December 4, 2005|I expected Neil Jordan to be towering, imposing. From what I'd read, he was a taciturn interview given to long silences and confusing discursions--and from the intelligence of his films, I wondered if I'd be able to keep up with his sources and references. But for a man responsible for some of the most challenging, courageous, and beautiful films of the modern era (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, now Breakfast on Pluto), Mr. Jordan came off as an everyday Joe (with a light Irish brogue) still amazed by the possibilities of the medium and still feeling his way through the business. His pictures always seem to be fairytales: No matter their subject matter, there are princes and maidens, wolves and woods. (Jordan's most underestimated work (and one of my favourites), In Dreams, is entirely an evocation of fugue states.) As he was on the verge of ordering an espresso, I assured him that this place--Denver's four-star Panzano restaurant--knew how to brew tea properly (in a pot, on the table). Amused, he looked me over and said, "I suppose you'd know. Tea it is."
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Fairytales.
NEIL JORDAN: Well, they're terribly clever, aren't they? They're very different from traditional fiction, you know, they have this anonymous authority about them. I read one recently... Do you know Italo Calvino? He died recently.
Yes. Italian writer. He was commissioned to do a volume of Italian folktales and he went through the entire of Italy, just kind of compiling and writing, like the Brothers Grimm, wasn't it--and they're all so similar but different, you know what I mean? But there was one that he did that I would love to do as a movie one day, a story about entrusting a daughter's virginity to a priest while the father's away. It speaks to a general inquisitiveness about human nature--fairytales, of course--but what really attracts me to them is the mystery of their anonymity--of how that universality has an ominous, numinous authority.
It's a lovely idea to think that you're tapping into something ineffable.
Perhaps, perhaps. Something about a story that wasn't written by an individual, but by a collective experience. It's something essential for sure.
The Company of Wolves as an example.
The chance to be a part of this anonymous impulse to tell and re-tell this story across cultures, the Red Riding Hood fairytale, it felt like the most natural thing in the world--even if it's in this insane human context, you tell the story and the story comes out the same. I always think of it as though I'm telling the tale, you now, [rather] than referring to it or borrowing elements--if I've succeeded, I want to have just told the story. And, well, that was the essence of the thing, wasn't it: the opportunity to restore the sex and the lust and the mud and the blood to the fairytale as it was written. While it's anonymous, the story, the intention was to address the fear attendant to unavoidable events--sex, death, lust, hunger--in human experience.
Growing strange hairs.
Tell me about In Dreams.
Yeah, I mean, that wasn't well-received at all was it? (laughs) I really enjoyed making that film but it was kind of a script that I was given and I was aware that there was something deeply unpleasant being evoked in that piece. I guess I should have known that it wouldn't have been well received.
What I mean are the images of apples, and mirrors, and inundations.
Ah, you liked the film! I hadn't ever thought of that film as having a great many fairytale images--I'd never intended that as such in any case. I was hoping to evoke dreams throughout: a constant dream from which the film never wakes. But I think that it speaks to the depths of the unconscious that fairytales plumb that, well, at least for me, when I sought to access images from my dreams, I find images from fairytales.
I want to ask you about the drowned church and the observation that often the brightest colours in your pictures are in your churches.
A lot of that is a product of my upbringing in grey Ireland. You go into church with all the effigies and the glass and it can feel like the only colour you've seen all week. I love playing with colours, I always meant to do a movie that has a stark colour scheme you know, where every colour has a hard, fast meaning. Something with a strong intention about it--there's a film recently, strong colour scheme, Chinese fellow...
House of Flying Daggers?
Yeah, yeah, yeah! Not that strong a film, but the use of primary colours in that was bloody fascinating. I would love to do something like that someday. I don't think that people use enough colours nowadays.
And the sunken church?
Do you dive?
Not into the water.
(laughs) Ah, really, well--we went to the set, the tank, that Jim Cameron built for Titanic and built an entire town underwater there. It was enormous. We filled it with water and shot there for two-to-three weeks. Things are so spooky under there, it's difficult to explain. I got a great underwater cameraman for it and you're just under there, you know, suspended.
Ethel Merman used to talk about a rapture where you felt like you didn't want to ever come up.
(laughs) I think she's talking about drowning. I never had that, but it is just this amazing experience--I'd shoot an entire film underwater if I could. You see, it floats, the camera, through every dimension, and it's not a tracking shot or a SteadiCam or really handheld--it's something other and the effect is really quite beautiful. If anybody wanted to shoot an underwater sequence, even, I'd do it immediately. For the film, I was looking to evoke the sense of a lost world--and for the kid, of course, he's chained to it in a literal and figurative way. Lots of ugly stuff in that picture, the story seems a little pedestrian, too, in hindsight, but I do love some of the images in there.
Have you seen Dario Argento's Inferno?
There's a scene where the heroine drops her key down a grate, reaches in, and falls through into an entire room, completely furnished, submerged underwater.
Ah, that's beautiful. So evocative, right? The unconscious and the key, and here's Argento, another director who's in love with colour. He was something when he was right.
In Breakfast on Pluto, you have Kitten wake in an almost literal fairytale castle.
Yeah, it's a fairytale at heart, isn't it? If I could've given Kitty a wand, I would've. He would have changed the whole world--he would've fixed it. The film's a look at the world through an idealized prism, after all, no matter how much the world resists that point of view.
|Clockwise from top left: Jordan's Not I, Interview with the Vampire, and Breakfast on Pluto
Do you start with archetypal elements in your projects? The supernatural or magical realism as a guide?
No. I generally like to start with something that's realistic--that has realistic elements, anyway--and then push the story to areas, without those elements collapsing, that you never thought you would get to when you started. You enter territory that's logical, you see, but wouldn't seem so at the start. I wrote a novel last year that was about a ghost, and I did High Spirits, which was about ghosts--and also not well received! (laughs) But I tend to shy away from the supernatural for the most part. I like to think that I'm more interested in not the gimmick, but the area where there are real, breathing people...
Whose realities are challenged?
Yes--pushed, certainly, and not by the supernatural really so much as those feelings and fears that arise from those things addressed by fairytales as we've talked about. We're never in more crisis than when our personal realities such as our minds and our bodies, are in the process of changing. I like the area where the realistic expectations of our world are put under pressure, too--when you can no longer explain fully the whys and the hows around you. I like that confusion. I like that mystery.
Elaborate if you can on "mystery."
I think we're attracted to what we don't understand about ourselves, about those parts of our experience that we can't put into words--stories that have no obvious explanation and, thus, have no clear, logical source for their power.
You seem to have great sympathy for outcasts.
I love stories about people on the fringe. I'm drawn to them, definitely, I'm drawn to characters who otherwise would seem monstrous or unworthy of your attention. There are a lot of movies like that, aren't there? Like Taxi Driver?
Yeah, but that's a great movie.
(laughs) I know that, I know that--I guess you're right, there aren't that many anymore in popular movies. Midnight Cowboy, right, Dustin Hoffman, just amazing that such a character could even be--but you've lost a lot of that flavour and complexity anymore. The only stories that interest me are stories about people in need of redemption, you know, wanting acceptance somehow but cast to the margins for whatever reason be it social ugliness or physical or situational. I'm so attracted to characters that construct themselves in spite of the pressures of the world for them to be one way or another. It's a fable with a moral, isn't it.
Many of your films are about truth-telling and morals.
I think that's tied in strongly with an idea about making of the world the world that you desire it to be instead of the world as it is. And with film you have an opportunity to share a different perspective for a little while so that the world for us for that short period of time is as it is for them for all of their lives.
Julianne Moore in The End of the Affair, but also in Beckett's "Not I".
Yeah, Billie Whitelaw had done that years before--it was amazing doing that, just a bunch of directors in Dublin getting together to put Beckett on film. I rehearsed it with Julianne in New York for a couple of hours, she flew over to London, and because the play was fourteen minutes long, we had to get twenty-minute reels of film which don't exist except that they made some for "Cheers", you know, the American sitcom?
(laughs) I'm familiar.
(laughs) Well, we had to get these reels and then five different cameras all focused in close on her mouth at the same time. It was a bit like doing a film for the Smithsonian or something, you know, filming all the behaviour of these little creatures without them knowing that they're being observed. More a work of anthropology is what I'm saying, than art. I'd no idea there were so many ways to look at somebody's mouth.
Do you still like mouths? Beckett?
(laughs) Of course it's Julianne's mouth so I have no complaints about that, but I tell you the truth having photographed that play, I've lost some of my enchantment for Beckett. Having never shot a play, you know, I started to find... And this is sacrilegious to say, but I've lost a lot of my enchantment with the great Beckett, you know. Performed, it's repetitive, maybe even a little indulgent. The obsessive concentration on reducing human beings to a voice, to a ray of light...
Seems to rub against your humanist bent.
(laughs) Maybe that's all it is. I thought it went on too long, too--if I could've pared it down a little, I would've. It's still lovely to read, though.
Tell me about working with the great Chris Menges on Angel (a.k.a. Danny Boy -Ed.), Michael Collins, and The Good Thief.
Ah, good, save me! Well, Chris, with Chris I always go in with something that I want to achieve.
His work with you seems to be evolving.
He comes from an absolutely social-realist documentary background--you see it in his work with Ken Loach of course and even a little on Angel. But he's a man of enormous instinctive power, too, and you see, in Angel just a little, the beginnings of that fairytale feeling that you introduced rightfully in our conversation, and a lot of that is due Chris's ability to feel out what I wanted. That story, about a musician who is sort of cut loose from his objective reality and set to wandering around Ireland, and Chris, he did something quite magical with that.
Michael Collins has a lot of the same mythic qualities.
It does. He did marvellous work on that.
With The Good Thief, though, it starts to look like a Christopher Doyle-shot film--with freeze-frame edits from John Woo's Hong Kong movies.
Actually, I did watch a lot of Chris Doyle-shot films before that movie with Chris, all those stop motion things and the neon-soaked lighting. I'd never before been so self-conscious with the camera--I wanted the whole film to feel like a hangover. It's a film that's really in love with other films, I think--I had an excuse because Jean Pierre-Melville had done his version (Bob le flambeur -Ed.) of John Huston's old noirs and so I took that as an opportunity to make a movie full of internal references.
If film is dreaming, then The Good Thief is another of your pictures evoking a fugue state.
That's true--hadn't thought of it that way. That sounds a lot better than "self-indulgent" or "derivative" doesn't it?
It seems to me that you give yourself over to the feel of a film more than a lot of filmmakers--do the results ever surprise you?
Almost always. Nobody ever realizes how unconscious films are, how very personal films are. I went back to Mona Lisa, twenty years later, and it shocked me how revealing the film was, the whole aspect of Hoskins's daughter and his wife and how he can't see his kids and how he's trying to forge a relationship with her. I felt naked. At that period in my life I was going through a divorce with a similar situation and here was the movie--this confusion about women, about family--and I know that it never crossed my mind as I was shooting it, stupid as that sounds now. But my films are like mirrors to myself at those periods of my life, and I don't think that it's ever obvious to me as I'm doing them just how much I say about myself in their creation. I'm sure I'll look back in a few years and understand exactly what I'm about today.