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Neil Jordan is a difficult filmmaker to spot. Without a glance at the credits, it’s hard to see the hand of the same director responsible for the glam-tinged Troubles of Breakfast On Pluto and the macabre fantasia of The Butcher Boy (both taken from novels by Patrick McCabe), to say nothing of the rococo kitsch of Interview With The Vampire and the straightforward biography of Michael Collins. Ondine, which premièred at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, crosses the strands of Jordan’s various endeavors. The story of an Irish fisherman (Colin Farrell) who pulls a beautiful woman (Alicja Bachleda) from his nets, the movie mingles reality and myth in proportions that only become clear at the end. (Jordan discusses that end below, so you may want to see Ondine before reading the last part of this interview. We’ve noted when spoilers start and end.) The A.V. Club talked to Jordan in Toronto shortly after the film’s première—and again a few weeks before the film opened—about his attraction to fairy tales, his long-gestating miniseries on the Borgias, and why he welcomes the return of the old, illogical Ireland.
The A.V. Club: What was the first element of Ondine that fell into place for you?
Neil Jordan: The first thing was him pulling a woman out of the water in a net. That was an image. It seems cool and interesting, and you don’t know what it could be, or what it should be. I suppose it could become a horror movie from there; she could drain the blood of his children or stuff like that. I generally wanted to tell kind of a fairy tale, or a story where people compensated for the harshness of their lives in this town that time forgot, and the economy’s forgotten, with fantasy. I really wanted to tell a fairy tale set in a real landscape that was harsh and unforgiving, but beautiful at the same time.
AVC: For a while, it was difficult for you to make films in Ireland, because the economic boom made it too expensive. But Ireland’s economy has fallen on harder times, and that seems to be reflected in the landscape of this story.
NJ: A little bit. It’s a fishing village in the southwest of Ireland called Castletownbere. It went through a boom time in the ’60s and ’70s, I think, and now, like with a lot of these traditional industries, you see all these huge, docked fishing boats that seem to sit there all year round. It’s a very depressed economy down there, really. It’s quite a large town, not a small village, but it’s a place where there was once a way of life that was all based around fishing, which has narrowed so extraordinarily that there’s not a lot for people to do down there. It’s also off the tourist track. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland, but the tour buses don’t seem to go down there. It’s a very beautiful place, but quite a harsh place as well.
AVC: In your mind, if you can split things this way, it’s a little more of the old Ireland than the new Ireland?
NJ: No, it’s a combination of both. They jump right up against each other. It’s the old Ireland in terms of the movie, which is about the mythological kind of thing underneath the Irish landscape, but the new Ireland is factories that are about and have emptied. This place has these enormous factory fishing boats that are sitting idle and stuff like that, so it’s absolutely the new Ireland and the old Ireland jammed right up against each other. It’s bit of a mess, I would say. The only thing we don’t show in the movie is huge housing estates with nobody living in them yet.
AVC: Do you feel more at home in Ireland now that some of the economic craziness has died down?
NJ: Definitely, without a doubt. The whole country was taken over by greed and materialism. It was extraordinary. The price of every house had skyrocketed. If you were a small farmer and you had two fields outside, if you built 17 bungalows on them all, you become a millionaire, that kind of thing. It was extraordinary to see how rapidly that kind of ethic takes over a whole culture, but that’s what’s happened to us since the year 1998, about. It’s completely extraordinary how little regard the culture had for the landscape. The country is now full of these half-built industrial parks and hotels.
AVC: The landscape in Ondine is so beautiful.
NJ: Yeah, quite beautiful; how could you wreck that? But people willingly do, you know? Anyway, I don’t want to get too sentimental here.
AVC: Even though the movie is a fairy tale, the landscape is real and material; it has a wonderful mossy texture. When did the location come into it for you?
NJ: I have a house down there. It’s quite a beautiful house. It’s just on the edge of Bantry Bay, about two miles outside that town. It was a strange situation. Normally, if I wrote something like this, I just write it and then have to find the environment. “How will I find this place? How will I find that place? Will I have to go to the Isle Of Man or Scotland or something?” In this case, I wrote the story around these specific places I knew. That little bay where he parks his boat and goes out lobster-fishing, that’s a place I know very well. The island, the town, all those huge trawlers that are beached there that can’t go out to sea anymore because they’re not allowed because they’ve over-fished the ocean. I wrote it specifically around those environments, the local pub and the haberdashery and stuff like that. The town regatta is something that happens every year. It was almost like constructing this story around these elements I already knew existed.
AVC: How did you end up working with Christopher Doyle, who has shot movies for Wong Kar-wai and Gus Van Sant?
NJ: I wouldn’t have specifically thought of him for this story, that’s the truth, but he called me up. I was going to work with Philippe Rousselot, who I’ve done many movies with, but he [was working on] another movie, and I just made a little inquiry about Chris. I’ve always loved his work, but those sumptuous, highly constructed images that you see in Wong Kar-wai, I wouldn’t have thought they would be appropriate in this story. Chris called me up and said, “Why’d it take you so long, mate? Why didn’t you call me years ago?” So we met in Dublin: Okay, so he’s the guy who shot Hero. He’s the guy who shot the Wong Kar-wai movies. He shot Chungking Express, and the last one I’d seen was the Gus Van Sant film [Paranoid Park]. And I said “Stylistically, they’re so different,” and he said that’s what he does. He finds a language proper to each movie. That’s when I said “Okay, we’re in, let’s do this.” I didn’t want to use any digital effects whatsoever, and I wanted the camera to have this immediate relationship to the landscape and the characters. I wanted to express the dark, grungy, scuzzy reality of that hard-drinking town life, which is real, and the strange, epic feel of the landscape around it.
Well, Chris operates the camera himself. He’s got a huge sort of cushion to himself, and he holds the camera on top. There’s no Steadicam, so it’s something between Steadicam and handheld, and it gives him this immediate relationship, this immediate contact with the actors and the environment. One of the most critical things we did was, we decided to shoot all the night scenes day-for-night. You have to be very brave to do that as a lighting cameraman. You have to push the stocks, and you have to underexpose, and you have to do things to the negative that can’t be undone, basically. So if you get it wrong, there’s no way of revisiting it. That’s the kind of animal he is; he just goes for it. Actually, that day-for-night stuff is marvelous, because night lighting to me has always been a contradiction in terms. You have a huge series of lamps that spread moonlight around and throw shadows. There are no shadows at night, unless there are streetlamps around. We managed to get this sense of landscape in soft darkness.
AVC: Ondine fits into a consistent strain of fairy-tale storytelling in your work, going back to The Company Of Wolves and up to Breakfast On Pluto.
NJ: That’s the thing that seems to have crept into the scripts I’ve written, and I don’t know why. I sometimes feel that if you take a story as basic as a myth or a fairy tale, it has an indestructibility; it can cross cultures, it can crop up again through generations, or in different contexts. In this case, I’m saying, “What am I doing making The Little Mermaid?” Not really, but it is kind of a myth that’s common to every culture. I’m sure if you go down to the South American rainforest, you’ll find some kind of myth about people that come out of the water, women who deliver enchantment and heartbreak on the land, then return to the water. That’s as basic as the myth is. The Scottish version of it is the selkie.
AVC: Mermaid myths are often said to have come about as a way of explaining seals.
NJ: Yeah. The truth is that seals look more like dogs. And I’m surrounded by seals because I live by the sea. They’re odd bloody creatures. Not fish, they don’t have gills, they should have legs, but they don’t. They’re the weirdest things, you know?
AVC: These stories are often people’s way of understanding the world, which this movie is very much about.
NJ: The great thing about fairy tales and myths is that they go beyond character. They’re not about character. They’re about more basic things. They’re about basic fears or longings or desires or fantasies, and stuff like that.
AVC: You have in Ondine a sort of tension or interplay between reality and myth. There are specific details to Colin Farrell’s character—he’s a recovering addict, he’s divorced and has this daughter—and then you have his story with Ondine, which is something that, at least for a while, takes on this much more mythic understanding.
NJ: I suppose basically, it’s a huge series of coincidences. Could it be interpreted as a fantasy or a fairy tale? It is a fact of Irish life—for some strange reason, most men find it extremely difficult to get the law to swing around in their favor. I don’t know why it is. It’s perfect, because in the original constitution, it was an extremely Catholic country. Right after the war of independence, the first constitution was written by a guy called Éamon de Valera, who was actually portrayed by Alan Rickman in Michael Collins, and he wrote a specific reverence for the mother into the Irish constitution. So the kind of legalistic tangles that exist in other cultures, about divorce and family law and all that sort of stuff, in Ireland, they’re complicated with this constitutional recognition of the reverence of the position of the mother. I really wanted to show this guy who’s really doing his best, who’s trying to make a living out of the sea, but also trying to keep his life together and keep his daughter’s life together, but he has no access to that child. That happens a lot in Ireland, actually.
AVC: It’s potent stuff, whether you choose to see it as myth or not.
NJ: If you’re brought up Catholic, you’re convinced of magic at a very early age. You’re convinced the world isn’t entirely real, which is a kind of conviction that never leaves you, for some strange reason.
AVC: There’s a strain of Irish writing in which the line between the real and fantastic is constantly blurred.
NJ: Absolutely. It was never an entirely rational culture, but that Ireland is going, it’s vanishing. Ireland is becoming like everywhere else, but that’s the one I grew up in: the one that’s hugely illogical. Rather wonderful, in a way. I never found this oppression of religion and that, but I did enjoy growing up in a culture that didn’t need to be rational all of the time.
AVC: That is generally harder to preserve now—
NJ: We live in a homogenized world.
AVC: And a demythologized one as well.
NJ: Definitely, it’s amazing. Actually, I just got back from New York, and I realized in New York, it’s very difficult to hear a New York accent. It’s almost impossible, actually—everybody seems to speak like they’re from the Valley or something. When I grew up, you could tell what street in Dublin someone’s from by the way they talked.
AVC: Is that still the case now?
NJ: Not entirely, actually, no. It’s amazing, it kind of went with the Celtic Tiger thing, but the minute the recession hits, all this stuff seems to come back. It’s very weird, you know? With Ondine, Colin was doing the specific accent for the Béara peninsula, which is kind of West Cork. Very beautiful, but very specific, perhaps hard to understand for other people, but he did want to be that specific with it.
AVC: How did you end up working with Colin Farrell?
NJ: I’ve never worked with Colin before, but I’ve wanted to work with him for a long time. He’s a fucking good actor. Excuse my language—he’s a bloody good actor. It’s a bit like Brad Pitt—sometimes their ascent into stardom obscures the fact that actually they’re very good actors, and he always has been a very good actor. Hollywood always chooses young and beautiful men and throws them into enormous, highly expensive toy-like movies, and I think sometimes it’s hard for the maturity of the craft to emerge in that kind of glare. But Colin has always been a great actor, and I think just now, he’s beginning to choose parts that allow him to explore.
[Spoilers follow. —ed.]
AVC: The connotations of the story you think you’ve been watching shift dramatically toward the end. At what point did you have that idea?
NJ: Always. You mean when he finds out that she’s a drug dealer? That’s a fact of life around those beaches. Farmers would be wandering around pulling seaweed off the beach, and they’d find a brick of heroin. It’s become a huge area for people in small, high-powered boats trying to land shipments of drugs, and if they’re hit by the coast guard, they just dump it in the water and try to find it later. That’s a sociological fact down there. For me, it was like, “So he believes in the enchanting possibilities of this event, and they turn out not to be as he thought they were, but then she says to him, ‘Something magical did happen.’” He did save her life, and he gave her a new life, in a way. So then at the end, he’s faced with a choice: Does he accept the drug-mule story or the selkie story? I think he prefers the other one, and that’s the one he wants to make part of his life.
AVC: It’s a fairy tale that winds up not being a fairy tale.
NJ: Totally, it absolutely is. It’s one of the reasons some people have difficulty with the film, and it was slightly difficult to get the finances when I started. Basically, I wanted to see if you could mash a fairy tale up against the real world; could you just jam it right in there and let the two of them sit together and see what happens? It’s a constant thing down there in the west of Ireland, packets of cocaine being washed up on beaches and pulled up on fishing boats and stuff like that. It is a real thing, the place she’s placed into at the end, that kind of holding house for immigrants. I shot it in a real place, with immigrants from Nigeria, from Romania, from all over in Eastern Europe, everybody waiting to be processed. I suppose this movie is a fairy tale siphoned through contemporary Ireland.
That’s my worry with the movie: So you construct this fairy tale, and then it turns out not to be a fairy tale. Will the audience get annoyed at the film, or feel cheated with the movie? In a strange way, I don’t think they will, because they want some resolution in the real world, and any kind of happy ending is only possible in the real world. It’s not possible in the fairy-tale world. In the fairy-tale landscape, she’d just go back to sea, wouldn’t she?
AVC: Usually when people say fairy-tale ending, they mean the opposite of that.
NJ: I know, but these stories always end with the person who comes out of the sea going back there, and leaving the person on land bereft.
AVC: The fairy tales you’re talking about are fantasies, but they’re also cautionary tales about keeping to your own, in a certain sense. The selkies have to stay with selkies. It’s interesting that you mention the immigrants at the end because they are people that have come chasing dreams of their own as well.
NJ: Perhaps. I don’t know, really. [Laughs.] Perhaps they are. I don’t know why anybody would come to Ireland chasing a dream or even employment—that’s an extraordinary thing for a place where traditionally one was unemployed. For 10 years, people were coming from all over the world looking for employment here, kind of an extraordinary phenomenon. That’s stopped now.
AVC: Colin Farrell’s performance in the movie is one of his best, but in some ways, it seems as if Alicja Bachleda has the tougher job.
NJ: She’s got nothing to play with. She’s got to play the image that other people make of her, which is a very tough job, actually. You’ve got to play what people think you are, rather than what you are. You have to have a sense of what you are as you’re playing what people think you are. I suppose the question is whether the emotional investment is in the two characters and their need for each other, or is it in the fantasy he’s constructed?
AVC: You’ve been trying to make a movie about the Borgias for many years, and now you’re doing it as a miniseries for Showtime. How did that happen?
NJ: Well the great new form is cable, isn’t it? I believe Kathryn Bigelow is doing a HBO thing. It’s extraordinary that somebody who’s won an Oscar for such a wonderful film goes into that medium, and not straight into another independent or Hollywood film. I think it says something about what’s happening to the culture with this crisis in filmmaking. Basically, I had written a script about 10 years ago, commissioned from me by DreamWorks, about the Borgia family. They read it again. I think Steven Spielberg read it again, and said, “Why don’t we make this into one of these cable series?” It was proposed to me, and I said “What a great idea.” When you choose a two-and-a-half or three-hour movie as context for a historical subject, you have to do so much disservice to the span of events. When I began to write this stuff out in a series of one-hour programs, it became absolutely compulsive. So that’s what I’m doing at the moment. They’ve commissioned 10 of them, and we’re about to shoot them over the summer.
AVC: Are you writing all 10 scripts?
NJ: I am, yeah.
AVC: And as far as directing?
NJ: I’ll direct two of them. I wouldn’t be able to direct them all. I don’t think anybody physically would. One has to scale down the visual scope of it, but what one gains is the expanse of character. I’m having a ball at the moment, but I’ll tell you when it’s finished. [Laughs.] It seems like I’ve discovered this new tool. It’s great, this new medium. We’re building big sets in Hungary; we’re building big chunks of Rome. But that will not be the primary emphasis. The primary emphasis will be the evil pope. [Laughs.] The most evil of all evil popes.