The director on his new LA film noir Marlowe, the ‘rubbish’ talked about Michael Collins and on believing in angels
“Movies are in a strange place at the moment,” says Neil Jordan. Hollywood has “changed beyond all recognition, seemingly run by Marvel now. It’s dedicated to sequels and remakes.”
We’re meeting at Fitzpatrick’s Castle Hotel in Killiney to discuss his latest film, which is a million miles from the muscle-bound superheroes who have taken over Tinseltown.
Marlowe — based on John Banville’s 2014 riff on Raymond Chandler, The Black-Eyed Blonde — is a smooth, assured film noir starring Liam Neeson as the titular detective. (“I really wanted to see him in that role,” Jordan says).
Colm Meaney and Seána Kerslake also feature. The script is by William Monahan, best known for The Departed.
There are lots of Irish connections; appropriately for an American story told by a director with an Irish sensibility who also conquered the wider cinematic world.
There are mentions of James Joyce and Co Clare; Jessica Lange’s Irish-American actress says “slán”. Belfast man David Holmes composed the playful, jazzy soundtrack. It even had a St Patrick’s Day release date here.
“William’s script included most of those Irish aspects,” Jordan says, “and I added a few, like Liam’s character being in the Royal Irish Rifles. Maybe Banville had some sense of Irishness in Marlowe, the Waterford connection to Chandler…?” The author of The Big Sleep had Waterford Quaker roots and he spent part of childhood in the town. “Anyway, [the Irishness] was there and made sense: Los Angeles would have been a city of immigrants, some would have been Irish.”
Interior scenes were shot on a Dublin soundstage, though Jordan doesn’t want to overplay that: “Interiors can be done anywhere.” Outdoor scenes were done in Barcelona, with its hills above the city and Spanish-style architecture common in LA.
And light: “It’s tempting to have everything murky and shadowy, but you don’t want it to be a pastiche [of classic film noirs]. I wanted it in colour, with blazing sunlight; this is a city drenched in sunlight.”
It’s one he knows well, having lived there “on-and-off for about five years” in the 1990s. LA is often derided as plastic or shallow, but Jordan defends it: “I love it, I’ve had a great time there. I don’t know why people give out about it so much. It has its own energies, an amazing art scene… an incredibly inventive place.”
His entry to the film world came in 1982 but, he says, “for some reason I’ve always thought in images”. “‘The only reason I make films,” he adds, “is that I really like composing things through a camera.”
That might seem a little strange: more than most film-makers, Jordan could be regarded as “literary”. It’s not only that he began professional life writing fiction, with a stack of acclaimed books behind him and a new novel out this summer; or that several of his movies — Interview with the Vampire, End of the Affair, The Butcher Boy, Company of Wolves — were adapted from books.
It’s his screenplays too, the general tone of his work onscreen: nuanced, intelligent, complex, with a true feel for how people speak and think.
Yet here he is, discussing his latest film and remembering how, even before he started making movies, “the stories and novels I was writing, people said, ‘They’re too full of visual description.’ But I’ve always loved composing pictures.”
The 72-year-old credits this in part to visual artists in the family: “My mother was a painter, like her father and my own sister. She supplemented the family income by doing small paintings for tourists and stuff like that. I painted when I was younger, but it never occurred to me to pursue it further.”
He stops and reflects. “Actually, it was beaten out of me in secondary school. When I was in primary I used to draw a lot. Then we had an art class in secondary and the guy just said, ‘You think you’re special?’ — bang! It was a strange world back then, kind of savage. But I was lucky in that my parents were slightly unconventional.”
Jordan was born in Rosses Point in Sligo, where his father taught in a one-teacher school. The family moved to Dollymount in Clontarf when he was small. His father would tell ghost stories; it was, unsurprisingly, a bookish house. “I’m not only the son of a teacher, but also a teacher-trainer!” he laughs. “And every bloody teacher who taught me was taught by my father.” The author John McGahern was one of them, in Belgrove National School.
Jordan studied English and history at UCD and “then was unemployed for a long time”. Unemployed, but not unproductive: his first book, short story collection Night in Tunisia, was published in 1976, winning the Guardian Fiction Prize and Somerset Maugham Award. A novel, The Past, followed in 1980 (seven more since, including last year’s The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small). He won the prestigious Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 1981.
Along the way Jordan had become part of a theatre group with Jim Sheridan; they wrote a play about abuse in industrial homes, which caused some “outrage”, and a film script. Legendary director John Boorman read that, and Night in Tunisia, and a career in films began.
“John asked me to write a script with him and we began this conversation of dialogue. Then he was doing Excalibur and asked me to go through the screenplay with him — this enormous, 400-page thing. And finally, he agreed to produce Angel.”
The differences between writing fiction (“very personal, even solipsistic, recreating your own experiences”) and screenplays was marked — and exciting. “Suddenly I was using different voices. Explosions and violence, ghosts, witches. I thought, this is great — you don’t have to talk about yourself all the time.”
He made his feature debut in 1982 with Angel, starring long-time collaborator Stephen Rea. “People who knew my writing were kind of outraged that I was directing,” he recalls. “There was a great sense of betrayal. Brian Friel said I should stick to my vocation as a writer. That ‘legend of the Irish wordsmith’ was very strong.”
He summarises his directing career by saying: “I feel blessed to have been able to make a few interesting movies”, but he’s being overly modest. His is an outstanding resumé, easily the finest of any Irish film-maker.
Perhaps most admirable is his willingness to make pictures of all sorts, from art-house to big-budget, horror to historical drama, thriller to comedy. “I’ve always worked in different genres; I couldn’t make the same thing over and over. That said, I think everything I’ve done has been tinged to some degree with a bit of fantasy.
“Even Angel, in its own way — I wanted it to look like a musical gone horribly wrong. The guy has a saxophone and puts a Uzi in the case, so you had this contrast between the glitter of a showband and the grease of a weapon of destruction.”
Interview with the Vampire (1994) was his first major Hollywood film — and one of the sub-themes in Marlowe is the grubbiness of the California dream factory. Is, or was, the reality comparable?
“I don’t know how dirty real-life LA was back then [in the mid-20th century], but I’m sure there’s something to it. We’ve all heard the legends: Judy Garland being kept performing on poppers and all that. Joe Kennedy (thinly fictionalised in Marlowe), who was deeply anti-Semitic, co-founded RKO Pictures and allegedly had an affair with Gloria Swanson.”
His experience of the Hollywood machine has been fairly positive. When Warner Bros mogul David Geffen sent the script for Interview with the Vampire, he recalls: “I told him, ‘I function best in independent movies. If you can enable me to make this the way I did The Crying Game, I’ll do it.’ He said he would and kept to his word. We managed to make this enormous movie, with two of the biggest stars in the world [Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise], with a lot of freedom.”
Possibly his greatest work, an adaptation of Angela Carter’s short story The Company of Wolves, mixed “fantasy, horror and fairy tale” and was “an amazing experience. We were allowed do things you’d never be nowadays. If you’re let loose in a zone of pure fantasy, you can have a ball. But they rarely let you do that!”
He names The Butcher Boy as the movie that’s closest to a pure expression of himself. “For some reason I could relate to Patrick McCabe’s novel. I don’t know why — I grew up in Clontarf, not the country or a little town. But I could relate to how a child’s imagination can be filled with both comic books and Catholicism, and basically go insane. I love things where the real world is impinged upon, or destroyed by, a kind of unreal world. And I like to go to unexpected places.”
Which brings us to The Crying Game and one of the most famous twists in cinema history. “People were captivated by it; it just worked, for some reason,” he says. “I don’t think you could make it now. The public’s awareness is totally different. I’m lucky I was born when I was. I don’t think I could survive in the era of social media.”
Michael Collins, meanwhile, saw an unusually divided response: historians and politicians apoplectic, audiences cheering in the cinemas. “It came out in 1996, during the early years of decommissioning in the North, and that’s why some people got so angry: they thought I was making coded references to the present day. There was a lot of rubbish talked about that movie — but I loved making it. They put all of Dublin at our disposal, so it was a way of recreating a city I remembered well from when I was young.”
At the moment, as usual, he has a few projects in development. As usual, it all comes down to money. “I’ve written a script based on [my novel] The Drowned Detective. It’s set in eastern Europe and would be massively pertinent right now. If I could do that and then stop directing, I’d be happy.
“I think I’m going to write more fiction — it’s very satisfying. I’ve a novel out this year [August 3], The Well of St Nobody,” he says. “When you write a book, you never wake in the night going, ‘God, why didn’t I do this and that?’ Or worrying that it’s starting to rain and I can’t get that shot.”
Either way, whatever the artform, Jordan will continue to explore and expand the imagination in inimitable, fascinating ways. He once said that God was “the greatest imaginary being of all time”, but now says, “I believe in everything: banshees, angels, the whole Dante-esque world of heaven and hell.”
Literally or metaphorically? “A bit of both, really. The imaginative world is much more interesting. If you look at Muslim or Jewish or Christian cosmologies, they’re fascinating. They express something very profound: human beings feel at a loss and alienated in the world we have to inhabit. That is a true thing. I don’t know if religion is true, but the fact that it expresses this deep unease and isolation is fascinating to me.
“I wouldn’t agree with the likes of Richard Dawkins. Why have an argument about it? Why give out to people? If they want to believe in fantasies, let them. Most of us can’t make it through life without fantasies.”
‘Marlowe’, a Sky Original, is in cinemas and on Sky Cinema now