Neil Jordan: crossing the boundaries of the creative world

There is no easy way to categorise Neil Jordan or his work. He discusses writing, directing, tackling national monuments and battling the studio system


I suppose we should expect the undead to hang around for a while, but the continuing preponderance of vampires in popular culture is really quite extraordinary. There has never been a period when the creatures have been more prevalent. Still, if anybody should be allowed in on the craze, it’s our own Neil Jordan.

After all, nearly 20 years ago, he embarked on a reinvention of the genre with his adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. Jordan’s Byzantium, featuring Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton as bloodsuckers sheltering in a faded English resort, now attempts a grubbier, more down-at-heel take on the genre.

“I wanted to reinvent the vampire thing, to make it more interesting again,” he says in his familiar, slightly distracted manner. “It’s as if they could be in sleeping bags in an abandoned room next to your house. There would be an added creepy element if I kept them real.”

Based on a play by Moira Buffini, the film also has a distinct feminist undercurrent. The two lead characters are in a constant state of rebellion against the patriarchal leaders of their cadre. Does he see that? “That was in the story from the word go,” he says. “Most women in vampire films are victims of some kind, aren’t they? They are usually just running away from people.”

Oh, not so much now, surely. The women are fairly assertive in True Blood. They have some control over their own fate in Twilight. “Is that the one with Kristen Stewart? I haven’t seen those.”

Bless him. Yes, that’s the one with Kristen Stewart.

“She’s not a vampire in that, is she?”

Well, eventually.

Jordan, now 63, has always given off an air of being slightly disconnected from the world. He has been writing for the guts of 40 years. He has been a highly celebrated film-maker for three decades, but he still comes across like an amateur poet who’s just ambled in from the shed. He admits that he stumbled into film directing almost by accident. Born in Sligo, he attended University College Dublin and went on to form the Irish Writers Co-operative with near-contemporaries Fred Johnston and Peter Sheridan. His short-story collection Night in Tunisia was a volume to be seen clutching in the late 1970s. The Past, his first novel, followed in 1980. Then, somehow or other, he became a film-maker.

“I had no idea that was going to happen,” he said. “I don’t think Irish people became film-makers then. They were writers. Then I wrote a script. A lot of the prose I had written was concerned with visual description. People say that’s not a good thing in a novelist, don’t they? I began to teach myself how to make films and then John Boorman helped me make Angel.”

That film still stands up very well today. The story of a saxophonist caught up in political violence, it received glowing reviews and allowed Jordan to embark on the more ambitious The Company of Wolves. But Angel also generated a smidgeon of scandal on home turf. The film was the first to receive funding from the newly constituted Irish Film Board. Not everybody was happy that a relatively inexperienced film-maker – Jordan had worked as a script consultant on John Boorman’s Excalibur – was receiving funding from the body. Letters were written, brows were furrowed.

Jordan hums and hahs in his vague way. “Ah yeah. It seems anything interesting in Ireland causes a fuss, doesn’t it? There was that thing with Sean O’Casey. That used to be the way, anyway. Most of the money was from England anyway. When they asked me if I wanted to direct it, I was quite shocked.”

So how on earth did you set about making a feature film in Ireland back then? Such things were unheard of. “It was much easier than it is now,” he says.

Really? “Well it seems that way to me. Maybe I was lucky. I got to make a feature when I was about 30. Then I wrote Company of Wolves and Mona Lisa. Back then I would edit the film, write another script and go on to the next one. That doesn’t happen now.”

Jordan’s strange, spooky way with the medium – employing an eye that imposes dreamlike colour on otherwise ordinary events – won him fans and eventually brought him to Hollywood, but there were as many troughs as peaks. His 1988 supernatural comedy High Spirits was viewed as a financial and artistic catastrophe. We’re No Angels, starring Sean Penn and Robert De Niro, fared no better. Would he do things differently if he had his time again?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think one’s experience of Hollywood is that you need to get your fingers burnt to learn where to place them in relation to the fire. You can’t learn that without getting your fingers burnt. It’s always a shock to encounter that grossly commercial system. I never actually got to cut my own version of High Spirits. Once that happens, you become careful.”

He lapses into a tone that, even more than usual, suggests a particularly sat- upon Eeyore. “Of course, now they all want to make X-Men 4. They exult in being consumed by the beast. Films are not directed as they used to be. Studios want control and they are all made in special-effects houses.”

Box-office success
Jordan survived his first encounter with Hollywood and eventually he prospered. Released in 1992, The Crying Game impressed the critics and the Oscar voters. More surprisingly, it managed to take $63 million at the US box office when $63 million was still a great deal of money. Jordan ended up converting one of the film’s six Oscar nominations into a win for best original screenplay.

Jordan would not be human if he did not feel vindicated by the triumph. The success constituted a neat “sod you” to the critics. “No, not really. I wouldn’t say that at all,” he says. “Here’s what I felt about The Crying Game: if I can’t get this film made – which seemed so interesting to me and so complex and layered – then there is perhaps no point in continuing to make movies. That’s really what I felt. One wants to live a creative life.”

It feels like a very different time. The Crying Game was one of the advance riders for a new phalanx of independent movies. Backed by the indomitable distributor and producer Harvey Weinstein, the film joined contemporaneous pictures such as Pulp Fiction and Sex, Lies and Videotape in demonstrating that there was commercial life outside the studio system. The bright new dawn didn’t quite develop into a bright new day. “Then something else happened,” Jordan says.

Still, he managed to ride the wave acrobatically for quite a while. Interview with the Vampire followed in 1994. Then he embarked on the national obsession that was Michael Collins. If you weren’t in Dublin at the time, you will find it hard to understand quite how much attention was focused on the production. If we had had an Irish space programme, it would have been lucky to scare up so much hysteria.

“Yeah, yeah, it was an extraordinary thing,” he agrees. “It was like being commissioned to do a national monument. If you do a statue, there are all these rules. Will the horse be rearing? I don’t know what they are, but you know what I mean, right? Everybody had a conception of what something like that should be. From my point of view, it was about the present and the past.”

Since then, Jordan has swerved from commercial project to personal oddity. In 1997, he delivered what many think is his masterpiece, The Butcher Boy. A fine, heightened adaptation of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair followed that. In 2007, he directed Jodie Foster in a strangely misguided vigilante drama entitled The Brave One. It has, in short, been a strange ride.

He seems somewhat disheartened by the way cinema has, once again, been taken over by commercially driven monoliths. No studio is interested in the modestly budgeted picture. They either want something for nothing or they want to spend a quarter of a billion dollars to make half a billion dollars.

No wonder Neil returned to fiction a few years ago. Mistaken, his most recent novel, was published to decent reviews in 2011. He never exactly stopped being a writer, of course, but film-making does seem to have bullied the other medium into a corner. If he still had to put an occupation on his passport, I wonder what he would write.

“Oh, I think I am a film-maker now,” he says. “I do, I do. It’s a strange one. When I made a movie, the literary community immediately changed its opinion of the books I’d written. We seem to live in a universe where people are only allowed to do one thing. When Mistaken was published in America, a lot of people didn’t realise it was the same Neil Jordan who made films.”

Maybe that’s the way he would like it. Readers approach the work with no preconceptions. “Ah, I’d like it if you were able to do whatever you wanted to do. Wouldn’t you?” I suppose I would.

Byzantium is on general release