Byzantium, partly filmed in Ireland, is Neil Jordan’s second film in the genre he has loved since Bram Stoker’s home first spooked him as a child, says Marc O’Sullivan
NEIL Jordan is laid up. A traffic accident in Dublin in April has left him with an injured leg, and he is conducting interviews for his new film, Byzantium, from a sofa at Fitzpatrick’s Hotel in Dalkey.
Home is nearby, on the prestigious Sorrento Terrace. He also has a house outside Castletownbere, on the Beara peninsula in West Cork, where he filmed Ondine in 2009, and where he also shot the wilderness scenes in Byzantium, which is set in the English seaside town of Hastings.
Byzantium is Jordan’s second vampire movie, after Interview With The Vampire, in 1994, and it is only the third of his 18 films that he has not also scripted (Interview was written by Anne Rice, and The Brave One, in 2007, is the work of Roderick Taylor, Bruce A Taylor and Cynthia Mort).
Byzantium was written by the British playwright, Moira Buffini, and is based on her 2011 National Theatre play, A Vampire Story.
Jordan was sent the script by his producer, Stephen Woolley. “I didn’t expect to read anything like that, it was really exciting,” he says. “There were so many elements in it that were similar to other work I’d done; there was storytelling, and references to fairytales. It was a bit like Company of Wolves, a bit like Interview With The Vampire, a bit like The Miracle.
“There was a certain theatricality in Moira’s first draft of the screenplay. Initially, it was as if, perhaps, the characters were vampires, or they might have been psycho-killers, it wasn’t really resolved. I told Moira, ‘don’t be afraid of making it into a vampire film. Don’t be afraid of making it frightening. Don’t be afraid of the genre, in other words’.”
Byzantium stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as mother and daughter, Clara and Eleanor, who pass themselves off as sisters, and who, it soon transpires, have been vampires for the past 200 years. Clara is a stripper and prostitute, ruthless in protecting herself and her daughter, while Eleanor is a sensitive soul, stuck at the age of 16, who only kills those who are already dying.
Arterton is “morbidly sexy,” as one character remarks — as Clara. “When I met Gemma in Berlin, she had already read the script, and loved it, so we agreed at once to work together,” says Jordan.
Ronan, with her red hair and pallid complexion, was, says Jordan, “the perfect and obvious choice for the role of Eleanor. Saoirse had already done such amazing work, in films like Atonement. The only thought I had about the casting was that I had done Interview With The Vampire with Kirsten Dunst, when she was very young. I wondered if there might be a part for her in Byzantium. But when I met Saoirse, I knew she was the one for the role.”
Jordan has updated the conventions of the vampire genre. “It was time to reinvent the legend,” he says. “The whole genre had got a bit tired: this whole thing with the teeth, and of not seeing yourself in mirrors, and not walking around in daylight.” In Byzantium, the vampires move by day and night, and kill with their thumbnails.
Byzantium also differs in tone from Interview With The Vampire. It is more of a European arthouse film than an American horror, and its elegiac mood is underpinned by its haunting soundtrack, composed by Javier Navarrete. “Javier also did the music for Pan’s Labyrinth. The only source music he had to use for Byzantium was Beethoven’s ‘Third Piano Sonata’. That sonata is all over the score he wrote; Javier rearranged the notes in different ways. It’s wonderfully simple, really.”
Byzantium has been acclaimed as a “neo-feminist” film, which makes Jordan smile. “Cool, I wouldn’t mind being part of that club,” he says. “You can call this a feminist vampire movie, if you like, but that is a bit reductive.
“Moira’s writing was obviously female, but it was also bloody, and it was also sexual, and it was also very direct. If it is feminism, then it’s a very different version of what we know from the ’60s or ’70s. It’s a lot more knowing, for a start, and it deals more with issues of female sexuality.”
Given its intelligence and complexity, Byzantium is far more likely to win critical kudos than match the commercial success of Interview With The Vampire. That film, starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt as poster boys for the paranormal, had distinctly homo-erotic overtones: Cruise camped it up as the amoral Lestat, while Pitt walked wall-eyed in his wake as the reluctant accomplice, Louis. Arterton and Ronan, by contrast, bring depth and focus to what are far more evolved roles, and Byzantium, unlike so much in the horror genre, is genuinely spooky.
The action switches back and forth between the drab, grey present and the grimy England of the early 19th century, where violence against women, and the sexual exploitation of the young, is very much the norm.
The first male character in Byzantium to be initiated into the ‘brotherhood’ of vampires is the soldier, Darvell, played by Sam Riley, who, after becoming ill on an expedition to Ireland, is confronted by two strangers while researching a cure among ancient documents in the Long Room, the old library in Trinity College Dublin.
They direct him to a mysterious island, where he is assaulted by a demon — his doppelganger — and reborn as one of the undead.
The link with Trinity is no coincidence. The college is the alma mater of Bram Stoker, and the roots of Jordan’s interest in vampirism can be traced to his familiarity with the Dracula author’s home in Dublin.
“I grew up in Clontarf,” he says. “I used to cycle past Stoker’s house to get to the Fairview Cinema. If I saw a vampire movie, I saw it there. The house was abandoned, it was almost in ruins at the time, and it used…” He smiles at the memory. “It used to terrify the life out of me.”
Neil Jordan at home and abroad
Neil Jordan was born in Co Sligo in 1950, and grew up in Dublin. He studied English and Irish History at UCD, and first found notice as a creative writer. His collection of short stories, Night in Tunisia, published in 1976, won the Guardian Fiction Prize. The title story was adapted for television, directed by Pat O’Connor, in ’82. By then, Jordan had published his first novel, The Past; a second, The Dream of a Beast, followed in ’83.
The veteran director, John Boorman, soon took Jordan under his wing, hiring him as a script consultant on his film, Excalibur, which he made with a largely Irish cast in Co Wicklow. Boorman produced Jordan’s debut feature film, Angel, in ’82. Angel starred Stephen Rea as a showband musician who witnesses a murder.
Jordan then made The Company of Wolves, which was based on an Angela Carter story, which was itself inspired by the legend of Little Red Riding Hood. His next project was Mona Lisa, a respectable crime thriller, set in London, that starred Bob Hoskins as an ex-con who becomes obsessed with a prostitute. Other films followed: High Spirits, We’re No Angels and The Miracle all met with mixed success.
Jordan’s ’92 film The Crying Game, was the first to win him international acclaim. It starred Rea as an IRA terrorist on the run in London, who becomes involved with a young transgender woman, played by Jaye Davidson. The film won Jordan an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
To coincide with the release of Byzantium, the Irish Film Institute in Dublin is currently screening a retrospective of all 18 of Jordan’s films. Jordan will not be attending, due to his injured knee. Are there any he would not want to watch again. “Not really,” he says. “They all came out of the same person. I have no favourites.”
The most controversial of Jordan’s films, and the one that took longest to bring to fruition, was Michael Collins, his ’82 biopic of the War of Independence hero.
“Michael Collins was a strange thing. Warner gave us the money to do this piece of Irish history, but they would not have done that if Interview With The Vampire had not been such a success.”
Republican violence was still a thorny and divisive subject in the Ireland of the ’80s. “There was a strange parallel between attempts to decommission the IRA, the past generation and the more recent. I said, this film will be about violence, and how difficult it is to cease that activity once you’ve begun it.”
Another Jordan project that spent years in development was The Borgias, which he originally wrote as a screenplay for film but eventually adapted as a lengthy television drama. “Dreamworks suggested I do the series. It’s like a 30- or 40-hour movie. I had done the research years ago, so it gave me a chance to expand on that.”
Jordan has continued to write fiction: his most recent novel was Mistaken in 2011. “I’ll write another book, I think,” he says.
Right now, he says, “I need to get back to writing directly for the screen. I want to get out of Ireland for a while, the reality here is a little bit depressing at the moment.” His next film project is a ghost story, which he will film in America. Would he like to move there for a time? “I wouldn’t mind at all. If I can walk. And if they’ll have me.”
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