Neil Jordan's movies so often make me feel like I'm looking not into a mirror, but through one, perhaps from the inside. The world I'm looking at is always on the edge of being recognisable, and the characters seem to have understandable, relatable hearts and minds, but something is always out of joint.
Sometimes, his films have a very pronounced feeling of the unconscious or the surreal. One of these is his latest, Byzantium, a remarkable new vampire story set on the British coast in two separate timelines.
I called him up last week to discuss the making of the film, which was apparently rather troubled. We also spoke about his ongoing interest in the horror genre, the success of modern cable television and where he's planning to go next. I think his answers were amongst the most candid and interesting I've ever received.
So here's some of what Jordan had to tell me, starting with his comments on why he chose to accept this particular job.
I liked the script, I liked the way it played with time, I liked that it was about a girl trying to tell her story. Because [Moira Buffini] is a playwright and because her voice is quite distinctive I didn't get involved in the writing, though I normally do. I just decided, on that level, to take a bit of a backseat. It was her play as well so, had it been an original screenplay or an adaptation of somebody else's work, I would have gotten involved but I didn't want to.
In a strange way it was part and parcel of the charm of the screenplay that I read was that it was written in this old fashioned 18th Century language. As a director I take the whole package, though I'm aware there are faults, there are clunky elements in the storytelling. If I had insisted on being part of the writing process maybe that would have changed, maybe it would have been made worse, I don't know.
She [Buffini] was so willing to collaborate. The first draft I read was much more like the play and I felt that she was afraid of it being a vampire story so I asked her to bring those elements much closer to the fore. She wrote another draft, very quickly, that changed that. She's a really interesting writer and it was interesting writing with her and I decided I'd rather work this way than just do a draft myself.
I wanted to make a horror film. In the first draft that I read there was somehow a little bit of feeling that Eleanor's story could have been evidence of a deranged mind, a young teenage girl's fantasies, but yet the period stuff was presented as though it was real and true. But that couldn't be the case because if it was a girl's fantasy, the period stuff would be as unreliable as every other piece of the story she's telling. There was a dichotomy there, and I don't think the story knew quite what it was in the first draft I read. I felt Moira was afraid of it being a horror film.
I wouldn't say the film is horrific. Not at all. We see people being killed and see blood spouting, but it's not a horror movie in the way that Saw is or Evil Dead is, but it belongs to the vampire genre.
I don't know if I like horror movies. I made Company of Wolves, I made Interview with the Vampire, I made In Dreams and I made this. It's because I like stories that are about unreal things, about reality and fantasy but that confuse the two, that force you to question the nature of reality. I suppose that's why I've made so many horror movies. And sometimes horror movies can do things that no other movie can do, they can take you into places that are the strangest places to be, when you suddenly realise "How did I get into this?"
And as a director, horror movies allow you to create images that are out of your dreams, out of pure fantasy, images that have nothing to do with reality. Imagining Byzantium was very simple. The main thing I needed was a seaside town and that kind of atmosphere. You know the way Venice is a character in Don't Look Now, I needed a town that had that, or the way New Orleans had to express everything that is to do with Interview with the Vampire. This little seaside town was purely described in the script. I found Hastings and it's burned out hotel and strange little pier and it seemed to suit the story.
The setting was on of the things that appealed to me about the script. I've made so many movies set in resorts and seaside towns and it was really odd to receive this. I spent too much of my childhood in those places.
Nothing was censored from Byzantium. I wanted to cut it a bit shorter. We never previewed this film, it was a very small, low budget thing, but when we began to screen it publicly for the first time, like always happens when you first see a film with a large audience, I started to notice longeurs and feel a bit impatient. I looked at trimming some bits and pieces, but eventually – a bit like I felt about some of the elements of dialogue which are embedded in the piece – I realised this was the nature of the film and to change it would hurt it more. It's just the nature of the beast, there's a languorous pace to how she tells the story and there's a sort of mistiness and dreaminess that was just part of the movie.
Making this film was very,very difficult. When we finally came to make it, it seemed like nothing was in place that should have been in place. There weren't distribution agreements or sales agreements. The financing of the movie was constantly shifting grounds, international sales wee never sorted out correctly.It was a difficult process, I have to say. The release of the film has been very difficult too.
There just wasn't enough money and we were working on a budget that didn't exist. I don't think it damaged the film, in the end, though I think it damaged the release in some ways, though that's hard to define.
I wanted a dirty realism to the contemporary sequences and a lush romantic quality to the period sequences, and the contrast between the two of them.
When Showtime cancelled the show there was all this outrage from the fans. I had already written a screenplay for the conclusion so I decided to publish it, that's all. There seemed to be about half a a million fans out there demanding another fill season but it was out of my ands. Studios have their own concerns and their own logic. Cable companies are on a roll these days, though. They seem to own the planet while movie companies are struggling all over the place.
I'm going to do another TV series myself. I know what I want it to be but I can't tell you at the moment. In a strange way, cable TV seems to be filling the space independent movies used to fill. Is that why the audience doesn't go to the cinema anymore? They binge watch this stuff, don't they.
I decided not to pursue Skippy Dies, I stepped away. I was hired by Warner Bros. to adapt Heart Shaped Box into a movie and they eventually said they didn't want to make it. I've written the film I want to make, a kind of a ghost story. I want to get back to things I've written myself. I've realised there's no point dicking around with other people's material. I haven't been able to work since I finished The Borgias, I had an accident and haven't been able to walk, but I hope to be making a film after Christmas. I hope. It's set in Eastern Europe, a kind of international story, and an international film.
Thanks again to Neil for taking the time to talk to me.
Byzantium has been released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today. In most respects, it's an uncommonly exquisite film and I recommend it wholeheartedly.