Making films is like having sex,” Neil Jordan tells me. “You don’t know how other people do it. And you never know if you’re doing it right.” It’s a fitting sentiment, given his films are not like anyone else’s. And they’re also... well, steamy: the sexually charged blood-thirst of Interview with the Vampire; the gothic eroticism of The Company of Wolves; the provocations of The Crying Game and Mona Lisa, two portraits of unkempt men mesmerised by ambiguous femme fatales. As if to keep his audience on their toes, Jordan then likes to pivot – to grand period biopics such as Michael Collins, or rain-soaked wartime melodramas like The End of the Affair.
The Irish writer and director has spent much of his 40-year career being told he’s doing it all wrong. “But I’ve always been fascinated by things I’ve not done before,” the 73-year-old explains. “I think most directors aren’t. You can always tell you’re watching a Truffaut movie, can’t you? They occupy similar territory. Some of the very best directors – Ken Loach, Mike Leigh – don’t vary their palettes. And to great effect. But I’ve always done the opposite.”
That’s partly why he’s ended up making an LA noir adapted from a Raymond Chandler novel and starring Liam Neeson at his most downbeat. Marlowe, in cinemas now, luxuriates in the tropes of the genre: a hardboiled detective (Neeson) is hired by a mysterious femme fatale (Diane Kruger) to investigate the disappearance of her boyfriend. Jessica Lange is there, smoking long cigars and being saucy. So, too, are Danny Huston and Alan Cumming, both trafficking drugs, guns and girls in the underbelly of Forties Hollywood.
“I wanted to see Liam in this role,” Jordan says, rubbing his eyes and temples after a long press day at a London hotel. “We’re talking about an actor who’s got many different muscles, but since Taken he’s been bashing people up and stuff like that. He’s done it quite happily – and terribly well – but I just thought, ‘I’d love to see him beaten down for a change’.”
Jordan and Neeson go way back, having met on the set of John Boorman’s Excalibur in 1981. Jordan was there working as a director’s assistant; Neeson was making his feature film debut. The thirtysomething Jordan was a young Irishman who’d just discovered the thrill of scriptwriting after years writing novels. “In the Irish tradition, you write because you can’t afford to do anything else,” he says. “Writing a screenplay meant a whole different world opened up to me. I thought it was extraordinary. You could have people shooting each other. You could have incest. You could have all sorts of weird stuff going on.” It’s an approach that’s always served him well.
Jordan’s films tend to exist in the realm of the fantastical, even when they’re narratively earthbound. They glisten with mysticism, from the incestuous fairytale that is his 1991 drama The Miracle, to the strange, rhythmic mermaid tale Ondine in 2009. “I do better in dreams, don’t I?” he jokes at one point. He’s also unafraid of working with the closest thing the natural world has to Gods: enormous movie stars such as Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts, whom he fires into worlds where they’re not typically found. Only for Jordan would Cruise sport fangs and a fright wig and hang out in homoerotic vampire dens. Or would Roberts mill around the home of Irish revolutionaries in early 20th-century Dublin. People had lots to say about those particular castings.
In Michael Collins – Jordan’s second of four collaborations with Neeson – Roberts took on an Irish brogue to not spectacular ends (The Independent mocked her “dodgy accent and anachronistic brand of radiance” in a 1996 review). Jordan feels bad about it today. “It was saddening, because Julia did that film for nothing,” he sighs. “Without Julia, that movie would not have been possible, and I was just sad that she gave such commitment and… it’s not her fault that she’s one of the biggest stars in the world.”
Two years earlier, Jordan had cast Cruise to similar backlash. I tell him that I hadn’t realised until researching for this interview that few people wanted Cruise to play Anne Rice’s Lestat. “Oh, they hated him,” Jordan laughs. “Anne Rice found it perplexing. As did Brad Pitt, actually.” By the time Cruise was hired, Pitt had already been cast as his on-screen quasi-paramour Louis, and he’d been under the impression that the famously method Daniel Day-Lewis would be his Lestat. “Everybody wanted Daniel – though I imagine he didn’t want to sleep in a coffin [for preparation],” he jokes. Undeterred, Jordan wooed Cruise. Though he had his reasons.
“I’ve always thought he’s a great actor, but his life is also not unlike the life of a vampire, you know what I mean? Famous people don’t want to go out into an unmediated space. They have to control who they meet and how they meet them. They have to control their image. It’s almost like they live in a spectral kind of world. Just as an analogy, that made sense to me. So we agreed to do the film together, and then everybody got really angry.” He remembers being accosted by an Anne Rice superfan in a bar in New Orleans, who asked him what on earth he was thinking casting Cruise. “And then she pulls up her skirt and she had a tattoo on her arse of Rutger Hauer as Lestat,” he remembers. “Because for some reason Anne Rice really loved Rutger Hauer. That was how crazy it was.”
Jordan took it in his stride. As he did with any controversy generated by one particular scene in the film: a notorious peck on the lips between Pitt’s Louis and Claudia, a woman in her forties who was turned into a vampire as a child, meaning she still has the appearance of a little girl. As Claudia, an 11-year-old Kirsten Dunst gives a star-making performance in the film, but has remarked in recent years – albeit half-jokingly – how “gross” it was to kiss Pitt during production. “She said ‘yuck!’,” Jordan laughs. “She was so young that it worried me at first, because you realise this kind of [project] is going to define a child actor in ways that they themselves don’t understand yet. But working with her, I ended up having none of those reservations – she was so obviously going to have a career in acting. She understood the scene so thoroughly, so there was that security in my mind, you know?”
Vampire was just one of Jordan’s early films that poked at fiery taboos, none more so than 1992’s The Crying Game, in which Stephen Rea’s IRA hitman falls in love with a transgender woman named Dil (played by an Oscar-nominated Jaye Davidson). The film has its issues, but is also thoroughly, spikily romantic. “I thought it was lovely, actually,” Jordan says. “I was taking a character who defines himself as Irish nationalist, male and heterosexual, but then having every one of those pieces be taken apart before seeing if anything survived – and it did. And it was that affection for another human being. That film was slightly transgressive, wasn’t it? If definitely of its time, without a doubt.”
I tell him that as much as I love the movie, I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with Dil’s gender identity being treated as a mid-movie plot twist. The whole promotional campaign hinged on it. Posters boasted that The Crying Game had “more twists than Psycho”, with critics urged to keep Dil’s gender identity a secret. It was Jordan who had insisted upon that approach. “If people say, ‘Oh, the movie’s about a guy who falls in love with a girl who used to be a guy’, well… why go see the movie?” It was Harvey Weinstein, whose company Miramax distributed the film in the US, that mastered the actual press campaign, though. “Being this relentless, dark genius of publicity, he turned The Crying Game into ‘the movie with the secret’.”
Did Jordan see any of the spoofs that emerged in the film’s wake? I mention the Jim Carrey comedy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, which climaxes with a deeply transphobic “plot twist” involving actor Sean Young and a dildo protruding from her underwear. “I didn’t,” he sighs. “I think they were spoofing the marketing rather than the film, though. I mean, do you know they changed the title when it was released in Hong Kong?” I did not, I tell him. “In Cantonese, it translated to ‘Help, My Girlfriend Has a Penis’.” I’m briefly dumbstruck. What on earth happened there? “I have no idea – but people still went to see it.”
I ask Jordan if he thinks about his legacy, and whether it’s ever been a problem that no one can particularly define “a Neil Jordan picture”. “Do I feel as if I confuse people?” he asks. “I probably do. But there’s not much I can do about that. I’m over 70 now, and I just like making the kinds of movies I like to make.” He can’t particularly define his own work, either, but says that he recently caught a bit of his 2005 film Breakfast on Pluto on TV, and was slightly taken aback.
“I thought, god, this is terribly irreverent actually!” he beams. “You’ve got Cillian Murphy in a bar that’s frequented by the British army and the bar blows up and he’s accused of being a killer transvestite. Then he’s beaten in a police station, and then he falls in love with a policeman… it’s like, ‘Ooh, this is quite interesting’.”
I tell him he should consider re-watching more of his own stuff. He winces, shuffles in his seat. “I’ll think about it,” he says. Knowing how often he’s refused to do what people ask him to do, though, I imagine it’s fallen on deaf ears.
‘Marlowe’ is in cinemas
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