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