Let’s frame this as a Gothic story. A Jekyll and Hyde story, if you like. It goes like this. There is a writer and there is a film director. They live in the same house. They live in the same body. They both work but no-one seems interested in the writer. Frankly, they’re surprised he even exists. And yet the writer came first. Without him there would be no film director. Without the writer the director wouldn’t get to travel the world and make movies with Hollywood stars. What, you have to wonder, does that do to the writer? Does that make him jealous? Does he get angry because the film director is getting all the attention?
“It’s kind of infuriating,” Neil Jordan the writer, who is also Neil Jordan the film director, tells me. “I don’t know why. The minute I started making movies people totally forgot I wrote books. It’s strange doing publicity for books. People go, ‘Oh, you write books too?’ Yes, I do actually. That’s the thing that I’ve done most of my life. The fact I make films is an accident.”
Jordan, as you may have gathered, has a book to promote. And naturally I’ve arrived full of questions about the films he’s made. He’s made a lot. I count 17 since 1982, although they’ve been getting sparser and smaller in scale in most recent years. And nothing since 2012’s underrated feminist vampire film Byzantium starring Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan. That’s partly because he’s also been working in television in recent years – he’s the power behind Showtime’s The Borgias – but only partly.
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Among those 17 films there have been big films and small films, controversial films and ignored films, flawed films and great films (and the odd great film with the odd flaw). There have been box-office failures (We’re No Angels, High Spirits) and box-office smashes (The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire). If you were to rewind two decades, he was one of the most important filmmakers in the British Isles. Scroll back further and there was a time in the 1980s when he was effectively the Irish film industry. Certainly in the last years of the Troubles – in films like The Crying Game and Michael Collins – he was one of the most visible artists prepared to deal with the issue of violence in Irish politics both north and south of the border.
But all that time he was also writing. Short stories and novels. The Drowned Detective is the latest, a strange and potent novel that despite the title is not crime fiction. You could call it a ghost story perhaps. It’s certainly a book about sex (“that weird terrain of desire,” he says) and death and Pussy Riot and rioting set in a mittel-Europe of Jordan’s mind. (The setting was inspired by walking the streets of Budapest while filming The Borgias and coming across militarised policemen and barking police dogs. It turned out they were policing a gay pride march.)
The book is why we’re sitting here in his front room talking about jealousy. He has already told me the novel is about betrayal, and in particular sexual betrayal. At one point in the book the titular detective is told his wife believes jealousy is inseparable from love. This is something that Jordan believes himself too, it seems.
Love, he says, can’t exist without jealousy. “The jealous urge is like the urge to possess in a way, to be president in the loved one’s affections. And I think if you’re not jealous you don’t love somebody. It’s one of the proofs. There are various proofs and jealousy would be one of the first. Far more important than sex, I would say. That sense of possession. Ultimate possession.”
It’s certainly true that Jordan’s depiction of love – on the page and on screen – is rarely sweetly domestic. In films like The End of the Affair and Mona Lisa, for example, love is thwarted, impossible, misdirected and, yes, often fuelled by jealousy. It is not democratic. Nor in real life either, Jordan believes. “I don’t think so, no. I think it’s rather brutal. I think it’s an utterly irrational urge. Most of us spend our entire lives trying to make sense of it.”
But outside books and films irrationality and jealousy rub alongside domesticity and normality. And so Jordan lives in a handsome town in a handsome street with an Italian name in a handsome house full of family photos and paintings by family members and family members themselves.
It is February and the sun is shining on the bay the house overlooks. It even feels rather Italian, but in reality we’re half an hour south of Dublin by train in Dalkey. His PA Daniel meets us at the door and shows us around. Daniel is Jordan’s son. A handsome younger version of his father’s rumpled dark looks.
Daniel is one of five grown-up children. Jordan married young and had two children with his wife before they separated in 1982. Daniel is one of two sons with his partner Brenda Rawn. In between there was another son with another woman. I always assumed Jordan was something of a bruised romantic. But maybe I’m projecting Bob Hoskins’ character in Mona Lisa on to him.
Is he, like the characters in his novel, haunted? He doesn’t think so. Then again, he says looking around, “I’ve lived here too long. What happens is you have families, you have children, you get stuck in one place. And you go, ‘I could have lived my entire life in New York or Los Angeles.’ Unlived lives haunt one, yeah. Which is why it’s kind of fun having the option of writing them.”
I don’t know how “stuck” he really is though. The photographer and I say we’ll swap our new-builds in Scotland for Jordan’s house in a two-for-one offer, but he isn’t keen. Anyway, he says, he’s in his seventh decade now. “The older you get the less haunted you get. I’m 66 and you get a different sense of perspective that is quite shocking in a way. The same things don’t churn your guts up, turn your life inside out.”
Jordan is an internationalist who has told London stories, European stories and American stories as well as taking his own country’s stories out to the world. Maybe his story is a reflection of Ireland’s own widening of horizons. You can see it in those complex family relationships. He will later tell me, too, that one of his daughters is gay.
It’s in contrast to his own childhood. His father was a brilliant man but a strict one too. “I was always terrified of my father. I’ve been a different animal to that.”
You could stretch this idea further and see the national story in Jordan’s own. His life incorporates the distance Ireland has travelled between his birth in 1950 and now. From De Valera’s Ireland, “a theocracy”, as Irish historian Roy Foster has put it, which, as we have since learned, had damaging and heartbreaking consequences for some, to a modern liberal nation.
“It feels like another country,” says Jordan. He sounds rather nostalgic for that other nation. “I think it was a rather beautiful place, but it was obviously a very damaged place, a very messed-up place. But it was full of eccentricity and weirdness and strangeness. There was an eccentricity to Irish life and the Irish character that’s totally gone, I think. Maybe because the best people have left, the most interesting people have left.”
Later he’ll suggest it’s a country that has lost its soul. “You could be in Staines or Frankfurt or somewhere,” he suggests. “I think that big recession did a lot of harm. It brought out a mean-heartedness in Irish culture … “ He pauses and then retracts. “But I hate making generalisations.”
It is to some degree at least a more peaceful country. As a teenager he felt rather cheated that the 1960s never arrived in Ireland because of the Troubles in the north. “Just when you’re about to experience the liberation of the 1960s – sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, all of that – the whole political thing started, this ancient, turgid, deeply impenetrable conflict.”
It touched him personally. In 1974, he and his wife returned to Ireland from London, where they’d gone a couple of years earlier looking for work, when his wife’s aunt was killed in a bombing in Dublin. They came back for the funeral and stayed.
Jordan worked in blue-collar jobs, signed on the dole and then, when that became “too humiliating”, started to write. His first book Nights in Tunisia was published in 1976. He made his film debut in 1982 with Angel, an oblique, dark take on the political violence that was, as he says, “the major colour in Irish life”.
The Troubles were too front and centre to ignore, he suggests. “It would have been rather impossible, I would say. I had to address it and it was difficult. I remember shooting the movie and I resolutely didn’t want to – what’s the word? – contextualise the issue of violence. I just wanted to make it about something far bleaker than that. It was very difficult to make a movie that didn’t explain itself in the realm of politics or give political explanations. When the movie came out a lot of people gave out about it for that reason.
“I just didn’t want to make a movie about politics. I wanted to make a movie about the seduction of one man by the idea of violence really, which seemed to me the issue at the time. Whether it was or not I’m not sure.”
Subsequently he would make other films that dealt with political violence: The Crying Game, which concerned an IRA man (played by Jordan’s regular collaborator Stephen Rea) involved in the murder of a black British soldier and Breakfast on Pluto, which helped make a star of Cillian Murphy.
But it was his biopic of Irish rebel Michael Collins that was to prompt angry editorials in both the Irish and British papers, partly because Jordan was willing to make small changes to the story for dramatic effect, partly because in Ireland history is never quite history and the 1916 rising and the subsequent war of independence and civil war remained unfinished business for a long time, because of the conflict in the north.
And yet when I raise the controversy that surrounded the release of Michael Collins in 1996 (which, it should be noted, was hugely successful at the Irish box office), he has a curious line on it. “People who write fiction and make dramas and movies shouldn’t really be held accountable when they address history. They’re out to make art.”
That sounds like a get-out to me, I tell him. “It’s not a get-out. I think your main kind of task when you make a historical movie is to tell an interesting story and if you fail at that you fail at everything. I don’t think you will ever do justice to the complexity of the history itself.”
Maybe there’s a touch of evasiveness here. But if so, it’s the only one of the afternoon. He’s a charming host. Before getting on the plane to Dublin I’d read interviews where he’d been difficult or monosyllabic, one interview that he even walked out of. That’s not the man I find.
I also read Stephen Rea describing him as shy and withdrawn and maybe there’s something of that in him. How then, you wonder, does he stand up on a film set and tell Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt what to do? Is he good at speaking up for himself? “I’m very good at saying, ‘I don’t want to do this and if this is what you want I’ll go away.’”
There’s a textbook example of passive-aggressive at work, I’d say. What is striking about Jordan’s back catalogue is its rollercoaster quality. He can clearly ride with the punches. After the success of Mona Lisa (full disclosure, one of my favourite films of all time) he came a cropper with High Spirits and We’re No Angels, only to bounce back with The Crying Game (which helped set the marker for independent cinema in the 1990s) and of course his Hollywood blockbuster, Interview with the Vampire, in which he cast Cruise as the vampire Lestat against his creator Anne Rice’s wishes. “I thought Cruise was good, “ Jordan says. “I think he’s got a chilly side to him. He doesn’t like to admit that himself, but I think he’s quite a chilling creature.”
Interview with the Vampire was a high point of sorts, certainly commercially. The films since have been something of a gradual retreat from the epic. “I’m getting old and cinema likes young people. It doesn’t like old people if they’re not called Clint Eastwood or Steven Spielberg.”
There are always books, of course. He has already written another since The Drowned Detective. Books and TV. He’s currently prepping to film a new series for Sky Atlantic entitled Riviera. “It’s like a Patricia Highsmith novel. It could be really cool.”
He is surprisingly sanguine at the current state of cinema. Maybe no one’s making Last Tango in Paris, he says, but he raves about the recent NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton. “It was so provocative. Universal Pictures made this rather dirty, filthy, provocative movie.”
I remind him that he once claimed that NWA’s Dr Dre was “the only interesting thing musically”. “Did I say that? Well, I was in Los Angeles when all that West Coast stuff started and it was kind of scary and the fact music can frighten you probably means it must be good.”
We go outside to take his picture. He seems contented. Maybe it would be hard to be otherwise in this place, in this house. I think of a question I asked him when we first sat down. In The Drowned Detective one of his characters says, “Alive, I thought, is what we most want to feel.” When did Jordan feel most alive? “Me? God, I don’t know. I’ve never asked myself that question. You see, the joy of writing about this stuff is you don’t have to ask yourself. But I suppose I feel most alive when I write about other characters.”
He worries away at the question, tries again with another answer from another angle. “I don’t want to feel dead, you know. Feeling dead is just terrifying.”
The Drowned Detective is published by Bloomsbury on March 1, priced £14.
NEIL JORDAN ON BEING A WRITER
“When you’re writing things the great joy of it is the release from your own life. it is the adoption of a persona, someone that isn’t you, because the youness of everything becomes very dull. So the great joy of being able to work in fiction whether it is movies or in books is living lives that aren’t your own. “
ON MONA LISA
"If you talk to executives they’ll say ‘where’s the character coming from? What’s the back story?’ And you go ‘that’s not actually important.’ They kept asking those questions about Bob Hoskin’s character: ‘why was he in jail? What’s the story with him and Michael Caine?’
And you say ‘that doesn’t matter. It’s a red herring or a white rabbit. It’s an utter enigma.’ So I wrote a scene where he goes into a pet shop and buys a white rabbit and gives it to somebody else. It became a theme of the film."
ON THE CRYING GAME
“After I wrote Angel I began working on the story of The Crying Game. I really wanted to make a story about somebody who feels some sense of duty to the wife of a lover, someone they’ve been responsible for the death of. An IRA guy who’s responsible for the death of a black soldier. He has to lose himself in London and he happens upon the wife.
But every time I got to that point it just became somehow dull. After I’d done the Miracle I started writing the story again and I thought ‘okay, if this soldier’s wife that he meets is actually a man the whole story would take on a different complexity and shape’, so I began to write with that in mind and it became really interesting. That’s how stories happen you do a little thing and suddenly everything changes.
“It was about race it was about politics, it was about sexuality and it got involved in all those gender conversations. I don’t think the word was even common then. Gender studies seemed to start soon after that.”
ON THE CRYING GAME STAR JAYE DAVIDSON
“Jaye never really wanted to act which is what’s fascinating about him. Have you come across him lately? He didn’t give a s***. He was just this very beautiful creature who inhabited the club scene in London at the time. Apparently he’s now all muscled up. I haven’t come across him in a long time."