'I was always off in my own world' - Neil Jordan
With 'Michael Collins' just released on Blu Ray, our reporter sat down with Neil Jordan to talk about movies, life and why he wanted to leave Ireland
It's a year in which 1916 commemoration fatigue is already reaching critical mass. An endless barrage of events, television programmes, political posturing and books have numbed any lingering sense of wonder at the birth of a nation. Strange then, that rewatching the movie Michael Collins after all these years, there is still a tingling feeling of awe at the events depicted. Buoyed by Liam Neeson's mesmerising performance, Sinead O'Connor's soaring voice on the soundtrack and Neil Jordan's directorial virtuosity, it still feels like one of the key artistic works that deal with the period and Jordan's request to Warner Brothers to put the film out on Blu Ray to mark the 20-year anniversary of its release seems more like curation than self-promotion.
"Generally I never look back on films I've done," the director and novelist tells me over tea at a Dublin hotel. "But I just came from the Savoy where I was looking at it and I felt quite emotional. I've made three movies which you could say were about guns and Ireland: Angel, The Crying Game and Michael Collins. I loved this film particularly though. Although it didn't come from a place that is in any way subversive, it represented an opportunity to tell the story of Ireland's engagement with violence."
Jordan came to Michael Collins riding a wave of success. His script for The Crying Game had won him an Oscar and the film had become one of the largest grossing foreign films in the US in 1992. Jordan followed it up by directing Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt as homoerotic bloodsuckers in Interview With the Vampire, a box-office behemoth that led producer David Geffen to take another punt on Jordan.
The film had a slow gestation process; Jordan tells me that the script had "been in the vaults for some time." There was also the issue of the huge weight of history and the pressures of contemporaneous events bearing down on Jordan. The February before the movie came out, the precarious IRA ceasefire had been broken.
In 1996 Jordan told Rolling Stone that the death of Collins had the same resonance here that the death of JFK had in the US. Perhaps for these reasons there was also a notable sense of public ownership of the story: Immediately after the film's release there was criticism of the numerous historical anomalies in the film.
"You can't make a film like this without certain anomalies," Jordan says now.
"What strikes me looking back on this now is that the story isn't one of an uprising of the people. These are middle-class guys. It wasn't a revolution of the landless masses. It was school teachers and tenant farmers and civil servants. They were all Catholic to a man. Politically their perspectives were quite limited and they had an innocence that I personally actually found quite touching. They were revolutionaries in three-piece suits."
Although the film is set some 30 years before Jordan's birth, he says he was very much trying to model the Ireland depicted in the film on the country of his youth.
"I was trying to recreate the Ireland of my early childhood, particularly Dublin. My memories are of empty Georgian Squares. I grew up in Clontarf, the city was quite beautiful, it hadn't yet been destroyed."
He wasn't that good in school, he tells me, and his father wanted him to be a teacher, but Jordan had other ideas.
"I had to get out of Dublin in 1972 because I had no money. I couldn't really get a job here and so I went to England for a bit and then came back here. I was on the dole for a while, and then at one stage I just said I'm not going to be on the dole any more, I'm just going to do what I really always wanted to do, which was write. Since that, I never had to take another job."
He would go on to forge a career as a successful novelist - he has a new, well received book out called The Drowned Detective but says that, artistically, making movies was a "release" from the hard work of writing.
Still, he has his criticisms of the industry: "The movie industry is boringly chauvinistic. You're generally sitting around a table with old, white men. Frankly, there is a bigger world out there."
He adds: "Having said that, three of the biggest studios in the world are run by women, so it's a complicated subject."
He says that after the publication of his novel Mistaken, he thought of leaving Ireland again, because he'd run out of stories to tell about the place. Now it would be appear he is settled again - in the life of the mind.
"People say to me, you're off in your own world, why are you always in your own world? I can't really think of any other world to be in but it's true, I was always in my own imagination."
'Michael Collins' is out now on Blu Ray and is on RTE 1 on Wednesday at 9.35pm
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