Interview Date: 04/28/2010
Run Date: 05/06/2010
Director Neil Jordan has helmed high profile films ( “Interview with the Vampire”) and low profile films (“Breakfast on Pluto”), delving into historical epics (“Michael Collins”) and light comedies (“We’re No Angels”) and everything in between. Most recently, however, he’s taken the eye of the camera and turned it on his native Ireland for “Ondine,” a motion picture which stars Colin Farrell and often feels like the middle ground between fairy tales and reality. Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with Jordan about his work on the film, but we also found the time to chat about everyone from Anne Rice and Andy Warhol to Shane MacGowan and Lucretia Borgia.
Bullz-Eye: Hey, Neil!
Neil Jordan: How are you?
BE: I’m good, thanks. It’s a pleasure to speak with you.
NJ: A pleasure to speak with you.
BE: I just finished watching “Ondine” this morning, and I very much enjoyed it.
NJ: Oh, did you? Thank you very much!
BE: I’ve got a daughter, so that no doubt helped with its appeal.
NJ: (Laughs) Yes, well, it would.
BE: You worked with Colin Farrell on this film. I know he had been in “Intermission,” which you produced. Was that when he first came on your radar?
NJ: Oh, no, of course I’d been aware of him. I live in Ireland, after all, and given that he was going through his Hollywood period at the time, it was impossible not to be aware of him! (Laughs) But I’d wanted to work with him for about seven years, and I got to know him, and when I finished the script for “Ondine,” I sent it to him, and…I was kind of unsure as to what I’d written. Was it good? Was it bad? Was it a fairytale? Was it not? But he loved the character, and he just leapt on it and said, “I want to do this.” So that was good. (Laughs)
BE: So where did the idea for the script come from?
NJ: (Sighs) It’s hard to say , y’know? I had this image of a fisherman pulling a girl out of the water, and it was such a startling image that it kind of stuck with me. And then I began to invent this story around this character and find out where this story wanted to go. I began to research selkie legends and all that kind of stuff. For a long time, I wanted to make something… (Hesitates) I mean, I’ve made a lot of movies in Ireland that have been quite harsh and quite brutal, about brutal facts and political violence and stuff like that, and I really wanted to make something that was about how beautiful certain parts of the place are, the forgiving nature of the landscape. So it was all of those things merged into one, really.
BE: Of course, there’s some darkness to the film, but at its heart, it’s a very sweet film.
NJ: Yes, it is. A very sweet film.
BE: You made a comment a moment ago about how, when you gave Colin the script, you weren’t sure if it was good or bad. You hadn’t really done a screenplay since…what, was it “The End of the Affair”?
NJ: Was it “The End of the Affair”? No, I did “The Good Thief” and wrote that screenplay.
BE: Oh, all right, I didn’t realize that. Well, even so, it had been awhile since you’d written one.
NJ: Yes, it had. Especially since I’d written an original screenplay.
BE: Were the ideas just not flowing, or were you just so busy with everything else that you didn’t have a chance to write?
NJ: I was busy with everything else, actually. I was doing a lot of adaptations. I adapted “The Butcher Boy,” I adapted a novel by Patrick McCabe called “Breakfast on Pluto,” and I just kind of hadn’t realized, really, that I hadn’t written an original screenplay in a long while. (Laughs)
BE: I thought that Alison Barry was fantastic as Annie.
NJ: She’s lovely, isn’t she?
BE: Where did she come from? She doesn’t have much of a history on IMDb.
NJ: She has no history whatsoever! (Laughs) She comes from a little town in West Cork, her father’s a school teacher, and she’s never acted before. She had no ambitions to act, either. But she had those great eyes. That’s what entranced me. She has amazing eyes, and she had this wonderful… (Trails off) You know, if you get a kid who’s never acted before, and you’re lucky, you can often get a lovely performance out of them. For me, it’s important that they’ve never acted, for some reason.
BE: Have you heard any feedback about the ending of the film? I won’t speak to it directly, so as not to spoil it for those who haven’t yet seen it, but I’m curious if you’ve heard from anyone who wasn’t entirely thrilled with the, shall we say, reality of it.
NJ: Yeah, of course I have. That was my main worry in making the film: can you create a sense of enchantment and then un-create it? I mean, it’s actually quite easy to do… (Laughs) …but if you’re dealing with the idiom of a fairy tale or a silkie story, and if I’d kept it a silkie story, then it would’ve had to have ended tragically, because they all do: the woman goes back into the water, and her earthbound lover is left lost, with just the memory of her. All that stuff. They always end up in the deep. But the strange thing was that, if I decided to make it into reality, it enabled it with the ability to have a happy ending if I wanted to give it one. It was a weird thing in that, when she describes to him how he pulled her out of the water with his net and what the real reality was, in a strange way, it was even more of a fairytale event than the imaginary possibility of a silkie was. It felt strangely more magical.
BE: Was there a point when you considered the possibility of going full-on fantasy with the film?
NJ: No, no, there never was. I always wanted it to be a fairy tale that interested with reality in a very real way.
BE: Stephen Rea appears in the film. He’s your good luck charm, I guess.
NJ: Stephen Rea’s a great actor. He’s a really good actor, yeah, and he’s kind enough to do sometimes very small parts for me in my movies. (Laughs)
BE: The first time you worked with him was in “Angel,” correct?
NJ: Yes, that’s correct.
BE: I read somewhere, however, that they originally wanted Liam Neeson for that part.
NJ: He was talked about for that role, yeah, he was. But, no, I wanted Stephen Rea. (Laughs)
BE: Had you known Stephen prior to that film?
NJ: Yes, I knew him from his work in the theater. But “Angel” was the first movie that he did, and it was the first movie that I did, so we kind of started out together.
BE: I’ve not actually seen the film, but I understand it has a music theme to it, and you’ve got a lot of other films that are music-centric. I take it music is a particular love of yours…?
NJ: Yes, it is. I should’ve been a musician. (Laughs) I should’ve been a classical guitarist. I used to play competitions when I was a kid.
BE: I wanted to ask you about some of your other films. I read recently that, for “The Company of Wolves,” you originally wanted Andy Warhol to play The Devil.
NJ: We asked him to play The Devil…and he agreed! He did, actually. But he’d just been shot by Valerie Solanis, so he didn’t want to leave New York. When did that happen? Was that in the ‘80s?
BE: Uh, I’m not quite sure.
NJ: Well, he said he would do it if we shot all of the scenes in New York, but we couldn’t afford to do that.
(Writer’s note: As it turns out, Warhol was shot in 1968, so whatever his reasons may have been for not leaving New York, they probably weren’t related to his wound having not yet healed.)
BE: I heard that you had to buy Terence Stamp a new suit to get him to fill the role instead.
NJ: Yeah, Terry was great.
BE: I remember the film “High Spirits” from when it was originally released, and as a teenager, I enjoyed it well enough, but I have read that your final cut of the film was significantly different from what actually appeared in theaters.
NJ: Yeah, well, I never even saw the final cut. That was not a good experience, that movie.
BE: How different was your version of the film?
NJ: Uh…it’s hard to say. It would definitely have been less frenetic. Definitely.
BE: You’ve directed several films that you didn’t write, including “We’re No Angels” and “The Brave One.” What goes into your decision to helm such films?
NJ: In both of those cases, it was the actors. Sean Penn and Robert DeNiro asked me to do “We’re No Angels,” and in the case of “The Brave One,” it was Jodie Foster. I really enjoyed working with her, actually.
BE: How different is it for you as a director to work on something that you didn’t have a hand in writing?
NJ: It’s more difficult. You become more like a traffic cop, y’know? And you become more like you’re somebody who…your opinion is thought of the same as everybody else’s, whereas if you wrote it yourself, you’re in a more privileged position, I think. You’ve got more control over it when it’s your material.
BE: Are there any pros to it?
NJ: If it’s beautifully written, there are, yeah.
BE: With “Interview with the Vampire,” Anne Rice obviously loved the film after the fact, but how difficult was it for you prior to her seeing it, when she was criticizing it constantly?
NJ: It was a bit scary, because she’s a scary person. (Laughs) And she’s really good at getting time on the news as well, so, yeah, it was a bit scary. But I tried to convince her that she was wrong, and in the end, she was gracious enough to say, “Yes, I was wrong. It was great.” I really just wanted to make the most faithful adaptation of the book that I could.
BE: Had there been any talk of you possibly directing any of the sequels?
NJ: There had been some of that, yeah. But it was too complicated. And I think the first book is the best, really.
BE: What’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
NJ: That I’ve worked on? “The Butcher Boy.” I don’t know if you saw that film, but that should’ve been given a proper release.
BE: Actually, when I mentioned that I was going to be talking to you, one of our other writers said that he thinks of that film and “The Crying Game” as being your best work. Why do you think it didn’t get a proper release?
NJ: Because it was with Warner Brothers, who are a big company. They just didn’t have the interest in marketing a film like that.
BE: I don’t know how often you get asked about this, but I wanted to ask you about the video you did for The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl.
NJ: Oh, yeah, okay!
BE: Obviously, the Pogues’ nationality puts them up your alley, but what was the experience like of working with them?
NJ: God, that was for a charity, wasn’t it? For the AIDS charity, for “Red, Hot and Blue.” Yeah, it was very complicated, because I wanted to change the entire stage set with every four bars of the song. It was a very complicated thing. And Shane MacGowan…he’s quite a star, but he wasn’t the soberest man at the time.
BE: (Laughs) The film “In Dreams” was one where the reviews varied quite wildly. How did you think it turned out?
NJ: I really liked that movie, actually. But there was a fault with the script in the end. It all comes down to the script. That was one of those where I kind of rewrote the script, but there was kind of a flaw in the original conception that was never quite worked out. But I did really like doing that film. It was very badly reviewed, but people seem to have changed their minds about it since.
BE: The presence of Robert Downey, Jr. goes a long way nowadays.
NJ: (Laughs) Yeah.
BE: Nick Nolte claimed that he actually took heroin to prepare for his role in “The Good Thief.” Were you aware of that?
NJ: I had no awareness of it whatsoever. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but I don’t know.
BE: Of the actors you’ve worked with over the years, which one has surprised you the most with their performance?
NJ: Colin Farrell. I thought he was amazing to work with, with his identification with the character. It was amazing and immediate. He’s an amazing actor.
BE: Was there anyone who you hadn’t been aware of prior to working with them who just blew you away on first encounter?
NJ: No, not really.
BE: How was the experience of working on a huge historical epic like “Michael Collins”?
NJ: It was brilliant. It came at a really particular time in Ireland where we got such support from the city of Dublin that it was extraordinary. It was around the time that the peace process was beginning, where you felt like the whole of history was changing, so it was amazing to make that film.
BE: I know that you had actually put off doing “Heart Shaped Box” to work on “Ondine. “ Is that film now back on the table as a possibility?
NJ: I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it for awhile. We’ll have to see what happens. Well, they’re shouting at me to go now…
BE: Fair enough. I’d only just wanted to ask you what you do have on your plate now, then.
NJ: I’m working on a Showtime series about Lucretia Borgia and her family, with Jeremy Irons.
BE: Excellent! Well, perhaps I’ll see you at the TCA Press Tour.NJ: Maybe. Thanks very much!