Neil Jordan: ‘Apparently I have a terrifying temper’
The not-grumpy-at-all director on being nominated for a best picture Oscar for ‘The Crying Game’ and how a serious injury led him to writing his new novel, ‘Carnivalesque’
Neil Jordan: “I’ve been bruised once or twice in Hollywood but have always found them in a weird way very welcoming. The lesson I had to learn was not to let them mess you about.” Photograph: Eric Luke
Few places are more soul-sapping than a bleak airport hotel on a Sunday at lunchtime. On the upside, Neil Jordan is a relaxed picture in denim and looks nowhere near 64.
And he is nothing like the grouchy, monosyllabic subject of multiple warnings. Maybe it’s the thought of the imminent escape to his Spanish writing haven, in Cadaqués, but even when asked about his grumpy reputation his reaction is one of mild hurt rather than indignation.
Do you need a different personality to be a writer or director?
“No, you don’t.”
Is Jordan the writer nicer than Jordan the director? “I’m terribly nice as a director,” he says, slightly stung.
But what’s all the talk about grouchiness, then?
“That’s not true. I’m very nice.”
“I have a very bad temper, apparently.”
“Apparently I’m terrifying when I lose my temper.”
“I don’t know what I do. I was working with a cameraman who said, ‘I heard your loss of temper is pretty terrifying.’ ”
He’s still confessing to nothing, though.
Then he turns quite serious.
“Look, I don’t like when people don’t tell you the truth. And I don’t like to compromise things. To make a film is very simple. You just have to have a very clear image in your head about what you want to achieve. And you have to have a very strong visual sense.
“Generally, what happens in a movie is that people say, ‘Oh, yes, we’ve $10 million to make this movie.’ And you commit to it and they say, ‘Oh, by the way, we’ve only got $6 million.’ That kind of thing. That happens all the time nowadays. Or people say, ‘I want you to read this script, and I want you to get involved in it,’ and then they say, ‘We’ve got financing from so-and-so and so-and-so.’ And then you commit yourself to it – and you find that none of that financing is there. It’s very difficult. It has become a very dodgy enterprise, much, much worse than before.”
Trying his hand at a script
Way back, while working as a fiction writer, Jordan decided for a change to try writing a film script.
“It was about an arranged marriage between two Travelling kids, and suddenly I found this sense of freedom. I found I could visualise things, and I was writing the kind of story I would never write as a piece of fiction. There were murders, car crashes, horse whipping, all this melodramatic shit going on, and I thought, Wow, this is great.”
John Boorman got sight of the script because another film director, Joe Comerford, had been trying to raise funds to make it, so Jordan found himself driving into Ardmore Studios, in Co Wicklow, “and there’s some kind of Rolls-Royce covered in dust, parked outside a Portakabin, and I thought, What is this weird world?”
Boorman paid him to collaborate on another script, and Comerford “went on to make a movie which he called Traveller, and it was so different to what I’d written. You know when a director takes over a script, they do what they want with it, basically? And I just thought, If I ever do this again, for this to be satisfying, I’ll probably have to learn to direct.”
And that’s how Neil Jordan came to be a film director. No one was going to mess with his vision.
“I wrote the script of Angel and quite arrogantly I said, ‘Look, if anyone wants to make this, you’re going to have to accept me as a director.’ That’s the way it went.”
So perhaps the more nuanced answer to the question of Jordan the writer versus Jordan the director is that a director’s battles encompass the kind of people a fiction writer rarely has to tangle with.
I tried to get work as a teacher, which I couldn’t get. I worked as a supply teacher for a long time, and I worked in CIÉ for a while as a railway porter. I went to London with my wife and lived in a squat. Didn’t everyone back then?
The sense of liberation that led to Angel in 1982, when he was still in his early 30s, continued with the award-garlanded The Company of Wolves and Mona Lisa.
In the 35 years since then he has made a film every two years or so, on average. The Crying Game was nominated for six Academy Awards and won the Oscar for best original screenplay, 25 years ago this weekend.
After some nudging he concedes that, “yes, that was a big deal. But . . .”
“But it was nominated for best picture. We thought we’d win best picture. We thought we’d won the consolation prize.”
But it’s still an Oscar. Did it change his life?
“Not really. It is a big deal, but it didn’t make that much difference to the work. I’ve been bruised once or twice in Hollywood but have always found them, in a weird way, very welcoming. The lesson I had to learn was not to let them mess you about.”
In between times he continued to write books. Night in Tunisia, a collection of short stories that he wrote in his mid-20s, and was published in 1976, won the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award. He wrote his latest book, Carnivalesque, while he was laid up after a run-in with a Dublin bus four years ago.
For a film director who needs to be places the fallout of this accident was grim. “I was in a wheelchair for a few months and then on various crutches. I couldn’t get on a plane, or travel to meetings, and had to cancel several film projects. I couldn’t direct movies for four years. It was a bit of a mess.
“I’m a very active kind of person. I really do enjoy the act of making films, and I couldn’t do it. Because, the industry being what is, if you can’t do it for quite a while they kind of forget about you, so it becomes more difficult to do it”.
His yearning to be involved in a film project again, to be in the shake-up for an Oscar, is palpable.
But there was an “odd upside” to the accident, he says, scratching and massaging the gammy knee: it meant he “could only” write novels.
Carnivalesque, the result, is a touch unhinged, a fantasy set in Ireland in which Jordan builds an entire race of people, spirit folk who travel as a carnival and have their own logic, history, genealogy and mythology. At the heart is a boy who gets trapped in the carnival’s hall of mirrors, and has to watch his terrifying clone walk away hand in hand with his mother. The cinematic potential for that longed-for movie is striking, but he suggests that the story is too complicated.
As with much of Jordan’s work there is the intriguing premise of the changeling, of alternate worlds, of the sense that someone else is out there living your life. With added gore.
At one level is the poignant story of a confused adolescent in a confusing world, feeling responsible for his parents’ tottering marriage on top of everything else.
As a father of five children, three now grown men and two women, aged from 42 down to 22, Jordan has had a ringside seat on adolescent changelings.
“When you have a kid – this is more about boys – they reach a certain age and it’s like they become possessed by some other spirit. The person you thought you knew was there is gone, into a secret place.”
But he is at pains to point out that although physical details in the book are real – his childhood home in Dollymount, his boyhood bedroom – the characters are entirely fictitious. Then again, some of his work has been famously confessional.
The father gets a horrific time in the book, for example. Didn’t his father resist his son’s writing ambitions?
“No. It doesn’t relate to my own life at all,” he protests good-humouredly. “This poor guy, a kindly, affable, bumbling figure, sells marmalade samples, where my own father was a teacher, a school inspector. He taught education in St Pat’s [teacher training college]. Myself and my father used to go at each other like hammer and tongs. There was no affable distance there. It was like I wanted to go in one direction, he wanted me to go in another.”
“Maybe I didn’t know my father enough to make him a real character.”
Could his father have been afraid for him?
“He was very alarmed at the unmoored life, because he had led his life very carefully. He was an educator; I keep meeting national-school teachers all over Ireland who say, ‘Your father taught me. He was an inspirational man.’ ”
His father kept diaries about each of his children. Jordan has never read them. “I think my sisters have read them . . . They were quite moved, I think. I would get embarrassed reading something by someone so close to me.”
His mother, by contrast, was a painter and wanted them all to be painters. Of the five siblings three are in the world of the arts, including Eithne, a distinguished artist, and Dervil, who runs the education department at the National College of Art and Design.
The difference between then and now is that people seem to think it’s natural to be published and that it’s natural to have a career in the arts. There’s nothing natural about it.
The “bookish kid” who at a precocious age was soaking up the complete works of George Bernard Shaw, by way of his father’s leather-bound collection, was probably always a pitch apart from his adolescent peers.
His childhood ended, he says, “when they didn’t want to live in their imaginations any more and just wanted to play football. At 11 or 12 I moved my affections from male friends to female friends. They didn’t play football. They were much more fun.”
Determination to write
Jordan’s determination to write did not make for an easy life after University College Dublin. He married young and by 24 had a baby and needed to make a living.
“I tried everything. I tried to get work as a teacher, which I couldn’t get. I worked as a supply teacher for a long time, and I worked in CIÉ for a while as a railway porter. I went to London with my wife and lived in a squat. Didn’t everyone back then?”
Back in Dublin in 1976, aged 26 or so, with a small child, he trekked up to the dole office on Gardiner Street every week until, one day, the supervisor produced a photograph of him doing some street theatre with Jim Sheridan and said, “You’ve got other employment.”
“I said, ‘No, not really. It’s almost like political theatre.’ And I just said then, I’m not doing this any more. I’m not taking the dole. So I just began to write, and kept writing, and as soon as I did I began to make a living. I had no option. I was unemployable. There were no jobs.”
They survived on an Arts Council grant until Night in Tunisia took off and spawned television work. He has never taken any of it for granted.
“The difference between then and now is that people seem to think it’s natural to be published and that it’s natural to have a career in the arts. There’s nothing natural about it. I did what I did because literally I had no other job. I was always surprised to be published.”
And in film the world that allowed him to flourish back then “was a very specific world and basically was the world of Channel 4 and the reviving of British films. David Rose and Walter Donohue set up Film on Four, and they financed Angel and financed my career. It would have been a kind of seeding for people like Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh and myself. In many ways my whole film existence was a kind of British existence, because I was part of that.”
But that world of independent film-making, he says, has been shrinking and shrinking. “One is at the stage now where an independent movie has to struggle even to get released.”
Television is a different creature. “It’s a bit like the world of independent film in the 1980s. People are tuning into Netflix, they’re getting excited about the next series they don’t know anything about, and there are all these new television distribution outlets. For the last five years it’s been almost like the Wild West.
“But I don’t think that will persist. Already the powers that say no it shall not be are beginning to make themselves felt.”
That poppy business, does that help anything? I try to avoid going on British television around that time, because they literally hand you a poppy to wear. I think it’s better to forget.
But for now television and film are quite different genres, he says.
“In television the director is not that important. That’s what I learned [as creator of the television series The Borgias]. For someone like me it’s a dream in a way. It’s a tough one. The head of a studio said to me, ‘You’ve got to make television directorproof.’ In other words it’s the writing and the true line of the characters that mean everything. They allow the writer to be king.”
He singles out series such as True Detective, The Wire and The Crown. “I would never have thought that a series about the queen and the British royal family would have any intellectual content whatsoever, and I’m not a royalist at all, but I was on the edge of my seat watching it.
“An entire episode would hinge on the fact that the duke had been sent off to Australia or somewhere while the queen was doing something else, or on the fact that she had never been educated. And they only made it that good because they were allowed to.”
As the film-maker commissioned to make Michael Collins – “like being commissioned to make someone’s f**king national monument”, although he loves it now – he thinks that Ireland handled the 1916 commemorations very well.
“There was an inclusive feel to it, a lack of rancour. It seemed that the arguments that were around when I was making Michael Collins had either exhausted themselves or been resolved somewhat.”
But that’s where the centenaries should end, in his view.
“Please stop it. That poppy business, does that help anything? I try to avoid going on British television around that time, because they literally hand you a poppy to wear. I think it’s better to forget.”
Back in the present, and Oscar weekend, he seems quite engaged with the voting process, praising Ruth Negga’s film Loving and recalling that he gave her her first film role, in his screen version of the Patrick McCabe novel Breakfast on Pluto, in 2005, but his choice for best film so far this year is Paul Verhoeven’s Elle.
Is there a film from any era he would like to have made? That would be 8½, he says immediately, referring to the 1963 comedy drama directed by Federico Fellini.
And as he lives, famously, in a double house in Dalkey where visitors speak of little else but the panoramic view of Killiney Bay, does it please him greatly ? Does it feel like a creative, successful community?
“No. It just feels like you’re in a suburb, a rather wealthy suburb of Dublin. That’s all. Like you’re in Hampstead or something, where everyone watches rugby. I’m sorry – that’s the truth.”
Hmm. So does he have a spiritual home? Los Angeles, probably.
“I’m a bit old to move there now, but I could have moved there permanently a long time ago. It’s a beautiful environment. There are worse things than waking up in Santa Monica, going for a walk along the beach.”
Especially if California secedes from Donald Trump’s United States.
Carnivalesque is published by Bloomsbury