Neil Jordan broke out of a working-class job by transforming his personal woes into prose. Soon, he was making poetic films, all stamped with Jordan's Irish sensibility of shadowy nights and grey days yielding unexpected personality: Mona Lisa, The Company of Wolves, The Crying Game. Jordan has made Hollywood films, including Interview with the Vampire, In Dreams, the brilliant The End of the Affair, and the undervalued We're No Angels. While Warner Brothers' Michael Collins remains his magnum opus, Jordan continues to bloom in smaller pictures, like The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto, both adapted from Patrick McCabe novels. I spoke to Jordan at San Francisco's Prescott Hotel on November 16, 2005.
Groucho: A director has to exert control over a story, so was it at all worrying to tackle such a free-wheeling tale as Breakfast on Pluto?
Neil Jordan: Yeah, it was a bit, I suppose, but, you know, you can always edit it into some kind of shape. But it was wonderful actually 'cause I had never done anything like it before, y'know? I used those chapters—they come from the novel, really. And I know some people say, "Why do you have these chapters in the thing?" But for me, in a way it was like freeing me from the three-act structure, which just seems to bedevil movies these days, y'know what I mean? It comes from all those screenwriting classes in Hollywood, doesn't it? But it was just great to make a film that had scribbling on the negative somewhere, and it was in 36 short movies, really. It was a kind of lovely form to use. I mean, there is a beginning, middle and an end to the story, obviously, because there's a beginning—he's born—comes of age, you know? I suppose the burden of the story is that he's looking for his mother or some kind of family, 'cause he'd never had one. And in the end, he does kind of find a version of that, so there is that shape to it, you know.
G: I think also, the idea of "Chapters from my Life" speaks to that idea of self-invention or seeing your life as a narrative.
NJ: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
G: There's a sort of theme, I think, that runs through several of your films—that idea of inventing oneself or self-mythologizing.
G: It makes people kind of targets of derision, to be so different, maybe, but also, there's love or salvation, maybe, at the end of the road for some of those characters.
G: Do you think, though difficult, that individuating from society, is essential?
NJ: —What does that mean, 'individuating'?
G: As opposed to adopting what society tells you to do.
NJ: Ah. Okay. Oh yeah, okay. Okay, well the reason—yeah, I've had to think about this lately because people have been asking that question. You mean, why do I deal with people who invent their identities?
NJ: Okay. It's because Ireland, where I grew up is—everybody was identifiable. And the story that everyone was used to from Ireland—the story of the political violence and sectarian assassination and all that was all based on identity. Y'know, they would plant a bomb at the Enniskillen memorial service for people who died in the first World War because they know everybody there would be identified as Union if they're British. So they feel free to blow them up. Stuff like that. So in a context like that, if your identity is not a matter of what you're given, but it's a matter of choice—you know, you can choose your own identity—it liberates you from those circumstances, doesn't it? That's why it's been so much in my work, I think. But this one in particular—this boy has to choose an identity, really, to survive—the identity of this Kitten character, this woman, this saint, as he calls himself, yeah? And it's like, on the one hand, it's a cloak he wears. On the other hand, it's a statement about the bit that he—refuses to change about himself. Do you understand what I mean?
NJ: So the film then becomes—it's not a movie about destruction of innocence; it's about the maintenance of innocence in a way—the perpetuation of his own innocence.
G: Do you ever, as Kitten does in the film, step outside of yourself and view your life as a narrative? Do you ever think of your life as a story?
NJ: Erm, I'm forced to when people write reviews of my movies and probably don't like 'em. (Laughs.) I really don't know. I probably do all the time. But I'd love to—I think we all should have about ten personalities, really—ten different personas. Because if you adopt a pose—or it used to be called a pose, yeah? This is why actors rule the world these days, yeah? But if you do adopt a pose, it kind of frees you to think about whatever it is that is yourself in a different way. Very interesting, if you talk to a kid—if a kid's disturbed or worried about something, and you say to them, "Are you worried about this, and blah, blah, blah?" They say, "No." Then you say, "If there was a young guy who came in here and he was worried about something, what do you think he'd say?" Y'know? If you put it in the third person, they immediately feel free to say something. Because they think—they objectify themselves in some way. And it's kind of a similar process, I think, y'know?
G: Yeah. Society and children are kind of a bad fit in your films—there seems to be a conflict there. And in this film we get the Daleks and the Wombles—these kind of ironic juxtapositions of the adult world and the child's world. Do adults simply need to play more to emphathize with children?
NJ: Do they need to play more? I don't know, really. I don't know. I think they probably need to leave children alone more, actually. (Laughs.) Yeah.
G: Mind their own business.
NJ: I mean, 'cause, in America, you live in a child-centered world—it's extraordinary. Particularly for people who have children. And I'm not sure it's a healthy thing, actually. You know, we live in a kind of world that is infantilized, is that the word?
G: Yeah, yeah.
NJ: I think, in a way. If you look at these programs—I was just watching TV, and programs and talk shows, "Speaking as a mom," "Speaking as a pop," you know, and everyone goes doughy-eyed at the mention of children in the world. Childhood is this immaculate, sainted preserve, y'know. I'm not sure that's a good thing. (Laughs.) I don't know. Maybe my movies say it should be that way. I think kids should be left alone, really. The problem with the kid in this movie is he's not left alone, is he?
G: What kind of a child were you?
NJ: Oh, God. I was—I had a very indulgent mother. Y'know, my mother's a painter, and she wanted all of us to paint. And her father was a painter. So she had us all busily painting masterpieces at the age of three and four and five and six. Two of my sisters—they work in the visual arts still. I had a nice childhood. My father was a teacher, which was a bit scarier. But I had a lower-middle-class Dublin childhood, really. In a very—in Ireland in the 50s, which must have been a bit like being in Warsaw during the Soviet period or something, you know what I mean? Where everything was the same, and everybody did the same thing, everybody went to the same church, and everybody wore grey clothes and stuff like that. Y'know? It just seemed so monochrome.
G: We were talking about how actors stay in touch with their sense of play. Why don't we talk about Cillian Murphy a bit. When did you first become aware of him as an actor, and how did he come to be cast in this film?
NJ: He was—he'd been in theatre in Dublin. He did a little play called Disco Pigs, which was made into a movie by Jim Sheridan's daughter—Kirsten made it kind of a small—it was a feature-length film, a very low-budget movie. And I'd written this script. And I wanted to find out: was the part even playable? Could I find anybody who could play the part without descending into high camp and all that sort of stuff. And so I got as many of the young Irish actors who were interested, and I did the tests, video camera tests with them, and he gave this amazing, just absolutely amazing performance. It was really interesting; he made me—because I had written all this stuff, and he immediately brought out the emotional sub-currents beneath it. It was great. I wasn't ready to make the film then. And he kept saying—then I produced a movie that he was in called Intermission, with Colin Farrell and himself. And then he went off and did Batman. And every time I'd meet him, he'd say, "When are you going to make this film?" So eventually he just said, "Please make the film before I'm too old to make it." And I think the time was right for me to make it. I was awaiting—I don't know, really. I suppose after 9/11 and stuff like that, it was not—and actually, one of the pivotal things that made me feel free to make it was when the IRA disbanded—when they sealed up their—they "stood down," to use their own term. So maybe perhaps I thought the kind of attitude—the little story about this guy surviving that kind of brutality—maybe there was a bit of relevance to the world at large at the moment, y'know?
G: There's something very universal about that—trying to have a lark in a serious world—but is there a danger being too flighty as well as being too sober?
NJ: Perhaps, yeah. But I think what he means—you mean the word "serious"? I mean—they have it here, don't they? It's a phrase that tough guys use. Y'know, "This is serious. Don't fuck around," whatever. Do you have it in America? You probably don't. You probably don't. No, no, no, no, no, they use it in Ireland in a way that threatens violence, you see? So when he says, "Serious, serious, serious," he doesn't mean "flighty." Y'know, he means everybody says, "You've got to take this seriously or else you'll end up dead," basically—that's the term, that's the way in which he objects to that word.
G: I see. Speaking of the IRA and the Troubles, what was your own experience with Ireland's Troubles?
NJ: Ermmm, the experience of living up and growing up in Dublin. I had one experience—I was working in London, I was married, and my wife's aunt was killed in a bomb in Dublin, yeah? So we had to come home. There was a bomb placed in Killarney Street in the inner city in Dublin; I think about 32 people were killed. And it was 1972 or 1974 maybe. And we had to come back for a funeral, basically. And at the time, Irish people had very large families, so we came back on the ferry. And everybody on the boat was coming back to collect body parts, basically. That was my only direct encounter with them. Y'know, I used to play in a band around the same time. I used to travel up and down the north of Ireland a lot. Y'know, so this situation where they meet the British army patrols and all that, I've seen that many times. But I never had any political involvement, really.
G: Now that the air is clearing, I gather you suspect the cure may be nearly as troublesome as the disease.
G: Is prosperity too much of a good thing for today's Ireland?
NJ: Well, no, I think the amazing thing about contemporary Ireland is—since, say, the War of Independence, okay? You've seen Michael Collins, the movie.
NJ: Yeah, so the War of Independence—they had this huge bloody struggle for freedom, yeah? So they get a free state in 1922, and the whole place calcifies for 50 years. Through the '60s, there's been all these attempts to liberalize the country and anybody on the left or liberal leaning was trying to remove from the stranglehold of the Catholic church that went on through the '60s, '70s, '80s—but you suddenly introduce liberal capitalism into the country, you know? Out of all the things—whatever, globablization, neo-market economics or something—I suppose it's just money, and it kind of transforms the place in the space of six years. It's shocking (laughs); it's extraordinary, how rapidly everything changes. But it's—maybe everything was waiting to change. But the country's totally changed. And it's a good thing—I don't think it's a bad thing. I'm just amazed that—I didn't know Irish people were so in love with— capitalism. That's what's really emerged in the last few years.
G: I think it would be great if you do make a contemporary—I know, you talked about maybe doing a satire of—
NJ: I'll try. Okay, I will.
G: Let's talk a bit about Michael Collins. That's sort of your career centerpiece, I think, and maybe akin to the American epic political biopics like Nixon or X. It generated controversy as well.
G: Looking back with a decade's perspective, what do you think was most successful about that piece—what did you best get across with it, and was there anything about it you would change?
NJ: Michael Collins?
NJ: Well, I would love to have had enough money to deal with the Treaty debates and the negotiations in England with Churchill. But we just hadn't—I mean, Warner Bros. said we got $30 million to make the movie with. So I had a large section that was about the actual—the confrontation of Collins and everything he stood for with Winston Churchill, basically. And Lloyd George. And I had to remove that from the script. So then the story became, I suppose, an examination of the uses and consequences of political violence, quite simply. So the movie becameabout violence. I don't mean that in a bad way. I mean, it became a movie—it was a film about somebody who constructed an army, did brutal things with his army, and then, when he tried to de-construct it, he was killed by it.
G: Died by the sword.
NJ: Yeah. But it would have been interesting—but I think it would have been particularly interesting for American audiences, because they probably would have understood the broader context of what was going on. In Ireland they took it for granted—in a way. And when the film came out over here, I think people were kind of puzzled by it a bit.
G: How do you see yourself in the Irish literary tradition? What aspects of that do you most tap into?
NJ: I don't know. Heh, heh, heh. Okay, no, no, it'd be fun to take it seriously. So, Oscar Wilde, yeah? He wrote poetry, plays, one or two novels, yeah? Children's stories, yeah? I like that. Samuel Beckett wrote fiction, wrote theatre. I like that too. I suppose I'm one of these schizophrenic Irish guys who does two things.
G: Yeah, yeah. Would you ever tackle writing for the stage, or have you?
NJ: I've tried. I'm utterly disasterous at it. I wrote a play—I was asked to write a short play a couple years ago with Brian Friel and Conor Macpherson: one of the oldest, greatest Irish playwrights [and] Connor is one of the most interesting new voices. So Brian wrote a play, Connor wrote a play, I wrote a play. It's not my medium, really. It really isn't. I can't get a handle on the artificiality of the stage, really.
G: What are you most keen about in Patrick McCabe's writing?
NJ: Erm, he has an ability to—actually, he's somebody who looks at contemporary Ireland—I know the two books you'd know, really, are set in—Butcher Boy and this—are set in the past. But he's written several books that do look straight in the face of what's happening there. But he's one of those strange writers that's got the ability to actually depict what you never noticed. And you realize it's probably the most pivotal thing about your upbringing, you know the kind of thing? And when I read The Butcher Boy, it was like—of course, that's what it was like; I just never would have described those things. He's also in the tradition of kind of fantastic, grotesque tradition of Irish literature—you know Flannery O'Brien, Sheridan Le Fanu. Not so much the august literary things—you know, the kind of Gothic-fantastic thing.
G: The artist's struggle to get past money to the creative exercise—I want to talk a little bit about that and about your current—I think Borgia is going through now, yes?
NJ: I think so, yeah. I think it is.
G: Happily then, you've circumvented the roadblocks there. Do you see those obstacles to getting to the art as understandable or creative cowardice on the part of financiers?
NJ: Erm, no, no, no. It's complicated. I mean, there's no one—yeah, if it was a guy like Bill Gates who'd said, "I'll give you $70 million to make Borgia," and then changed his mind, I'd call it cowardice, but that's not the way movies are put together, y'know? These big-scale epic, sometimes European-based projects—they're put together out of tax funds and out of pre-sales, so it's not any one individual who says, "No, you're not making this movie." Generally it's somebody in Germany who can't afford to pay the rights that you need for the German territory. In the case with the Borgia, at the time, all those German tax funds collapsed. I never understood what they did anyway, but I know they gave a lot of money to movies. So they just couldn't raise the amount of money in the foreign marketplace. I mean, if I was to be asking the studios to take a gamble, I should be waiting a long, long time.
G: Yeah. Can you give a bit of a preview of what your take will be on the Borgia family?
NJ: Borgia family? Well, it's the story of—it's narrated by Machiavelli, yeah? Who wrote The Prince basically based on Caesare Borgia, yeah? So he's telling the story of how power works, basically. And it's the story of the Borgia family and how Rodrigo bought his way into the papacy, y'know? Married off his daughter three or four times before the age of sixteen, y'know, to preserve his power in the papacy. How he bred one son, Caesare, for the priesthood and another son, Juan, for the military. And how Juan turned out to be an utterly incompetent military administrator. And Caesare begs his father to switch their positions; his father doesn't do that, whereupon Caesare kills his brother and assumes the mantle of the military guy. So it's a story about a family tearing itself apart—by being involved at the very center of world power, really.
G: What keeps you on your journey as a filmmaker? What is your driving creative impulse?
NJ: Me? Just something—you know, I find—I don't know. Curiosity—I suppose curious about things. When something occurs to me, I think, "I'd love to make a movie about that." You know, there's a movie about Iraq that I'd love to make, at the moment. If I make the Borgia, I won't make it for awhile.
G: One that you would write?
NJ: Yeah, I have a script. It's a script that's written by a guy I know. But I don't know. Just the possibility of an interesting story that kind of illuminates things that we all think about, in a daze.
G: I wanted to ask about your old friend Stephen Rea. How did you meet him, and how do you account for your kinship?
NJ: Well, I saw him first in the theatre—in the Abbey Theatre. And he was really—he was the most un-Irish actor, really—'cause you think of Irish actors as being very voluble, very verbal and emotional and stuff like that. Stephen was much more thoughtful and quiet than that. And I thought he was a brilliant actor. The first movie I made, Angel, I kind of wrote it with him—well, I cast him as I wrote it, basically. You know, he was just—he's a very, very subtle, very intelligent presence on film, I think. And every now and then, I come up with a part that I've written that seems impossible to play, and when I talk to Stephen about it, he finds a way of doing it—making it interesting.
G: The film Breakfast on Pluto ends with an Oscar Wilde quotation. Does that represent your point of view as much as Kitten's?
NJ: (Laughs.) Said by Lady Bracknell or something, I think. (Laughs.) No, I like all references to nothing. I had a reference to nothing in Angel, actually. I like the references in Lear to nothing. Beckett had many references to nothing, didn't he? I just like the idea of nothing, anyway—
G: Thank you very much.
NJ: Thanks very much—nice to meet you.
G: It was a pleasure.
NJ: Bye now.
[For Groucho's review of Breakfast on Pluto, click here.]