is one of our most daring, but most intensely private, film directors.
How much is Neil Jordan prepared to reveal about himself? By
Dalkey, near Dublin, could pass for an Irish Malibu. Both are
enclaves for the most successful people in the entertainment industry;
both, in their own way, elite patches of pristine natural beauty.
But Dalkey isn't sunny, it's overcast and grey; the coastline
betrays a melancholy texture and the locals respect the privacy
of their superstar neighbours, such as the Corrs and Bono of U2.
On this wet and windswept October afternoon, outside the home
of Ireland's most esteemed film maker, a local points out what
really matters to the Irish: "He's a novelist too, you know."
Neil Jordan is wandering around his home,
which is two Georgian houses combined, in rumpled, baggy, green
army fatigues and trainers, deep in thought and humming a private
tune. It is a casual, warm environment; muddied shoes in various
sizes are cast off under tables, and off the hall are Jordan's
offices, where he writes every day. Jordan lives here with his
second wife, Brenda, and their two sons, Daniel, 13, and Dashiel,
11. He has five children - two older daughters from his first
marriage and a 16-year-old son, Ben, from another relationship
- and all of them frequently visit or have moved back into the
house in Dalkey.
Seconds later, Jordan appears in the sitting
room, bashfully asks if I would like a cup of tea, and disappears
again. Gargantuan windows look out over the bay and it's easy
to understand why he prefers this view. Hollywood and its tentacles
seems a universe away.
Neil Jordan, it is said, is not big on small
talk and doesn't make direct eye contact. The impression was of
a brooding and serious man, thoughtful and literary with no patience
for frivolity. It takes a few minutes for him to settle in, but
after some last-minute puttering, he closes the door on the bustling
family, the ringing phones and lingering chores. His manner is
slouchy and boyish, not intimidating at all, and it conveys depth.
He looks like the man in the room you most want to talk to but
would have a hard time approaching. He lights up a cigarette,
looks right at me. So much for the rumour of avoiding eye contact.
Jordan is primarily known as a film maker
who is unafraid to take on controversial subjects. His films often
have characters that are driven by things that even they don't
understand. He's perhaps best known for The Crying Game, for which
he won the Oscar for best screenplay. The perception of him in
Hollywood is that he's attracted to dark material - but Hollywood
loves the word "dark" and will attach it to anything
troublesome. Anything, he says, that's interesting is considered
dark. Now, having made 14 feature films, including Mona Lisa,
Interview with the Vampire, Michael Collins, The End of the Affair
and The Good Thief, does he feel there is one that best represents
who he is?
"This one," he says, referring
to his latest film, Breakfast on Pluto. From most people, this
would seem like a shrewd answer - plugging the project, it makes
sense. But Jordan doesn't seem to care or be conscious of this.
And as he explains the reason for this choice, it makes sense.
He's never done anything "optimistic" before.
The emotional tenor of the film is new,
even though it still has many of Jordan's signature imprints.
There's the actor Stephen Rea, who has appeared in nine of his
films. And there's also a political theme - even though it's not
central to the story; it takes place in 1970s London, during a
tumultuous period of conflict with the IRA. The lead character
is a transvestite who, in spite of being dealt continually harsh
circumstances, manages to maintain a positive outlook. There is
a comic lightness to the tragedy and, even though there are similarities
between this film and The Crying Game (both feature transvestites
and terrorism), Breakfast on Pluto, Jordan's second adaptation
from a Patrick McCabe novel (the first was The Butcher Boy), is
more of a fairy tale.
In 1976, Jordan won the Guardian Fiction
Prize for his first published book, a collection of stories called
Night in Tunisia. Since then he has published four novels. Shade,
which came out last year, was the first one in over a decade.
Every day he writes, and now he has promised his publishers something
new - but what?
"I've been distracted with movies,"
he says, brushing a tuft of hair out of his eyes. "Writing
a film is very quick for me. It's a different thing because when
you write a script you know that it's not finished. And you know
that people will see it. People go to the cinema and they won't
move until they come out. Whereas with a book, people read it,
close it, put it down, come back to it six months later - or they
He rarely goes stretches when he's not writing
something, but the transition between novelist and movie maker
doesn't strike him as that jarring. As he sees it, fiction-writing
is torture, film-making is a pleasure. Although both are authoritative,
writing a novel is insular and isolated with long solitary stretches
of time, lingering over words and decisions; descending inward.
Directing a movie, on the other hand, requires an extroverted
persona, someone able to lead and command and make a multitude
of decisions with only seconds' notice. So how does he manage
to reconcile the two?
"It's totally schizophrenic,"
he says. "When I was writing Shade, I had to stop everything.
Didn't even take phone calls or travel in a plane to have a meeting.
That went on for about a year. Towards the end I missed it terribly."
The fact that it was only one year reflects
his level of energy. Many novelists will seal off from the world
for years at a time. Novelists observe the world through novelist
goggles, and Jordan seems able to wear these goggles while making
movies. Asked what he feels defines him more, his response is
immediate: film maker.
"I suppose it's because I've made 14
movies and written only five books," he says.
So the identification he feels is based
on quantity? "Yeah, I guess so. I mean, you are what you
spend your hours doing, aren't you?" That's a pragmatic way
of looking at it and when I disagree, he reconsiders. "Okay,
well in that case I'm a Buddhist monk."
He seems hard to pin down. It's not that
he's being cagey or withholding, but there's little about himself
he's willing to reveal. He's direct - he considers himself a novelist
who makes films because he is from a country with a huge literary
tradition. Or, as he puts it, "It's the water that people
swim in here," making fiction-writing sound like a biological
imperative born out of location. Yes, his work clearly comes out
of the Irish storytelling tradition but still, there is an element
missing. Where is his story in his stories?
Born February 25, 1950, in Sligo, Ireland,
Neil Jordan grew up the second oldest of five children. His mother
is a painter, his father was a schoolteacher, and he was brought
up speaking Gaelic until the age of six. It was a repressive upbringing
and writing was an escape. He never questioned his talent to do
it; it was something he felt he could do and he felt he had no
other options. "The only other option would have been to
be a schoolteacher like my father, which I thought was dreadful,"
He got his university degree in history
and English and, because he was qualified, tried teaching but
he definitively states how much he despised it. "I couldn't
control a class. I just hated everything to do with it, really."
He quit and started writing full time. "When
I began to write there was a tremendous amount of struggle. I
had tremendous battles with my father. The idea of me doing fiction
frightened him. Writing about sexual matters, myself, the world
I grew up in."
His life at home was not turbulent but Ireland
at that time operated under religious, social and political bigotry.
There was a lot of fear. "Books were censored then. Henry
Miller was banned."
At 20, Jordan moved to London, where he
found work as a builder and wrote; he was tearing down walls,
literally and figuratively. "The first novel I ever wrote
was not published. I was working in London and when the publisher
sent it back, it was sent to my home in Ireland. My father read
it - which he had no permission to do. And he wrote me a 20-page
letter telling me how disgusting it was and I was furious."
His father died in1986 when Jordan was in
Los Angeles screening The Company of Wolves. "I remember
getting the call," he says. "I was meeting Princess
Anne - she was at a screening of the movie. I don't know why.
She was very attractive, actually. Isn't that bizarre? In that
horsey, British kind of way . . . " He pauses. "So I
had to go back."
When Jordan speaks of this, he is soft-spoken,
matter-of-fact, with no bid for sentimentality. Which raises the
question, were he and his father close? There is a long pause
and he appears taken aback. Not upset with the question, just
surprised. When he answers, it is at a higher volume - and with
a protective authority.
"We had a relationship that was full
of tremendous argument. It was a small house and I used to sit
down there scribbling, and sometimes he'd come in and read it
and I suppose he was supportive of the idea, but it never felt
like it because there was such argument in the house.
"My father was a very intelligent man
who grew up in a society which had very few options. He was very
widely read. He read an enormous amount. He had a very inquiring
mind, but the Catholic Church ran the educational system so someone
as bright as that would only let themselves inquire so far.
"There was probably a lot of frustration
in his life. Maybe that was the source of the arguments between
us. Because I didn't feel the same inhibitions about expressing
myself. He borrowed money off me at one stage - he wanted to buy
a caravan. So he was big enough to ask me for it. And I very happily
gave it to him."
When Jordan was 26 years of age, Night in
Tunisia was published. The book received acclaim and launched
his literary career. It was at this point that he says he felt
like a real writer because he could make a living at it. There
is a story in Night in Tunisia about a father who is a saxophone
player in a dance band and a son who is a pianist, and the entire
argument between father and son is conducted through music. It
is an extension of his own relationship, and music, throughout
Jordan's life, has been a constant.
"I had a relationship with my father
that was deeply embedded with music. But not that kind. He was
tremendously interested in classical music, and we used to go
to symphony concerts together when I was young and he gave me
a very good musical education. But I do remember - very, very
well - the moment when I didn't want to go any more. I was about
14. And he would leave the tickets, they would be left on the
mantelpiece, and one day I just didn't take one."
Jordan was always an obsessive film-goer,
and he applied to the National Film and Television School but
the fees were too high. Film-making seemed like a dream to him,
this fantasy thing that was so far off. So he began to write scripts
and one of them, Traveller, was made into an independent film.
"I found a tremendous freedom in writing something that was
not literature. I really found that I got excited."
He was hired as a script consultant on John
Boorman's film Excalibur, released in 1981. He had written the
script for Angel, which was sent to Channel 4. Ken Loach and Mike
Leigh wanted to make it, but Jordan said he wanted to direct it
himself. He was able to trust his instinct, to let go of the novelist
and become a director, because both force you to articulate, and
film was the ultimate escape.
The Miracle, which starred his then girlfriend
Beverly D'Angelo, is the only film he's made based on his own
work, an early short story. But even though that was a deeply
personal film, he won't allow the connection to be considered
autobiographical. "There's nothing personal whatsoever in
it," he says. Finding where Neil Jordan is in a Neil Jordan
film is a challenge. He doesn't set out to tell his own personal
story but uses elements that allow him to connect to the material
in an emotionally attached way.
Michael Collins was his most controversial
film, particularly in the UK, amid accusations at the height of
the IRA atrocities that it rewrote the history of Ireland's fight
for independence and legitimised terrorism. Back then, Jordan's
need to be combative and in-your-face was at its peak. The Crying
Game had made the audience decidedly uncomfortable, but making
Michael Collins became an exercise in constant defensive manoeuvring.
And it wore him down. "Every day there were articles in the
newspaper and the police came to the house. There were threats.
It was about political violence - it was right in the middle of
a public argument.
"For example, there was a scene with
a car bombing that was taken as a direct reference to car bombings
in the north of Ireland, so I had to write to the Disabled Police
Officers Association saying I didn't mean any offence - it's really
hard work constantly trying to explain yourself."
He doesn't get depressed very often, but
admits he did while making The Butcher Boy. "The more I said,
'This is not for you,' the more they said that they, the studios,
wanted to do it. They thought it was wild and wacky, but they
funded the movie. I brought it to them when it was done and showed
it them at the Warner Brothers lot, and I remember walking out
and they were just sitting there: 'What the f*** is this thing?'
They didn't even preview it. It's a very lonely feeling having
made a movie and have people wonder why they made it."
And what about personally? Jordan's first
marriage - which produced two daughters, Sarah, 30, and Anna,
27 - ended after little more than 10 years. Surely that must have
triggered some emotional resonance? "Yeah, that was depressing,"
he replies. "I got depressed when I had to go into the court
and sit in front of the judge and I was on my own. Yeah. It was
He was married young, at 24. He fell in
love with someone and wanted to live with them and at the time,
you had to be married.
"I didn't particularly want to get
married. But the parents would have been outraged and the thought
of grandparents having heart attacks . . . "
They lived apart for many years and he moved
into a house nearby so they shared the upbringing of their daughters
- but there was no divorce in those days, and he had to wait until
many years later. Just then, it seems as if a connection has been
made - prompted by what, it's hard to tell. He has been processing
a thought, and returns to an unanswered question. "The films
I make are about desire," he says, turning his gaze to outside
the window and staring out at the sea. "People desiring absolutes
where they're not finding them, in a way."
In particular, Mona Lisa seems to address
the part of his life he has just been discussing. "When I
go into a studio and watch a film I made 20 years ago, it's so
expressive of the person I was at that age, and I can't explain
it. But everything about it is - it's about loss. I was recently
separated - with two kids - and I put it into the movie when you
don't even know you're doing it. The subtext of the movie was
all about me."
That film, which earned Bob Hoskins an Oscar
nomination, is a crime story set in London, but Jordan makes the
association - vaguely - with a confused male, the Hoskins character,
who drives a prostitute to her rendezvous and finds himself falling
for her. But how? He reaches for and lights up another cigarette.
The Hoskins character "placed emotions in totally inappropriate
places and misunderstood women. That was me at the time".
It's beginning to emerge that Jordan denies
that his movies are autobiographical because he thinks it's egoism.
Instead, he chooses to refer to them as "highly personal".
Writers, though, are always working things out on the page from
their life, so there must be a progression - a personal progression
- that he's noticed, especially since his latest film is more
serene. There's acceptance and goodness in it.
"I'd like to make movies about happiness
but it's a very boring subject. Not a lot of dramatic tension
there. In a non-ironic way, I mean."
A few hours have passed and life on the
other side of the door is beckoning. He looks impatient. "Yeah,"
he says agreeing with this assessment. "You're asking about
myself and I don't spend an enormous amount of time with self-reflection."
He leans over and stubs out the butt. "I'd like to give up
cigarettes," he smiles.
Just when I think that's about as much self-reflection
as Jordan is willing to offer, he continues. "Maybe I don't
like it. Who I am. I have conversations about what I should be
doing with my life. But I think of my life as my life is what
I do. So I have conversations about how I can do what I do better.
"I have anxiety - that I'm not good
enough. Or that I try to adhere to an image of what a film director
or a writer does rather than what I myself should do. Maybe I
just think I'm not good. Sometimes. It's natural, yeah? You have
to have doubt. And reality can be a let-down. Sometimes. Part
of me wants to do the Borgia film because I'd like to learn Italian.
If I don't make the film, I'll never learn Italian."
He's referring to his next project, a film
that he's written about the Borgia family. It was put on hold
because he couldn't get the funding, but now it's back on track.
The story, of course, is what interested him.
"Lucretia Borgia's father became Pope
- he bought his way into the papacy. And it's narrated by Machiavelli.
It's a great story. Drama, misuse of religion, political power.
If I'd made it four years ago and it came out now, they'd all
be saying it's about the Bush administration. But it's about somebody
who uses religion and morality as a cloak for all sorts of things."
There are reasons why no Hollywood studio
wanted to make this movie. One reason is that a lot of people
don't want to offend the Catholic Church - but Jordan has never
shied away from controversy and he's from a Catholic background,
so he doesn't mind offending it.
Other than the film about the Borgias, he
says that he would love to make a film about contemporary warfare
- the way it is now. With our time coming to an end, the common
thread in his films is still oblique.
"A lot of them star Stephen Rea?"
he offers, laughing. Then, squirming a little, he becomes thoughtful.
"I could say that a lot are about realistic beginnings and
unrealistic illusions." And the same could be said about