Interview: Neil Jordan

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Niamh Creely met up with Neil Jordan to chat about vampires, Irish legends, bloody feminism and all things Byzantium.

So the film Byzantuim is based on Moira Buffini’s play. And you’ve said there are themes in it that you’ve explored before, vampirism obviously being one of them. And it takes place in a small run down holiday town so that was something you’ve explored before. And Stephen Woolley was the person who brought you the story in the first place. But was there anything else about the story that drew you to it?

Yeah, that it was about storytelling, it was about a young girl trying to tell her story and that the story is refracted through different people as they read it. There were quite a few things in it that were so very familiar to me that it was weird. And when I showed people that I worked with, they thought I’d written the script. It was very strange. I don’t know if Moira was influenced by Interview with the Vampire or Company of Wolves or my other movies. And it was great that it was written by a woman and not by me. Everything about it was lovely, except that it was about vampires.

Then I began to talk to Moira, trying to work out what these creatures would be like and we began to work on the origin myth of them all and it became very interesting. We didn’t use the word vampire throughout the script. They didn’t describe themselves as that. They described themselves as succreants. Every culture has legends of the undead, and if you look up succreants online it’s some kind of Caribbean revenant that’s out at night and drinks blood and comes back and sleeps all day.

I never read the original play. I never saw the original play. She based it on a couple of things, one was a short story about Lord Byron by his physician, Polidori, where there were two characters, Ruthven and Darvell, who were officers wandering around the Peloponnesian Islands during the Napoleonic wars. And in Moira’s original script they wander round this graveyard. Darvell knew he was dying, so he was searching for this ancient wisdom and he wanders into this graveyard and an enormous bird of some kind drops a snake on top of him which bites him and he’s abandoned there.

He turns up back in Britain and he’s alive, and Ruthven can’t understand why he’s alive. Apparently that was the Byronic version, which came from all these ancient Greek myths. That caused problems, not least financial problems because we couldn’t afford to shoot in Morocco, but also in terms of the story. You’re wondering how did the characters get from there and back. So I asked her to look into Irish legends of the same thing. She did and we came up with this Christian pagan hut that we use, and it was lovely to do that.

Yeah, that particular location is beautiful, and the hut did make me think,  ‘that’s Irish’.

Well I would love that. Because Moira never really explored the history of the brotherhood, she didn’t really trace it back in anyway.  I don’t mind that it’s not explained but I’d like it a bit more developed. But it’s a lovely thought that there was a pagan brotherhood that keeps these pagan blood rites going and they disguise themselves as Christians in the early Christian period. Your imagination can go wild with it.

Absolutely. And Gemma [Arterton] and Saoirse [Ronan] are a really stunning combination. Were they in mind for you?

Yeah they were. When I read it, Gemma had already read it. I had seen her in the The Disappearance of Alice Creed. So I met her, she loved the script. She has an enormous vitality and this kind of physical splendor. She’s not afraid to use her body in anyway, either sexually or athletically. So she was great and Saoirse was almost the polar opposite to her. The only slight problem I had was that they didn’t look a bit like each other but then I began to rehearse with them and immediately their contrasting energies created a bond.

And visually, the DOP was Shawn Bobbitt, who’s done Shame and Hunger, and he is really adept at using light and composition.

Yeah there’s a kind of dirty realism to the modern-day stuff and a kind of storybook fantasy to the 18th century stuff. It was the first time that Shawn was using digital cameras. We used the new Sony Alexa. He’s a great cameraman because he started quite late, but he has all the energy of someone much younger. It was a blast doing it with him. And he operates himself beautifully.

You’ve said it’s kind of a feminist story…

Totally yeah, it’s a bloody feminist story. That’s what was interesting about the script. Female writing, woman’s writing, is rarely that bloody and aggressive and kind of exultantly gory and Moira was straight in there with that stuff, which was great. It was great to see a woman writing that way because it’s usually men who are obsessed with horror films and gore films and stuff like that.

And so the shrine, is that something that came from you or you and Moira together?

It kinda came from me… you mean the scenes in the shrine?

No, the concept, because you know how it usually is with the drinking the blood…

Oh, no in her version it was set in Asia Minor. It had to be resituated in an Irish context. The thing of going into a hut and meeting a dead version of yourself, that’s mine.

That’s something I really liked because it made a physical manifestation of the loss of self, in order to become this, you have to lose yourself.

Yeah, that’s what was interesting about the whole thing, a lot of the reason to make this was to reinvent this vampire legends. The bible of bloody vampire movies has all come from Bela Lugosi and Hammer Horror films, the fact that you can’t look in the mirror and the like. And if you look at Max Schreck in Nosferatu his teeth are like a rat’s teeth. If you read Dracula, does he even have teeth?

I’m not sure it’s specified.

Dracula walked around in daylight, he moved around London and entered London society, that sort of stuff. So all of the rather depressing bible of vampire movies actually comes from trashy movies themselves.

 

Byzantium is in cinemas now

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A Second Bite

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Matt Micucci has another look at Byzantium.

 

Vampires could arguably be considered the most long-lived horror creatures in cinema. From its early days in spine-tingling classics like F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu to the more recent glittery heart-throb Twilight re-incarnations, they have given way to more sexually charged and romantic big screen legacies than one could even dare to imagine. Neil Jordan himself, with Byzantium, would appear to be returning to familiar grounds, after his 1994 film Interview with the Vampire.

 

Indeed, the two films have many things in common. Aside from the breed of the lead characters and the mixture of gothic corsets with modern latex, there are certain similarities in the storyline itself. Much like the previous work’s Louis told the story of his blood-soaked life of two hundred years to his interviewer, Saoirse Ronan’s Eleanor communicates with humans by writing her tale on pieces of paper, crumpling them up and throwing them out of her bedroom window.

 

That is how the film starts; written in old fashioned calligraphy, the words ‘the end’ fill the screen, as she finishes writing her chronicles once again. Soon enough we are introduced to the two leading ladies in the film and her story, Eleanor and Clara. The first is the aforementioned miserable and introvert creature, forever doomed to live the rest of her life as a girl of sixteen – a notoriously difficult age. Clara, her mother, is quite different, with her sexually extrovert personality and an unquenchable thirst for revenge on the male gender, upon whom she blames the hardships she had to endure throughout her life.

 

Apart from the element of the obvious clash of personalities concealing a fertile ground for compelling domestic drama to grow within a usually commercialised horror concept (which is also impressive especially considering the usual exploitation of the female vampire figure in past films of both dubious and obvious taste), there is an added impact in the closeness of age between the mother and the daughter. Aesthetically, it is a naturally unusual element, and is reminiscent of countless other Jordan works, like the unlikely pairing of short and chubby Bob Hoskins with beautiful call girl Cathy Tyson in Mona Lisa, not to mention the sexual ambiguity of Jaye Davidson’s transvestite in The Crying Game.

 

Yet, despite their differences, the bond between the two is strong and genuine. Clara’s protective nature towards her daughter is nothing short of a motherly mission and is made quite clear not only after she kills a fellow vampire who threatens Eleanor’s safety but also as she sings her a lullaby while hitching a ride off a truck driver in the middle of the night. On her part, Eleanor is just as rebellious as any teenage girl would be, despite her true age. It is her quiet and innocent acts of defiance that get her mother and her into trouble.

 

The introduction is exciting and promising. As far as vampire films go, Byzantium has more in common with the intelligence of Let the Right One In then the instant glimmer of Twilight, particularly in the present day sequences where, through a lot of cold and gray lighting, cinematographer Sean Bobbit lets the setting of the small coastal town naturally inspire a cold kind of desolation. In its Victorian sequences, however, the film’s looks reveal a vein of elegance and decadence which takes us back again to Jordan’s previous venture in blood-sucking territory.

 

One other thing that Byzantium has in common with Interview with the Vampire is that neither film was written by Neil Jordan, which is slightly disappointing given the distinctive quality of Jordan’s best screenwriting works. However, given Moira Buffini’s fine work in Jane Eyre, such a thing should not have been as much of a negatively defining element as, unfortunately, it is. Her screenplay, which is adapted from her own play script, is quite uneven and doesn’t seem very impressive.

 

While the characters in Byzantium are colourful and interesting, their interactions are far less remarkable. This is most notable in the underwhelming love interests: Eleanor’s teenage crush on a fragile and physically ill boy named Frank is not given much credibility, while Clara’s admiration for her mysterious vampire benefactor Darvell, played by Sam Riley, is practically non existent. This is, of course, a conscious choice in favour of a feminist theme and a portrayal of female strength, further exhibited by the fact that all the male characters are either portrayed as weak and pathetic or rude and malevolent. In that case, however, Clara’s role as a madam in a brothel and Jordan’s choice to portray her as a femme fatale is more than merely puzzling.

 

The imperfections in the screenplay become more obvious with the film’s clumsy time shifts. The flashback sequences simply do not gel as well as they should. They seem confused and disconnected, as well as annoyingly narration-heavy. They also negatively disturb the flow of the film, with a pace that eventually becomes frustratingly inconsistent. For the most part, there is a genuine lack in urgency, a lack which also ends up making the frantic ending seem rushed and messy.

 

With its thematic complexity and tender fragilities, Byzantium manages not only to break through usual vampire film conventionalities but also avoids a slip into over-sentimental grounds. This, along with a wonderful visual work, is reason enough for it to stand out and retain some dignity. However, a lack of focus in its narrative aspect makes it seem much too complicated and messy, which is something that does not feature in Neil Jordan’s best work; and that is the primary reason why Byzantium could never be ranked among the Sligo-man’s best directorial efforts.

 

Matt Micucci

 

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From the Archive: Saoirse Ronan

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Jason O’Mahony talks to the talented Saoirse Ronan about her already impressive list of acting credits and her role in Neil Jordan’s latest vampire tale, Byzantium.

 

One of the brightest stars of the Irish film firmament must surely be Saoirse Ronan, the young Irish actress who came to worldwide attention in 2007’s Atonement.

 

Ronan was at the Kerry Film Festival recently to pick up the Maureen O’Hara Award, which is presented annually to a lady that has excelled in film. Ronan is in good company with Oscar®-winning actresses Brenda Fricker and Juliette Binoche picking up the Award in 2008 and 2010 respectively, and writer and director Rebecca Miller and actress Fionnula Flanagan receiving it in 2009 and 2011.

 

‘It’s a real honour to win an award like this, particularly one that’s named after such an iconic person,’ says Ronan. ‘Maureen has had a massive influence on Irish actresses and especially on young Irish actresses. She achieved so much at such a young age and went on to have a very distinguished career.’

 

It’s certainly no leap of faith to suggest Ronan will achieve as much in her career. She’s already picked up Oscar® and Golden Globe nominations for her role as Briony Tallis, the troubled young 13-year-old in Atonement and has won an IFTA Award in each of the last five years for Atonement, Death Defying Acts, The Lovely Bones, The Way Back and Hanna. It’s hard to believe she’s only just turned 18!

 

Film Title: Atonement

Atonement

The success, however, has clearly not gone to her head. She comes across as a wonderfully down-to-earth young lady and laughs off any talk of imitating the iconic O’Hara. ‘I’ve been very lucky so far, but Maureen is a legend. I’m a massive fan of her work; The Quiet Man, for example, is just brilliant filmmaking; a real classic. And for any Irish actress to be involved in a film that was so huge, well, it’s a real proud moment for other Irish actresses and, I suppose, for all Irish people.’

 

Ronan will next appear in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, playing a 200-year-old ‘sucreant’, or vampire, trapped in the body of a teenage girl. ‘Neil is amazing to work with; he’s quite humble as a director. He doesn’t want to step on the toes of actors and he has such a respect for what they do. He allows them to make their own decisions,’ says Ronan. ‘He’s great with the actors, whenever you need him he’s unreservedly there for you yet he’ll also stand back and allow you to make your own choices.’

 

Such generosity of spirit in directors is important to Ronan. In fact, she sees the actor/director relationship as key to both her work and her decision-making process when choosing her roles. ‘Overall, I would say the single most important thing to me when deciding on a script is my relationship with the director,’ she says. ‘Obviously the script definitely needs to be strong or, at the very least, have the potential to be fantastic once it’s been polished. I think that’s an important point because even if the script isn’t quite there from the very start it can be refined and, as actors, we can bring something to it, especially if you’re working with a strong director who is open to ideas.’

 

These ideas often come about through the rehearsal process, which is very close to Ronan’s heart, ‘I enjoy doing rehearsals because you get to spend time with the other actors and with your director. You’re bouncing about from costume fittings to dialect lessons to reading through scenes and it really feels like the entire project is coming together in those few weeks. You get very enthusiastic during rehearsals.

 

‘One of the things that first struck me about Neil was the amount of questions he asked us. As we were rehearsing, the finer points in the story were still being worked out. We’d go over a scene and he’d look to the actors and genuinely ask, “What do you think of that? Do you think that’s how it should be?” He always wanted to get other people’s opinions. He’s very generous like that, he wants the project to work as well as it can and is very open to feedback, which is a wonderful environment for an actor.’

 

It takes a director at the very top of his game to be so open and collaborative and Ronan is lucky in having worked with some of the very best directors in the business. Peter Jackson cast her in The Lovely Bones on the strength of seeing an audition tape. ‘That was a complete shock, it had never happened before. We sent off the tape and were thrilled when we got the call,’ says Ronan. ‘Making that tape, actually, was one of those times where the emotion totally took over. My dad does all my audition tapes with me and directs them and we did one of the scenes where Suzie is in heaven and talking about the horrific things that happened to her: the abduction, the rape. It was really harrowing; the emotion just flowed and I was shaking when we had finished the tape. It was a fantastic experience and it must have worked because I got the part!’

Hanna CMYK

 Hanna

While other actors find it difficult to summon deep wells of emotion, Ronan can seemingly tap it at will and is equally adept at playing a genetically modified killing machine in Hanna as she is at playing an abducted and frightened young girl in The Lovely Bones. Her roles have encompassed a wide gamut of emotions that would tax an actress twice her age but she’s as joyfully down to earth about it as she is about everything and is happy to talk about her process.

 

‘I tend to go over things in great detail the night before important scenes, and make sure I’ve learned my lines. I’ll always go through things in many different ways in preparation but, on the day, I prefer to do it on my own. It’s sometimes good to go through the lines with the other actors, particularly if a line isn’t sinking in. But I do prefer to go off to a quiet place on my own to work on the emotional core of the character,’ she says. ‘I go off on my own, I don’t say anything, I don’t look at anything but I do this thing where I kind of pace backwards and forwards and that seems to really focus my mind, almost like a moving meditation.’

 

And, despite many of her characters going to quite dark places, she finds the work immensely gratifying. ‘It’s very satisfying to do scenes like that; to allow yourself to feel such deep emotions and to become totally involved in the character,’ she says.

 

‘I love doing scenes full of trauma, I like doing upsetting scenes because it’s an event for me. I just did a film, How I Live Now, and I played a girl that’s a spoiled brat. So it was actually great for me to be able to just let myself go. Obviously, I don’t have a life that’s in any way similar to hers but I could let out all the anger and all the frustration through her. So I found it cathartic.’

 

How I Live Now is directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) and details the story of American teen, Daisy (Ronan), who is sent to live with English cousins on the eve of the breakout of World War III.

 

Ronan also likes to do a number of different takes: ‘I’d hate to have only one or two takes to get it right because if you know the director is going to allow you to try it a few different ways it really frees you up to try different things; it also relaxes you.

 

‘And, generally speaking, even if the director is happy with it after a few takes, I still like to try a few more just to really get it as good as it can be. I mean, I love doing scenes where the takes will go on for quite a long time because it really frees you up to make it as natural as it can be.’

 

Ronan draws inspiration from other naturalistic actors and is a huge fan of Ed Harris, with whom she worked on The Way Back and William Hurt (whom she worked with on the upcoming The Host, the latest film to be made from a book by Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer). She’s also a big fan of Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Meryl Streep.

 

Saoirse Ronan is a breath of fresh air, a young actress who looks back in such awe at the canon of acting greats that it keeps her grounded about her own substantial achievements. Maureen O’Hara paid a glowing tribute at the ceremony. ‘I’m thrilled that Saoirse Ronan will be honoured with the Maureen O’Hara Award this year. She is a remarkable actress who has given so many magical performances at such a young age. She truly represents the very finest that young Ireland has to offer. Her talent and dedication to her craft are an inspiration to all our wonderfully talented young actors pursuing their dreams in film. Her work and theirs makes me so proud because we’re the best in the world. It bodes very well for the future of the Irish film industry but, more than that, it speaks of the inherent strength in young Irish people and promises a bright future for the whole country.’

 

And with that Ronan bounced up to collect the award, won over the entire audience with her natural charm and returned to her seat next to her mom and dad, the accomplished actor Paul Ronan, as seemingly unaware of the effect she has on the audience as she is of her staggering talent.

 

Maureen O’Hara was right; with young Irish people like Saoirse Ronan the future looks bright indeed.

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 143 in 2012.

 

 

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Cinema Review: Byzantium

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DIR: Neil Jordan  WRI: Moira Buffini • PRO: Sam Englebardt, William D. Johnson, Elizabeth Karlsen, Alan Moloney, Stephen Woolley • DOP: Sean Bobbitt • ED: Tony Lawson • DES: Simon Elliott • Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones, Sam Riley

 

Neil Jordan returns to cinemas for the first time in four years with this neo-gothic vampire tale, just as that particular genre begins to sink below the zeitgeist waves. We are now post-Twilight, with True Blood and The Vampire Diaries in their second death throes.

 

But there’s life in the undead dog yet. Jim Jarmusch’s revisionist vampire art-house romcom Only Lovers Left Alive just received deserved praise at Cannes, and while Jordan’s work is flawed, it’s an admirable piece of cinema nevertheless. And why shouldn’t Jordan latch on at the last moment – his 1994 take on the myth, Interview with the Vampire, is as much responsible for the vampire boom that flowed from Buffy to Twilight as any film.
 
The film stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as a wandering mother/daughter vampire team, Clara and Eleanor, constantly on the move to evade from those who would uncover their true identities, and those who already know it. A moral pair, they work as sort of Angels of Death, only feeding on the terminally ill or the extremely elderly – a form of vampiric euthanasia. Clara, eternally voluptuous, trades on her body to keep the duo in housing and out of trouble. Eleanor, eternally 16, searches for meaning in her never-ending life, tortured internally by the things she has seen and done.Their wanderings bring them full circle to the sleepy English seaside town where their story began 150 years earlier, prompting a series of fractured flashbacks that give us a glimpse into their pasts. Clara’s being condemned to imprisonment in a brothel in her earlier life is echoed as she turns a run-down hotel in the present, named Byzantium, into a whorehouse with herself as madam. Eleanor starts at a new school where her creative writing assignments draw suspicious glances and her relationship with sickly classmate Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) causes her cursed heart to skip a beat.
 
A gorgeous production, shot in some curious locations, Byzantium looks as good as anything Neil Jordan has made before. Ever-reliable cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, Shame) excels in lighting the dark and murky streets of modern Britain, while sadly bringing little life to its nineteenth century counterpart. Perhaps the most in-your-face achievement of Byzantium is the remarkable varieties of ways the crew have found to light and shoot Gemma Arterton’s cleavage. Jordan has never been one to shy away from sexuality, but here the obsession with Arterton’s bosom is beyond distracting, the centre point of far too many frames. In one of the film’s most dramatic sequences, a vampire’s birth is heralded by a Shining-like cascade of blood, in which Arterton bathes, her cleavage overflowing with blood. Her cups literally runneth over with blood.

In spite of scene-stealing competition from her cleavage, Arterton holds much of the film together with an impressively committed performance. Ronan is ever reliable as a disenfranchised youth, and her sighs and longing glances carry her character’s tragedy. Sadly, she remains utterly unconvincing in romantic roles, and paired with the zombified Jones, sporting a Danish (?) accent that is baffling to the ears, makes for some very awkward drama. Johnny Lee Miller minces amusingly as the Victorian villain, while Control’s Sam Riley is horrendously underutilised in a supporting role.

One of Byzantium’s great saving graces is in its lightly sketched mythology, introducing its vampires as an underground cabal of male vampires who do not approve of females amongst their ranks, and forbid them to be makers. The idea of an ancient sect of fundamentalist chauvinists throws up cute allusions to the Catholic Church, although despite their intimidation it is hard to suppress a guffaw when they introduce themselves as ‘The Pointed Nails of Justice’.

Lovely to look at for the most part, adequately acted and with an impressive score by Javier Navarrete (Pan’s Labyrinth), Byzantium will not be one of Jordan’s best remembered films, but it is a welcome return to the gothic for the Irish filmmaker. While the ending feels rushed and features one excessively under-explained character reversal, there is enough in the film to keep the attention throughout.

A mobile phone vibrating in a puddle of blood, for example. There’s something we haven’t seen before.

David Neary

15A (see IFCO website for details)

118 mins
Byzantium is released on 31st May 2013

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‘Byzantium’ – Neil Jordan to attend Irish Premiere at the IFI

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A new film from Academy Award®-winning filmmaker Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview with a Vampire) is always eagerly anticipated, not least when it features top actress’s Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton. The IFI, in partnership with STUDIOCANAL are offering the chance for the public to get a first look at Byzantium with a gala Irish premiere attended by Neil Jordan and special guests at 18.30 on 28th April 2013, followed by a wine reception. The screening of Byzantium is the climax of Spotlight: New Irish Film at the IFI, a new annual event at the IFI celebrating Irish film that runs throughout the month of April in partnership with the Irish Film Board/Bord Scannán na hÉireann.

Speaking about the film, director Jordan commented that “Byzantium was a thrill to shoot; although set in England, we shot the bulk of it here in Ireland, and managed to create a mythical backdrop from the magnificent Beara Peninsula. Thanks to Bord Scannán na hÉireann and the Irish crew who made it all possible.”

IFI Curator, Sunniva O’Flynn said “It is fitting that this month of celebration should draw to a close with a premiere of a new work by of one of Ireland’s greatest filmmakers and one whose work has been championed by both the IFI and the IFB for the past 20 years. We look forward to further celebrations in May when we will mount a full retrospective of Jordan’s work in advance of Byzantium’s theatrical release.”

 

Two mysterious women seek refuge in a run-down coastal resort. Clara (Gemma Arterton) meets lonely Noel, who provides shelter in his deserted guesthouse, Byzantium. Schoolgirl Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) befriends Frank and tells him their lethal secret. They were born 200 years ago and survive on human blood. As knowledge of their secret spreads, their past catches up on them with deathly consequence.

Written by Moira Buffini, Byzantium stars Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace, Prince of Persia, Tamara Drewe) and Saoirse Ronan (The Host, Hanna, Academy Award®nominated for Atonement), as well as Sam Riley (Control, On The Road), Jonny Lee Miller (Dark Shadows, Trainspotting), Daniel Mays (Made In Dagenham, Vera Drake) and Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class, The Last Exorcism).

Produced by Stephen Woolley, Alan Moloney, Elizabeth Karlsen, William D. Johnson & Sam Englebardt.

Tickets for the gala screening of Byzantium (including Q+A and wine reception) are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie.

 

  • BYZANTIUM is released in Irish Cinemas on May 31st
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