Neil Jordan: The history man

The director's new movie is a journey through his filmic past and Ireland's Troubles. He talks to Robert Sellers
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The Independent Culture

It's ironic that Neil Jordan's latest film is called Breakfast on Pluto, as I am sharing breakfast with the man himself. Having raced from a screening of the film to his London hotel, its images are fresh in my mind. It's a character-driven piece, melding realism and fantasy in a way that is a hallmark of Jordan's work. Its sketchiness is compensated for by an honest humour that runs through the film like an artery.

There are echoes of Jordan's past in his new work. The director was born in Sligo, Ireland in 1950 to a well-educated lower-middle-class family. His mother was a painter and his father a university professor who banned him from reading comics. That seemed not only punitive but indicative of Ireland at the time: non-progressive, stuck in the past.

Jordan's new film stands in contrast to today's booming Ireland, in its story of an orphan transvestite, Kitten (played by the rising star Cillian Murphy), determined to find his real parents against a backdrop of IRA slayings and bombings in the mid-1970s.

There's a fantasy sequence in which Kitten dreams of himself as a secret agent foiling an IRA gang. It's an almost Pythonesque piss-take of Ireland's recent dark past that Jordan admits he could never have got away with even five years ago.

Jordan used to be suspicious and uncomfortable about interviews. He's mellowed, but isn't famous for snappy one-liners or showbizzy anecdotes. His film-making style reflects his character, too. He's of the traditional school, no flashy MTV cuts or weird camera movements.

His style is refined and well crafted. Jordan started out as a writer of fiction before graduating to film in 1981, as a script consultant on John Boorman's Excalibur.

There are echoes of Pluto in Jordan's first film, too; in the scenes of IRA slayings and of a band touring the provinces in a bus, navigating spooky lanes and army roadblocks. Jordan was in such a band himself and his experiences led to Angel (1982).

The timing of Jordan's entry into film was propitious. The early Eighties saw a renaissance in British film with the emergence of outfits such as Goldcrest and HandMade. Jordan's luck continued when he met the wannabe producer Steve Woolley, and began a creative partnership that thrives today and encompasses more than 15 films.

They began with the cultish The Company of Wolves (1984), adapted from Angela Carter's subversive takes on fairy tales, and their partnership was cemented two years later with Mona Lisa. Starring Bob Hoskins as a bigot who falls in love with a black prostitute, Mona Lisa boosted the career of Michael Caine, stuck in one of his ruts of taking jobs because they were shot on a beach in Rio.

"We only had Michael for about four days. He was doing all these jobs for hire, and when he came on the set he was almost expecting to walk through it. I had to get his concentration going, to get him to act. I think he found that refreshing because he could get his teeth into playing this nasty character. Michael loved playing that part." Mortwell, a seedy Soho proprietor who made Peter Stringfellow look like Jamie Oliver's grandmother, became one of Caine's best roles of the decade.

While not surprised by the success of Mona Lisa ("Nobody can make a movie without thinking it's going to be a huge hit. You've got insane optimism all the time"), Jordan was taken aback by its appeal around the world. "I'd never experienced that before. It was a big deal, a small British film nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes." It remains one of his favourite moviemaking experiences. Which is something you can't say about what came next.

High Spirits (1988) began as a small Ealing-style whimsical Irish romp about a guy who ran ghost tours ("kind of a necrophiliac comedy") but the pursuit of bigger bucks by Woolley's Palace Pictures necessitated getting into bed with Hollywood, with inevitable results.

"It was an object lesson in how not to make a film. I'd just made three independent films where nobody had interfered and then this gigantic mess happened. The whole thing was compromised and became a monster. The studio took over the editing; it was a painful experience because as a director you're not being allowed to finish your job. Over-ambition was to blame, the ambition of everybody to get into Hollywood."

Palace made amends by backing Jordan's The Crying Game (1992), intended as a follow-up of sorts to Angel, even though the company was in peril. This impinged horribly on production, with Jordan having to juggle the tightest of budgets. By the time The Crying Game, was released to universal acclaim, Palace was dead.

Jordan hadn't, at first, been able to find an ending for his story of a black soldier who makes one of his IRA kidnappers promise to see his wife after his execution, and so had shelved it. Coming back to it years later, he decided to make the wife, with whom the terrorist becomes obsessed, a man. "It was a very simple idea, I don't know why anybody hadn't thought of it before. It became much more interesting and mysterious, more about homoeroticism."

Despite its reputation today, the film flopped in Britain. "There were bomb warnings going off, so I'm not surprised it didn't do well." It was America that discovered The Crying Game, which touched a raw nerve that few films reach. "It's just a little movie, but because it's got the whole gender issue, it became this sensational thing."

Jordan asked critics not to reveal the twist and the ploy worked, becoming a huge secret that audiences wanted to find out about. The film received three Oscar nominations. "I did think with all the stuff going on we'd win best picture, but we didn't." Jordan lost out to Unforgiven, but he did win best screenplay.

Never had Jordan been hotter. He was rewarded with a blockbuster, Interview with the Vampire (1994). "It was a proper Hollywood movie with big stars." He got tongues wagging by casting Tom Cruise as the seedy vampire Lestat, against the wishes of author Anne Rice.

"She'd seen Company of Wolves and liked it. She said it was Lestat's favourite film. But she didn't want Tom in it. I felt I could get a great performance out of him, and he felt it, too. I thought he was great in that movie. Tom Cruise is like a finely tuned machine. There's something terrifying about him when he gets going."

Not content with having the biggest star in the world in his film, Jordan also cast Brad Pitt, soon to become the second biggest star in the world. Tensions inevitably arose on set owing to their contrasting acting styles. "Tom is more chiselled, infinitely more prepared; Brad has to feel it. But he was a really fascinating actor. I know it sounds like Hollywood bullshit, but I really enjoyed working with both of them."

A huge hit and still popular today, the film exists in a much longer version. "We cut a lot out. There's an entire sequence where Brad goes to confession and kills and drinks the blood of this priest."

Tantalisingly, Jordan reveals a desire to hunt out the lost footage and restore it one day to DVD. What he didn't want to do was stay in Hollywood and go down the Ridley Scott route of making successive blockbusters.

"I went back and made Michael Collins. Perhaps I should have pursued a Hollywood career. But I can't really do that because I write my own stuff, and they know that in Hollywood, so if they were to give me Harry Potter, for example it's, 'Oh no, he's going to rewrite it.' And I would."

On the back of Vampire's success, Jordan managed to persuade Warner Brothers to finance Michael Collins (1996), an oft-postponed pet project about a leading figure in the IRA. Jordan called his story "a national epic that had been kept a secret".

Indeed, few people discussed the 1916 uprising and war of independence. And, in particular, nobody talked about Michael Collins, who was subsequently assassinated by his former colleagues. But the film was an enormous success in Ireland - only Titanic has taken more at the box office. "Everybody went to see it. It caused an enormous amount of controversy. It was kind of like lancing a boil," says Jordan.

Liam Neeson was always Jordan's Collins, but eyebrows were raised about the casting of Julia Roberts. "I was very sceptical, but she loved the script and she demonstrated to me that she could do it. Irish and British audiences accepted her, the only place they didn't was America. They just went: 'What's Julia Roberts doing in this film?'"

After the heavyweight Vampire and Collins, Jordan moved on to the more modest, independent-styled films The Butcher Boy - whose strong Irish accents Jordan insisted on rendered it incomprehensible to American ears - and the beautifully crafted The End of the Affair, adapted from the Graham Greene novel. These were followed by In Dreams, with Robert Downey Jnr, and The Good Thief, with Nick Nolte.

Jordan surmises that making Pluto was like revisiting themes from his other movies, but using this butterfly of a human being. "I did the movie really because I fell in love with the central character," he admits.

It's a journey through his filmic past that he's deliberately inhabited with a cast of familiar faces such as Neeson and Brendan Gleeson (also in the cast of Michael Collins), and, most significantly, Stephen Rea, who has appeared in nine out of Jordan's 15 films and who made his own screen debut in Angel. It's a curious full circle, with Rea providing bookends for the director's distinguished career.