"I got the pigs from an abattoir," murmurs Neil Jordan (below) in his soft Irish accent, "and placed them in domestic settings and then took Polaroids. I have a whole collection of photographs of pigs sitting reading newspapers, at typewriters, cooking, sitting in armchairs. They're very human looking." No, the esteemed director of The Crying Game and Michael Collins hasn't lost his marbles, he's simply been truffling inside the head of his latest protagonist, Francie Brady, aka The Butcher Boy (right).

Adapted from Patrick McCabe's blackly comic novel of the same name, Jordan's latest film steps away from Irish politics and returns to the febrile fantasies of his earlier A Company of Wolves. Set in rural 1960s Ireland, it shows how young Francie Brady's family falls apart, and takes his mind in the process. A bizarre romp into madness, The Butcher Boy slyly uncovers the cruelty and hypocrisy of small-town life with a disturbing blend of comedy and visceral violence.

"There's absolutely nothing depressing about the book. It's fascinating, compelling, very dark at times, but not depressing," says Jordan. "I think there was always a danger in adapting it, that it might turn into a case study of ordinary madness. And that would have been depressing." Instead, Jordan worked hard at capturing the "insane optimism" of McCabe's original story.

Initially, Jordan asked McCabe to "try his hand at a script", but found the author reluctant to recreate the book for the screen. "He was skirting round the story, because he'd already done it, you know?" says Jordan, "In the end, I decided I liked The Butcher Boy as it was, and didn't want a different version of it - so I had a go at adapting it myself." Filleting a storyline which takes the form of a stream of consciousness that jumps backwards and forwards in time was not easy, but if Jordan's moral drama "plays a little more starkly" than the original novel, he's fine with that.

"I think, when you read a book you're at some remove, you can put it down or get away from it," he argues. "When you're watching a film, you've got to endure what's on screen more intensely. Because of that, I felt the film had to address the question of the sinner a bit more directly. The whole idea of ultimate respon-sibility had to be stronger."

With his script sorted, Jordan set about casting. The part of Francie's alcoholic father went immediately to his old friend Stephen Rea (who, as the adult Francie, also narrates the story), Francie's neighbourly nemesis, Mrs Nugent, to Fiona Shaw and the role of The Virgin Mary, controversially, to wide-eyed iconoclast, Sinead O' Connor. "I did think about having the Virgin with the face of Marilyn Monroe," says Jordan. "It was technically possible, but not legally possible, and probably a bit morally dubious, so I chose Sinead instead. She's a good actress, and she had just that ethereal beauty I was looking for."

All that was left was to find a mischievous, murderous Francie Brady, the most difficult role of all. After Jordan had seen almost 2,000 children, Brady emerged in the sturdy, snub-nosed form of Eamonn Owens. "Eamonn had no experience of acting, I don't think he'd ever even been in a cinema," says Jordan. "But the dialect of the book was his. He came from a small town on the border of County Monaghan, and knew Francie's world instantly. He wasn't shocked by the material at all, he's a rural kid and they lead wild lives. They don't have the same strictures on them as city children. Rural children are closer to the harsher realities, and often have Francie's rather frightening fatalism."

In The Butcher Boy, Jordan has succeeded in filming an "unfilmable" novel, but, he admits, it's been a struggle not to make a pig's ear of McCabe's silk purse. "Michael Collins almost made itself. What with the historical events, the big crowds, the speeches, you know? This was much more difficult, because there weren't any historical facts. There weren't even any special effects or Hollywood razzmatazz to hide behind, really. With The Butcher Boy, you're down to pure psychological realities."

Although The Butcher Boy is behind Jordan now (he's already directed another film for Spielberg's DreamWorks), he's still, he says, got the pig Polaroids to remind him. And, if you want to know what they were taken for, you'll just have to go and take a butcher's.

`The Butcher Boy' is on release.