'Girls like vampire films. They find them romantic'

Neil Jordan is back in cinemas with a bloody new horror. It almost didn't get made at all, the director tells Kaleem Aftab

Neil Jordan struggles to keep a grip on the film business these days. "It's very hard work," says the Irish Oscar winner. "I started out as a short-story writer and novelist, and now I realise that I had no idea how lucky I was to make my first three films in rather quick succession."

Those three films, Angels (1982), The Company Of Wolves (1984) and Mona Lisa (1986) – a heady mix of thriller, erotica and fantasy-horror – grabbed Hollywood's attention. He hit his purple patch, critically and commercially, in the 1990s with The Crying Game (1992), Interview with the Vampire (1994) and Michael Collins (1996) and the awards came thick and fast. A Best Original Screenplay Oscar for The Crying Game was the biggest of numerous gongs while Michael Collins, despite accusations that it rewrote Irish history and backed terrorism, won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Now, little more than a decade later, the director, 63, is sitting in a London hotel, nursing a knee injury (torn cartilage, apparently) and lamenting his struggles to get movies made. "When I started making films there seemed to be a constant demand for material," he says. "It was a bit like the cable TV situation is now. I only made The Borgias as a TV show because I failed to get it made as a movie for 10 years. It was Steven Spielberg who said, 'Why don't you make it as a TV show?', so I looked at it as a 40-hour movie. I don't know why films are so difficult: the bottom fell out of them. I don't know why David Lynch is not making movies, or why Francis Ford Coppola is making these strange little films that he has to finance himself. I just don't get it any more."

Nevertheless, thanks to his passion for making movies, he has just completed his 17th feature film in 30 years. Byzantium came about after he a call from the producer Stephen Woolley, who said that he had a script that Gemma Arterton had shown interest in.

"I hadn't done horror or worked with Stephen Woolley for a long time," says Jordan. "But when I read the script, it seemed so familiar to me. If it had not been a vampire movie it would have reminded me of a movie I made a long time ago, The Miracle – which nobody saw. The way that it was about storytelling reminded me of The Company of Wolves, and the fact that it was a vampire movie reminded me of Interview with the Vampire. When I first read it, it was more ambiguous, but I said to the writer Moira Buffini, 'Let's not shy away from making a vampire film, a horror film, because they are pretty good.'"

Despite carrying Jordan's signature, Byzantium is the first film that he hasn't scripted himself. Even if he had wanted to write a draft, he wouldn't have had time, between releasing a novel, Mistaken, in 2011 and writing The Borgias. He didn't even read the play upon which Byzantium is based, staying hands-off in order to retain what he saw as Buffini's inimitable female voice. "Normally girls like vampire stories – Buffy and Twilight and all that stuff," says the director. "For some reason they find them romantic." It's true that vampire stories have a particularly strong female following. True Blood has a higher percentage of female viewers than any other HBO show. "I think it's all down to Anne Rice in the end. She's the godmother of this whole contemporary fascination with vampires."

As for Twilight, he has watched only the first film in the series, mainly because he is an admirer of the director Catherine Hardwicke. He found some elements troubling, "It was definitely a metaphor for teenage chastity and affection. It's weird it's now become a Christian thing. How strange. It could have been approved in the Bible Belt, that movie. They didn't do anything but kiss did they?"

Jordan was raised a Catholic. His mother, Angela, was a painter and his father, Michael, a schoolteacher. Twice married and a father of five, he has long since renounced religion. As if to reinforce his aversion to chaste vampires, Arterton's vampire in Byzantium doubles up as a whore. Not that the movie is a metaphor, "I saw it as a teenage love story and these characters aren't quite vampires. I prefer to see them as 'soucouyants'. It's a lovely word, that. It's Caribbean, a voodoo version of a vampire. I felt that it was time to reinvigorate these creatures a bit."

They may have Caribbean names but Jordan's vampires have Irish roots – a choice, Jordan reveals, born out of financial necessity. The financiers wanted to cast big American names, along the lines of Tom Cruise and Mark Wahlberg, in the male leads. When the director proffered Sam Riley and Jonny Lee Miller instead, the budget was slashed. No longer able to afford to shoot in Morocco, Buffini had to rewrite using Irish vampire legends.

Like Steven Soderbergh, whose Liberace biopic will screen on HBO rather than in cinemas, Jordan's film production travails have led him to television. "I wouldn't say TV is better," he says. "Just at the moment, it is the only way you can make things unsupervised, without talking to executives, without having to talk to foreign sales companies. I never dreamed I would be doing television. I have ended up supervising other directors, which is really bizarre."

He wants to end The Borgias, his 16th-century historical fiction television series, with a two-hour episode. Despite flirting with the easy-going small screen, he can't leave his main love behind and hopes to start shooting another movie later this year: "I've written a film called Fury, a very violent crime story set in the Irish travelling community that is awaiting finance. And then there is an erotic ghost story."

One thing is for sure, the auteur would like to remain amongst the cinematic undead for now.

'Byzantium' is released on Friday

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