“The world we grew up in wasn’t bad — it was fascinating — it was just blighted by these [...] medieval eruptions of insanity. Ireland was a bit like that then. It wasn’t quite politics, it wasn’t religion. You didn’t know what it was. But what it definitely was, was the intrusion of severe violence into the lives of innocent people.” — Neil Jordan
Director Neil Jordan (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire) was in Denver in mid-November to do Q&A at a film festival and to promote his latest film, Breakfast on Pluto, which follows the life of a young transvestite, Patrick “Kitten” Braden (Cilian Murphy), through Ireland and England in the 1970s. Jordan had flown in from Dublin the day before and seemed a little weary in his jeans, oxford shirt, and leather jacket.
Though it was tempting to ask about Cilian Murphy’s performance as a transvestite, and about the obvious connections with The Crying Game, it was a better opportunity to focus on a career in the movies that spans three decades, multiple genres, an Academy Award, and almost no duds or flops.
Jordan is not just a director, but is also a published author. He has four books to his name, the first of which is a collection of short stories that recalls his own childhood. (One of the stories, Night in Tunisia, includes a character who listens to the song The Crying Game on the radio).
Breakfast on Pluto is his second collaboration with Irish novelist Patrick McCabe, who wrote The Butcher Boy, which he and Jordan adapted for the 1997 film. McCabe also wrote the novel Breakfast on Pluto, a first-person, impressionist account of a troubled but indomitable spirit.
Writing and Directing
MM: In an introduction to The Crying Game, you say that writing fiction and writing movies is a very different process. Do you still think that’s true?
NJ: Probably true, yeah. It’s just a different process. You think differently. I tend to write films very fast. I tend to write novels very slowly. Really slowly.
MM: If you’re not fleshing it out like a book, how do you know how it will come out?
NJ: It’s far easier to keep a film in your head at any one time. Look at it: most movies, when people see a film they see it at one sitting, don’t they? When people read a book they pick it up maybe 30 or 40 times. They can begin it in July and finish it in December, can’t they? So the experience of watching a film is much more like the experience of hearing a piece of music. Of course, a film can develop and go in different ways that you didn’t expect, but generally you can work out the structure in your head very easily.
MM: Does that let you play a little loose when you’re making a movie?
NJ: I’ve never played loose, ever. Not in film. You mean take an improvisatory approach? Never. I often rewrite as I go along. Often, if things aren’t working out or I see an actor sailing with something I rewrite things. But I don’t really improvise. But I often treat the rehearsals like an opportunity to rewrite the script entirely.
MM: You rehearse a lot?
NJ: I’m very selfish about that. I use them as opportunities to rewrite the script, basically.
The Writing Irish
MM: You worked with McCabe again. How much of a collaboration was it?
NJ: He wrote the first draft.
MM: Did you sit down together?
NJ: No, I read the book. I really liked it. I made another movie, The Butcher Boy, before. I felt the novel wasn’t quite finished, in some way. It was a very episodic novel. I just felt there was something unfinished about it. It was beautiful. I loved the episodic nature. I loved the way it didn’t feel the need to progress in any one direction, but I said look, let’s do something different with the film, try and finish the story somehow. So he wrote a draft and he began to change it. The first thing he brought the father, the priest, back into the picture. He gave me freedom. He said let’s use it as a diving board for all the things we want to do in the film. He wrote a draft and I began to rewrite it and rewrite it and rewrite it. Gradually I began to turn it into something kind of different. Then it became very different. When I finished the movie I showed it to Pat, he was happy.
MM: Do you find yourself looking backwards, rather than forwards?
NJ: There’s a bit of looking backwards in this film. There’s issues I dealt with before in much harsher ways. I’ve dealt with terrorism, I’ve dealt with transvestitism, I’ve dealt with small-town Ireland and religious oppression. But in this, it’s almost like through the lens of this character — I love the perspective the character brought to all those issues — you know, because if you look at what the film deals with — down syndrome boy is killed in a bomb, an illegitimate son of a priest is abandoned, a priest rapes a housekeeper, kid goes to London is picked up by a strangler — it’s designed for the grottiest, most tragic story you could think of. The only reason it isn’t that is because the central character refuses to let it be that. When I was making the movie I was thinking ‘I wish I was like that when I was that age. I wish I had that kind of clarity and perspective.’
MM: Is there any of you in Breakfast on Pluto?
NJ: There’s an enormous amount of me in this one, but I can’t tell you which bits.
NJ: No, seriously, there is an enormous amount of me in this one. A huge amount of me. That’s part of the reason I wanted to make it. Each little step that character takes I can remember exactly that step, you know what I mean? I was never a rent boy on the streets, but ... yeah ... I did meet characters like the Ryan Ferry character. I remember being stuck in the middle of this world where there was the escape of popular culture on one hand and there was this — everyone around you seemed to be joining political movements and wanting to become a Trotskyite or a left-wing republican, or some of them became members of the IRA. I remember that very clearly. So the combination of elements in this film is kind of personal, I think.
MM: Are your own kids growing up with the same kind of childhood?
NJ: No, no, Ireland’s changed. Totally. This Ireland no longer exists, thank God. It’s a different one now. I’ve got five kids. They all grew up around Dublin. They’re growing up in a different world. But I mean the world we grew up in wasn’t bad. It’s fascinating. It was just blighted by these — a bit like the whole planet now is blighted by these medieval eruptions of insanity. Ireland was a bit like that then. It wasn’t quite politics, it wasn’t religion. You didn’t know what it was. But what it definitely was, was the intrusion of severe violence into the lives of innocent people.
The Crying Game, and Other Songs
MM: People probably know you best for The Crying Game. Was that your own personal Golden Age?
NJ: The favorite time for me really was when I was making my first movie Angel, Mona Lisa, and The Company of Wolves. That was a great time because I just discovered movies then really and I was moving from genre to genre and I was having a bit of a ball with them. The Crying Game was very difficult to make because nobody would back the film in any shape or form because the script seemed to be so outrageous. And when it came out, it was terribly surprising. It’s one of those events that happened. I mean The Crying Game was just a little movie, it just became a big movie. I made other little movies that didn’t become big movies. It’s no more pivotal to me than a movie I made called The Miracle which nobody went to see.
MM: You mentioned The Crying Game in your first story - Night in Tunisia. When did you first hear the song.
NJ: When I was about 14.
MM: Did it have some profound effect on you?
NJ: I always remember the lyrics, that’s all. It didn’t have a great effect on me.
MM: The music was very important to Breakfast on Pluto — even in the book.
NJ: I think people find it very difficult to sing without expressing some emotional truth. Even if it’s the cheesiest shit in the world, every time they sing, they just have to give it something, they have to express something, so even when I went back through the most poppy, bubble-gummy stuff of the period, there was still sometimes too much emotion washing down the speakers. All the music I chose was not the iconic music of the period. David Bowie isn’t there. Pink Floyd isn’t there. Some of it because I couldn’t afford it — I wanted a piece of Pink Floyd but we just couldn’t afford it — and some of it because it just didn’t fit. I needed the more inessential, ephemeral stuff for the film. Like Harry Neilsen for some reason just fitted the character like a glove. Because his voice was so high and the emotions were so boyish in a way.
MM: Do you know that it’s good when it’s happening?
NJ: You can tell when it’s not happening. But it’s always the same. You have to make a film out of your own instincts, out of your own emotions, out of your own passion to see something of the cinema that you haven’t seen before. I don’t know how else films get made.
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies