Horns and Halos:
An Interview with Neil Jordan
by Michael Koresky
REVERSE SHOT: So, could you talk about your relationship with the writer Patrick McCabe? The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto feel like such personal films, and they’re wonderfully complimentary to each other. You get the light and the dark side of the same sort of picaresque narrative.
NEIL JORDAN: Well, thank you. Yes, I do think Breakfast on Pluto has more to do with The Butcher Boy than with The Crying Game. I suppose I just responded to those two novels he wrote. Initially with The Butcher Boy, there was this kid growing up in this strange, weird environment that I remember from when I was a kid. And Patrick’s vision was so complete there. So after I finished The Butcher Boy, I heard that he had written this novel about the transvestite son of a priest. So, when it came out in paperback I read it, and it was a totally different book from The Butcher Boy. Though it has a great unity with that tale of the creation of a psychopathic monster, this was really an episodic, fractured 18th century novel. I responded really directly to it. In this case, I made a huge departure from the book. I had loved the episodic nature of what he had written, but when I began to work on the script it was almost like finishing the substructure to the book, which hadn’t been expressed in a way. I don’t mean that in a grandiose manner; Patrick was aware of that himself while we were doing it as well. For example, in the novel he never meets his mother, and the priest doesn’t return. I hired Patrick to write the first draft, and he began to write it and said “I think I need to bring the priest back in the end.” I said “Why didn’t you do that in the book?” and he said “Maybe I should have.” So suddenly the priest comes in and changes and becomes a good person, and he becomes more of a priest, oddly enough, when he kind of acknowledges his son. Then I began to take over and write scenes, as when he dresses up as the telephone lady and visits his mother and decides not to disturb her life. So it was like we were completing this novel, in a sense.
RS: The Butcher Boy is more faithful to the book, but the vernacular is quite difficult to readers outside of Ireland. So the film adaptation became a sort of distillation of the book.
NJ: Well, with The Butcher Boy I was trying to be as accurate as I could to the experience of actually reading the novel. With this I wasn’t trying to be as inaccurate as possible [laughs], but I was using the book as an imaginative jumping-off point. Patrick did too, because we collaborated. I hadn’t known him from Adam before—I liked The Butcher Boy, and I just called him up. I do enjoy working with writers. I’ve only worked with one other writer in the same way: Angela Carter, who did Company of Wolves. That was similar in that we were taking her deeply ironic and intelligent and cerebral group of stories and fleshing them out into this big strange movie. I’ve got perhaps more of a visual sense than most writers, so I enjoy getting the coherence from the writer to create these large pictures.
RS: Well, you’ve had many of your own novels published. Have you ever had any interest in adapting your own novels to the screen?
NJ: Well, you’re so exhausted after actually writing it. You really are. It’s more like the novel’s done with you than you’re done with it. I have no interest whatsoever in doing that. I was asked once or twice, years ago, by producers, to make my book The Past into a movie. I just couldn’t see it being turned into a film.
RS: Would you let someone else adapt your work?
NJ: I would now. I wouldn’t then.
RS: Are there certain qualities that attract you to your protagonists? Especially in Breakfast on Pluto and The Butcher Boy, you have main characters that in most other films would probably be sidekicks—say the town bully or the cross-dressing village eccentric.
NJ: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. What attracts me is that often they would be on the margins of the story. It’s hard to know whether certain characters come to life or not, they either come to have their own life or they don’t. I’ve written many things in which the characters just remain inert. I think when you decide to make a movie, something in the voice of the central character has to be speaking back to you. For example, the character of Claire in In Dreams wasn’t imagined enough by me. Annette Bening is a great actress, and she gave a great performance, but because I hadn’t fully written it essentially the character wasn’t finished.
RS: Well, In Dreams is a purely visual film.
NJ: Yes, but, let’s face it, at the expense of character and plot.
RS: Well, if you watch a lot of the Japanese horror films now, you’ll see there are no narrative explanations for why anything happens, it’s all mood and atmosphere. Your film feels like something of a precursor to that. There’s a real fairy-tale thread throughout your films, as in Company of Wolves, which you mentioned, but also in In Dreams, Breakfast on Pluto, The Butcher Boy.
NJ: Well, Company of Wolves was about that literally, about fairy tales. In Dreams...well, I was slightly overcompensating with that. I was a bit like a director for hire, so maybe I was putting too much imagery that was familiar to me into it. But this new film is different, because here the central character, by force of will and by reason and adopting this persona, “Kitten,” turns this sequence of what should be brutal and tragic events into broadly comic events, in a way. It’s almost like something that wants to be a tragedy but is forced to be a comedy, in a redemptive way. She forces the world to become a fairy tale.
Well, I suppose I’m interested in ways of storytelling and in stories that are about storytelling. Company of Wolves was a story in a story in a story, which is actually a dream a girl dreams within which her grandmother tells a story. Breakfast on Pluto is similar because Patrick is telling his story to a young baby who’s gurgling to him, who obviously can’t hear. But then there are those bits about Patrick’s own story when he was a child that he didn’t know about. And I thought, how do I tell the audience these? And Patrick McCabe had these beautiful descriptions of robins at the beginning of his book, and I thought, okay, well maybe these robins hear things that other people don’t hear, and they can put together pieces of the story that Patrick and the townspeople don’t talk about. And who is to say that birds don’t know? I know this may sound demented, but I have a parrot at home who talks all the time. It whistles the American national anthem. It’s got intelligence; it communicates. Maybe our dogs know more about us than we know about them.
RS: The Miracle also has this dream imagery. In that you get the sense of something sort of supernatural happening, but it’s never literalized. It remains realist.
NJ: Oh yeah, oh God, the dream sequences in that! That’s weird, I put some of my own dreams in that movie. The dream of the fishes and strange eels. And the men in coats; they were like Mormons walking around. A very quiet film—hardly a whisper. People liked it, but believe me, no one went to see it.
RS: But while you have all of this fairy tale and dream imagery, you also manage to get a lot of incisive political commentary in your films. I know you refuse to describe yourself as a “political” filmmaker, but in comparison to American cinema, your films seem much more engaged. Is this a natural progression of the material and where you’re from?
NJ: Well, if you’re talking about the current climate, there’s a lack of content in American film because I think people are deeply confused about their emotions, and they don’t regret certain aspects of their own foreign policy. There are going to be films about the experience of the Iraq war, but how long will it take for us to have something of the resonance of Apocalypse Now or Platoon? Before those movies happened, there were all these stories about Vietnam vets coming home and dealing with the tangential human side of the issue.
But this movie is not about politics. I find this movie refreshing. I mean I grew up in Ireland, so one would have to be consciously blinkered not to have reflected on the issue of political violence because that was the story since I was 19 years old or 20. I made three political films, I think: Angel [a.k.a Danny Boy], which was my first movie and starred Stephen Rea, The Crying Game, and then Michael Collins. All three were about different aspects of violence. And I changed too, as I made them; there were five or 10 years between each one. And they were all examinations of being in a society where politics expresses itself brutally in people’s lives. When I came to make this, I thought it would be lovely to do. And one of the reasons I was unwilling to do it at the start was that the perspective of the central character was so beautifully clear and so much on the side of the angels that it gave me an overview about issues I perhaps hadn’t had before. I don’t think I’ll ever do it again.
RS: Well, if one loves Neil Jordan films, then one has to love Stephen Rea, as well. He’s been in so many of your films, from your very first and now to your latest. What is your working relationship with him like?
NJ: I suppose we both started out making films together. So Angel was his first movie, and it was my first movie. He was a very practiced actor, and I knew very little about acting. I had written Angel with this kind of monosyllabic, spare, sparse dialogue. I loved his sense of delivery. I didn’t work with him consistently immediately after that. He had a small part in Company of Wolves, he wasn’t in Mona Lisa at all. But then when I came to write The Crying Game, I spoke to him about it, and he got tremendously excited. So I wrote that with him specifically in mind. He’s from the North of Ireland, he’s gone through certain kinds of political engagement, which I haven’t done. In a way, it was like taking an aspect of his character and putting him through that experience. If you’re a director and you have that relationship with one or two actors, you’re very lucky. The part of the magician he plays in this was not in the book. The character in the novel is also named Bertie, but he was a synthesizer player. He wasn’t that interesting, so I thought if I make him a hypnotist, he’ll be able to explore bits and pieces of Patrick’s desires and longings, and he’ll have this conversation with Patrick without him knowing about it.
RS: You had such a quick ascension into the studio system in America in the Eighties after the acclaim of Company of Wolves and Mona Lisa. Was it disillusioning having had that experience so early in your filmmaking career?
NJ: I had made three movies, two of them got released in America, one of them, Mona Lisa, was a real hit here—Bob Hoskins got an Oscar nomination for it. Then I began this film, High Spirits, which initially I thought was going to be a tiny, little black-and-white comedy. But the company that had produced the other films for me, Palace Productions, were a bit too anxious to become involved in Hollywood. So that became a movie I never really finished and was a bit of a bruising experience. But everyone gets burnt, don’t they? Certain things are outside of your control. I suppose the only thing you can learn as a director is to not put yourself into situations where it can get outside of your control. And that’s what happened.
RS: Did you feel after The Crying Game’s success, you could come back and have more control on Interview with the Vampire?
NJ: Not really. Well, after Crying Game, David Geffen sent me Interview with the Vampire. And I said, “Look, I’ve had a bad Hollywood experience before, but if you can let me make this as an independent movie, I’ll do it.” He said, “Okay, you have my word.” And he kept his word. We made this big $70 million movie with no interference whatsoever. Those were kind of unique circumstances. But then again, I made Michael Collins, which was a Warner Bros. movie. So it depends on what you define as Hollywood. The Butcher Boy was paid for by Warner Bros. It’s because I had a relationship with them at the time. End of the Affair was a Hollywood movie, Sony Pictures.
RS: It’s amazing that you’re able to put such a personal stamp on all these Hollywood films.
NJ: Yeah, but it’s like: Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley—is that or is that not a “Hollywood” movie? You know? Probably paid for by Universal through Working Title. So the line is increasingly blurred.
RS: Is your next film studio financed?
NJ: I don’t know what I’m doing next. I started a movie called Borgia about four years ago, which fell through because of lack of finance. It’s about Lucrezia Borgia and her family, and Pope Alexander and his family. It’s a great story, but it’s just the kind of film Hollywood doesn’t want to make.
RS: Interesting that Geffen came to you after Crying Game—probably because of its view towards sexuality he thought you’d have the right sensibility for Interview with the Vampire. Also in The Miracle, and Company of Wolves, and now with Breakfast on Pluto, there’s such a wonderful sense of sexuality being almost beside the point. The casual attitude must come as natural to you, but it’s very rare in American film.
NJ: Well, the confusion of love and sexuality touches everything, doesn’t it? I’ve made movies about that confusion, about people desiring things they really shouldn’t or that they don’t even want. I’m just interested in that stuff. Emotion and where people put it and what they want from it and what they get from it. Crying Game is an interesting proposition, isn’t it? This Irish guy falls in love with this girl, she turns out to be a guy, so what did he love? She wears the same perfume, wears the same hair. He knows she’s got a dick instead of a vagina—okay, that’s a big issue, but what did he love before? Did he love the image of her? How does he reconcile that? It’s a little parable in a way. Mona Lisa is not too dissimilar. Bob Hoskins misinterprets and falls in love with this woman who’s a prostitute; he’s a racist, she’s black, he’s got this old-fashioned, black-and-white sense of morality. I guess they’re about people falling in love with the wrong things.
RS: And The Miracle, of course, is about the same thing.
NJ: And in End of the Affair, they fell in love with each other, but they had a much bigger lover that doesn’t exist. How do you outwit a lover that doesn’t exist?