First a musician, then a writer and filmmaker, Neil Jordan’s variety of experience as an artist almost matches his wildly varying choices when it comes to film projects. Every single film seems drastically different from its predecessor and not always for the better (witness We’re No Angels, or In Dreams). As any examination of his previous interviews will attest, Mr. Jordan’s opinions themselves also seem flexible, depending on who is asking him what question and at what time. Like most of us, his thoughts, even those on this newest film, Breakfast on Pluto, seem to vary in reaction to an endless barrage of festivals and questions, the most typical being, “Why does your latest film so closely resemble your hit The Crying Game?”
It’s not a surprising query. Previous collaborator Patrick McCabe wrote the novel on which Jordan’s latest film is based shortly after the release of The Crying Game, and Jordan has acknowledged that McCabe may have found a certain inspiration in the film. In Breakfast on Pluto we witness the journey of Candide-esque Pat Braden (Cillian Murphy), as he grows up in rural Ireland and then quests for his mother in London during the early 1970s. Pat is the illegitimate son of his local priest and, being brought up by parents not his own, fixates on his missing mum whose glamorous Mitzi Gaynor looks represent the kind of fabulous life he just knows he was destined to lead. Early on in the film, Pat realizes that he prefers to live life as a woman, choosing the moniker “Kitten”, but Jordan deliberately concentrates less on cross-dressing as an expression of his sexuality and more as a determined, dazzling escape from the dreary horror of “the troubles”.
Neil Jordan, now in his early fifties, was born in a small Irish village in Sligo county, an area made famous by the pastoral poetry of W.B. Yeats. He was raised in Dublin. Much has changed in Ireland since Jordan’s youth, and while there’s still an abundance of beautiful landscapes, the village where he was born is now a golf course. In Dublin, he founded the Irish Writers’ Co-op and his first book of short stories, Night in Tunisia (1978) won the Guardian Fiction Prize. He moved into film first as a writer (including a gig working with John Boorman on Excalibur) and his first film as a director, Angel, marked the beginning of what would become the most obvious of his thematic interests —- —the impact of the IRA, particularly on the years of his youth. He broke through in Europe with the hit Mona Lisa, and entered cult circles in the US with The Crying Game. While he continues to alternate between small, Irish films and bigger Hollywood pictures, his most recognizable films in the U.S. include Interview with the Vampire and The End of the Affair.
When Jordan and I meet, Breakfast in Pluto has just opened in New York, and Stephen Holden’s favorable review for the New York Times, published that day, lies open on a side table in Jordan’s San Francisco hotel room. In person he has the vaguely elfin looks of someone mischievous, but the distracted manner of someone tired of talking and ready for lunch.
PopMatters: Ireland has a great tradition of writers. Did you find there was pressure to be a writer instead of a filmmaker because of your cultural heritage?
Neil Jordan: Yes, there was. But there was no film school then. There was no tradition of film making. I started making films in the ‘80s, but I started out as a writer and then I became a filmmaker. I didn’t know what I was for a while. I kept writing and making films and writing and making films. When I started making films, because I was quite well known as a writer, I’d published a book of stories, Night in Tunisia (1976), and also my first novel, The Past (1979), there was a lot of adverse comment, a lot of people who thought that me making films was kind of decadent, somehow an abandonment of my vocation. That was the way Ireland was then. Now it’s an entirely different country.
PM: You started off working in theater?
NJ: Yeah, well, I was kind of doing music and writing for theater. I wasn’t really a theater director. I used to play music, to arrange the musical backgrounds for things and write a few scenes. We used to do community and street theater, that kind of thing. We’d get grants from various councils and it was all very haphazard, but kind of interesting.
PM: You’ve written plays since then?
NJ: Yes, I have. Three years ago. But I don’t enjoy it. I don’t know how to get people on and off the stage. I know how to get them on but I don’t know how to get them off. The stage gets pretty crowded, you know.
PM: And then the first film you wrote was directed by someone else.
NJ: The first things I wrote were short stories, but I really wanted to do film, so I wrote a script called The Traveller (1981), kind of a road movie involving two Irish gypsy kids. It was made into a film and it was very different from the way I wrote it. Very, very different. And I decided that if I wanted to continue I’d have to direct myself.
PM: What was it like to work with the fantastic Angela Carter on The Company of Wolves (1984)? Did you work together much on the script?
NJ: Yes we did. We sat down every day and went through scenes. It took us about three weeks to write the script. At night, she’d write one bit and I’d write another, then we’d get together in the morning and compare notes. And then write again. She was lovely. Wonderful. One of the great brains in British literature. Great. Wicked. Learned. Ironic.
PM: You seem to have adapted quite a few books, and you’ve remade a film. As a writer yourself, how do you decide which stories are best for a book, and which are better for the screen?
NJ: It’s not something I set out to do, adapting novels. It’s if something stimulates me, you know? Like when I read Patrick McCabe’s book, Breakfast on Pluto, it was so kind-of wild and daring, I thought I’d really like to try and make a movie out of it. Either I can see a film there or I can’t. I’m always looking for things to do. In the case of The Butcher Boy, when I read that it was so mesmeric, I just thought it seemed so impossible to make into a film, like a real challenge.
PM: How was your experience going back and writing another novel, Shade, in 2004?
NJ: That took a long time. Writing a novel is really hard and I had to stop making films for about eighteen months. I had nothing to do with film. And it was almost scary, actually. After I did the book tour and the publicity and got back, people had forgotten I had ever made movies. It was hard. They just kind of forget about you. Film business is a very up-to-the-minute business. It was like, “I wonder whatever happened to him?”
PM: Is that part of the reason why you wrote the book? To get away from the film business?
NJ: No, I wrote the book because I had been promising myself to write a book for a long time. I had gone ten years without writing a book and I’d made about six films. I wrote one or two stories in that time that were published in Zoetrope’s All Story magazine.
PM: Do you think that part of the reason you work so well with Patrick McCabe is that you share such a similar background?
NJ: Yeah, Butcher Boy said things about an Irish childhood that I’d never seen in fiction. It was one of those books that actually took minute details and it was just so familiar to me. Breakfast on Pluto is quite different. This is more like a wild fantasy, really. When I read Breakfast on Pluto it seemed almost like a series of opportunities, you know? An opportunity to go on a journey that I hadn’t gone on before.
PM: Did you add any of your own experiences to the script?
NJ: Not so much my own experiences, but I did, yeah, because I played in a band, I played in a show band. I added an enormous amount that wasn’t in the book. [In the book there was no show band. There’s no magician, there’s no theme park, the father doesn’t return, there’s no reconciliation with the father, the encounter with the mother, so it’s very different from the novel. I had the feeling when I made the movie, because the book is quite episodic, you know, I said, “Pat, there is something really unfinished about the novel.” Which is great for me because it allows you to do all sorts of things. So I said to Pat, “Shall we try to finish the book? Make it a different, more finished artifact for the movie?” And he was really glad to do that.
PM: Breakfast on Pluto has a remarkable soundtrack. Did you have all the music in mind before you shot, or did it come about when you were in the editing room?
NJ: There were some songs referred to in the novel, like “Honey” was the song the character wants to be in, in a way, and “Children of the Revolution” was in there. But what I did was, before I started shooting, I made an obsessive trawl through all the music between 1970 and 1974 and tried to choose all the little forgotten bits, you know, and then I made a tape of Kitten’s play list, all the songs I wanted to use that reflected the character and I gave it to everyone. It was kind of a musical accompaniment when we were shooting. Some sequences we shot to music, like the fantasy scene where she sprays the perfume, that kind of thing. She was walking to the beat in that scene.
PM: How did you come to cast Cillian Murphy? Had you seen him in the theater?
NJ: I saw him in the theater, he was in a play called Disco Pigs that they then made a movie of, but he wasn’t very well known. When I had finished the script I was worried. I just was wondering, is there anybody in the world, in Ireland, who can play this role? They had to be Irish. So I did a little test of the young actors at the time and video taped them and when Cillian went on it was an amazing performance. And that’s when I knew that he had to play the role. It was four years between then and the shoot because I was writing the novel and I was a little bit concerned about the political violence - there are bombs all over the world right now, in Bali, London, you know, that kind of thing.
PM: But doesn’t that make it more relevant?
NJ: It does kind of make it more relevant in a strange way. That’s when I decided to make it.
PM: And after all that time there was still no question about casting Cillian?
NJ: Every time I’d meet him he’d say, “When are you going to make it?” He’d say, “Please make this film before I’m too old.”
PM: So was it fairly easy for him to jump into that role, then?
NJ: He approached it almost physically. Cillian’s not that feminine looking really, and I think he underwent a physical transformation. He changed his diet, he began to live as a woman really, it was quite an extraordinary thing. I wanted a performance that would come from the inside out. I didn’t want a camp thing going on at all. To be honest I had to have a camp-o-meter on set to be able to say, pull it down. I just wanted him to get into the heart and soul of the character. It was almost as if the character had an independent life of its own. But then again, the film is about the character and one of the reasons why I wanted to make the film was the character’s perspective. It’s so beautiful, the character’s wit and his refusal to let the world be this serious oppressive place, you know?
PM: Is that similar to your world view now?
NJ: No, no. Well, “now”? Well, in a way this movie is a trawl through quite a bit of material I’ve dealt with before, and subject matter I’ve dealt with before, and I love this character’s perspective, I love that attitude. The simplicity with which she dismisses the stuff that oppresses her.
PM: Is that something you would aspire to, that kind of an attitude?
NJ: I would, I’d like to, but I’m far too serious for that!
PM: And the next project you’ll be doing is Borgia?
NJ: Yes, a film about the Borgia family.
PM: That seems like it will be a fairly big budget film, with big stars (Scarlett Johansson and Colin Farrell).
NJ: Well, it’s not that big. About 45 million dollars.
PM: Do you have a different attitude going into these more “big budget Hollywood” films?
NJ: No, no. They’re all the same. You always haven’t got enough money. Always. I made Interview with the Vampire, that cost about 70 million dollars. I’ve made big movies. It should be good, fascinating. It’s about a family that really tears itself to shreds trying to get to the Papacy. But with the Borgias, it’s kind of like Dallas on the Tiber, you know?