In the hours before a special screening marking the 20th anniversary of Neil Jordan's Michael Collins, the director has been checking over the brand new digital print at Dublin's Savoy Cinema and is struck by the strangely bourgeois revolution he recreated two decades ago.
"When I was watching the movie, I was thinking about whatever people get out of the movie historically, it was a really middle-class revolution. These guys wore three- piece suits. They were Catholics. They were farmers and schoolteachers. They weren't like Lenin or Trotsky or Che Guevara.
“They were old-fashioned. Collins was quite a conventional figure apart from his appetite for guerrilla warfare, which was most unconventional. He wasn’t a social revolutionary in the way someone like Connolly was. I think the film captures that.”
Never mind 1916: they did things differently in 1996, when Michael Collins was released. In a box-office report dating from November that year, cinema exhibitors marvelled that the historical epic, a film that was playing only in the evenings, might outperform Independence Day, the summer's biggest hit: the sci-fi film had benefited from "regional cinemas" being seasonally "open for matinees".
No matter: after only one week on release, Jordan's biopic of the Irish republican leader and guerrilla strategist had hoovered up some £948,000 from 85 screens around the island. It took more than £4 million, a record until James Cameron's Titanic stormed the box office in 1997.
It wasn't just about the numbers. Michael Collins was an event before such occasions were manufactured with $100 million campaigns. Here was a most peculiar artefact: an Irish-based production, made with Hollywood money and at least one studio star (Julia Roberts), based on a peculiarly Irish story. Rather tellingly, about a fifth of the film's overall take came from its home territory.
"It was a unique opportunity," says Jordan. "After I made Angel, [producer] David Puttnam asked me to write a script about Michael Collins and Warners read it and they didn't want to make it. It vanished into the vaults. Then after I made Interview with a Vampire they asked me, 'What do you want to do next?' And I said, 'You have a script I wrote years ago'.
"So after a lot of thought – and persuasion from David Geffen – they decided to make it. It wouldn't happen now. They gave $25 or $30 million, which was a lot of money 20 years ago. You could mount a big production and do something that they didn't fully understand but that they were willing to entertain."
Had it not been for Puttnam's commission, might Jordan have chosen another focus or prism? A biopic of Patrick Pearse, James Connolly or Constance Markievicz might have allowed for a more succinct arc.
“I didn’t know much about Collins when Puttnam said it to me first,” says the Oscar-winning director. “I started reading the biographies. They were all hagiographies, like something you’d read about a Salazar or Mussolini figure. But what struck me was the same character – between the years 1916 to 1922 – contained all the contradictions that would bedevil Irish history: he’s present at the GPO, he’s leading an army, he’s forced into treaty negotiations, then forced into civil war. So this guy is at the centre of these dramas. You wouldn’t have had all those contradictions with someone like Pearse or Markievicz.”
Back in the day, mountains were made from the smallest cinematic liberties: in Jordan’s film, the Black and Tans are shown firing into dense crowds at Croke Park using mounted machine guns and armoured vehicles. Historically speaking, there were 14 deaths recorded – all shot by hand – at the 1920 massacre known as Bloody Sunday. On the eve of the film’s 20th-anniversary reissue, such necessary truncations are unlikely to trouble our contemporary cine-literate nation.
“You don’t think there will be?” he asks. “It’s interesting. Twenty years ago, when the film was released, that history seemed like much more explosive material. The mention of nationalism or republicanism could cause shouting at dinner parties.
“When I was making the film, that did get really tedious, but it was more of a live issue then. Now politicians are able to mark the 1916 centenary without all shouting and blaming each other. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are almost the same party now.”
Villain of the piece
Michael Collins sees a mercurial Éamon de Valera (the late Alan Rickman) sending Collins (Liam Neeson) to lead negotiations in London, knowing that only bitter compromise awaits. Jordan insists he didn't intend for Dev to be the villain of the piece.
“I once heard de Valera speak, actually,” he says. “My father brought me to hear him speak outside the GPO. I think I was about 10 and I hadn’t a clue what all these weird people were doing or talking about. I suppose I grew up in de Valera’s Ireland and I didn’t like it that much.
“He was a fascinating figure, like a schoolteacher with that whiney voice that every schoolteacher or Christian Brother seemed to have. That period was his worst period, particularly towards the end of the War of Independence and during the Treaty negotiations. He made a whole series of decisions that had consequences people had to endure for the next 50, 60 years.”
Unhappily, we have had to make do without Jordan in recent times. Two years ago, the Sligo-born artist was crossing Dawson Street in Dublin using a walking stick when he fell in front of a bus. The accident put an end to Fury, a Traveller-gangster thriller Jordan had cowritten with Public Enemies scribe Ronan Bennett, and left him entirely "out of commission".
That hasn't prevented him from writing his sixth and seventh novels. The sixth, the supernatural gumshoe noir The Drowned Detective, was published last month to great acclaim. "I couldn't do the filmmaking thing for two years, so I had time. I've never made a movie of one of my novels but I think I'll make a movie of this one. I'm in talks with Amazon about it." Then there's Riviera, a cable show set in the south of France, with Monica Bellucci and Julia Stiles attached.
“I’m not doing that Soderbergh thing of moving away from film,” says Jordan. “For the past few years all I’ve heard is: ‘Television is where it’s all happening’. But cinema will never die. People still go to films and they still talk about them. This year – even in terms of Irish film – cinema is fascinating. I can’t see that ending.”
- Michael Collins is re-released March 18th
SEXIST INDUSTRY: CALL FOR GENDER BALANCE
"It's the most sexist industry in the world. Not too long ago there were three women at the top of major studios – Donna Langley at Universal, Amy Pascal at Sony – but it didn't seem to impact on the number of women directors.
“We can’t look to Hollywood as a reflection of the world: people don’t wear superhero costumes and fly. But I’m sure we can get more gender-awareness and balance.
"There's no reason for it to be otherwise. Pat Murphy is a really talented director and she started the same time I did. I don't know why directing has become such a male-dominated thing. I don't know why there's something about the persona of the director that's so tediously chauvinistic.
“You don’t have to be a big swinging dick to be a director; you have to have some intelligence and a visual sense.”