Interview with the fidgeter
Neil Jordan has a hugely healthy career as a film-maker -- having given us Mona Lisa, The End of the Affair and Michael Collins -- but he is incredibly ill at ease when talking about himself; something Ciara Dwyer finds while discussing his new book Mistaken
Neil Jordan has a lot going for him. The 60-year-old has a hugely successful career as a film-maker -- both writing and directing them. Michael Collins, The End of the Affair and Mona Lisa are some of his best-known works. He has had many Oscar nominations and won an Academy Award for the screenplay for The Crying Game. And he has continued with his first love --writing. It all began with his book of short stories Night in Tunisia, which he originally published himself in 1976. He has written novels, too, and yet when I meet him to talk about his latest, Mistaken, there is something incredibly ill at ease about him.
We meet in Killiney, in Fitzpatrick Castle Hotel, and so I assume he would be at ease in his local hotel -- he lives in Dalkey with his wife Brenda Rawn and their two sons -- but not so. He had flown in from London that day. The flight was delayed. As I ask if the trekking has tired him out, it dawns on him that he has been up since half four that morning. We meet at four in the afternoon. Perhaps all that travel with too much coffee leads to his fidgeting.
Looking at his twitchy body language, you'd hardly think that he has enjoyed a long and successful career. It screams anxiety and restlessness, even insecurity. At times, it's hard to concentrate on what he says because his strange movements are curiously compelling.
As he talks, he stretches his face with his hands, and then his fingers hover around his full lips. He looks like he is about to nibble on his nails, which he keeps long for guitar-playing. Moments later, he pulls a few strands of his shoulder-length hair away from his neck before mauling his face some more. A lot of his sentences end in questions. It's as if he is looking for affirmation, odd in someone so successful. "Do you know what I mean?" "Yeah?" "It is, isn't it?"
Down through the years, I have seen him in public interviews and introducing his films, and he has always struck me as uncomfortable in his own skin. And yet today, he has offered himself up for an interview. However uncomfortable he may appear, he stays with me for an hour to talk about his new novel. And despite the body language, he talks engagingly.
Set in Dublin, Mistaken is about two young boys who look alike. One lives on the north side, the other on the south side, and they are mistaken for each other. They eventually meet up and play with each other's lives.
Neil tells me about the seeds of the novel. "Years ago, when I first got married [to Vivienne Shields -- he has two daughters from that marriage and a son from another relationship], I used to have a house in Marino, in Victoria Road, just around the corner from Bram Stoker's house. It was a tiny cottage. I remember getting off the 30 bus one day and looking up at the bus. I had this weird impression that I saw myself at the back of the bus. It was an eerie sort of thing and it has always stayed with me. It was just some weird coincidence. I think a lot of people have this sense that
there is another possible version of themselves out there; if they'd made different choices or if things had been slightly different, the whole of their paths could have been different, but more specifically it was a way for me to write about certain experiences of my own.
"It was a way of writing about the Dublin that I remembered as a kid, because I have a very specific memory of it and it doesn't seem to be ... when I read other people's memories of their upbringing in Ireland and Dublin, they remember this oppressive, priest-ridden place. I don't remember that at all."
The boys in the novel live on different sides of the Liffey and have different lifestyles to go with their backgrounds. Was Neil trying to write about class? "Yes, it's about these tiny differences in Ireland; it's always minuscule, isn't it? You know what I mean?"
No, I don't know what he means. In fact, I disagree with him. By way of example, I tell him about the time I asked my cousin's kid, who lives in Killiney, if she would like to go Oklahoma! She hesitated for a minute. She thought I meant the place, whereas I was talking about the musical. So how can Neil tell us that the rich aren't that different?
He laughs and concedes that I have a point. But then he says that in the novel, his characters' fathers both have professions -- one has a bookie shop, the other is a solicitor -- so he thinks the differences between their worlds are not as big. "The book is about one person who grew up always imagining that his life could have been different," he says. "Each boy imagines that the other's life is more gifted. They each imagine that the inadequacies that they have are not shared by the other person."
A lot of the novel is set around Clontarf, which was where Neil grew up. He is the second of five children. "We lived in Sligo until I was five, then we came to Dublin."
His father got a job in St Pat's College in Drumcondra, teaching primary-school teachers. His mother was a painter, who taught art to people in the area. They lived in Mount Prospect Avenue, opposite St Anne's Park. Like his main characters in the book, as a young teenager Neil enjoyed roaming around Dublin, dressed in mod gear, going into places on Middle Abbey Street to hear the records of bands such as The Yardbirds and Manfred Mann. At St Paul's School in Raheny, he remembers being "bored to tears". He confesses that he wasn't a very good student.
"I didn't play sports, but I used to play music, classical guitar. I used to hang around with women all the time. I just used to prefer the company of girls. Maybe they were more intelligent. I used to form very deep attachments. They'd always last about six months and then another attachment would form. From the age of 12 to 18, I seemed to have been given incredible freedom. I seemed to be allowed do what I wanted.
"I remember being in a pub in London in 1966, because I got a summer job on a building site. England were playing Germany in the World Cup and I was in this bar with all of these Irish guys, who were cheering for Germany. England won it, of course. It was the famous one. Looking back, what on earth was I doing in London at 16?" This was before his Leaving Cert.
There were many books in the Jordan household and there was a culture of reading. From the age of 16, Neil was writing stories. He went to UCD to study English and history, but he had no great plan in life. All he knew was that he wanted to write, but also it was partly that he didn't think he was capable of doing anything else. He married Vivienne and went to London with her. "There were no jobs in Dublin," he says. "We lived in a squat and got various jobs when we could."
He tells me that there was no glamour whatsoever in a squat on a winter's day, but it was interesting. Vivienne's aunt was killed in the Dublin bombings in 1974. They came back for the funeral and then stayed on. Both of them got jobs as teachers, but Neil was more concerned with writing.
"It was the only thing I felt I could do because I wasn't very good at other things," he says. "With writing, you don't know what you're doing and you're doing this stuff and you don't know whether people think it's got any validity or not. David Marcus published one of my stories. I remember going to the Irish Press office and he asked me to remove a rude word in the story. And I did. He was a delightful man and very important to people of that generation, of my age."
Years before that, Neil had been to America with Jim and Peter Sheridan. They were on tour with a play from UCD. While there, he didn't want to go home. He remembers wanting to head west, to go to Hollywood, as he'd always loved movies. "But I didn't know it was a possibility for an Irish person to make movies."
Back in Dublin, while writing, he met John Boorman. He worked with him on Excalibur and then he wrote a script. After that, he made his film Angel. And so began his film career. He still enjoys straddling the two worlds of film and fiction.
When I ask him which of his films are his favourites, he lists The Company of Wolves, Mona Lisa, Interview with the Vampire and The End of the Affair. What about Michael Collins? "I like Michael Collins, of course, of course. But that caused so much trouble, though. I loved making the movie, but when it came out it was such a source of argument it was quite distressing ... I totally understood why it was a source of argument ... Of course, the history was wrong in parts. It's a movie. How could you make it right? I just wanted to show the brutality of what he felt he had to give rise to, the contradictions of that. It was structured in many ways like a gangster movie. I wanted it to be a film about violence.
"I had written a whole sequence about the treaty debates, and to get the film made, I just had to take it out. So when people said, 'oh, you didn't do this, you didn't do that', I said, 'Okay, give me another $20m and I'll do it.' So it was a bit hard being at the centre of all that argument, do you know what I mean?"
These days, when he is not away working, Neil spends most of his time on projects at home. He runs Killiney Hill, swims in the sea, which he has access to from his house, and he often cycles to Wicklow. He has always enjoyed being a father. "When I was 24, I was a father, so I've never known anything else. It was great. I was lucky enough that by the time I had two daughters I was writing and publishing, and making some money. I think it's brilliant to have kids when you're young, but it's also not so bad to have kids when you're older, either."
His youngest is 16. When I tell him he always struck me as ill at ease, he says that it's because he dislikes talking about himself, and also he blames it on the shape of his mouth, which turns downwards. (In fairness, his fidgeting and twitching had eased off as our time went on.) He tells me that he is content, and that he has been working on a great job, filming a television drama series on The Borgias family.
"I love what I do, but my problems will start when I'm not able to do what I do -- and believe me, that will happen because they want younger and younger directors," he says. Why? "Because they can tell them what to do."
But that won't last long. "I know, but they can always get a new one, can't they? That's what they do with big Hollywood movies. They get young guys from advertising." And there's the sound of insecurity coming back into his voice. He's due to start twitching.
Mistaken, by Neil Jordan, is published by John Murray and priced at €16.35
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