Sunday 13 October 2019

Byzantium: Fresh blood

Neil Jordan's atmospheric new movie boldly reinvents the vampire myth, writes Stephen Milton, but the Oscar-winning writer/director has been in the wars himself

On set
On set
The Crying Game 1993

Stephen Milton

If Neil Jordan needs to clear his head, he'll always make for the top of Killiney Hill. Only a short 25-minute stroll from his south Dublin home on Sorrento Terrace, it's the one place where the famed director, writer and auteur can revitalise the creative flow by staring out towards the Irish Sea.

"Or at least it was," Jordan sighs, followed by what sounds like two deep thuds against the floorboards.

"You hear that?" he asks. "Crutches. I'll always go up to Killiney Hill to relax but I can't walk since [the accident]. It's quite frustrating."

The Oscar-winner was knocked to the ground in April, causing damage to a knee already recovering from recent surgery.

"It'll recover, eventually," he ruefully replies. "It takes time, but I'm not enjoying the lack of mobility."

A creature of constant activity, Jordan (63) wrapped shooting last summer on his latest release, 'Byzantium', a lavish vampire epic starring Saoirse Ronan and former Bond girl Gemma Arterton.

The shoot took in locations around Ballymun, Castletownbere and Sussex before he transplanted himself to Korda Studios outside Budapest to tend to the final series of his papacy saga, 'The Borgias'.

So a crippling affliction, however temporary, is not something appreciated by the Sligo-born filmmaker: "It's not my usual state of play, but it can't be helped."

Phoning him at his home on a particularly drab Monday morning, he seems caught off guard, momentarily startled by a scheduled intrusion. "How long do you need?" he quietly asks, a muted irritation in his voice.

He started out as a novelist after studying Irish history and English literature at UCD, producing 'The Past' and 'The Dreams of a Beast' before John Boorman recruited him as script adviser on 'Excalibur'.

This set in motion a body of idiosyncratic work, including 'Mona Lisa', 'Interview with the Vampire', 'The Butcher Boy', 'Michael Collins' and 'Breakfast on Pluto'.

His defining moment came with an Oscar win for IRA noir thriller 'The Crying Game' in 1993, cementing his status as an influential movie maker for a generation. Not that he necessarily sees it this way.

"You have to remember it was an Oscar for writing," he states. "I didn't win Best Picture or Best Director. Nobody remembers who the writer is, do they? I suppose because I wrote and directed it and the fact that ['The Crying Game'] was sort of this sensation, it did put me up there.

"But it didn't change my life. It allowed me more opportunity, but Hollywood's a strange place. If you do win an Oscar, they throw everything at you for two years... and then they forget about you."

Defying his own expectation, the father of five [Anna and Sarah from his first marriage to solicitor Vivienne Shields; son Ben from a brief relationship with architect Mary Donohoe; and his youngest, Dashiell and Daniel from his second union with former executive assistant Brenda Rawn] has left an indelible impression on the big screen, each release welcomed with anticipation.

After a tepid response for more recent efforts – 'The Brave One' with Jodie Foster and Colin Farrell's 'Ondine' – he returns to the vampire genre for the first time since 1994's stylised masterpiece, 'Interview with the Vampire'.

An atmospheric chiller, 'Byzantium' centres on Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), a two-centuries-old mother and daughter duo ripe with bloodlust, who take refuge in a rundown seaside guesthouse. Based on a play by Moira Buffini, it's a rarity for Jordan to work a script not penned by himself.

"The relationship between the women was so well fleshed out and there were so many things similar to what I've done before myself. There's an obvious contrast between the two characters in this and 'Interview [with the Vampire'].

"Clara is full of bloodlust, Eleanor is full of guilt. One has an enjoyment of power, the other has pity for the human race."

Noticeably absent are the protruding fangs, coffins and aversion to sunlight. Instead, our anti-heroines stride out in the middle of the day and use a menacing talon to feast on their prey.

"I always think the teeth are some of the corniest elements in vampire films so the talon seemed somewhat more elegant. We wanted to change the rules; none of this coffin stuff or only coming out at night.

"Somebody who lives on human blood, who walks past as you buy milk in the morning, there's something far scarier about that."

'Byzantium' gave Neil the opportunity to work with Ronan and Arterton, whom he heralds as two of the most talented actors working right now.

"Well, Saoirse..." he enthuses, "I've wanted to work with for a long time now. She's truly one of the best actors alive. And Gemma is massively underrated because her previous films haven't allowed her to show what she can do."

Only eight years separate the actresses in age and there is no physical resemblance, so that proved a concern when portraying them as mother and daughter.

"That was a big worry," he explains. "Saoirse is so pale whereas Gemma's got this almost gypsyish dark look. But when I started rehearsing with the two of them, there was an immediate contrary, electric energy there.

"Anyway, kids don't always look like their parents," he says.

A loyal advocator of the Irish acting fraternity, he's worked with everyone from Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Colin Farrell, the late great Donal McCann and multi-collaborator Stephen Rea, who's worked with the director on an astonishing 10 movies.

After joining forces with Oscar-nominee Ronan, he has his eye on the next local alliance.

"I was set to work with young Jack Reynor this year, who gave us that extraordinary performance in 'What Richard Did'. I ended up deciding against that as I want to make my next movie outside of Ireland, but we will certainly work together down the line."

Despite a desire to escape these parts, the Irish countryside has featured heavily as a long-term player in Jordan's back catalogue, allowing him the luxury of spending quality time at his home at number 6, Sorrento Terrace, where he lives with Brenda, Dashiell and Daniel.

While he also owns a five-bedroom mansion on the shores of Bantry Bay, he writes most of his work from his four-storey home with wraparound sea views of the 'Dublin Riviera'.

"Well, you have Killiney Bay, one of the most beautiful bays in the world – that's inspiration enough.

"The entire Dublin coastline, from Howth all the way through to the Pigeon House, Sandymount, Dollymount; the whole coastline is extraordinary. Anyone who lives on any portion of it can consider themselves extremely lucky."

He's a regular face in Dalkey village, though few bat an eyelid thanks to a glut of fellow residing A-listers such as Bono, Enya and Van Morrison.

"There's rich people here, there's poor people here, there's a mixed community here, kind of a cool place to be and I love a quiet stroll into the village. Lifts my spirits.

"For a quiet pint, I'll find myself going into the Sorrento Lounge; for a nice bite, I go into the [Wrights Dalkey] Dispensary. There's an atmosphere in these places you simply cannot find anywhere else in the world."

After 15 years in this affluent suburb, nicknamed Bel Eire, the boom and the bust must have been significantly magnified.

"Everyone was driving around in SUVs and talking about housing prices, much like the rest of the country, but they seemed to have stopped that now.

"The area has remained relatively intact. It's when you go into the city centre, that's when you see the change.

"For me though, as long as I can have my view of the bay from my home and from the top of Killiney Hill, that's really all I need."

He makes another laboured thud against the floor boards with his crutch, signalling his final thought. "Clearly that won't be happening anytime soon."

'Byzantium' is in cinemas this weekend

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