IFC Films

Interview: Neil Jordan Talks Byzantium, The Borgias, and More

Interview: Neil Jordan Talks Byzantium, The Borgias, and More

 

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Themes of history, sexuality, and fantasy are woven through the work of Neil Jordan, a writer-director as inspired by the legacy of his native Ireland as he is driven to push the envelope and the boundaries of reality. A palpable sexual heat can be felt in films as diverse as The Miracle and The End of the Affair, and both the subconscious and the supernatural are scoured in The Butcher Boy and In Dreams. When he’s not exploring stories of his homeland in films like Michael Collins and Breakfast on Pluto, he’s envisioning what’s been shuffled under the ornate rugs of 16th-century Italian dynasties (he created the scandalous, papal-themed drama series The Borgias for Showtime). Often, all three themes converge, as is the case with Interview with the Vampire and Jordan’s latest vampire film, Byzantium. Though it’s different right down to the nature and practices of the creatures themselves, which are called “soucriants” and spill blood with retractable thumbnails as opposed to sharp teeth, Byzantium, like Interview with the Vampire, is alluringly carnal, steeped in folklorish backstory, and often dreamlike.

Byzantium also offers further evidence of Jordan’s knack for arresting imagery, boasting some of the more indelible, plasma-soaked shots of the year—shots that, like the best moments of Let the Right One In, are less remarkable for their shock value than for their brutal elegance. Of course, that Jordan can deftly burn pictures in the memory should come as no surprise to filmgoers. This is, after all, the man who, with one revelation concerning a certain transgender femme fatale in The Crying Game, delivered what’s arguably the most unforgettable shot of the 1990s. In a recent interview, the filmmaker discussed the enduring importance of plainly potent compositions, his attraction to offbeat drifters, the Borgias movie that may never be, and what he’d do if, like a soucriant, he had all the time in the world.

I was surprised I didn’t see Stephen Rea in Byzantium, as he’s appeared in so many of your films.

Yeah. No, I couldn’t cast him, could I? He was busy. The only role he could have played was [soucriant brotherhood member] Savella, the role that Uri Gavriel, the Israeli actor, played. I love that guy’s voice and presence so much. And Stephen wasn’t available anyway.

The film does have a terrific cast with a lot of great faces: Saoirse Ronan, Caleb Landry Jones, Thure Lindhardt. What were you looking for during the casting process? What sort of things were you thinking about?

Well, it’s a mother and a daughter—a whore and a student. One is confrontational, the other’s retiring. One is trying to take revenge on man, and the other’s trying to fall in love in a strange way. So you look for that. I’ve always admired Gemma Arterton’s work, but I’ve always felt she was rarely in movies that gave enough to her, apart from, say, The Disappearance of Alice Creed. I met her, and she read the script, and she loved it. And I just found that she was an extraordinary physical creature, and that she had an amazing talent, and if I could bring it out, that would be great. And Saoirse Ronan is one of the best actresses around, I think. I’ve been admiring her since she did Atonement. Caleb actually put himself on tape, or whatever it’s called now, and sent it to the casting director. And it was really wonderful.

Naturally, the story’s content, themes, and lengthy history recall Interview with the Vampire. Did it often feel as though you were making a companion piece?

Yeah, it did a bit, in a way. I wasn’t involved in the development of this script, and I never saw the original play, but when the script was sent to me, there were so many familiar elements from movies I’ve made. It was kind of like a twisted fairy tale; it was about storytelling, like The Company of Wolves was; and it’s set in an abandoned holiday town. I’ve done so many things in these environments, and I don’t really understand why myself. And it’s about vampires, but, in a strange way, the fact that it was about vampires was the least attractive thing to me about the script. Because they’ve kind of been done to death lately, haven’t they? And it’s difficult to make people interested in them again. But anyway, the possibilities of the screenplay were large enough to make me want to say, “Yes, I’ll do this.”

There’s a scene in which Eleanor’s teacher, played by Tom Hollander, says, “Our own experience is the starting point for all our creativity,” and you tend to gravitate toward tales of drifting loners. Is that a type you identify with?

Well it must be, mustn’t it? Seeing as I do so many stories about them. But [Eleanor] isn’t so much a drifting loner as someone who wants to explain the world, or explain herself to the world, and isn’t allowed to. I thought it was lovely that she had this 18th-century voice, and an 18th-century sensibility stuck in this kind of grungy, modern, low-rent world. I loved the fact that she was out of time. And I particularly loved the fact that she kept demanding that her mother let her go to school [laughs]. It’s the last thing the mother wants, but she’ll be asking, “Mother, please let me get an education for 200 years.” And it’s like, “No, no, no…just live in the whorehouse here.” There were a lot of ironies in the characters, and I hope I brought them out in the movie.

From shots of the island waterfall flowing red to the scene in which small droplets of blood are landing on Eleanor’s face in the elevator, the film is one that attests to the power of single striking images, as opposed to a barrage of many. Do you think that’s something that’s missing in a lot of films today?

Perhaps it is, yeah. What happens now in movies is that the ability to fix things digitally makes people shoot far too much, and far too lazily, and far too…all-embracingly. I mean, this was a movie that demanded really striking images, and when that waterfall turned red, we actually turned it red. We didn’t do it digitally. I think when you do stuff like that, it concentrates the mind, and it definitely concentrates the camera. It concentrates the image. Because you know exactly what you want to get. And if you can fix things in post, or if you can add to things with all sorts of digital trickery, I don’t think it helps in creating coherent images. We also didn’t have a lot of money on this film, so we had to really make it work.

There are also a lot of images of spirals and long tunnels. They often felt like subliminal messages signifying these women’s eternity. Was that a conscious choice?

No, it wasn’t. The stuff in the old island hut was kind of my invention. In the original script, they had to go to Turkey to become a vampire—to this sun-drenched place. But we couldn’t afford to do that, so I said, “Look, let’s look at some Irish legends of the undead.” And I’ve always loved the fact that, if you know the Irish landscape, a lot of the Christian ruins are built upon pagan ruins, so there are a lot of pagan remnants, and there’s a lot of crossover. So the idea that these vampires could come out of an old saint’s hut was fun to me, really. It was interesting. And the birds, the spiraling birds coming out of that hut, created the sense of a vortex.

This is one of just a few films of yours that you didn’t also write. Do you find it harder to put a personal stamp on things that you didn’t fully dream up?

Yeah, I do, a bit. I deliberately didn’t get involved in the writing with this. There was a lot of really ornate, 18th-century dialogue, and I wasn’t really sure how it would fall on people’s ears when they went to the cinema. I didn’t do that because the voice of the writer [Moira Buffini] was so specific and because it was written by a woman. I don’t think I would have approached it the same way if I had written it. So I tried to be faithful to her and to the voice she gave the characters. It wasn’t hard to make it though. It was a delight to make it. As I said, there were so many familiar elements from other movies of mine. I don’t know if she was making reference to Interview with the Vampire. Maybe she was. It’s kind of a female version of Louis and Lestat, isn’t it? One is savage, one is not. One is guilty, one is not. So those things were the same.

I was sorry to hear about the cancellation of The Borgias. What’s the status of the rumored film that may pick up where season three left off?

Well, I wrote the script, which I called The Borgia Apocalypse, and, to me, it was the perfect way to bring all of those characters to a conclusion that all the fans seem to be desperate to have. But they didn’t want to do it. I think it’s a case of a new regime coming into the equivalent of a studio. But if they change their minds, I’m here to do it. It’s a lovely script that I’d love to make.

And now for the tough question: If given the chance, what do you think you’d do with eternity?

What would I do with eternity? Oh, man, I’d try and sort myself out [laughs]. Because that’s a long time. I wouldn’t want to live for eternity the way I am now. I’d try and get a clear mind.