The Company of Wolves was one of the darkest, most daring, and deeply layered cinematic fairy tales ever created. Pavel Barter talks to director Neil Jordan about the making of his 1984 cult classic.
Clapham, London, 1983. Director Neil Jordan and writer Angela Carter are seated beside one another, pens and paper at the ready, dreaming out loud. And their dream is this: monster toadstools and swaying redwoods, giant teddy bears and life-sized dollhouses; a childhood Neverland narrated by a kindly grandma, a storybook snapshot brought to life. But if you go down to the woods today, be sure of a big surprise, for behind the pastoral toys and playful shanties lurks something quite terrible. The beast. Suddenly the dollhouse collapses beneath the weight of a rustic nightmare and with a single howl all your worst fears are realised. You are a child trapped in a storybook. You are the prey and your grandma has become worryingly hairy. And Jordan and Carter keep dreaming.
“Every morning we would meet in Angela’s house to imagine these extraordinary scenes, we would think about them every night, then meet the next day and create more,” recalls Neil Jordan today, fresh from the final edit of Breakfast on Pluto. “We had total freedom playing with different genres, multiple meanings, and ideas of reality and fantasy. We had a ball with it.” The fact that the pair sang from the same literary hymn sheet helped matters hugely. In 1967, Angela Carter was awarded the Somerset Maugham prize for her second novel and throughout the rest of that decade and the 1970’s she cemented a reputation as a formidable feminist critic and novelist. Neil Jordan, 33 years old at the time, also began his career as an award winning novelist, and was fresh from his directorial debut, Angel (1982).
“Angel was shot on real landscapes; no studio work involved at all. After that, I wanted to go the opposite direction and create a story in an entirely imaginary environment. I met Angela Carter at a writer’s conference in Dublin and she showed me a small radio play she had written based on a collection of her stories called the Bloody Chamber. She suggested that it might make a small movie so I read it. Angela’s message in the Bloody Chamber was that behind these saccharine kids bedtime stories was real blood, flesh, hair, and a seething torrent of sexuality. I had a fascination with fairy tales and understood where she was coming from immediately.”
Jordan suggested that The Company of Wolves, a Bloody Chamber tale inspired by Little Red Hood, might provide a starting point for the other stories. “If there were various storytellers alongside a central grandma narrator we could create a branching structure, from one story to another and back to the granny. This would allow me to make a movie based on all the tales in Angela’s collection.” Bloody Chamber stories The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice worked their way into the finished screenplay and further tales-within-tales, from Angela’s original, inspired bravura sequences like a werewolf-infected wedding. A snoozing protagonist allowed the filmmaker freedom to move dream-like from story to story.
Next stop: fill the characters’ shoes. “This was a wonderful film to cast,” Jordan smiles. Angela Lansbury [The Manchurian Candidate, Murder She Wrote] starred as the grandmother; old-faithful Stephen Rea [V for Vendetta, The Crying Game] appeared as a werewolf who loses his head; and Terence Stamp [Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Star Wars Episode I] even stopped by the set one afternoon for an uncredited appearance. “We chose a ballet dancer, Micha Bergese, for the Prince of Darkness [lead werewolf]. He had never acted before but was quite wonderful. Danielle Dax, an underground star in an extreme rock band, played the role of a strange wolf girl who emerges from the village well.” Stealing the show was Sarah Patterson, a 12-year old actor whose uncanny balance of childhood innocence and adulthood experience makes The Company of Wolves one of cinema’s most memorable coming of age treats.
“Sarah accompanied a friend to auditions,” Jordan recalls. “I spotted her waiting, auditioned her and gave her the role. When you write a part for a child, you either end up with a child actress, which is generally bad news, or with someone who has never acted before. That was the first time I gave a role to someone inexperienced, but I’ve done it subsequently in The Butcher Boy and other films like The Miracle. In The Crying Game, Jay Davidson’s character could not have been played by an actor because you would have recognised him and known he was a man. Sarah had this particular kind of beauty and was very anxious to do it. Her parents were enlightened enough to let her play in this quite disturbing film.”
Jordan had always enjoyed horror and gothic movies, and although he was aware of the 1980’s post-modern werewolf revival led by The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, The Company of Wolves was more influenced by filmmakers like Jean Cocteau (Beauty and the Beast) and 1970’s Parisian pornographic art movies that embedded fairy tales with a salacious twist. The result is a film drenched in sensuality, richer than chocolate cake, and sporting enough themes and allegory to keep film students occupied indefinitely. At one point, Rosaleen climbs a large tree. When she reaches the top, a bird flies away leaving a nest with three eggs. An egg hatches, revealing tiny statuettes of human babies. She takes one home, but when she shows it to her parents the statuette cries. Help! Is there a Dr. Freud in the house?
The Company of Wolves played a part in the mid-80’s return to artificially designed sets. This was a time of spectacular children’s stories filmed in studio-constructed environments: Ridley Scott’s Legend, Wolfgang Peterson’s Neverending Story, Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal, amongst others. “Apart from the opening scenes at a house, the entire movie was filmed on set,” says Jordan. “I was lucky to discover a great designer called Anton Furst who realised the potential for the project. Anton’s instincts and talents were for those heavily designed expressionistic movies that were being made at the time. Anton created an adept way of creating a village and a series of forests using trees on rollers. We built a forest that could be transformed into another forest into another, until it became an endless forest even though we were only shooting at two stages in Shepperton [Middlesex, England].”
Eschewing that old chestnut about working with children or animals, Jordan’s cast of dogs, cats, pigeons, hedgehogs, chickens, rabbits, frogs and snakes, was enough to make a toddler look like a Laurence Olivier. Then, of course, there were the wolves. “Wolves, as you can understand, are very difficult to deal with. They’re wild animals and we had to adroitly combine real wolves with Malamutes. A Malamute is a cross between a husky and an Alsatian – it has a ridged spines which makes it look like a wolf,” explains Jordan.
Many of the film’s English crew had graduated from the Star Wars movies and considered Neil a complete lunatic. Let’s create a spring to summer to winter transformation in one shot, he would eagerly tell them – cue a mass rolling of crew eyes toward the heavens – but this was a young director at his most inventive, using all the tools at his disposal to create magical, crazy effects. These were pre-CG days of animatronics and although “special effects were fun”, limited finances [an estimated $2m budget for the entire shoot] posed challenges. “Some effects turned out great, others were ponderous, and I would perhaps change some of the editing of these scenes. I can now see the machinery working in the transformation sequence where Stephen Rea turns into a wolf, but the most spectacular effect was when the wolf came out of Micha Bergese’s mouth. Very simple, very graphic, but very visceral.”
As it stands, the ending of The Company of Wolves was not what Carter and Jordan had envisaged. “We constructed an ending that was absolutely beautiful but one which ultimately we could not deliver. Rosaleen was to awaken after all these dreams and stand upon her bed. Her mother and sister are outside the door and she bounces up and down then dives through the floor and vanishes, the ground rippling in her wake. We built a wax floor over a swimming pool but it was an impossible effect for us to realise with the resources we had, so we came up with the idea of an endless succession of beasts diving through a canvas. It was interesting, but it didn’t have the liberating effect of the ending we wanted. It’s something you could do quite easily today… you see it in commercials all the time.”
The Company of Wolves marked the beginning of a long relationship between Neil Jordan and producer Stephen Woolley, whose Palace Pictures (co-partnered by Nik Powell and Chris Brown) financed the film. Canon released it in America as a late-night gross-out feature, which was never going to work given the film’s aesthetic leanings, but in Europe the movie was a bona fide hit. Only when Neil toured the various continental countries with Mona Lisa did the cult success of Wolves strike home. An award for Best Film and Best Director from the London Critics Circle rubber-stamped the movie’s accomplishment.
Without The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan’s grandest Hollywood foray to date – the Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise combo of Interview with a Vampire (1994) – may never have happened. Turn to page 105 of Anne Rice’s novel Tale of the Body Thief and you’ll discover that Louis (Interview with the Vampire’s hero) and prince of darkness Lestat watch Jordan’s film repeatedly. “Anne said that she wanted me to make Interview With A Vampire because The Company of Wolves was Lestat’s favourite movie,” Jordan says. The director was also ready to adapt Rice’s novel to the big screen for another reason.
“Angela wanted to make a vampire film, a similar treatment to her earlier fairy tale and werewolf themes. When I finished The Crying Game  I was going to call her and return to the story but she died of lung cancer that year. I still have the outline she wrote and would love to return to it one day. It’s called Vampirella. So in the early 1990’s I was already thinking of doing a film about vampires and when [producer and record company mogul] David Geffen sent me the book Interview With A Vampire I was already primed to do it.”
While Jordan built on Wolves’ success with Mona Lisa (1985), the film’s star Sarah Patterson appeared in one typecast role (1988’s Snow White) before dropping from the radar. “Sarah lives in London,” says Neil. “Acting is something she didn’t really pursue but I have been in touch with her several times during the years. Now that you mention it, I must get in touch with her again.” Comfortable obscurity is a far better fate than that of production designer Anton Furst. After working on Full Metal Jacket and winning an Oscar for his fabulous depiction of Gotham City in Batman (1990), Furst tried in vain to find directing work before committing suicide in 1991.
Furst’s haunting landscapes live on in Jordan’s 1984 feature. The Company of Wolves’ ferret glove puppets, butterflies on strings, and other artistic flourishes has made the movie appear more quaintly theatrical with every passing year – an aesthetic foundation which time leaves untrammelled. This is no superficial horror flick, but a movie best watched with the analytical, creative mind one uses when reading a book. For Neil Jordan, “The Company of Wolves is a coming of age film about a young girl overcoming her imagined fears that were given to her by her grandmother and, by implication, society. She realises that these cautionary tales are hiding something that is in fact liberating.”
As a result of Angela and Neil’s creative partnership, The Company of Wolves transcends artificial category. It is neither horror, nor fantasy, nor a children’s film. At times it doesn’t even feel like a fairy tale. Instead it assumes the guise of a timeless and psychedelic daydream/nightmare, undulating and shifting beneath the audience’s gaze like the werewolves at the heart of the tale. For a moment at least, The Company of Wolves can transport you back in time to that Clapham house in 1983, dreaming of monster toadstools, swaying redwoods, and the big, bad wolf, with Neil Jordan and Angela Carter.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 105 in 2005.