIS: Right, right. Well, it helps if they had a worm in their leg.
GROSS: That's true.
Mr. SEDARIS: You know, because then you think, `OK, well, how bad is my boil
really? You had worms living inside of you.'
GROSS: But you didn't see the worm, whereas he saw your boil.
Mr. SEDARIS: Right. But I think there was something about being on an
airplane that gave the boil more confidence. I don't know if it was something
about the altitude, because actually the boil came back after I was on an
airplane. And so then I went to a clinic in London, and then they re-lanced
Mr. SEDARIS: And I haven't heard anything from it since then.
GROSS: Good. So do you basically see the body as being beautiful or being
like frightening and--you know, like on that sliding scale, how often do you
see like the human body as beautiful and wonderful and charming and arousing
and all of that, and how much time to you see it as just kind of potentially
Mr. SEDARIS: Well, you know, I started...
GROSS: It's kind of a weird question to ask.
Mr. SEDARIS: No, I started swimming.
Mr. SEDARIS: And so I started seeing people in their bathing suits, right?
And I'm amazed now, the older I get, I'm amazed. I'll see like a 14-year-old,
and I don't mean that I see them in a sexual way, but you look at them and
it's like seeing like an antelope or something. And just their bodies at that
age, there's something just magnificent. Like, if I were going to send some
bodies into space, like to show other creatures what we're capable of, I'd
probably take a couple of 14-year-olds, right? But after that, the body
becomes a science project to me. Actually, no, I'd say like at 48, then it
becomes like a science project. So it's fascinating, but in a completely
different way. Like, I'll see somebody who's, I don't know, my age or
anywhere my age and older, and I find that body just as fascinating.
GROSS: Let me just ask you one more body question. Do you have dreams, like
weird body dreams in which, say, part of your scalp has fallen out, or, you
know, you sneeze and your teeth come out, or, you know those weird classic
body dreams that are very like surreal and upsetting? Or like your fingernail
falls off or?
Mr. SEDARIS: Never--I have a lot of dreams in which my teeth fall out, but
never when I sneeze. I love that idea, that you would not only lose your
teeth, that you would actually spit them onto somebody else. We have a friend
in Normandy, and she went to the dentist last year. And my understanding is
that it was just a regular dental appointment. And he pulled out a pair of
pliers and he ripped every single tooth out of her head.
GROSS: Oh my God.
Mr. SEDARIS: And she had a vacation. She'd made vacation plans. And they
weren't going to have her dentures ready for 10 days. But she thought, `Well,
I made these plans and I don't want to lose that money.' So she went on
GROSS: Oh, God.
Mr. SEDARIS: To a resort town in Brittany without a tooth in her head. And
that to me was proof that nightmares really can come true. Because I've
dreamt that exact same thing. I don't dream that I'm paralyzed too often.
Sometimes I'll dream that I grew an appendage. Not anything as easy to remove
as a tail or a third arm, but just, you know, sort of something tail-like that
would just come out of my shoulder. You know? It just comes out of the wrong
GROSS: You write in your book, "I never cheated on a boyfriend. It's become
part of my idea of myself." And here's what I'm wondering. This is a weird
question. But I have this theory and I'd like to know what you think of
it--that if you're obsessive compulsive, when it comes to relationships,
you're likely to be a kind of sex addict type, or really monogamous because,
you know, your compulsion can lead you to just have as much sex as you can
with as many people as possible, or to really appreciate monogamy for its
dedication and its patterns, its predictable patterns and find that very
Mr. SEDARIS: Well, I would float a third theory.
Mr. SEDARIS: And that is that I'm ugly, and like nobody wants to have sex
GROSS: Oh, please.
Mr. SEDARIS: So that makes it a lot easier when no one's asking you. When
no one's asking you to cheat on your boyfriend, it becomes so much easier not
GROSS: Oh, that just can't be. I mean, that may be you might have felt that
way about yourself once, but that can't be. You're much too famous and
talented and beloved to not have invitations.
Mr. SEDARIS: But people have asked me that.
Mr. SEDARIS: They've said, `Oh, well don't people come up to you on your
book tour?' Never. Never. Well, OK, one time, this guy sort of waited for me
after the reading, and I ran into the waiting car. Even when I have dreams,
when I have dreams in which I meet somebody else, I can never get to the sex
part because I start thinking, `What would I say to Hugh?' Because I would
lose everything, everything. And I just can't imagine really at this point
what would possibly make it worth it. Because I suppose the more you have to
lose, you know, the harder you think about things like that.
GROSS: You know, because of stories like the story of James Frey and Margaret
Jones, people who had written things that they called memoirs that were
actually not true, there's been a lot more scrutiny about, you know, personal
essays and memoirs. There's even a piece in the New Republic that fact
checked some of your stories and suggested there were a few exaggerations in
early pieces and things that other people who were there didn't see the same
way that you saw it. Have standards changed now when it comes to like
publishing personal essays or memoirs because of all the stuff, you know,
that's out there that's been proven not to be true? Like when you were
published in The New Yorker, and it's a personal essay, is there like fact
checking for that as if it were a reportorial piece?
Mr. SEDARIS: The fact checking is, at The New Yorker, has always been really
intense. I'd written in a story, I said that--I talked about a painting that
I bought and I said that it cost as much as the average person pays for car
insurance. It was just a throwaway line, right? I didn't want to give the
exact price because I didn't want to put people off. So I said that costs as
much as a person pays for car insurance. So the fact checker said, `Well, how
much did the painting cost?' And I told him and he said `that's more than the
average person pays.' And I said `OK, the average epileptic' and hung up the
phone. And he calls back and he said, `You'd have to change that to the
average epileptic in Connecticut because they have the highest insurance rates
for drivers.' But it wasn't really a story about that, right? So I said `OK,
it costs as much as the average bumper pool table.' And then he called and
said, `Actually, bumper pool tables are a lot less than you might think.
You're going to have to change that to a high-end bumper pool table.' And I
said `pool table, just say pool table.' I mean, and this was for a line that
I'd considered a throwaway line.
You know, I had another story about a clock in my dad's dining room and I said
it was, I don't know, walnut. So the fact checker called and apparently the
clock was cherry. So that's fine, and I changed it to cherry. But pretty
much--I would say that my pieces are fact checked the same way that a reported
GROSS: Is it making you feel more inhibited as a writer?
Mr. SEDARIS: Well, I mean, I think that there--I feel like I've always been
pretty up front about the way that I write. You know, I exaggerate. I've
written about how much I exaggerate. I exaggerate about how much I
exaggerate. And then it seemed like to me that all of a sudden the rules
changed. You know, I mean, for a humorist I always thought that you were
allowed to do that. Like if somebody nags, in my writing they nag, nag, nag.
I mean, so I'm not inventing the fact that they nag, I'm just turning up the
volume on it a little bit.
GROSS: Just one last question. I saw you on "The Daily Show"; you were
great. And I was thinking, OK. I was trying to put myself in your shoes and
I was thinking OK, the most self conscious part would be walking out to the
chair with Jon Stewart. Like, you're walking out and you know that the camera
is on you. Was that awkward?
Mr. SEDARIS: The thing about going on a television show like that is I
always feel like the people in the audience, they have every right to expect
that somebody really big is going to be on, right? And then it's like you and
they haven't really heard of you and so they have to get over their
disappointment. And at the same time you have to worry about what you look
like. But I have to say, Jon Stewart makes it so easy, and he comes into the
dressing room beforehand so you actually get to see him, you know, before,
because it's frightening because when you go on television you have as much
makeup on as a corpse, basically. So when you go on television all of a
sudden you're talking to someone and he looks like a corpse and you think,
`Well, I must look like one, too.' But he made it super easy. He wants people
to be relaxed. His thing is, `We're just going to get out there and talk and
it doesn't really matter and we'll just have fun and, you know, don't even
think--it'll be over before you know it.' And he was exactly right.
GROSS: David Sedaris, it's great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
Mr. SEDARIS: Oh, thank you, Terry.
GROSS: David Sedaris' new book is called "When You Are Engulfed in Flames."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Anton Corbijn, director of "Control," a film about
the band Joy Division, on the film, now out on DVD
TERRY GROSS, host:
The movie "Control" based on the life of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of the
band Joy Division, didn't play in theaters for long when it was released last
year. But now you have a second chance because it's out on DVD. So we
invited the director, Anton Corbijn, to talk with us. Joy Division was a
short-lived but influential British post-punk band. Ian Curtis, the lead
singer, killed himself in 1980 at the age of 23. Corbijn became a Joy
Division fan after hearing their first album in Holland, where he's from. His
love of their music led him to England where he ended up taking now famous
photos of the band. Corbijn went on to create the visual image of many other
bands, including U2 and Depeche Mode through his album cover photos and rock
In a review of "Control" in the New York Times, film critic A.O. Scott wrote
"You don't have to know anything about Joy Division to grasp the mysterious
sorrow at its heart."
Here's Joy Division's best known recording, "Love Will Tear Us Apart."
(Soundbite of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" by Joy Division)
Mr. IAN CURTIS: (Singing) When routine bites hard
And ambitions are low
And the resentment rides high
But emotions won't grow
And we're changing our ways,
Taking different roads
Then love, love will tear us apart again
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's the band Joy Division. In the film "Control" the lead singer,
Ian Curtis, is played by Sam Riley. Here he is toward the end of the film,
just before the band is about to embark on what was to be its first US tour, a
tour that never happened because of Curtis's suicide.
(Soundbite from "Control")
Mr. SAM RILEY: (As Ian Curtis) I don't want to be in the band anymore.
Unknown pleasures was it. I was happy. I never meant for it to grow like
this. When I'm up there singing, they don't understand how much I give and
how it affects me.
(Soundbite of door opening)
Unidentified Actor: (In character) Party's over.
Mr. RILEY: (As Ian Curtis) Now they want more. They expect me to give more.
Actor: (In character) Just enjoy yourself.
Mr. RILEY: (As Ian Curtis) And I don't know if I can. It's like it's not
happening to me, but someone pretending to be me, someone dressed in my skin.
And now we're going to America. I've no control anymore. I don't know what
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Anton Corbijn, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you decide to make the
movie "Control"? You'd liked Joy Division for a long time. You'd taken
pictures of them. Some of those pictures had become pretty famous. Why did
you want to make the film?
Mr. ANTON CORBIJN: Well, initially I didn't want to make the film, I should
say, because in some countries people describe my work as being that of a rock
photographer, which I kind of understand. But I am not a rock photographer.
I am a photographer who does portraits, and a lot of these portraits are
musicians, but it's generally artists that I like. But because of that I was
afraid that if I would do a movie that connects to the music world, it might
be called a rock film and that would severely limit my audience. And I, you
know, was approaching 50 and had felt for a while that it was a little weird
for somebody my age to still work from obsessions from his teenage years. So
I wanted to in any way cut that off, and I felt that the movie might be a
really good way to make an end to that whole period of teenage obsessions, and
at the same time maybe make a new start, which is working a bit more in film.
GROSS: Well, I love what you just said about wanting to like go back one more
time to your teenage obsessions and then put it behind you. But you were
around 50 when you made "Control" as opposed to being a young man.
Mr. CORBIJN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Which is what you were when you first photographed Joy Division. Did
you feel like you didn't understand then how troubled he was and how it wasn't
just artistry that was being communicated when he seemed to be lonely and in
pain onstage, he really was in a great deal of pain?
Mr. CORBIJN: Yeah, I hadn't--I didn't realize that, no. And I don't think a
lot of the others really realized that. There's this quote that I read
recently from--I'm not sure if it was Bernard or Hook, but...
GROSS: He was the bass player in the band.
Mr. CORBIJN: Yes, the bass player, or the guitar player, that after Ian
died, when reading the lyrics and the realized what the lyrics were actually
about. They never really listened to them. They were just thinking, well,
that's Ian's kind of cup of tea, you know, the lyrics. If people were so
close to him didn't all realized what was really happening to him, then, you
know, somebody like me who spoke the language little and didn't really know
him, you know, there's no way that I would have realized that.
GROSS: Now, when you're making a music film about a famous band, you have to
decide whether you're going to use the band's actual recordings and have the
musicians in the film lip synch, or whether you're going to let the musicians
actually perform the music and then risk that they will be compared
unfavorably to how the band actually sounded. How did you decide to let the
actors perform? And I have to say, they do a really good job.
Mr. CORBIJN: I totally agree with you. They do an excellent job. Well, I
didn't have to persuade them, they had to persuade me, to be fair to them. I
never thought I would find actors that could play, you know, to that level
because I was looking for actors, not musicians, to play the roles. And I did
want them to play in the film to the degree that it looked believable on film.
They needed some lessons, of course, to make that look correct. And during
these rehearsals to learn their songs, they became so enthused that they kept
rehearsing even in weekends. And by the time we were ready to film the first
performance, they begged me to try it for real. And we did. And they were so
good there was no way back, you know. It was an incredible bonus to the film
that the actors were so dedicated to the characters they played.
And then, of course, Sam Riley had been a singer for six years. So, you know,
I couldn't be happier that it fell into place as much as that. And the
manager of New Order came to look at the rehearsals and she felt that, well,
maybe even better than Joy Division by that stage. You have to realize that
Joy Division, of course, were, you know, post punk band. So it was the period
where everybody just went for things, though they might not be able to play
properly. They played whatever they could play and learned onstage. And that
was all acceptable in those days. But the guys learned to play to that level,
and that is apparently doable. You know, I wouldn't be able to copy that, but
they learned it all in about four weeks or maybe even less, three weeks.
GROSS: Let's play a track from the soundtrack recording of "Control." And
this is the only track that actually features the actors performing.
Mr. CORBIJN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And this is one of Joy Division's more famous songs, "Transmission."
And we'll hear it introduced by the character of Tony Wilson, who was the
presenter of a music show on Granada TV in England and put Joy Division on TV
for the first time. So first we'll hear the introduction and then we'll hear
the actors performing as Joy Division with Sam Riley as Ian Curtis.
(Soundbite of "Control")
Mr. CRAIG PARKINSON: (As Tony Wilson) Seeing as how this is the first
television program which brought you the first appearances from everyone from
The Beatles to The Buzzcocks, we'd like to think we bring you the most new and
interesting sounds in the Northwest. They're called Joy Division and are a
Manchester band except for the guitarist, who comes from Salford, a very
important distinction. This is called "Transmission."
(Soundbite of "Transmission")
Mr. RILEY: (Singing) Radio, live transmission
Radio, live transmission
Listen to the silence, let it ring on
Eyes dark grey lenses frightened of the sun
We would have a fine time living in the night
Left to blind destruction
Waiting for our sight
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's the actors from the movie "Control" performing a song by Joy
Division. And "Control" is about the band Joy Division. It stars Sam Riley
as the band's lead singer and songwriter, Ian Curtis. My guest Anton Corbijn
directed the movie, and it's just come out on DVD.
I think we should describe Ian Curtis' performance style when he was onstage.
And, you know, judging from the movie he kind of like almost punches the air
as he sings. And it's kind of like part boxer, part dancer. He looks like
somebody who's very inhibited being very uninhibited when he's on stage.
Mr. CORBIJN: Yeah, he's a bit like a kickboxing butterfly or something. I,
you know, we had to study of course the movements really well. And you
realize he stands a lot on his toes. That's a very peculiar thing to do, and
it's not symmetric, his move. It's really very difficult to copy properly.
And maybe some of the, you know, move when he had epilepsy or epileptic
attacks are and in the end into it. I'm not really sure.
GROSS: And I think what you're referring to is that there's almost like jerky
side to side motion that he does.
Mr. CORBIJN: That's right. Yes, yes. I personally have seen
a...(unintelligible)...by Joy Division where the dancing became an epileptic
fit and he fell backwards onto the drum kit, so it's--a similar scene is
actually performed in the film.
GROSS: Now, he--Ian Curtis got epilepsy, and the way you portray it, he gets
his first seizure in a car on the road with the band after complaining that
he's very cold.
Mr. CORBIJN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And when the seizure starts, the way it's portrayed in the film, the
members of the band have no idea what's happening and it takes them awhile to
realize he's having a seizure and they'd better pull over and tend to him. Is
that the way it happened?
Mr. CORBIJN: I believe so, yes. I don't think anybody had much of a clue
about these things, you know. Ian more than the others, because he worked in
daytime in an office trying to find work for people who were slightly
physically handicapped, and that included people with epilepsy.
GROSS: So he knew something about epilepsy, but he didn't realize he was
going to get it?
Mr. CORBIJN: Yes.
GROSS: His widow, Debra, in her memoir, writes that after he started taking
the medication for the epilepsy the mood swings became even worse. She
writes, "After a gig he wouldn't go to sleep until he'd had a fit until it
became a ritual for him to sit there and wait for an attack. He was afraid to
go to sleep in case he died in his sleep."
GROSS: Mu guest is Anton Corbijn, director of the film "Control," which has
just come out on DVD. It's based on the life of Ian Curtis, the lead singer
of the post punk band Joy Division. Curtis killed himself in 1980.
Your film "Control" is shot in black and white. So were the photos you took
of Joy Division when you photographed the band.
Mr. CORBIJN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Why did you want to shoot the movie in black and white?
Mr. CORBIJN: Well, purely because everything you remember of Ian Curtis and
of Joy Division is in black and white. The reason I photographed them in
black and white was not only because it was my favorite way of taking
photographs--and I was very bad at color pictures, anyway--but it was also
because, in those days you shot, of course, with film, which I actually still
do, I like to say. And the only people of magazines that were interested in
publishing anything of about Joy Division were all printed in black and white.
So consequently every photographer that ever shot Joy Division would put the
black and white film in the camera because that was the only way they could
sell a photograph.
It was not till Ian's death when they had a hit with "Love Will Tear Us Apart"
that the color magazines, which was a very different world at the
time...(unintelligible)...were getting interested in Joy Division. But then
of course nobody had a color picture of Joy Division. So for that reason, not
because of my own aesthetics, but for that reason I felt black and white was
the correct way to shoot this film. Even their own output, to albums and
clothes are...(unintelligible)...were black and white images.
GROSS: So in shooting black and white, was there anything special you did to
get the black and white tones that you wanted?
Mr. CORBIJN: Well, it doesn't look like my photography. Although the blacks
do, and I always like very deep blacks in my photography. But I never use
lights. And of course in the film we did light things. So for me it looks
quite different than my photography. We shot in color because the black and
white films that exist didn't give us a lot of option. They were very, very
grainy. And it's one thing to have grainy in a still photograph, but if you
have grain on film it just becomes another element where you have to deal with
when you look at the film. So we went for color shooting and then transferred
to black and white.
GROSS: Well, you went on to take photographs of a lot of bands, do a lot of
videos, a lot of album covers.
Mr. CORBIJN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Metallica, U2, Bryan Adams, Johnny Cash's "Delia's Gone" video.
Mr. CORBIJN: Nick Cave.
GROSS: Nick Cave, yeah.
Mr. CORBIJN: Depeche Mode, I did 20 videos for in all.
GROSS: You know, it's funny, album jackets shrunk when CDs took over and
Mr. CORBIJN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And now that downloads are taking over from CDs, I mean, you know, you
can choose to download the cover art or you could choose to not bother.
Mr. CORBIJN: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: But it's still not the same. And, you know, videos certainly don't
have the prominent place that they used to, even on MTV.
Mr. CORBIJN: No.
GROSS: So do you feel like the visual part of music that you professionally
came of age with is disappearing?
Mr. CORBIJN: Well, it's definitely different. And, you know, I'm old
fashioned, I think. You know, I'm romantic because I still like vinyl, more
and more so. I like the sound of it. I like the look of it. I like the way
you open an album, everything about it. And you can see that actually in the
first scene in "Control," where Ian comes home, having bought "Aladdin Sane"
by David Bowie, and that's the event of the week. You know, you come home
with your record, you go to the bedroom at your parents place. You take the
record out of the bag and you look at it, you read everything. It all has a
meaning. You know, it was something that gave meaning to life. Now, of
course, for young kids there's so much else to do, and everything is available
at all times. You know, it doesn't have that same meaning in life anymore.
And I realize that it's changed.
GROSS: Do you have a favorite of the album jackets that you've done? I know
doing album jackets hasn't been your favorite thing, but you've done your
Mr. CORBIJN: Yeah. No, I'm proud of some, you know, I'm happy to say. I
did well over 100 I'm sure, 150 or so. But some, of course, brought my work
to many more places, and one of those was definitely "The Joshua Tree" by U2,
as was "Achtung Baby." I think they were quite significant album sleeves for
me. The Depeche Mode albums I also designed. I make the logos and all these
things. So they're important for me as well as a place to play and try
things. And so there's a couple there that I like a lot.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. CORBIJN: Thank you very much, Terry.
GROSS: Anton Corbijn directed the film "Control." It's just come out on DVD.
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.