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Ireland-born writer-director Neil Jordan became famous in 1992 with the release of his Oscar-nominated noir romance The Crying Game, but cult-cinema fans had already known him for a decade, thanks in large part to his creepy fairy tale The Company Of Wolves, a 1984 horror film that took an adult take on the Little Red Riding Hood story. Originally an author, with three novels and a short-story collection to his credit, Jordan began his movie career by writing and directing Danny Boy (a.k.a. Angel) in 1982. His work over the next decade often returned to Ireland, but also roamed across genres from horror to noir (most famously with Mona Lisa) to crime to comedy. After The Crying Game put him on the map, Jordan was tapped to direct the big-budget Anne Rice adaptation Interview With The Vampire, and from there he went on to more personal projects, like the slice of Irish history Michael Collins and the book adaptations The Butcher Boy and The End Of The Affair. Jordan's latest film, The Good Thief, is a partial remake of the French heist movie Bob Le Flambeur, but it takes a twistier and grimmer look at the nature of addiction and recovery than Jean-Pierre Melville's 1955 classic. While on tour promoting The Good Thief, Jordan spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about what his cinematic adaptations brought to the books that inspired him, why he doesn't shy from genre films, and why he needs to write a new novel.
The Onion: In an interview with The Guardian around the time of The End Of The Affair, you talked about the challenges of tackling a literary work, but said, "I've got a theory that if something is finished as a piece of perfect work, there is no point in trying to do anything with it. In this case, I felt there was something to be done." Would you say that's true of all your adaptations?
Neil Jordan: Yeah, I would, actually. I would.
O: How does that apply to The Good Thief? What did you feel was left to be done with the original film?
NJ: With Bob Le Flambeur? Well, it was a challenge, really. Because the original was very small, you know? I had to wrestle it for a while. I was asked to do it, and then I thought, "If I use the plot from the original as a decoy..." The original plot, the plan to rob a casino during the night of the Grand Prix, was the decoy, but the real robbery is something else. I thought that might be interesting as a scenario for a movie. Because the original movie was about betrayal, of course. In all of these heist movies, someone blows it. Someone blabs or something. So I said, "Okay, he's built the possibility of betrayal into his scheme." And I thought, "Well, then this becomes an interesting plot." That was how I approached it.
O: Was there anything you felt was missing from the first film, or did you just see the possibility for things you could add on?
NJ: I thought of it more as, I'd do a series of variations on the original movie. That was the only way I could approach it. I didn't want to reproduce the original, because it was quite perfect. It was very intact, you know what I mean? Very delicate and tiny. So I did variations on its very simple theme.
O: Your central characters are played by Nick Nolte, who's obviously been in films a long time, and Nutsa Kukhiani, who's a virtual novice. You made a similar pairing in The Crying Game with Stephen Rea and Jaye Davidson. Do you have a preference between first-time actors and old pros?
NJ: The great thing is to work with an experienced actor and a total novice, because they bring out different strengths in each other. Actors learn a series of tricks to deal with emotion, but with someone who's never acted before, all they have is the emotion. So they stimulate each other in all sorts of interesting ways.
O: Are you particularly proud of having boosted the career of any particular novice?
NJ: Kirsten Dunst. She's a big star now, isn't she? [Laughs.]
O: You said you were asked to do The Good Thief. How did the project get started?
NJ: A producer I've worked with a few times, Stephen Woolley, asked me. He had a particular affection for the original movie, and he asked me about doing a remake of it. Warner Brothers had the rights to it, and they were interested in doing it, too. That's how it evolved.
O: Do you start a lot of your projects that way, with someone specifically requesting you as a director?
NJ: Very rarely. You know, generally I engender them myself. In this case, I basically said, "Look, I'm not sure if I can do this, but I'll write a script." And I got happier with it as I went along.
O: What do you look for in a story when you're starting a project?
NJ: I look for something that has a kind of indestructible shape. I look for something that will be interesting if you turn it this way and that way and the other way. I don't know what that means exactly. I suppose I look for something that runs as deep as a fairy tale. I like fairy tales, tales of shock and horror, forbidden delights. And in heist movies, you've got an impossible task. You've got a bunch of people who have to prepare themselves, physically and mentally, to achieve that impossible task. And if they fail, they discover something else through their failure. There's a lovely series of metaphors in there. The Good Thief is more a gambling movie than a heist movie, though.
O: When you look at the finished product, do you find any significant difference between projects you originate and projects you're called in on?
NJ: Well, it's a very dangerous process. Because whether you're asked to do it, or whether you're given it, or whether you do it yourself, or whether it's something you've engendered, you end up putting the same amount of energy into it. When asked to do something, I know I should tell myself, "I've got to think long and hard about this before I say yes." Something like The Butcher Boy... Even though it was a book first, I bought the rights to the book myself, and wrote the script with the author. Or something like The Crying Game, where I wrote the script myself... I know where they're coming from. Something like Interview With The Vampire, it's coming from a book that everybody in the world seems to know. And it's more complicated.
O: What percentage of projects that you're offered do you turn down?
NJ: Almost all of them. I used to be offered a lot of stuff, and then I kind of got the reputation as someone who doesn't do stuff he didn't start himself.
O: Even when you're working from another person's material, you usually write or co-write the script. Do you generally work with the author or original screenwriter, or do you take over the project yourself at the point where you begin script work?
NJ: No, I've worked with other screenwriters. On The Company Of Wolves, with Angela Carter, that was her book of short stories, and we sat down every day and discussed how the scenes should go, and that night she'd go and write them out. We'd meet the next day and discuss them again, and she'd go home and do a bit of writing, and I'd go home and do a bit of writing, and we'd go back and forth. That's a lovely process. I love doing that.
O: That theory that an adaptation has to come from a sense that something in the original work is unfinished... How did that come into play with your other adaptations? The Butcher Boy, for instance.
NJ: The Butcher Boy is a pretty complete book, so maybe what I said was bullshit. I mean, it could have been. But The Butcher Boy was a very special case, really. Because Pat McCabe wrote the first version of that script, and it didn't have any voiceover. I said, "Pat, you have to have a voice in this," and he said, "But I thought voiceover was rubbish." I said, "No, no, the voice of the boy has to be running through your head here. It has to be like it's mad, like it's gone insane. It has to be a total character in itself." I wrote a draft of the script, and I was doing something where the voice is saying one thing, but you're seeing something else on the screen. So you've got a tension between the internal life and the actual life. That's something a book cannot deliver, in a way. It cannot give you that kind of tension. Because in the book, you've only got the voice. You've only got the subjective viewpoint of this kid. Whereas when I make it as a movie, I can show the realistic development of the actual events. And then, through the voice, I can show how the kid sees them. So you can see an ordinary small-town situation that is not in itself grotesque, but you can see how it becomes grotesque to the kid.
O: What about Interview With The Vampire?
NJ: Interview With The Vampire is a perfect case in point, because it's not a work of literature. It's a great book, I think, but it belongs to gothic fiction, so it's not Saul Bellow, it's not Dostoyevsky, it's not even Edith Wharton. It belongs in that twilight zone between compulsive reading and genre fiction. But I loved that book. There was something so effective... The atmosphere of it, I could actually touch, you know? I kind of felt free with that, in a way. Because it belonged to genre fiction, it was happily turned into a film.
O: You're a lot less afraid of genre than most serious directors.
NJ: Critics don't like genre pictures. But when I do a Hollywood movie, critics hit me, too.
O: How much attention do you pay to critics?
NJ: Lots. I don't want to lie. People who say they don't read them are liars, though when you make a movie, there's too many of them. You can't read them all at once. But they're very important, let's face it. It's interesting when critics change their minds, though, which they sometimes do. It's interesting when a film achieves an enduring status in spite of being ignored at the time of its release.
O: Why do genre films appeal to you?
NJ: Well, I like imaginary worlds. I mean, I haven't made any action pictures, let's face it. I've made two kind of gothic fantasies–The Company Of Wolves and Interview With The Vampire–and I've made two criminal-underworld pictures, Mona Lisa and The Good Thief. But I haven't done the most popular genre of them all, the action pictures.
O: One interesting thing about The Good Thief was the mixed nationalities, and the way ethnic groups and foreign nationals mingle but remain distinctive. Were you going for any particular effect in the way you treated national origins in the film?
NJ: I was just trying to reflect the reality of that Mediterranean melting pot. It's the reality of life in a lot of Mediterranean Europe. Everybody in the world seems to want to get there. If they can't get to America, they want to get there. What you get in America is that people come from all different cultures and races, but they become Americans, because they know what America is. Whereas in Europe, nobody knows what being a European is, so they still define themselves as their own culture, you know? "I'm Turkish." "I'm North African." "I'm Albanian." "I'm Russian." It's a different effect. You get this jangly, nervy co-existence.
O: Do you think that image of what America is, or what Americans are, is a true one, or is it misleading?
NJ: America is a constructed idea, isn't it, really? Very effective. It's a notion, a series of intellectual concepts that you've got written into your Constitution. Whereas nobody knows what "Europe" means.
O: Are there aspects of filmmaking that you're not interested in being a part of, areas where you leave it entirely to other people, or wish you could?
NJ: I'm not interested in raising the money for movies at all. I wish I could stay clear of it, but I can't.
O: You've said that Michael Collins was on hold for years because you couldn't get financial backers. How much of your career has been shaped specifically by what money is available for and when?
NJ: It's happened that I've written things and haven't been able to get money for them, and then a couple of years go by, and lo and behold, the money becomes available. That's the way it seems to go with me. I was about to do a film a year ago about the Borgia papacy, Lucretia Borgia. Big $70 million film, but the money fell through and I had to put it on hold.
O: Do you have other projects floating around right now, waiting on financing?
NJ: Yeah, I have. One is the Borgia project, like The Godfather in Renaissance Italy. There's another. I was sent a script by Edward Bond, the British playwright, about the very end of The Odyssey. It's very good. I might do that. And I'm finishing a new novel.
O: When's it due out?
NJ: Nobody but my daughter has read it yet. I've just done a draft.
O: Your other novels are hard to find these days.
NJ: That's one of the reasons why I really had to finish this book. Because if you don't publish with regularity, they tend to let your back catalog fall into abeyance. I haven't published a book in 10 years, and when I look around bookshops, I realize, "All my books are out of print. It's terrifying. What am I doing with my life?" So I'm due to send this novel to a publisher, and I'm going to tell them, "If you want to publish this, you have to bring my other books back into print."
O: Why would you feel you weren't doing something constructive with your life when your latest film just came out? Do you feel a need to maintain yourself in multiple media at once?
NJ: No, I know. It's just that I started as a novelist, and it's been a big part of my existence in this world. It's odd to see people coming to me and saying, "Oh, I didn't know you wrote books." I have to say, "Oh. Well, I used to."
O: What can you say about the new novel?
NJ: It's Irish gothic, a genre novel. It's an Irish ghost story. I could call it that, couldn't I? An Irish Ghost Story.
O: When you write novels, do you have any desire to make them into films? Is there some reason to separate your film stories from your book stories?
NJ: No, I just experience profound and tremendous freedom writing them. It's kind of wonderful. It's the hardest work in the world, but the freedom you experience is extraordinary. Because you're writing for an ideal reader, and you don't care if they exist or not. Whereas when you make a film, you're always aware of the vast hordes of people out there who are never going to see the thing. Making a film is like choosing a set of restraints, and then trying to express yourself within those restraints. It's like choosing the straitjacket you're going to be bound up in for two months. And trying to express yourself through it.
O: What kind of restraints are you talking about?
NJ: Oh, generally financial. The budget. The schedule. Can you possibly achieve what you want to achieve with the time and money that have been allotted to you? The light... "What do you mean I have to shoot it in July? I always envisioned it as late January." "Well, we have to shoot it in July, because that's the only available time." You know? Those kind of restraints.
O: You talked about paying attention to critical response. The critical response to Michael Collins was fairly mixed, particularly over the way it treated history...
NJ: In the States? Yeah, why was that? I'll tell you why it was. It was because there was a campaign run against the movie in Britain. I find it really annoying, actually, I have to say. There are two schools of history about that period. One wants to examine it in a classic, Marxist, revolutionary way, as an act of revolution against an imperialist power. There's another school that's kind of a revisionist view that contradicts that theory. My film stepped into the middle between those arguments, so it gave rise to an enormous amount of historical bitterness in England and Ireland. When I came to release the movie in America, the critics didn't know the specifics of the actual historical events I was portraying. But they said, "Oh, it's inaccurate." "Well, how is it inaccurate?" "Well, I've been told it's inaccurate." They couldn't be more specific, and that was annoying. But anyway. Every historical movie is inaccurate. Probably their job is to be specifically inaccurate in some way. You can't reduce history to a two-hour experience. You couldn't even reduce it to a 20-hour experience in a miniseries. The job of storytelling is to cut to the point, isn't it?
O: Do you think of Michael Collins as a negative experience overall?
NJ: No, it was a great experience. It was a very pivotal kind of movie, in Ireland specifically. In Ireland and Britain, it gave rise to a very necessary historical debate about the position of violence in the growth of the Irish state.
O: When you first started making films, you said it was impossible, just unthinkable, to get a film made in Ireland. Obviously, that isn't true anymore. How do you feel about how Irish cinema has developed over the course of your career?
NJ: It's developed in fits and starts, you know what I mean? It doesn't have a large enough population base or economy to really sustain the kind of movies... You're seeing a wave of films coming out of Mexico at the moment, aren't you? Wildly different kinds of movies, too. But Ireland is such a small country that its successes can only happen internationally, in a way. It can't just have its own indigenous cinema. It's been a bit hampered for that. But they are making films, and some of them are great. I just produced two Irish movies, one by Conor McPherson called The Actors, and another by a first-time director, John Crowley, called Intermission, with Colin Farrell. The great strength of Irish culture is in kind of anarchic acts of the imagination, anarchic storytelling. I'm not sure that kind of anarchic imagination has expressed itself in cinema yet.
O: Throughout your work, there's a running theme regarding the development of and subversion of sexuality. Where does that theme come from? Why does it particularly interest you?
NJ: It probably comes from being an altar boy. [Laughs.] I don't know where it comes from. It must come from somewhere deep within me. I think sexuality is a bit of an illusion. I think in part, that's what I'm getting at, that it's kind of an illusory construct.
O: Maybe that explains why sexuality is so malleable in your films.
NJ: Probably, yeah. But it's a very powerful illusion, isn't it?