'Now actors don't want to even be in independent films' - Neil Jordan on working without studio backing, embracing Netflix and his new film Greta
Irish Oscar-winner Neil Jordan on the struggle to get projects off the ground without big studio backing, Netflix and his dark urban fairytale, 'Greta'
'Do you live in London?" Neil Jordan asks me affably as we settle down for a chat in the Soho Hotel. He seems bemused by the fact that as I reside in Dublin and so does he, we should end up meeting in Project Brexit's embattled capital. Such are the vicissitudes of movie press junkets, and this one revolves around Greta, Jordan's pleasantly nightmarish chiller charting the relationship between a naïve New York waitress and a mysterious older woman.
Chloë Grace Moretz is Frankie, who's on her way home from work one night when she finds an expensive-looking handbag on a subway seat. She finds an address inside and sets out for Brooklyn to return it to its owner, Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a French piano teacher who seems like a sweetheart but isn't. Despite the chilling overtones (Greta turns out to be quite the maniac), there's a knowingly melodramatic and almost playful mood to the film, as though Jordan was having fun tinkering with a well-worn genre.
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"I was having fun," he tells me, "a lot of fun actually, hopefully not too much. It's a terribly simple story, simpler than I'd normally like, but that's what attracted me to it, I thought 'okay, the handbag is a really interesting little weird hook. I mean she really should have handed it in to lost property, and then everything would have been okay - but she didn't'."
Jordan's (by my count) 20th feature film started out as a script sent to him on spec by Ray Wright. "It was really intriguing, and it struck me that it could become this wonderfully blighted kind of fairytale in an urban setting, like Hansel and Gretel, or Bluebeard."
There's something witchy about Huppert's portrayal and Frankie quickly suspects that something is amiss. Greta says she has a grown-up daughter, but we never see or hear from her. Meanwhile, her interest in Frankie grows more and more obsessive, and Frankie realises she's been lured into a trap when she discovers a dozen identical handbags hidden in Greta's house.
"I'm not a woman, I don't have a handbag, but for a woman, a handbag is a very important thing isn't it, a very personal thing, I mean the entire internet is a handbag.
"And there were just some simple ironies in the fact that Frankie promised a friendship to this woman, and she said 'don't worry, I'll stick around, I'll be your friend', and then - just because she finds these 17 handbags - she decides she's not. So, of course, the woman is heartbroken and furious and has every reason to demand she keep that promise, and it just takes off from there.
"I suppose on the one hand it's the kind of role that Nicolas Cage could have played, or Anthony Perkins, but it being a woman made it more believable and terrifying. And also the fact that there wasn't any sexual dimension to the obsession, I thought that was really refreshing."
In one scene, Greta turns up at the fancy restaurant where Frankie works, books a table and then engages in a dramatic outburst. Jordan did most of his shooting in Ardmore and Dublin, and looked long and hard before finding the right setting for his restaurant.
"Do you remember La Stampa? We built our restaurant in there, and it was just perfect really, there was a wonderful old cooking section with strip lighting, this huge interior that we were able to fill with soft lights and make it elegant, so it looked like the kind of restaurant you'd be embarrassed to put a foot wrong in. It was a matter of setting up that huge environment with enough space where Isabelle could go bananas basically. It's the moment when you realise that she just doesn't give a shit. I just love restaurant scenes, and I thought 'okay, we can make a great one here'. And there's a logic to what she's saying, you know, you need a mother who can console you and all that. In a way, what she says is psychologically plausible, up to a point…"
Greta may have been lovely to make, but getting it made was a struggle.
"It's getting harder to make independent films," Jordan admits. "There's the money juggling and all that of course, but now it's more that actors don't even want to be in them.
"If you send them a script that's going to be made independently without a studio behind it, they know (a) they're not going to get paid much, (b) they'll probably end up shooting in Romania or Hungary or somewhere. So it's just getting tough, but maybe Netflix and the others will help with that."
Jordan does not seem as threatened by a rapidly changing industry as some of his peers.
"I just wonder what it would be like to make a movie like this and rather than you know releasing it in America, releasing it here, releasing in France, and Japan, but for it to come out on Friday night all over the world on a streaming service. I think it would be a really interesting experience at this stage, I wouldn't be adverse to it at all.
"I do love the cinema, I love watching things in the cinema, I go. But I mean I can't think of a film with more visual ambition than Roma, and that was on Netflix, and only in cinemas for a very short time. It's just complicated at the moment, and I don't think there's any point in people like me being pejorative about what should or shouldn't happen."
Perhaps one shouldn't be surprised by this flexibility, because over 20 feature films and almost 40 years in the business, Jordan has happily ploughed his own distinctive furrow, jumping between genres, between lighter and more serious projects, all the while pursuing recurring themes - that twisted fairy tale element, stories about outcasts, the sexually uncertain, those driven towards violence by circumstance. He's an Oscar-winner, a genuine auteur, easily the most successful Irish film-maker ever.
It could all have been so different. Jordan is also an award-winning prose writer, and when he released his first short-story collection, Night in Tunisia, in 1976, a career in literature beckoned.
"It was odd actually, because you know Seán Ó Faoláin, he praised me to the skies inordinately, Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney. I mean, in Ireland it's a literary culture, isn't it really? When I began making movies, I think some of these same figures thought it was a cheapening, or kind of a rejection of a vocation, in that Catholic way.
"And maybe they were right, you know, but when I first began writing scripts, something changed, and I felt liberated, perhaps because the entire culture was so literary. And I was born in Sligo, grew up in Dublin, so the world of Yeats and the world of Joyce were overwhelming in your mind, and you think 'how can you escape this?' and by moving into another medium entirely, it was a total escape."
Cinema's gain, he suggests modestly, was not literature's loss. "I really don't think I would have written loads of fiction if I hadn't started making films, and I mean I don't think I should either!"
When Jordan started out, getting a film made was practically impossible in Ireland, and reviewers here regularly awarded domestic features an extra star just for existing. Happily, things have changed.
"It's really interesting what's going on in Ireland now with film, but I think the problem is that so few of them get distribution. And that's heartbreaking because there's some really good stuff. I love that actress Seána Kerslake," he adds, "she's extraordinary. I'd like to work with her - maybe I'll write something for her."
For Jordan, it all starts with the writing, and he's always got something in the works. He's adapted his own novel, The Drowned Detective, for film, and describes the result as intriguing.
"I've also written a huge television series that I might make for Lionsgate, it's called Jerusalem. It's set 70 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, it's got Herod the Great, it's got Antony and Cleopatra, Jesus Christ's grandmother.
"It would be incredibly expensive, maybe too expensive, but I'd love to make it."
'Greta' is in cinemas from Thursday