Neil Jordan


When Neil Jordan tells a story, you can never quite shake off the suspicion that, deep in the mists of his dark imagination, some part of the story is still unraveling even as he speaks. He could even be trying the story out on you, testing out its credibility.

Take this one for example.

When Neil Jordan’s daughter was four, he says, she invented a variety of bizarre imaginary friends she would play with and convinced herself she had lived a number of previous lives in other existences. The details of these past lives were so strange and elaborate, two of her child-minders refused to look after her. In fact, according to Jordan, her behaviour spooked them so badly they “ran out of the house.”

“They thought she was possessed or something,” he remembers dreamily.

When I suggest that he must have been concerned by his daughter’s behaviour he snaps back to earth with a jolt.
“No, no. Not at all,” he smiles, looking surprised, almost confused. “I actually found it rather, er, thrilling.”

Of course, the strange and surreal, the superstitious and supernatural, are never very far away where Neil Jordan is concerned.

His films are full of characters that are charmed or cursed. Their lives are touched by dreams, visions and miracles, and encounters with Madonnas and mystical children, spirits, saviours and angels (real and imaginary), even werewolves.

All his films are fairytales, the characters (crucially) are never what they seem (even his stark urban thrillers like ‘Mona Lisa’ and “The Crying Game’). His chief protagonists are dreamers or romantics whose ordinary, tawdry lives are altered because they confuse reality and fantasy, or devastated by the reality and fantasy colliding.

So coming from such a seasoned, seductive story-teller as Neil Jordan, the story about his daughter is not that hard to believe. At the same time, it’s difficult to ignore the possibility that maybe even he no longer knows where his stories stray from reality into fantasy.

Here’s another one. One of his few disappointments with the supernatural, he says, is he has never seen a ghost. Unless, of course, you count his own.
“When I was younger,” Jordan starts, “I always used to go into town on one of these white buses. There was always the same driver, an old guy with white hair. Years later, I bought a house on the same route. There were only a couple of the white buses left by now, but the old guy was still driving. I was getting off at my stop, and as I’m getting off, I look upstairs and in the seat where I was sitting, I see myself, an exact carbon copy of myself, when I was 17.”

He watched himself so long, he says, he considered whether to go up and sit down next to him, talk to him.
“It was an extraordinary feeling.”

This is one of those stories where there’s not much you can say. Luckily, I don’t have to. Jordan’s just staring away as he wonders about it some more.
“Can you believe that ?” he says eventually, softly shaking his head, as if he can hardly believe it himself.

We are in a pub, in Dublin, where story-telling is part of the culture; an art form. Adorning the walls are portraits of Ireland’s past masters at blurring the line between the real and the fantastic – Joyce, Wilde, Flann O’Brien, Beckett – so Jordan is in good company and, luckily, good humour.

He has a reputation for being an intense, terse man and a rather awkward interviewee (a friend once described him as the kind of person you go to hug then pull back from).

Sitting there, guarding his Guinness, his harsh black hair, dark, shabby clothes, and gleaming white face, give him an air of rather gloomy cruelty about him, like a character from one of Poe’s bleaker ghost stories.

Generally wary and edgy around the press (not just because of recent wrangles over his new film), he only really comes out of himself when he is re-enacting a character or re-telling an anecdote in that melodic Irish lilt of his, treating each one as something magical, hypnotic.

“People here are impatient with reality,” he explains. “The culture teaches them that real life that surrounds you is irrelevant in some way.”

He too is superstitious and entranced by tales of the strange or supernatural.
“They’re like a story in your life. They make your life richer.”

All of which, you might think, makes Neil Jordan the perfect man to direct Warner Brothers’ $50m adaptation of Anne Rice’s bestselling Modern Gothic novel, ‘Interview With The Vampire’, starring Brad Pitt, Christian Slater and Tom Cruise. Whether Cruise is the perfect man to play the central role of the 18th Century aristocrat/vampire, Lestat, is another matter.

The film tells the story of the vampire Lestat’s perversely co-dependent relationship with Louis (Pitt). New Orleans, 1791, Lestat finds Louis in a state of devastation following the death of his wife and child and promises him eternal life as a vampire, free of emotional pain and regret. But while Lestat kills mercilessly and insatiably, Louis finds his existence as a vampire tormented by a mortal’s conscience and emotion.

Rice has described Jordan’s Freudian, decidedly nasty, interpretation of the Red Riding Hood myth, ‘The Company of Wolves’, as Lestat’s favourite movie and Jordan’s films have often featured a protagonist (hapless romantic/dreamer) fighting for moral justice in a situation where morals are already tarnished, or, worse, useless.

So it is with ‘Interview With A Vampire’ where the typical Jordan fall-guy becomes a Faustian fallen angle, another lost innocent who sees himself as evil and is searching to discover whether it is for a higher purpose.

Despite an increasingly bitter public feud between Rice and producer David Geffen over the casting of Cruise and Rice’s claim that some of the book’s more disturbing, homoerotic scenes had been taken out (not, as Jordan claims, put back in), Jordan is ecstatic about the result.

“I’d just finished ‘The Crying Game’ and I wanted to do something like ‘The Company of Wolves’ again. Something unreal and magical. It’s not ‘War & Peace’, Anne’s book, but then neither are ‘Dracula’ or ‘Frankenstein’. It’s over-written and kind of unfinished but I found it fascinating, something I’d never seen before: vampires as human beings.”

He is reluctant to get involved in the dispute.
“It’s all in there,” he smiles, with a strange kind of pride. “They kill boys, girls, rats endlessly, children… They’re Equal Opportunity Vampires.”

Neil Jordan’s film career has been, to say the least, unusual: he followed three low budget, critically acclaimed successes (‘Danny Boy’, ‘The Company of Wolves’, and ‘Mona Lisa’) with two huge big-budget Hollywood flops (‘High Spirits’ and ‘We’re No Angels’). He then returned home to his roots, made a small film about his adolescence (‘The Miracle’) and ended up conquering Hollywood from Ireland with ‘The Crying Game’, a $5m film about an Irish terrorist, a black British soldier and a black transvestite.

Mind you, Jordan’s life before he got into movies was fairly extraordinary too.

He studied philosophy, literature and early Irish history (probably the three cornerstones of his movies), specializing in hagiography – “which is probably why I felt at home in New Orleans filming ‘Vampire’ with the voodoo people.”

Unemployed, he started writing “out of desperation… The world around you doesn’t satisfy you, so you create one that does.”

He was acclaimed as one of the great exponents of ‘Magic Realism’ after his prize-winning collection of short stories, ‘Night in Tunisia’, and a novel, ‘The Past’, in which his central character reinvents his parents’ lives.

‘The Dream of the Beast’ was about a man whose skin is turning into another creature’s (a la ‘The Fly’). Now, after several attempts between movies, he has finished a new novel, ‘Sunrise of the Sea Monster.’

“A lot of what I’ve done in film has been consciously fantastic, very dream-like,” he once said and, as in his writing, the mark of a Neil Jordan film is taking a realistic situation or setting, “then making things unreal.” The dream sequences in the largely autobiographic film, ‘The Miracle’, for example, were shot to look more realistic than the rest of the film.

Besides numerous churches, he has used fairgrounds, circuses, music halls and seaside piers as real/surreal settings for his stories and has a penchant for the sleazy, violent world of dancehalls, nightclubs, clip joints and drag bars.

‘Interview…’ continues his fascination with death and what has been called his “Madonna/whore fixation”, with an 18th Century whorehouse and a vampire theatre where the public flock to watch vampires posing as humans pretending to be vampires sacrificing naked girls on stage.

He inherited both his rich, wild imagination and his love of stories from his father.
“He used to take great delight in scaring the living daylights out of me. He would swear they were things he had seen, stories like a coach coming down the middle of the street and the horses having no heads, and being driven by a headless horseman. I believed it, oh yeah. Of course.”

What he finds strange is that his father has not come back to haunt him.
“After all those stories, I felt sure he would. I feel tremendously cheated.”

Jordan was born in 1950 in County Sligo, about 30 miles from the troubled border, the son of a teacher and painter. He describes his upbringing as “perfectly ordinary”, although of course it was nothing like it.

Raised in a strict Catholic household, he spent his time reading, painting and playing the saxophone, another image that recurs throughout his movies.

He attended a school run by priests “who used to beat the shite out of us on a regular basis” and was only allowed to see those movies sanctioned by the Church, becoming something of an expert in Biblical epics and films like ‘The Song of Bernadette’. “Risking damnation”, he would sneak into films like ‘Shane’ and ‘The Big Country’ at the New Electric in Dublin where you could gain admission by returning lemonade bottles.

After leaving university, he started a theatre group with Jim Sheridan (‘My Left Foot’, ‘In The Name of the Father’), and set up an Irish Writers Co-operative to considerable success.

His introduction to movies was also fairly odd. Director John Boorman once said “Neil gets people to do anything, just by acting lost”, and having collaborated on the script of Boorman’s ‘Excalibur’ (based on the legend of King Arthur), when he was 31, Boorman helped him fund his debut film.
“I knew nothing about movies. I’d never had a camera. I just shot what I wanted to see on the screen.”

One of his three poetic vigilante movies, ‘Danny Boy’, is about a saxophone player (“the Stan Getz of Armagh”) who becomes embroiled in a crusade for retribution/redemption after witnessing the murder of a deaf and dumb girl by a Loyalist protection gang.

As he refused to condemn or justify the terrorism or violence in the movie (something he has never done), he was predictably accused of advocating both the British Government and the IRA viewpoints.
“I think the only people who liked it in the end were the Provos,” he mumbles. “People came to the set asking for contributions. A couple of them came into my house. I was quite alarmed.”

After ‘The Company of Wolves’, in which he really let his imagination run riot (dressing wolves in 18th Century costumes), came ‘Mona Lisa’, the story of a small-time criminal/romantic who comes out of prison and becomes obsessed with an enigmatic black hooker he is hired to chauffeur around.

When I describe it casually a sort of London version of ‘Taxi Driver’. Jordan disagrees.
“There was a lot of Visconti in that film. I think that guy’s marvelous.”

Oscar nominations and Hollywood, inevitably, followed.
“There is no indigenous Irish cinema, so I grew up watching American movies. The only Irishmen I ever saw on a movie screen were in John Ford movies.”

Predictably, the two disasters of his career were comedies. When Jordan says: “I love classic comedy”, he means Moliere. Not exactly Robin Williams.

‘High Spirits’ (1988), Jordan’s token Horrible Hollywood Experience, was meant to be part “restoration comedy”, part ‘Whisky Galore’, part “necrophiliac romance”, but he lost the final cut and his fairly ridiculous romp was smothered in special effects.
“I eventually saw it on a plane and barely recognized it. They turned it into the noisiest film ever made. I got tremendously depressed.”

His revenge, you might say, was ‘We’re No Angels’ (1989), a $30m remake of a 1955 Humphrey Bogart film scripted by David Mamet and featuring Robert de Niro and Sean Penn doing what Jordan calls “broad comedy” (a horrible imitation of Stan & Olly) as two escaped cons with hearts of gold who take refuge with a community of monks (!) posing as “two of the finest thinkers in the Church today.” Penn wears leather bikers gloves throughout. A weeping Madonna, a miracle and a prostitute with a mute little girl, made it quintessential Jordan.

When I joke that Jordan, Mamet, de Niro and Penn should be made to do penance and make a vigilante thriller together, Jordan is unamused.
“I liked Mamet’s script,” he complains. “I enjoyed making that movie. All the previews were great. The studio loved it. I remember saying to one of the studio bosses ‘I think this will be a great Christmas movie’, and he said ‘Neil, this would be a great movie anytime’.”

The film bombed. Jordan went home, and made a sentimental, decidedly Oedipal $3m “home movie” about the romantic infatuation of an adolescent saxophone player/story teller (no prizes for guessing).

If nothing else, his next film, ‘The Crying Game’ (1992), proved that in Hollywood, “You Never Can Tell.”

“We had a meeting with one guy who was putting a lot of money into movies at the time,” Jordan remembers. “We said, ‘ok, so it starts in Northern Ireland’ and he said ‘that is a minus’. We said, ‘no, no, wait. This IRA terrorist kidnaps a black British soldier’. He said ‘that is another minus.’ We said, ‘then he falls in love with the soldier’s girlfriend. And she turns out to be a man’. Needless to say, he didn’t put any money into it.”

Another film about amour fou, secret identifies, moral confusion, like a lot of Jordan’s stories, the plot for ‘The Crying Game’ is improbable to say the least. (In ‘Danny Boy’ for example, what is a deaf girl doing at a dance-hall anyway ?)

Not only does a nice IRA man make friends with his captive after taking his hood off because he’s too hot (!), the transvestite can’t tell the difference between Scottish and Irish, and the terrorist fails to realize he’s dating a (decidedly butch) transvestite. Both men fool around with Miranda Richardson but are both in love with the soldier’s boyfriend.

As ever, the only women in Jordan’s films who don’t turn out to be fatal are the ones who are from the start, like Miranda Richardson.

Made for just $5m, despite its extraordinary premise, ‘The Crying Game’ ended up taking $100m and winning 6 Oscar nominations (including Best Screenplay for Jordan) after Jordan requested critics not to reveal the true sexuality of the ‘heroine.’

Jordan’s marketing campaign (“the secret everyone is talking about but no-one is giving away its secrets”) was described by Variety as “the greatest cinema gimmick since William Castle hot-wired theatre seats for ‘The Tingler’ in 1959.

The film’s triumph was testimony to Jordan’s obstinacy. After his double failure in Hollywood, Jordan was so determined not to have his work interfered with, he had seriously considered quitting film making for good.

“Well it sounds melodramatic, but the films they were making then were so bad, I thought if this film can’t find an audience, there’s not a place for me in this industry.”

As for the film’s other great secret, even Jordan admits: “I don’t know whether they fuck in the end or not.”

The furore about ‘Interview With The Vampire’ could have ruined a lot of directors. But Jordan is used to a little bit of controversy. Once you’ve made films where the hero is a nice guy in the IRA, even Anne Rice on the warpath doesn’t bother you.

Over a period of 17 years, Rice had tried to get the film made, selling the rights for millions (twice to David Geffen), advocating the likes of Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich and John Travolta as Lestat.

The rights were due to return to her when Geffen approached Jordan to re-write Rice’s script, which Jordan says was “more or less unfilmable”.

Rice endorsed the choice of Jordan but launched a furious public campaign against Cruise, accusing Jordan, Geffen and Cruise of sanitizing the novel’s heavy homoeroticism, bi-sexuality and the explicit sexuality of the child vampire, Claudia.

To their consternation, Rice complained they were turning her book into a commercial blockbuster. Besides being one already, the subsequent publicity pushed Rice’s book back into the bestseller lists. With preposterous hubris, Rice maintained she was doing it all for her readers.

“These people have stood in line for me for hours,” she told Esquire. “They are my readers and they hate this.”

Eventually, Cruise’s PR, the head of Warner’s publicity, even Mike Ovitz, were all stung into publicly refuting the charges. Having spent years trying to resurrect Rice’s scripts, Geffen was so wounded he said (in Esquire) that Rice’s actions lacked “kindness, discretion” and “professionalism.”

Meanwhile, to little avail, Jordan would mumble quietly that actually he had put “the little girl, the blood and the sex” back into Rice’s script.
“The themes are so dark, I thought audiences might not go along with it. The combination of eroticism and violence in this movie will definitely upset some people. It has a very dark, forbidden atmosphere… The way the sexuality is banished from their lives makes everything sexual in a way,” he considers quietly.

“It’s quite disturbing to see a little girl running around killing people,” he adds with typical understatement. (Claudia was finally played by 9-year-old Kirsten Dunst after Jordan found the 6-year-olds Rice was lobbying for couldn’t read the lines well enough.)

As for Cruise, when Jordan begins a sentence with the words, “one of the reasons why I cast Tom Cruise was…” you can’t help but raise an eyebrow, but Jordan insists that casting Cruise gave him license to take more chances, not less, and allowed him to go beyond the subtle pre-pubescent eroticism of ‘Company of Wolves.’ To Jordan, the combination of Rice’s audience and Cruise’s took the pressure of not finding a market away completely.

Given that Rice has also sold the rights to the four other Lestat books to Geffen too, it will cause her some concern to learn that Jordan loved working with Cruise and is absolutely convinced he was the right choice.

“He’s done something in this film he’s never done before,” Jordan explains with admiration, presumably referring not only to the blonde streaks in Cruises’ hair but he way Cruise virtually rapes Brad Pitt when Lestat turns Louis into a vampire.

“He’s a superb actor. I thought if Tom wanted to go the distance to play this part he would be great and he did. The best part is the villain, everyone knows that.”

As for anyone who doubts Cruise has the malice in his nature to play Lestat, Jordan says, “Look at ‘Rain Man’. Very cold. Cold as ice.”

Early previews suggest that one day Rice will end up eating her words, the same way Ian Fleming did after criticizing the choice of Sean Connery as James Bond.

Of course, spending six months in New Orleans shooting a film about vampires, anyone would have stories. So when Neil Jordan describes it as “a very strange experience”, the mind boggles.
“You can feel the dead walk there, yes ?”

Shooting at night, Jordan ended up living like a vampire himself, hanging round late-night bars, touring the swamps and graveyards, noting the candles and gris-gris on the tombstones. He met New Orleans’ two warring voodoo queens to discuss whether they should do their Power Dances in the film for real.
“In the end, we decided it was better not to.”

He does not seem to find the fact that one of the queens works as a post-mistress unusual.

One night, in the middle of the night, Jordan had a call from the concierge of the small, French hotel where they were staying.

“He says, ‘I believe you’re making this film ‘Interview With The Vampire’. Well I just want you to know, I am the head vampire in the whole of New Orleans’. He was absolutely serious.”

Back at home in his Georgian terraced house overlooking the bay of Dalkey, outside Dublin, you get the impression that Jordan is inclined to believe he was real, too.

After all, Lestat’s enormous, elaborate coffin has centre-stage in the living room – to be used (one trusts) as a coffee table. Jordan seems like a man who is drawn to such superstitions by instinct.

When I suggest the weeping Madonna in ‘We’re No Angels’ is rather crass, he argues: “but she did create miracles: she made the dumb girl speak” so vehemently you could forget we were arguing about a movie.

And in both his new novel and in ‘Danny Boy’, Jordan has the image of a child preacher – the 7th son of the 7th son – evidently seeing them, not as a cheap racket, but a rather spooky symbol of the supernatural or superstitious.

“They’re part of Irish life. I grew up with them,” he acknowledges, admitting the image gets its power from the possibility that the child really has a gift. “I would believe that, yeah. I’d like to. I’m not religious but I wouldn’t rule it out, no.”

As for believing in trapped souls, he laughs: “I don’t know about any trapped souls, you know. Except for myself.” He smiles, trying to make it sound like a joke.

He paces the terrace, humming or singing to himself out loud, an edgy mess of nervous tics, terrors. Outside, the sun is setting over the sea, the sign that if they’re there, the vampires are free to come out. Jordan sits in the shadows, ready for one last story.

“Some years ago, a friend of mine committed suicide. I was travelling a lot and came back and heard the news that he’d committed suicide. I talked about it with my wife, why he did it, you know… Then two years later, down in West Ireland, I met another friend of his, and we were talking about it, and he was obviously still very distressed about it and when I asked him why, he said ‘well it only happened last week’.”

Jordan pauses a moment to let this sink in.
“That’s odd, isn’t it ?” he asks simply. “So anyway, I rang my wife and said, ‘didn’t we talk about this, like two years ago ?’ and she said yes, we did. And yet he’d killed himself only the week before.”

Again, Jordan’s thoughts seem to wander and he just stares out to sea, watching the sunset, with the story twisting around his imagination, letting himself drift into another world.