REEL DEAL: Director Neil Jordan on Byzantium and Vampire Movies

Neil Jordan’s body of work is an odd, fascinating beast. On one level, the Irish director’s fablelike films — with their often mystical elements, their vivid photography, and their tormented, passionate characters — are remarkably consistent in tone, style, and themes. On another level, though, the films are a diverse lot, ranging from moody dramas like Mona Lisa and The End of the Affair, to thrillers like The Crying Game and The Good Thief, to big-budget, star-studded epics like Interview With a Vampire and Michael Collins, to fairy tales like The Company of Wolves. He’s even made a couple of exuberant comedies along the way (including High Spirits, which is better than you remember). Now, with his latest, Byzantium, a tale of mother-and-daughter vampires (played by Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan) hiding out in a British seaside town, Jordan has returned to the vampire genre, and the result is one of his strongest, most ambitious and romantic works in years. Jordan talked to us about his new movie, fairy tales, and vampires.

Were you wary of returning to a story of vampires so many years after Interview With a Vampire?

It was really the script that Moira Buffini had written. I hadn’t seen the play, and I was not involved in the development of the script, or the writing of it. But it was strange, because when it was sent to me, I saw that there were so many elements in it that felt familiar to me from other movies that I’d made: It was set in an abandoned seaside town, it was about a mother and daughter, it was about storytelling, and, yes, it was about vampires. Actually, the least attractive thing was that it was about vampires. It’s quite difficult to put a vampire movie out there nowadays.

But they seem like very different vampires this time around.

I did try to reinvent the rules a little bit. I got rid of the teeth, so now they use their nails. Ultimately, I think vampires — we call them “sucreants” in the film — are really like people who have entered a spell: They endure eternity in some way because of a choice, or something that’s happened to them. That’s why they’re so popular; they come out of the repository of fairy tales. I really did think of these creatures in Byzantium as dark shadows out of some fairy tale.

If I hadn’t seen the writing credit, I could have sworn that you’d written this film as well.

That’s interesting. I felt the dialogue was very specific. Some of it could even be called “clunky,” but I deliberately didn’t want to put my fingers on it. I felt it was important to preserve Moira’s voice, as a woman and as a writer: She had ways of approaching things that I wouldn’t have taken. What I liked about the script was its multifaceted quality — it turns into different things. It’s like a lantern that lets you see different aspects of the story.

There have been so many films in recent years that have attempted to “update” fairy tales: the Snow White films, the Hansel & Gretel film. But in a way, you were already doing that sort of thing 30 years ago, and doing it a lot more artfully, long before it became a fad among filmmakers.

Yeah. I guess I’ve always been obsessed with fairy tales. But it’s easy to see their appeal: They’re so simple and so efficient. As a storyteller and writer, that just appeals to me. There are a lot of archetypes and symbols there, and these are stories that have very deep roots. I think that’s something I always find myself drawn to.

There’s something else I’ve noticed about your films: They’re all about devotion, on some level. That’s very much true of Byzantium as well. And it’s a kind of devotion that can be romantic, or maternal, or spiritual. End of the Affair, it seems to me, matches one character’s romantic devotion with another’s devotion to God. And Byzantium, too, twins one character’s maternal devotion with another’s romantic devotion.

It’s all because I grew up as an Irish Catholic. [Laughs.] It’s a very specific kind of mind-set. It’s like you’re in this strange movie theater showing the same thing all the time. That was the reason I wanted to do Interview With a Vampire: It seemed to me to be about guilt. It was the most wonderful parable about wallowing in guilt that I’d ever come across. But these things are unconscious: I don’t have an agenda. I’m neither a bad Irish Catholic nor a good one. What is weird, though, is to watch a movie I made years ago and see how revealing it is about me. Films are essentially attempts to disguise one’s intentions, or state of mind. It’s amazing, because there have been films I made that felt like they were opportunities to not be personal. But then, years later, it shocks me how revealing it is.

Can you give me an example of such a film?

Mona Lisa. It turned out to be a film about how men are misunderstood. It shocked me how emotionally revealing it was. Of course, that is what they should be. They

should just be full of emotion. Stanley Kubrick once said, “The problem isn’t having a message. The problem is disguising the message.”

Over and over, your films are replete with career-high performances from actors — be they accomplished, established ones like Bob Hoskins in Mona Lisa or Julianne Moore in End of the Affair, or people we don’t ordinarily expect to give standout performances, like Gemma Arterton in Byzantium. Do you work closely with actors? Are you hands-on?

I just like actors. It’s really as simple as that. I like the fact that they don’t have to be themselves. They can live in a world of fantasy. I don’t know how it works. As for how I work with them, I try to make sure the actors understand what the part is. I look for people who have emotional reality to them. Beyond that, I don’t know what I do. To be fair, if you cast a film correctly, you’ve almost nothing to do. If you cast the film slightly off kilter, then you have to work your butt off.

‘BYZANTIUM’ is released and distributed by Captive Cinema.

Showing on November 22, 2013. Nationwide!

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