Thursday 23 May 2019

'It was a study of violence': Neil Jordan on Collins movie

Liam Neeson as Michael Collins in the Neil Jordan movie
Liam Neeson as Michael Collins in the Neil Jordan movie
Neil Jordan. Photo: David Conachy
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

In the autumn of 1996 I attended a screening of Neil Jordan's Michael Collins at the Savoy Cinema, and remember being flabbergasted by the audacious opening scenes showing the rebels huddled behind the outer wall of a devastated GPO.

This recreation of a key moment in Irish history was a bolt from the blue in an Ireland that didn't really have a functioning film industry at that point, and displayed a boldness of vision that would inspire generations to come.

Though only modestly successful internationally, Jordan's film was a huge hit here and had a significant impact on our understanding of history.

Its 20th birthday will be marked next Saturday by a special screening during the Audi Dublin Film Festival.

Jordan has fond memories of making Michael Collins, though he knew well before he'd started shooting it was going to be controversial.

"I had written the script in the 1980s," he tells me. "David Puttnam had commissioned me, and Warner Brothers owned it. I did a couple of pictures for Warners, and after Interview with the Vampire they asked me what I wanted to do next. I said you have this Michael Collins script, they looked it up and said if you can make it for a price, we'll do it.

"What interested me most about Collins was that in six years of his life, from 1916 to 1922, he encompassed all the contradictions of Irish politics, all the hopes, the ambitions, the naivety and the brutality. I thought if I could make a film about that it would be interesting.

Before he'd even started shooting, the controversy began. "The minute it was announced, everybody began arguing, and before I'd finished the final draft there were items on TV and historians were commenting . . . it was almost like I'd been commissioned to make a national monument.

"But I decided to take a very simple approach . . . I decided to make it about a man who built a guerrilla army and then tried to decommission it. So in a way it was a study of violence as a substitute for politics, and the failure of that ultimately."

He was given a budget of US$35 million.

Liam Neeson had been Collins in Jordan's mind from the very start. "I knew he was a startling actor. I told him I was writing this and that if I ever got to make it I'd like to make it with him.

"The only alternative I could think of was Kenneth Branagh, but myself and Liam had made a pact. We were both almost too old to do it by the time it came around, but not quite."

The casting of de Valera was equally crucial. "Barry McGovern had played Eamon de Valera in an RTÉ drama, and would have been a good choice as well, but I went with Alan Rickman because he was such a spectacular actor, and he looked more like Dev."

Rickman, who died last month, was thrown in at the deep end. "The first piece of acting Alan had to do as that character was read the famous rivers of blood speech in front of 4,000 extras. We had rebuilt O'Connell Street, and there was a huge flag flying behind him as he spoke, it was an extraordinary moment to watch. Alan was terrified, but he was great."

"Like most Irish people of my generation," Jordan explains, "I didn't really appreciate the Ireland de Valera had created, so he became the villain of the piece almost without me wanting him to. But in a way de Valera was the villain, definitely of the Civil War period."

Jordan tells me Rickman identified strongly with Dev. Did he ever become uncomfortable with how he was being portrayed?

"I don't think so. I mean, he subsequently felt he had to justify his performance to some ways when he spoke to Irish journalists, but I think that was just people causing trouble. There'd be an entirely different movie to be made about de Valera. It would be a fascinating movie and I would love to make that movie, but I don't see anyone giving me the resources to do it."

Michael Collins will be released for the first time on Blu Ray on March 4th, followed by a re-release in cinemas on March 18th.

Irish Independent

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