Like the central character in his latest film, Neil Jordan would rather not grow up. Nick Hasted asked him why
IT WAS the voice Neil Jordan recognised first. Insistently innocent, ultimately terrible, it was a voice he couldn't have invented, but it suited him like skin. It was the voice of the Butcher Boy, Francie Brady, a voice heard first in the head of Irish writer Patrick McCabe. The Butcher Boy was his novel, and Jordan didn't want to direct it. But when he started to work on its screenplay, he found he had no choice. The voice wouldn't leave him. He'd grown up hearing it, after all. "It's the voice of rural Ireland," he says, "the surreal pleasure in the ordinary you used to find there. I grew up in Dublin, not the country. But I knew that child's voice so well."

Jordan is sitting in the Soho office where he began his Butcher Boy. He talks quietly but with an even rhythm, looking out of the window absently. He's been around a long time, but his magical, complicated visions haven't wavered. There are sickly-sweet sensations in Night in Tunisia, the 1976 collection of short stories which made his young name, which linger still, attitudes in his first, impressionistic novel, The Past, which surface in the sweep of Michael Collins. All his films are dreams, false memories. The sensuous fairytale landscape of The Company of Wolves seeps into the London of The Crying Game.

The Butcher Boy may be the first time the source of those dreams has been reached. It's set in the Ireland of the early 1960s. Its young boy, Francie, talks to the Virgin Mary and to aliens, to fish in the river and to his best friend. It's an imaginative world so rich that, when his best friend abandons him, it bursts its banks, bloodily drowning the "real" world around him as he seeks vengeance on his neighbours. It's the Ireland Neil Jordan grew up in.

"One of the reasons I wanted to do the movie was to reinvent that world," he says. "I remember that mental atmosphere so well, the mixture of innocence and savagery, the strange cruelties. At school and at church, you were told about realities that had nothing to do with the world around you. You were told that God spoke to you personally. When I was a child, I spent half my time in a world that was not real at all. I remember being told at school that when God wanted priests, you just heard his voice. He said, `I'll choose you', and there was nothing you could do about it.

"I wandered around for two years with my hands on my ears in case I heard that voice saying, `Neil'. It was like being connected to another world. These things are very real to a child. Ireland wasn't really penetrated by the outside world until the late Sixties. It was a place outside time in a way, a preserved world. It was a world of madness, actually."

It was a world of more than religion. Francie's acquaintance with the Virgin Mary is no more real to him than the American horror comics he devours, or the science-fiction films he sees. Francie makes no distinction. He's lost in a world of wonder. So was Jordan. "The church's imaginative realities could be transferred to Dracula, To The Twilight Zone," he remembers, "stuff you saw on television.

"When the Virgin Mary appears in the film, I thought about using a theremin, so she'd sound like a spaceship landing. You tend to live in that world when you're a kid. It's hard to remember it exactly now, and I don't want to go on about it. I don't want to caricature that time. I didn't want to in the film."

The character whom Francie most resembles is the boy in Volker Schlondorff's film of Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum. But where that child stops growing, standing for the suppressed horror of the Nazi Germany he's born into, Irish Francie seems to swell with the repressions of his town. It's as if he's the id of Ireland, freezing at the Sixties' start.

"It is a story of repression of emotion," Jordan agrees, "It's a story of cultural deprivation, it's a story of people who can't even say they love each other until they're dead. That's very true of the Ireland I know. But it's true of other countries, too. Look at the United States. No matter how many therapists you go to see, they don't teach you how to deal with your own feelings."

Francie himself represses almost nothing, except the desire to grow up. He keeps his child's world of games and dreams pristine, until his innocence ruins him. It's this personal suppression, this desperation, that Jordan identifies with most deeply of all. "He actually refused to believe that his world of childhood certainties would end," he says with animation, "I remember feeling that so clearly. We grew up near a big old Guinness estate that went to ruin, so when I was a kid I was in its trees every day, I'd be Robin Hood. I remember when kids' tastes began to change at 10 or 11, when they didn't want to play any more. I remember not wanting to do that. I just wanted to run around in my Robin Hood costume. And then you end up in the tree on your own, and you say `Where have they all gone?'.

Was he like the boy Francie in other ways? "The boy who plays him looks the spitting image of me when I was that age," he chuckles. "His face is so huge! But he's from rural Ireland, and kids grow up pretty fast there. I thought the language in the script was so bad he might be upset, but he said, `No bother'. So he starts acting, and the stuff coming out of him was so extraordinary I had to ask him to stop - `Ya spermy little bastard!' It's down-home rural stuff. I wasn't like that. I grew up in the suburbs of Dublin. I read and I scribbled."

In the decades since, Jordan has never completely lost that attachment to boyhood. It's no wonder that, in all his dealings in the compromised, "adult" world of Hollywood, he seems hardly to have been touched. He still thinks of himself as a marginal character, just as he did when I first met him, before the release of The Crying Game gave him his first Hollywood success. He's since made Interview with the Vampire and Michael Collins, major releases. Surely he's been tempted, along the way, to change his nature?

"I just want to make independent films," he says. "The Butcher Boy is a Warner Brothers movie, so the conversation is absurd. But whether it's a small movie set in Ireland or London or a big studio movie, I want to make it with the same spirit, the same freedoms."

The Butcher Boy is released on Friday 20 February.