THE STORYKEEPER: AN INTERVIEW WITH NEIL JORDAN

The multifaceted Neil Jordan is not only a profound filmmaker and screenwriter, but also a brilliant novelist. In a recent telephone interview, I had the opportunity to discuss Jordan’s newest feature Ondine, and to flesh out all those intricacies lurking beneath the mundane, that eventually veer into questionable places.

Can we begin our conversation with your novel, Shade?
Sure.

You write Shade from a female ghost’s point of view. In general, men rarely succeed at writing from the female stance. Yet you are totally believable. Can you briefly explain the plot of this disturbing tale?
It’s kind of a weird story (laughs). I had this idea that a young girl is haunted by this woman that she sees intermittently throughout her childhood. It is only when she dies that she realizes this presence—this ghost, is herself. Do you understand?

Yes, God help me, I do.
It’s a circular novel, really. The little girl is on a swing and sees a woman in a ratty coat and Wellington boots across the way. She doesn’t know where this woman comes from. Much later, and now grown up, she is digging in her garden one day and her gardener has a psychotic fit and kills her. As she watches her own murder, she realizes, “Oh my God, I’ve been seeing myself.” So it’s kind of a strange way of traveling through time.

Yikes, it sure is, but still oddly believable! You know, as a fiction writer myself, I was a little worried about speaking with you because we writers tend to fabricate.
(Laughs)

I notice that the character is murdered in 1950 and you were born in that year. Does Shade stem from personal experience?
Yes, sort of. My mother was born in that part of Ireland— in the Boyne Valley, near the river. I don’t know (laughs), as a writer you just sort of pull it all together, don’t you—sort of like a vampire.

Had either you or she experienced or known of such a murder?
Oh no, no! I made it all up.

In Shade and in many films, you dwell upon the sea. At one point in your film The End of the Affair, the sea enters the principal actress’s room. That’s weird, because I place the sea indoors in my short film, Recurrence!
Yeah, yeah, it was her dream in The End of the Affair. I wrote that scene into Graham Greene’s story.

It’s so strange to find someone else with the same creepy idea, Neil. Where did your idea come from?
I don’t know really. I just wrote it down one day.

Do your ideas come from dreams?
No, no—more like daydreams. Scriptwriting is like daydreaming. You close your eyes and see a series of images. One leads to another and another and all of a sudden you find yourself with a film script when you didn’t expect to have one. Novel writing is a bit more complicated.

You play with language a lot in your films. People speak but don’t necessarily connect.
Well isn’t that the way people talk, really? They don’t generally say, “I’m going to the shop now to pick up some bread and tea.”

No, they tend to talk around things. In Ondine, Syracuse and Ondine talk in a strange way. They invent a story together that becomes their reality.
Yes, exactly.

What is the function of Syracuse’s daughter?
Basically, she functions as the writer of the story. She asks the same questions I ask. When Syracuse tells her a story she asks, “What is this story?  Is it a fairy tale and if it is a fairy tale, what is it about?” As I wrote Ondine, I began researching Selkies, so of course, I had the daughter research Selkies too, in the library. So in a way, Syracuse’s daughter is me.

The ending of Ondine is never really resolved, but left ambiguous. You offer the whole drug runner explanation to make Ondine tangible, but throw in monkey wrenches, like her ability to sing through the depths of the sea. Can you discuss such magic in terms of the physical landscape?
I chose this particular landscape because it naturally suggests magic. Basically, a series of coincidences happen to Syracuse, which because of where he is, he links into something that is mythological or magical. That’s how I wanted to tell this story.

Can you speak about people leaving and then coming into existence? When Ondine is initially caught in the net she almost resembles an embryo.
Yeah, Syracuse does bring her back to life, doesn’t he? Perhaps she does die…

I think they bring each other back to life.
Yeah, yeah—definitely! It’s that weird thing about a fairy tale that actually turns out to be real, but the reality is strangely more lyrical than the fairy tale itself. You know?

Is seeing really believing? You address this in The Company of WolvesThe Butcher Boy, and pretty much all your films.
I made a whole series of movies that hang on fairy tales. The Company of Wolves is like that— even Mona Lisa, where there is a constant reference to the princess and the frog. Also, The Miracle, which is kind of an Oedipal tale. I like to choose a myth or a tale that can move from medium to medium—culture to culture and survive. A story that’s not about a realistic character but something deeper and more mysterious. I find stories like that give you things. They give me something, anyway (laughs).

Yes, me too. Early filmmaker Alice Guy used fabrics and clothing to define her work. Can we talk about how you use clothing in films? Let’s start with Breakfast on Pluto.
Well, Breakfast on Pluto is easy in terms of clothing, since it is about a transvestite. In The Crying Game, clothing is definitely interesting. Jaye Davidson plays a woman in the first half of the movie and in the second half, is revealed to be a man. When the costume director, Sandy Powell was dressing Jaye she said, “Look, most women dress exactly the same as men—in jeans, a tank top and a jacket.” So for a good portion of the movie, that’s how Jaye dresses. The entire notion of femininity is entirely imagined by the audience and the central character, you know?

Yes…amazing!
It’s actually very interesting to see how easy it is to create the idea or image of a woman even without a dress or any feminine accoutrements. The film asks what gender is really about. In Ondine and Mona Lisa the central characters dress each other.

Yes, also in The End of the Affair, which is so much more the sexy, love story when he dresses rather than undresses her. 
Sure.

Can we discuss war issues that are a bit embarrassing to speak about? I’m thinking about similarities between Michael Collins and Nicolai Muellerschoen’s The Red Baron.
Michael Collins was a very interesting movie to make at that time—in 1995-1996. The IRA had just declared a ceasefire so there were many parallels between Michael Collins and Gerry Adams. The truth is, Michael Collins was a specifically Irish movie and I felt very lucky to get Warner Brothers to finance it. It wasn’t particularly a heroic story, but about a person who put together a killing-machine. Then, when he thought he could take the machine apart, he found that he couldn’t.

Yes. Muellerschoen addresses the same issue in The Red Baron.
I’ll have to see that film!

Definitely! Speaking of killers, Isn’t it disturbing how easy it is for anyone to cross that line? Even women are not exempt, as you show with Jodie Foster’s character in The Brave One.
Yeah it is, yeah, yeah—though I’ve never done it myself and don’t want to. No, no!

Religion prevails in many of your films, such as The Butcher Boy, and The End of the Affair. Can you speak about this?
For myself, I’m not particularly religious. I was brought up like most in Ireland, as an Irish Catholic. This is a specific way of life, much like being Jewish.

Yes, I would say they’re pretty similar.
I didn’t make The End of the Affair as a religious parable. The story speaks about a woman who leaves a man for reasons even she doesn’t understand. You know, the element of the irrational entering these peoples’ lives really appealed to me, but this is not a particularly religious instinct.

No, but I’m thinking more about Ralph Fiennes’ character who can overcome virtually every obstacle, but his greatest fear is that he can not fight God…and win.
Yeah, he must fight something he cannot touch—-that’s what is so fascinating! Well, I hope I did justice to Graham Greene’s magnificent novel.

I would say you surely did, Neil! What’s your feeling about free will and fate in this film and so many of your others?
You know, I don’t know the answers to any of the big questions (laughs). I guess that’s why I write stuff and make films. I’m trying to figure it all out.

If you had to choose which of your films bring you closest to the answers, which would you choose—Ondine, perhaps?
I really don’t know… I mean I think you make films that reflect your feelings at the time. These movies actually turn out to be remarkably accurate portraits of who you are at any specific time. I’ve made a lot of violent and disturbing films about Irish life, but with Ondine for some reason, I wanted to make something far, far gentler and more forgiving in a way. You know what I mean?

Yes, but what about society in Ondine, where everyone watches every move she makes?
I just wanted to represent life exactly as it is. In fact, a lot of people in the town actually played themselves! It’s not an idealized village, but exactly how it is.

And you could put that village anywhere! Certainly people stare, everywhere.
Yeah, you could put it on a Grecian island. I wish we did shoot there. It would have been so much warmer—believe me! Certainly, all small communities are similar in that way, aren’t they? It’s a universal story—I hope—that I just fit like a glove into an environment I knew. That’s how I made Ondine.

You know, Neil, I try not to read critiques when I write about and see films. Do people like Ondine?
Yes, I think they do. Many of those people become quite obsessed. Then there are some people who get very upset with the movie when it turns out to be real. But that’s what I deal with—that meeting place between fairy tale and real life. The basic questions the film raises are, “What is real and what is not?” Syracuse pulls Ondine from the water and she returns to life.  So apparently, the “real” story concerns this young woman on a drug run. Eventually besieged by the Coast Guard, her minder tells her to jump into the sea and swim. As she drowns, she dumps her package and gets pulled into Syracuse’s net. Then this other experience happens. So which experience is real, her old life or the fairy tale where she is given new life.

And is she in control of either one?
I don’t think so. No, not at all! To me, the question is, Can any story [experience] in a person’s life be realistic? Can anyone truly explain their life as a series of logical events? I don’t think they can. To me, Ondine is a series of events that are seen as A) a fairy tale and B) a realistic story that culminates in a wish-fulfillment fantasy.

You know, when you make a film, you pare it down to minimal encounters, which is exactly how life really is!
Yeah, yeah—and that’s why Ondine was particularly lovely to make, because only the basics were used! All it took were a few great actors, a camera, and an environment that suited the script like a glove. For me it was the ultimate test to see if I could strip filmmaking to its limits and still tell a story of enchantment.




Posted on August 4, 2010 in Interviews by
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3 Comments on "THE STORYKEEPER: AN INTERVIEW WITH NEIL JORDAN"

  1. earthwick on Sat, 4th Sep 2010 3:49 pm 

    Very revealing interview. This interviewer seems to be able to draw filmmakers out through discussion more than formal interview.


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  2. Lia Polaro on Tue, 1st May 2012 3:57 pm 

    I just discovered this great interview with my favorite director of all times. What an interesting man. I read somewhere that he is about to make a new feature. I can’t wait!


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  3. Amy R Handler on Thu, 3rd May 2012 6:34 am 

    Lia, Glad you discovered the interview. It seems that Jordan’s due to release a new vampire flick called “Byzantium.” Coming from this Master of the Macabre, who knows what’s in store for us mortals…


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