Marie-Louise Muir talks to director and actor Neil Jordan about his extensive career, which includes films such as Interview with the Vampire and The Crying Game.
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Neil Jordan has been a multi-award-winning
screenwriter and director since 1982
with films such as The Butcher Boy, The Crying Game,
Interview With The Vampire and the new TV series, Riviera, to his name.
However, he started life as an acclaimed novelist
with dreams of the big screen.
If you think back to the '70s,
I mean, Irish people didn't make movies, you know? They just didn't.
There was no Irish cinema.
His eighth novel, Carnivalesque,
explores the fantasy world of a changeling, set against
a race of nonhumans who hide in plain sight at a carnival.
The Arts Show met him to discuss his writing and screen careers.
Neil Jordan, you are very welcome to the Arts Show.
Thank you. Thank you very much.
We're here not just to talk about the body of film work.
I haven't been able to make movies for a while
cos I had an accident, you know?
So for four years, I could only write,
so I wrote two novels.
I had a sports injury, I had ACL surgery
and I was crossing a road with...
with the help of a crutch, you know?
And I was crossing at a green light,
and this bus drove at me.
It literally stopped you in your tracks, you were in a wheelchair.
Yeah, I severed all my tendons in my knee and I couldn't walk
and I was in a wheelchair for about three, four months.
I was on various forms of crutches for another year and a bit.
So I couldn't travel and I couldn't take a plane
and I couldn't do anything that was...you know,
involved the physical involvement of film-making, you know?
So I had to stop really. I had to cancel a few movie projects.
I began... I said, the only thing I can do is write, you know?
So I wrote one novel
called The Drowned Detective.
-And then I started writing this.
Where did that idea come from?
I've always wanted to write a piece of total fantasy, you know?
Set in, you know, in an Irish context and in the context of the...
the spooky stories my father used to tell me.
I would have loved to do something on a changeling legend,
do you know what I mean? I... For some reason, I thought
I'd love to get involved in that in some way.
And normally the changeling is, you know, a woman walks back
to her household and she sees instead of her child there
it's some ugly little thing, you know?
So I thought of the story of another child inhabiting a house that seemed
like the parents' real child but actually was totally different.
A carnival, or a circus that had...
supernatural abilities, yeah?
So they had to hide their physical kind of talents.
They had to hide the fact that they didn't have to obey physical laws,
you know? So, I just began to write the story and the two ideas blended
-into one, really.
-And where did that come from?
-The writing business? The writing, was at home?
Was there books around the house?
All those books. It came, like most things,
out of pure desperation, really.
You know what I mean? You know, I grew up in this rather bookish...
My father's a teacher, my mother's a painter, you know,
so it was your conventional middle-class existence, really,
you know? I used to read everything.
I used to read to escape, really,
from the brutality of other children, you know?
What, were you picked upon?
No, not really. But I used to like living in my imagination, really.
You know, the current mode in fiction is very realistic, I think.
And it seems to me...
What attracted me to Irish literature initially
when I began to read it was the fantastic - kind of thing
you find in Flann O'Brien or the kind of thing you find
in even in the early Yeats, you know?
And it is that very sense of the fantastic that has been
a hallmark of Neil Jordan's work in both film and fiction.
This is something that has filtered throughout all your work.
Yeah, it has absolutely.
Maybe that's why cinema suits me, in a way, you know,
because it's like... you know, it's kind of creating images
that you can see when you dream, when you close your eyes and
stuff like that, you know? I never thought I would get to make films,
you know what I mean? Because I was born in 1950 and...
I did apply to the National Film School in England
when I was about 22.
And I actually got a place, yeah?
But I couldn't afford to go, do know what I mean?
So I thought that when I was starting to write,
I didn't think that was an option that was open
to somebody like me, you know? And it was only when I started to write
movies and when I met John Boorman actually
and began to work with him on Excalibur
and then another script or two that we wrote together, that
I began to see that it's possible for someone like me to perhaps
-do this kind of thing, you know?
-Why do you say "somebody like me"?
-Why are you boxing yourself up?
-Well, I mean if you think back
to the '70s, I mean Irish people didn't make movies, you know?
They just didn't. There was no Irish cinema.
Having written a collection of short stories and winning
the Guardian Fiction Prize, Jordan came to the attention
of the eminent film director John Boorman.
He seemed to have gone as far as he could go in a certain direction.
It was a very intense, very...
..a very detailed, very...
..navel-contemplating kind of book,
But I think he'd written himself into a corner.
And I think film-making was an escape from
that corner, really, for him.
Did you feel that you were languishing, What were you able to do then?
I'd written a collection of short stories, Night In Tunisia,
and they were all very internal and very personal.
And from this, he began to write what was to become
his first screenplay that made it to the screen, Traveller.
It was directed by Joe Comerford, you know?
I saw a wedding in St Stephen's Green of two traveller kids
and they seemed so young. And I began to write the script.
I could see it very clearly and I began to write
kind of dramatic things that I never would have written
in a piece of fiction, you know what I mean - car crashes
and murders and this and that...
And I thought, this is really lovely.
This is a wonderful thing, but I would never have written this
in a novel. You know, and then it was made into a movie,
and it was so different from what I'd written that I thought
if I ever want to do this again, I'd better learn how to direct.
Determined to realise his own vision,
Jordan began working on his next project.
I wrote the script for Angel and...
various people were interested in it. Channel 4 were really
interested in it, they read it, and David Rose had wanted to read it,
and I asked John Boorman would he produce it?
And he very kindly said he would.
So that gave Channel 4 the kind of reassurance that I could direct.
-Well, I'd never directed a thing.
Cos they didn't know you from Adam.
Nobody knew me from Adam. Nobody knew me.
But for some reason, they let me direct that movie.
And...it was a kind of a terrifying experience.
But I had a great cameraman, Chris Menges, and...
I hadn't got a clue about... how cameras worked
or anything like that, you know what I mean,
but I had a very clear vision in my mind about
what I wanted to see, you know? So...
I could see the colours and I could see the...
I suppose more than anything I had a very clear vision
of what I didn't want it to be.
You know, that kind of thing? Because...
At the time, you know, it was set...
We were in the border areas and it was like...
There was a lot of kind of, what you could call
politically-engaged film-making, you know,
that we're blaming British imperialism and that...
And I just wanted to present this...
These series of murders and killings and the attraction of...
the horrible attraction of that kind of thing in the barest,
without any explanations whatsoever, you know?
So, you know, I made this rather strange and spare movie
and people liked it, you know, and it got
quite a bit of acclaim.
Who the fuck is she?
It doesn't matter who she is.
Why didn't you stay?!
Come on, come on! I'll help you!
Was it the first time that you'd worked with Stephen Rea?
Yeah, it was, yeah.
I'd seen Stephen in The Abbey in a play
that was actually directed by Jim Sheridan,
called The Blue Macushla, written by Tom Murphy, and he was
really cool, and I thought, "This guy's good," you know.
So when I did Angel, I asked him to act in it,
and, you know, we developed a relationship out there.
I'll teach you to sing.
I mean, directors kind of latch on to actors that become their voices.
If you find that
expressive face that you can write for and that voice
and that kind of thing, it's, you know,
you'd be really foolish to ignore it, you know.
And I've been lucky to have that kind of relationship with Stephen.
He didn't direct me as,
in an ordinary way through characterisation,
which I found wonderful. He just would say things.
"Why don't you look at the shoe longer?"
"Don't look up until you say that line."
And I loved being directed that way.
It was so un-intellectual.
And it gave extraordinary clarity to the work that you were doing.
He did Angel, we did, he'd had a small part in The Company Of Wolves.
I must just go out into
the yard for a moment.
A call of nature.
In Angel, we were trying to get a very,
we were trying to get a very almost fairytale-like feel to a story
of extreme violence, and we went to a lot of lengths
in terms of costume and dressing and lighting to do that.
And it was really trying to treat location as if it was a set,
do you know? So I feel, now that I've got into it to a large stage,
I feel very much at home here.
Mike? Could you set, could you set one of the ones
that are already up there on the bridge beside the boy?
On the bridge, on the stonework.
Brian, that's gone out.
-More smoke, fog round here.
You're hard to pinpoint. If you wanted to say...
People will say you're an Irish film-maker,
I think of you as a universal storyteller.
-But Mona Lisa does strike me as a very British film.
-Totally British, yeah.
-So that's, again,
you're always bucking the trend of what people expect.
No, but Mona Lisa, I mean...
Angel was made out of the re-emerging British cinema, really.
It's as much a British film as an Irish film.
Company Of Wolves is totally a British film.
You know, totally. Mona Lisa was totally a British film, yeah, yeah.
I mean, it's not a "British film", it's a film about a man
who doesn't understand himself, isn't it, really?
You know, in a city that has changed. You know? And...
I always felt people have never photographed London correctly.
There was a movie made by Jules Dassin, I think,
called Night And The City. Have you ever seen that?
Oh. It's one of the few films that seems to capture
anything other than a kitchen sink view of London, you know?
And so when I came to make Mona Lisa, I thought, OK,
I really have to plan a way to make the city sing, in a way.
You know? So, it's a... I mean,
it's a foreigner's view of London.
You know? I mean, Mona Lisa is
a noir-ish movie, isn't it?
I had to work quite hard to make London a noir-ish place.
Yeah. And these characters, that you are drawn towards,
and they are flawed, they have...
But there's also an undercurrent
of something more than slightly disturbing.
I think I make movies that tell stories about people
who don't understand each other. Don't understand themselves.
You know? Mona Lisa is a story about a guy who...
..thinks a woman is one thing, and finds out she's totally different.
Do you know what I mean? And I think most of the things I do
are about people who don't fully understand the world.
You know? Or who want rational explanations for the world
and the world refuses to give them to them.
-Why am I doing this?
-Because I asked you.
-No, no, no.
Because you like me! You fancy me!
-But having me is nothing, George. Any prick can have me!
-Oh, shut up!
I'm screwed by old men so fat I have to lift myself onto them.
Don't hit me, George!
Nobody hits me! They can have me but they can't hit me!
That fucker did, every day, every hour of every day.
Whenever he had a spare minute.
You don't understand, do you?
No, I don't understand.
What don't I understand?
Jordan delved deeper into the theme of people
not understanding themselves or the world
in what was to become one of his best known films.
When I came to do The Crying Game, you know, I was writing it
and I was saying, OK, this is really...
this is really chancy what I'm doing here.
You know? This character, the whole gender thing of it
and all that, you know? And I said to Stephen, "Look,
"I'm writing this movie, you know, a character there called Fergus
"who kidnaps a black British soldier and it confronts
"all this race, racial issues,
"and then he goes to track down his wife in London and finds out
"that actually, it's a man." "You know," I said to Stephen,
"this is going to be a real complicated journey," and it's like
the minute I mentioned it to him, he was interested, you know, so,
you know, I showed him the early scripts and he said,
look, we have to do this together.
I want to show you something.
My inside pocket.
Take out my wallet.
Inside, there's a picture.
No, not that one. There's another.
Now she's my type.
-She'd be anybody's type.
-Don't you think of it, fucker.
Anyway, she wouldn't suit you.
Through the times I've been making movies, from the early '80s to...
to 1996, when I made Michael Collins,
you know, the position,
the fact of horrific violence in political life was there, wasn't it?
You know? And it would have been odd for me not to address it
in some way, I think, you know?
Were people saying to you, what are you doing addressing it?
Yeah, a lot of people used to say that. Yeah, yeah, absolutely, yeah.
You respond with your soul, in a way, I suppose,
and you don't know what you're responding to, often, you know?
In a way, when I was making The Crying Game, I was asking myself,
well, can somebody like this change, you know?
Like the central character, can they change,
and I think that's what the movie was about, really, wasn't it?
Can people change? Can people change their sense of identity, you know,
and recognise that the idea of identity
is much more complicated than you think?
# I know all there is to know about the crying game... #
-It's recently celebrated its 25th year.
The BFI brought out a beautifully restored version of it, actually.
I was so grateful for that, they did it,
I didn't even know they were doing it, you know?
And they showed it in,
on the, you know, the National Film Theatre in London.
And they had a screening, it was beautiful and the cast came,
you know - Stephen, Jaye Davidson, Miranda Richardson.
When that movie came out in England,
there was quite a lot of antipathy towards it, you know?
And I don't know why, really.
I think again because it didn't address the political questions
in quite a conventional way, you know?
And I think journalism hates that in a strange way, you know,
and a lot of British journalists were very sniffy about it.
And then it was released in America,
and it kind of became a phenomenon of kinds, you know?
And then they re-released it in England, and it became a big hit.
-You know, so...
-And then it was Oscar-nominated as well.
It was, yeah, quite a few Oscars.
It was a nice evening all in all.
It's stood the test of time, except there's far more
-awareness now of gender issues and transgender stuff.
Now, the film is not about a transgender individual,
but there are a lot of transgender people in the movie, you know?
And when I watch the movie now,
the minute he walks into that hairdressers, and sees
Jaye Davidson, I go, how did we get away with that, how do people...
-But you know, maybe...
-Was there an innocence?
No, but I think the film works even if you do know that she's a guy.
You know? It works in a different way, you know?
I don't think it depends on it being a film with a secret,
which is the way it was
marketed in America.
-You could always make it up to her?
When a girl runs out like that, she generally wants to be followed.
She's not a girl, Col.
Whatever you say.
With the film world at his feet after five Oscar nominations
and one win, Jordan received a fascinating proposal.
David Geffen sent me Interview With The Vampire,
Anne Rice had written a script, and I read the novel.
I was really intrigued by the novel, I have to say, that, you know,
that sense of Catholic guilt and the mixture of historicism
and fantasy and all that. So it was a big huge thing,
what, 70 million movie?
But we were allowed to make it
almost like an independent film.
There was no interference whatsoever, you know?
It was extraordinary.
Particularly with the stars that they're giving you.
-Yeah, I know, I know.
-They're handing you Tom Cruise,
or are they handing you Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt,
or are you still having to say,
look, I want them to audition for these roles.
Oh, no, oh, you don't ask Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt to audition for roles,
no, you don't. Maybe if you're Stanley Kubrick, you do.
Or you did. But no, no, no, no, no.
No, Tom expressed interest in the role, I went out to meet him.
I mean, Brad was attached.
At the time they wanted Daniel Day-Lewis to play Tom Cruise's role.
And I said, "Look, there's no way Mr Lewis, Daniel's going to play this
"role, cos he would never survive six months in a coffin, anyway."
-Cos that's what he does, you know.
But I went to meet Tom,
and I thought he's got a really interesting character for this.
He's got a really interesting quality, you know?
And the description, the kind of character description
that Anne Rice had given of Lestat
was almost like a description of a star.
You know, who is at a certain remove from life,
and stuff like that. And I just thought Tom... He's...
I've always liked him as an actor, you know.
And I thought he'd be great, you know?
Pain is terrible for you.
You feel it like no other creature because you are a vampire.
You don't want it to go on.
Then do what it is in your nature to do...
..and you will feel as you felt with that child in your arms.
Evil is a point of view.
God kills indiscriminately...
..and so shall we.
For no creatures under God are as we are.
None so like him as ourselves.
So, it was an interesting experience, you know,
but it's not always like that making Hollywood movies, you know.
But your focus is independent...
-Not really, no.
I'd happily make a Hollywood movie if they want me to,
but they often don't, you know.
But because they don't want to or do you feel that they're going to interfere too much?
Well, I mean, the kind of movies they make now, like...
You know, what? They're going to get me to make like...
What is it? Captain America 4, or something?
No. It wouldn't work that way. The entire of Hollywood now is...
kind of seems to be owned by Marvel comics.
You know what I mean? You know, I don't think...
They want younger directors to do those because I think they want
younger directors who they can...
I think those films are made by committee in a strange way, you know.
And did you ever come up against that in the early days,
or were you really being allowed to make the kind of movies you wanted?
I never came up against it as often as I have lately.
As you do now, yeah.
So, I think the industry has changed.
If you think to 19...
Say 1980, yeah? I mean, what?
They used to make maybe 100 movies a year in Hollywood.
Now, they make 25.
With Interview With The Vampire nominated for two Oscars,
Jordan used his success to realise a film that was closer to home.
David Putnam commissioned me to write a script.
He had an agreement with Warner Brothers and he asked me.
It was actually after I'd done Angel, actually.
He said, "Look, have you ever heard of Michael Collins?"
I said, "No, I haven't, really." And I began to read these books.
Of course I'd heard about it, but I didn't know.
I began to read these books so I thought,
this is like a quasi-fascist guy, you know?
Cos at the time they were all hagiographical, and stuff.
You know like, there's the book written by Piaras Beaslai.
And they always showed him in uniform, like...
He seemed like Mussolini, or something.
Well, I began to explore it, and I wrote a script
and David read it, and uh...
I don't know, they decided not to do it.
And it was hanging around Warner Brothers. And after I made
Interview With The Vampire, they said, "What do you want to do next?"
And I said, "Well, you have this script of mine."
-And they said, "Oh, OK."
-And did you always have Liam attached to it?
When I began to write it years ago, I said to Liam, look...
Because I'd seen, I'd seen Liam in The Gate.
Then to see him on stage, it was quite an extraordinary,
he had an extraordinary presence and...
I mean, he wasn't just physically big.
I mean, he was, he was very alive.
Just the naturalness, the naturalness,
and the lack of...
The way of just being utterly...
Somehow didn't have any regard for
the fact that there was an audience
there or something. I don't know, I just remembered and I said,
"Look, I'm writing this, if I ever get to do it, let's...
"Would you like to play this role?"
He said, "Yes, I would, I'd love to."
You know, so by the time I got to make it we were...
It was about 15 years later.
He says he'll meet you tomorrow.
What's wrong with now?
His nerves are at him.
Beal Na Blath. There's farmhouse to the left to the Bandon side.
What's your name?
Jordan continued making films such as Breakfast On Pluto
and The Brave One, before trying something new - television,
with Dreamworks asking him to look at the Borgias.
I wrote the script of The Borgias, and I found it fascinating,
cos, you know, I'm from an Irish Catholic background.
And you know, the kind of nasty cardinals in red.
-It was shocking what they got up to.
-Yeah, I know.
But also the whole entire history of the Catholic Church,
and St Peter and good and evil and all that sort of stuff...
So, I wrote this script and I sent it to Dreamworks,
and, uh, the head of production said,
"The two words I have with this script is interesting vermin."
I said "Oh, OK." I said, "Does that mean you don't want to do it?"
He said, "Yeah, we're not going to do it."
So, anyway I tried to make it independently and I couldn't.
a few years later I asked,
I sent, I got my agent to ask Steven Spielberg, you know,
"Is there any way they'd reconsider this project?"
And he said, "Why don't you do it as a TV series, you know?"
And I said, "Oh, I never even thought of that."
And I began to look into it, you know, and I began to say,
OK, so, the main trouble I had in writing this script
was reducing all of the history into, you know, 120 pages.
And if I begin to expand it,
there's so much material there. So, I just started doing it, and...
-Was that a liberation?
-It was kind of a liberation,
but it was also a confinement because the visual possibilities
of the entire thing became shrunk, you know.
Whereas the story expanded in terms of narrative, in terms of character,
in terms of events you could depict.
But in terms of the image,
it kind of...
We weren't in Rome,
we were in Budapest, you know?
-Were you surprised...
At the strength of its success?
Yeah, I was amazed!
I couldn't believe how many people watch this stuff.
There was like entire, you know,
internet sites devoted to it and there was, like...
And there was huge phalanxes of people, you know,
devoted to Cesare and Lucrezia,
and would they kiss each other, or would they ever "do it"
and da-da-da-da and all this sort of stuff.
And it was the most extraordinary experience.
I never knew that stuff existed, you know?
And then, we came to a kind of a crisis because at the last...
After having finished three seasons,
which is 30 hours of television, basically,
I wasn't sure there was enough to do another ten episodes, you know?
And I knew that I had taken over the studio and I said, "Look..."
I came up with, what I thought, was the brilliant idea
to finish it off with a two-hour movie, you know?
And I wrote, so, I wrote a conclusion to the whole story
and they said, "Look, this is too expensive."
You know. "We can't put this amount of money into two hours."
You know. If you can't justify... So, they closed it down, yeah.
But I do think the longform television series,
it offers absolutely unique opportunities.
You know what I mean? Not so much to directors as to writers.
And me being a writer/director,
you know it obviously offers those opportunities to me, you know.
You being the writer and particularly a novelist
in the context of other Irish novelists,
you would have the likes of McGahern mentioned or John Banville.
Does it rankle with you that Neil Jordan the novelist
never gets as big a profile as Neil Jordan the film director?
No. Well, it's just something I don't fully understand.
It's... I think it's something to do with contemporary culture.
You know, the minute I made a movie, you know,
it was Neil Jordan the film-maker, you know?
It was never Neil Jordan the novelist, you know?
Some of the books I've written have been published in many countries
and have been liked. But, uh...
you know, people just are surprised that I ever, you know,
that I ever made, ever wrote novels, you know.
And, so, you know, people in Spain or in France or New York say,
"I didn't know you were a writer."
I said, "Yes, I've been a writer all my life, yeah."
It's just the way things are. Nothing I can do about it, you know?
Neil Jordan, it has been a pleasure talking to you.
-Thank you so much.
-OK. Thank you. Thank you very much.
You done? Is that it?
-Did you cover all the things?
-Oh, good. OK.
Marie-Louise Muir talks to Irish director and writer Neil Jordan about his extensive career, which includes the movies Interview with the Vampire, The Crying Game and Michael Collins, and novels such as The Drowned Detective and Carnivalesque.