On Saturday, May 25, I was fortunate enough to see filmmaker (and novelist) Neil Jordan in conversation with writer Patrick McCabe at the Irish Film Institute here in Dublin. Jordan is one of those filmmakers I always find interesting though I haven’t seen all of his movies. McCabe’s The Butcher Boy has been on my to-read list for approximately 800 years so, stop hassling me, I just put it on reserve at the library. Once the talk was underway, it occurred to me that taking some notes might be a good idea, although my pen started running out of ink partway through and I didn’t have a backup. Poor preparation. Still, below are a few of the highlights.
Jordan met Angela Carter at a writers’ festival in Dublin, and that’s where The Company of Wolves (one of my favorite movies by him), based on her book The Bloody Chamber, was born. He described their collaboration as easy, taking just a few weeks — they’d have a cup of tea, write, send stuff back and forth.
Jordan says he isn’t obsessed with vampires in particular despite the fact that his new film Byzantium is about them and he directed Interview With a Vampire. In the latter instance, he was drawn to make the film because he found the book “haunting.” In the former case, he was very taken with Moira Buffini’s screenplay, the story of these two immortal women, mother and daughter.
He was philosophical about Anne Rice’s initial rejection of the choice of Tom Cruise for Lestat: When a book is that popular, he pointed out, everybody has an idea about who should play the characters. He said David Geffen (producer) and “Brad” (Pitt) wanted Daniel Day Lewis for the role, and he knew Daniel Day Lewis would say no, so he went with Cruise. (Interestingly, the question of being pressured to cast big stars in films came up, and he said, yes, there was a great deal of pressure to do that. And some of those big stars are good actors and well-suited to the roles, he pointed out, but when he was preparing to make Byzantium, he had two ground rules: he wouldn’t make it if he couldn’t cast it the way he wanted and film it where he wanted to film it).
Jordan: “The only two monsters left in pop culture seem to be vampires and zombies.”
McCabe speculated that both Interview and Byzantium had what he called a “poetic trash element to them” that he compared to the best of the Hammer films. Jordan objected (with humor) to the choice of the word”trash” — “if you mean Grand Guignol, call it Grand Guignol!”
An interesting note to me personally is that Jordan was taught in school by John McGahern. McGahern is an Irish writer who I think is not quite as well-known outside of Ireland as some other Irish writers, but I lived in the area he came from in the midlands, and his book That They May Face the Rising Sun is a really beautiful evocation of rural Irish life. Despite Jordan’s father being a schoolteacher and Jordan being an avid reader, he was a poor student himself, leading McGahern to comment that Jordan “was the living repudiation” of everything his father stood for.
The two men spoke about Jordan’s novel-writing career as well. McCabe described Jordan’s novel Mistaken as a love letter to a Dublin all-too-rarely portrayed (if ever) in film and fiction, a 1950s/1960s Dublin of beat cafes and nightclubs, what McCabe called “the beginning of modern Ireland.” Jordan recalled that he had been a mod, and that even growing up middle-class in Clontarf, when he crossed over to the southside of the Liffey he was often treated as though he were some sort of ruffian, and some southside establishments wouldn’t let him enter. McCabe and Jordan shared a knowing laugh over the statement that Ireland does have a class system, it’s just that nobody can figure out what it is.
Jordan discussed how he moved into film after starting out as a novelist. The Irish writer, he explained, labors under the very long shadows of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats. Film for him was by contrast “virgin territory,” and he got into it “by accident.” Director John Boorman read a book and a story by Jordan and contacted him to write a script with him. (Dear hopeful writers, this NEVER EVER happens, so don’t get your hopes up.) They worked on a script together (and here my ink shortage began to reach crisis point as I didn’t get details down about that) and then Boorman wanted him on the set of Excalibur, just to bounce ideas off of, Jordan supposed. (Aspiring writers: this, too, will never happen.) At that point, Jordan suggested that he would make a documentary about the making of Excalibur. Jordan was nonchalant about how he developed his directing chops from this point: if you hang around a set long enough, he said, you get an idea of when to point the camera at something interesting.
McCabe praised Jordan’s first feature film Angel (which I’ve never seen), about musicians and murderous gangs in Northern Ireland, as breaking free from “the straitjacket of social realism,” and, as McCabe pointed out, “social realism only tells 10% of the story.” (Side note: unlike some of my colleagues who also work in the fabulist realms, I have no problem with the social realist genre in the right hands although it can be excruciating in the wrong hands, a little goes a long way, and it can indeed become a straitjacket that condemns all other types of art as trivial.)
Speaking of his foray into Hollywood, Jordan discussed how things have changed for European directors in Hollywood. The auteur-type European filmmaker, Jordan pointed out, once believed it possible to master the Hollywood machine, but it always proved to be a “poisoned chalice.” Today, Jordan felt, young directors welcome it — rather than pursuing a distinct artistic vision, they want nothing more than to helm the latest action franchise. I hate to use a word as facile as “selling out,” and god knows we all have to eat, but I agree with Jordan that there simply seems to be less tension these days between art and commerce than is right. I’ve got more to say about this later at greater length elsewhere actually, so I’ll just leave this here for now.
At this stage the ink situation became really dire, but I did get a last interesting note down. Jordan and McCabe were discussing initial critical (not popular) reception of Interview and how critics in Britain and Ireland in particular were unkind to it, yet it’s held in much higher regard critically today. The talk then turned to how common this is, a gap between the way a film is first received and later regarded, and McCabe cited Hitchcock’s Vertigo as a prime example of a film that received some savage reviews on its release yet recently toppled the ubiquitous Citizen Kane from its perch atop the famous Sight and Sound‘s critics’ poll as the best film of all time. And here is where Jordan made a comment I found especially compelling:
Anything that challenges assumptions has a rough ride.
Jordan made one more comment I want to highlight in response to a question about where film criticism is headed and the death of Roger Ebert — Jordan reminded the audience that when Siskel and Ebert premiered with their thumbs-up-thumbs-down approach they themselves were considered the death of criticism, and that much good criticism had moved onto the webs and blogs in particular. But here’s what Jordan said that struck me, and for me, this is true not just of film criticism but of all types of criticism: “What matters to me isn’t what films a critics likes or dislikes but how good a writer the critic is.”
Weirdly, this produced titters throughout the audience, which caused Jordan to have to emphasize “No, I’m serious” — well, of course he was. This is what distinguishes criticism from reviewing and the great critics from reviewers. This is why the grouse that “all critics hate movies” misses the point entirely. In fact, a good critic is engaging with a text (and I’m using the word “text” here to mean movies, books, anything the critic is writing about) on a profound and really exciting level, and the experience for me of reading great criticism is the thrill of that excavation even when I’m mentally arguing with the critic all the way through the piece. Critics get so much bile directed their way, and those of us who love to read (or write) good criticism aren’t doing it at you — it’s just a real pleasure to read a talented writer’s analysis of a book or a film.
Anyway, this is only a smattering of the wide-ranging talk throughout the afternoon; there was so much more — talk of the great Graham Greene and P.G. Wodehouse, the rise of the “boxed set” and American cable series and Jordan’s work on The Borgias, the imaginative shadow cast for Jordan by growing up near Bram Stoker’s residence, Godard and Jean-Pierre Melville and what can be learned from watching the crime genre and more. My only regret (besides not starting the note taking earlier and not bringing extra ink) is that I didn’t prepare a question to ask about Jordan’s In Dreams, a film I find maddeningly problematic, possibly disastrous, but weirdly compelling, and the only mention the movie got was McCabe saying “We haven’t even talked about In Dreams!” and Jordan going “Let’s not.” I’m kicking myself, in fact, for not at least piggybacking on that comment and asking what he meant by that.
All the same, it was a rare and terrific couple of hours with these remarkable gentlemen, and kudos to the IFI for opening it to the public for free.