We begin by comparing facial hair. Neil Jordan has cough-cough years on me, but, over the previous 12 months, we seem to have mutated into variations on the same grizzled, spectacled hermit
“How is that beard coming?” he asks.
Our most garlanded film director – who is currently holed up in his rural Cork pad – has been eyeing the closing, opening and closing again of cinemas with weary interest. Among his greatest pleasures is “walking down a city centre street and going into the cinema”. That won’t be happening for a while.
“I have three or four things written that I haven’t made yet,” he says. “I am so glad I haven’t made a movie over the last eight or nine months. I would hate to be waiting for a film to be released.”
The good news is that books are still being published. Jordan has, for the past four decades, run parallel careers in cinema and literary fiction. As long ago as 1979 – three years before the release of Angel, his first feature – he published the well-remembered collection Night in Tunisia. As he gathered acclaim and attention with films such as The Crying Game and The Butcher Boy, the novels took a back seat. But he found time for Sunrise with Sea Monster in 1994 and Mistaken in 2011. Now he has published a rollicking, funny, surprising historical novel.
The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small is narrated by Tony Small, a runaway slave who saved the life of Lord Edward FitzGerald during the American War of Independence. The book propels us towards that aristocrat's engagement with the 1798 rebellion by way of the West Indies, Hamburg, post-revolutionary Paris, London theatre land at the time of RB Sheridan and different versions of a cluttered, cultured Dublin.
One could easily imagine the book as a Neil Jordan film.
"When I was writing this I thought that it would make an extraordinary movie, but it is too big for a movie," he says. "Maybe you could make one of those big series. Some people have been talking to me about that. But, you know, I just wrote it as a book. I tried to write it the way, um, whatshisname wrote The Count of Monte Cristo. Alexandre Dumas, yeah, who was himself mixed-race."
'I wasn't sure I could do it because of all the cultural appropriation issues'
Jordan’s amiable, meandering delivery has remained unaltered over the decades. You will encounter a rhetorical “you know” in every second sentence. Less often a “Do you understand?” actually invites a response. He sounds very much like the same bright lad who made his way from Sligo to UCD to RTÉ to Hollywood in the later decades of the 20th century.
The novel, he says "became a portrait of 18th-century Dublin and a portrait of a friendship and of the whole idea of captivity and ownership and empire. All of the stuff about FitzGerald is as accurate as it could be. Almost everything about Tony Small is invented. Fatherhood. His obsession with the theatre. His experience in London. His relationship with Richard Brinsley Sheridan. "
Jordan says he made no effort to ventriloquise the vernacular that Tony Small might have spoken. The book spreads out in a breathless variation on contemporary English.
“I was in two minds about writing about it,” he says. “I wasn’t sure I could do it because of all the cultural appropriation issues. Why would I presume to write about this human being? Then I thought: what if this person wrote a life of Lord Edward FitzGerald. Wouldn’t that be great, though?”
Jordan finds himself running into an unexpected craze for FitzGerald and Small. Laura McKenna's elegant novel Words to Shape My Name – a very different retelling of the same story – was published just last month. One remembers Colm Tóibín and David Lodge both delivering books on Henry James in 2004.
"Ah, if you approach a historical subject you have no ownership over it. That's the first thing," says Jordan. "I think every Irish writer should be forced to write a Tony Small narrative – from Roddy Doyle to Colm Tóibín to John Banville – as a test of their authenticity. Ha, ha! I don't know Laura McKenna, but I'm sure it's a good book. When I was making Michael Collins, I think there were 12 attempts to make that. Eoghan Harris had a script. Michael Cimino was going to do it."
It is interesting to hear Jordan use the phrase "cultural appropriation". One wonders how The Crying Game would have been greeted in the current decade. That singular film, starring Stephen Rea as an IRA man who inadvertently falls for (spoiler alert, if you have been asleep for 30 years) a transgender woman, was received with near-universal praise on its release in 1992. Jordan won an Oscar for best original screenplay. Harvey Weinstein's Miramax guided it to an unexpected $62 million at the US box office alone.
Irish film directors were still almost as rare as Irish astronauts
We now approach transgender issues with more caution. Could he make The Crying Game in 2021?
"I couldn't. No, no. I mean, for one thing, if Stephen Rea walked into a bar like that he would instantly know what bar he was in," he says. "The whole idea of transitioning was in its infancy then. I cast Jaye Davidson in the movie and he wasn't a trans woman. He was a gay man. Right? He was neither a transvestite nor a trans woman. He played the part that I'd written for him, but he was very clear that this was not his being. You wouldn't find someone as naive as Stephen's character now. Would you?"
As we are discussing how the discourse has altered, we can’t ignore the rogue elephant in the room. Harvey Weinstein was a vital part of the renaissance in Irish cinema at the turn of the 1990s. As impresario of Miramax, he helped Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot towards an initially inconceivable five Oscar nominations and two wins. In 2017, following repeated accusations of sexual molestation, Weinstein was expelled from the (nominal) Hollywood penthouse and into (literal) jail. One wonders what Jordan makes of it all. As somebody who worked closely with …
“I didn’t work closely with Harvey Weinstein,” he corrects me with no hint of aggression. “Believe me, no. I will put it this way. He didn’t want to finance the movie when he read the script. Initially, he said to me: ‘I will finance the movie if you cast a woman as Dil.’ Because he thought audiences would be disgusted when they found out they were finding a man attractive. He literally said that.”
Weinstein jumped back on board at a later stage.
“Oh yeah. He only bought it for the United States. I had to insist on the title. He wanted to call it The Soldier’s Wife. I wrote a letter to the critics asking them not to reveal the twist. Then Harvey turned that into the greatest marketing tool you could imagine. When I won an Oscar, I actually forgot to thank him.”
So he’s not in that embarrassing video of celebrities paying tribute from the podium?
“I’m sorry. I’m not.”
I assume Jordan welcomes the shift in attitudes to women in the film business.
"That's all been entirely positive," he says. "The behaviour that's been exposed – these dick-swinging directors in Hollywood – is really shocking. But it's a bit like the exposé of the adoption homes in Ireland. I thought that was a thing of the 1950s. I wrote a play about Artane called Journal of a Hole with Jim Sheridan back in 1972. Yet that continued."
Mention of those early days with Jim Sheridan reminds one of what a dizzying journey the two old pals went through from the late 1980s. After studying history and English literature at UCD, Jordan became part of a busy, ultimately influential bohemia in mid-1970s Dublin. A few pioneers had directed impressive, modestly budgeted features, but Irish film directors were still almost as rare as Irish astronauts. Were they just insanely ambitious? Did they detect some hidden energy that had passed everyone else by?
“No, it just seemed impossible,” he says. “I was part of this theatre group. He was the theatrical maestro. I was mainly writing. I could see there was an extraordinary kind of energy that he got from actors and it really fascinated me. But we were both just totally obsessed with movies. And Jim’s plays were trying to be movies. That’s where we were coming from.”
Both men did get some work from RTÉ. Students of Jordanology will be aware that, in his dim, dark past, he worked on one of our national broadcaster’s most warmly remembered kids’ shows.
“I wrote for Wanderly Wagon,” we says, with no hint of shame. “No, no. I never kept that a secret. Masterpieces of fantasia!”
He has written for Peter O’Toole. He has written for Julianne Moore and Isabelle Huppert. He has written for Judge, the fussy, anthropomorphic dog.
“Judge and … um … Sneaky Snake. Was that right?”
The connection did him no harm. In 1981 he found work as a creative assistant to John Boorman on the set of Excalibur. There are still disputes in the "film community" about the funding of Angel, but that extraordinary drama – beginning the on-screen collaboration with Rea – got made and, well reviewed in the UK press on its 1982 release, established Jordan as a visual stylist of some note. Nobody could accuse the director, hitherto best known as a writer, of not grasping the medium's possibilities.
If the whole area of entertainment is prejudiced against anything it is prejudiced against people with grey beards
Just two years later he was working with Angela Lansbury and David Warner on The Company of Wolves. There were critical hits such as Mona Lisa and The Butcher Boy. There were less successful films such as High Spirits and In Dreams. In 1996 the nation turned its eyes to him as he embarked on Michael Collins. It became the highest-grossing film ever at the Irish box office (beaten, alas, just a year later by some film about a ship built in Belfast).
“I had no intention of making any kind of nationalistic product in any way,” he says. “But people responded in this emotional way, which was kind of gratifying. I always thought it was a film about violence and the consequences of violence. A lot of things I was accused of at the time have quietened down. It was a bit hurtful.”
Jordan always seems to have established a route back to the screen. The Crying Game followed a brace of flops and the charming but modestly budgeted The Miracle. Over the past decade, when not working on TV series such as The Borgias, he found time for well-reviewed films such as the spooky Byzantium and the breathless Greta. He is currently “waiting on word for something with Netflix”. But he recognises that some contemporaries have not been so fortunate.
“There is an ageist thing in the film business,” he says, rubbing the grizzled facial growth. “If the whole area of entertainment is prejudiced against anything it is prejudiced against people with grey beards. Older people generally. It’s a young man’s game. Everybody prefers young voices over old voices.”
“But it’s important to keep working.”
The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small is published on February 18th