By Ray Sawhill
Cerebral and visceral at the same time, the Irish writer and film director Neil Jordan’s movies suggest the work of a graduate seminarian who gorges on mystery stories and pop music. After making a mark in his 20s with his fiction — which so far includes “Night in Tunisia” (1976), “The Past” (1980), and “The Dream of a Beast” (1983) — Jordan turned to writing for television and then sent a film script to the director John Boorman.
He became a filmmaker in 1982, when Boorman persuaded Britain’s Channel Four to finance “Angel,” which was released in America (and is available on videocassette) as “Danny Boy.” A drama about a sax player in an Irish dance band who sets out to avenge the deaths of a friend and a deaf-mute girl, the film was pointedly apolitical, and it scandalized Ireland. Jordan made his next film in London. “The Company of Wolves” (1984) is a story-within-a-story, Chinese-box film that suggests a combination of the Brothers Grimm, Bettelheim, and Borges. It was a commercial success in England and a cult favorite in the States, and is remarkable for focusing sympathetically on the sexual dreams and fears of a pubescent girl. (The film’s co-screenwriter, Angela Carter, called it “a menstrual movie.”)
“Mona Lisa,” (1986), the film Jordan is most widely known for, is a lurid melodrama about a thug who falls in love with the call girl he’s assigned to chaperone. Witty and ingrown, but with a rampaging spirit, “Mona Lisa” may be the only successful example of a film many directors have tried to make — the film noir as conscious poetry — and it turned Bob Hoskins, for whom the lead role was designed, into a star.
Jordan moved into the world of big budgets and international casts with his next movie, “High Spirits” (1988), a farce about American tourists visiting an Irish castle, but the film was taken away from him by his producers during editing, and the mangled version bombed badly.
Jordan is thirty-nine years old. He grew up in Dublin, and between films returns to a home on the Dublin shore. I met him at a French restaurant in Manhattan; he was drowsy when he arrived, and contentedly unkempt in jeans and a T-shirt. He was in town to do some looping for his new movie, “We’re No Angels,” a variation on a 1954 film that starred Humphrey Bogart and Peter Ustinov (and which was itself based on a 1951 play by Albert Husson); Jordan made his version in Canada from a script by David Mamet, with Robert De Niro and Sean Penn in the leading roles. He’s a soft-spoken lunchtime companion, but there are hints of truculence and intensity in his dark eyes, and in the way he emphasizes his remarks with “Do you know what I mean?” and “Do you understand?”
RAY SAWHILL: There’s a line in “Angel” where the hero asks the girl what Protestants know about sin and she answers something like “Nothing at all.” Are you a practicing Catholic?
NEIL JORDAN: No, not at all. I’m a bad Catholic.
RS: Aren’t most Catholics “bad Catholics”?
NJ: I’m a really bad Catholic. It’s not a subject that fascinates me, but it’s an issue that obsesses Ireland. The Irish Catholic church is a very mean an autocratic institution, far more repressive and puritanical than what you find anywhere else, I think. But it’s set in a peasant culture, so there’s a certain kind of irreverence and earthiness that’s part of people’s lives and which counteracts the church.
RS: I picture you as having been a serious student.
NJ: I was a very intellectual kid, a very big reader. My father taught at a teacher-training college and my mother was a painter. Her father was a painter. He was a professor of fine arts at the College of Art in Dublin. I was born in Sligo on the west coast, but we moved to the city. It was a middle-class upbringing and quite a literate one. I went to college and studied Plato and Aristotle with great relish, although the only languages apart from English that I have any acquaintance with are GAelic and Latin.
RS: Was there any American-style popular culture around when you were growing up?
NJ: I was fascinated by music and movies. There was no television — most families couldn’t afford TV. I used to be allowed to go once every two weeks to the cinema. There was an assumption on the part of Irish society in general that cosmopolitan influences were tainted with some kind of evil — a little like Iran at the moment. The devil spoke through Carole Lombard and Buddy Holly.
RS: Did that make it more enticing?
NJ: Totally, yeah. My father was a very intellectual man. I argued with him a lot when I was a kid — ferocious stand-up fights all the time. Religion, politics, sex. He was very enlightened and kind. But he came from a small-town background. And the great problems in rural Ireland are alcoholism and madness, which go hand in hand. There were strains of that in probably everybody’s family. Coming from a small farm, he had had to educate himself, teach himself to read, go to university. He was somebody who created a different life for himself. And to do that, I suppose, one has to teach oneself a certain rigidity. So I used to fight against that a lot.
RS: Were you an only child?
NJ: No, there were five of us. I’m the second-oldest. My mother wanted all her kids to paint. I used to paint a lot when I was a kid. Then around the age of twelve I just stopped, and now I can’t draw a line. Well, I can draw doodles and cartoons, but both of my sisters are professional painters in Dublin — whatever small art market is there. There’s really no tradition of visual arts in Ireland because there is never any money to support it. It’s ass simple as that. There’s no architecture of any significance, except by the Anglo-Irish; the native Irish never had a chance to build anything. The mode of expression that costs nothing is literature, storytelling.
I started writing when I was about fourteen. Stories, poetry, plays. Approximations of the people I was reading at the time — Graham Greene, Dostoyevski, Yeats, Joyce. One has an urge to write at certain times. It doesn’t matter what you write about so long as you write. I went to university specifically to do that. I studied literature and history. I worked in an ensemble theater in Dublin — a group of writers, directors, actors. When I got my degree I began to try to live off that.
RS: What were the plays you wrote like?
NJ: They were performed, never published. I was mainly the writer in the group. I love writing for actors. Jim Sheridan, who’s just made a film called “My Left Foot” — it’s wonderful, and Daniel Day-Lewis is wonderful in it — was a part of the group. He’s a wonderful theater director, one of the best directors of actors I’ve ever come across. He and myself and a group of Irish actors and one or two other Irish writers were part of this same fringe theater group in Dublin. We used to write plays about social issues that affected people in Dublin at the time. We used to write children’s plays, street theater, musicals.
RS: Did you manage to make a living off it?
NJ: I never made a living off of anything, really. Which is why at one stage I turned to playing music. I was in my early twenties, married, with one child, living in Dublin, unemployed. Writing fiction, writing for the theater, absolutely broke. They needed a guitarist in this band, and I thought, Rock ‘n’ roll musicians make some money. So I said O.K. I just did it for money. But it was from that experience that my first movie [“Angel”] came.
We were traveling around Ireland, playing in large dance halls. There were groups called show bands, playing an amalgam of country and rock music. But for some reason they had brass sections. They came from a combination of these old swing bands that were knocked out by Bill Haley — they were still trying to make a living. It was a strange compromise between rock ‘n’ roll and what you would think of as a dance band of the ’40s.
In the north there was fighting going on; in the south there was not.The only people who were immune were the musicians. They would travel freely. So we’d travel to Belfast and Derry, driving back at three or four at night, which can be very frightening if you’re driving through areas where there’s been trouble.
RS: Did you have any frightening encounters?
NJ: Only when I did the movie. I got a lot of threats. I had to move out of my house. The movie is based on an incident involving a group called the Miami Show Band. One night they were traveling back from the north of Ireland, and they were stopped by me dressed as soldiers, taken out, and machine-gunned. It was a sectarian killing.
RS: What happened when you made the movie?
NJ: I began to get a few people visiting my house at night.
RS: Throwing rocks against your windows?
NJ: No, no. One night two guys walked into the house, into my child’s bedroom, looked around, and walked out again. It was a demonstration that “We know what you’re up to.”
RS: You must have wondered whether the film was worth doing.
NJ: Well, I was in the middle of it by then. And things like that happen all the time in Ireland, but rarely do they lead to anything serious. I rang up the Special Branch, the group of people who are meant to look after us. Years later, I crashed my car one night, and for some reason no police came to the scene. Eventually, after an hour or two — there were traffic jams everywhere — they came. I asked my lawyer, “Why on earth did it take them so long to come?” He said it was because the guys who came first were actually Special Branch and didn’t want to interfere. I wonder whether they were just keeping in touch, just following along.
RS: How old were you when you wrote your first book?
NJ: Twenty-four. I was unemployed. I was with the theater group. I was living in not a bad house, really. In Dublin you can always get by. But I was collecting the dole. I published stories, and I felt very proud and lucky and very surprised that what I’d written was well-received. The first book I wrote won the Guardian fiction prize. I became quite a literary young lion.
I come from a very literary culture. My friends were writers like Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney. They’re people that want the flame to be carried forward, the tradition to be carried on. So when I began to make films, among the literary community in Ireland it was considered a horrendous thing to do, an utter betrayal of one’s calling and one’s destiny — that sort of stuff. It was if Maria Ewing had begun to sing with Boy George. Film is not part of the culture.
RS: Your fiction is quite literary. Yet in your movies, in a popular art form —
NJ: Well, that’s the reason I moved into movies. I see movies as a great escape from the awful burdens of literature. If you ever try to sit down and write a novel, you’re at the typewriter for two years. You can go nuts.
RS: When you turned from your typewriter and your blank sheets of paper to writing for movies and television, what was it like?
NJ: Well, first of all, everything has been a release from sitting alone writing. (Laughs) Except marriage — that was not a release. Basically everything that I’ve done in a more public milieu has been to get myself away from writing fiction — an alternative and an escape from it. It just happens that movies have been the most engrossing and the most fulfilling. Even when I played music, it was just so wonderful to be among a mass of people.
RS: But when you wrote for TV you were unhappy with what was done with what you wrote.
NJ: Just like most writers, yeah. Then I sent John Boorman a script about two young Irish gypsy kids —
RS: There are gypsies in Ireland?
NJ: Yeah, they’re called tinkers. The kids in the film get involved in an arranged marriage and in smuggling. It was a bit like “They Live By Night,” that Nicholas Ray movie about two sweet young kids who meet in this horrible world. John liked it a lot, and he got in touch with me and asked me to write another script with him — “Broken Dreams,” which has never been made. It was a futuristic script — a delightful, wonderful story about the end of the world. It was from a French novel set in the west of Ireland about a group of magicians, by the guy who wrote “Diva” — Daniel Odier. And the ultimatee trick was to make things actually vanish. They couldn’t bring them back. It was kind of a crazed premise. John has wanted to do it for a long, long time. It’s i that midrange between being too expensive to be quirky and too quirky to be cheap. We sat for three months in a room and wrote it, and he went off to try to get it financed and couldn’t. Then he made “Excalibur,” and he asked me to do some work on the last draft of that script.
RS: You were on the set of “Excalibur,” making a documentary.
NJ: Yeah, it’s been shown on television. I was credited as “consultant.” John asked me to be around during the shooting. I said, “O.K., but I’ll have nothing to do — I’ll feel awkward. So why don’t you let me make a documentary about you making the film? And if you want to swap ideas and talk, I’ll at least have a function; I won’t be like an idiot, getting in the way.” Basically we talked about the scenes, what’s happening here, what’s happening there.
RS: I picture the two of you sitting around talking about Freud and Jung, fairy tales and dreams.
NJ: (Laughs) That might be a bit idealistic. But John allowed me to see that films could be accessible to personal vision.
RS: You seem to share some ideas about dreams and myths.
NJ: Oh, yeah. Since I was about fifteen I’ve been obsessed with all that — with the idea of nonrationality. I’m very impatient with explanations of human behavior that begin and end with the rational. And the kinds of stories I love are ones where rational human beings are confronted with things they can’t explain.
RS: Ireland seems to have no film tradition.
NJ: None whatsoever. But for me filmmaking was a wonderful release. Because in Ireland, everything has been written about to a large extent. Particularly after Joyce. I lived in the city he’d written about. Some of the greatest literature of the twentieth century took place in this city I grew up in. It’s impossible not to feel swamped by that. You grow up in this culture, this landscape, in which every little detail has been written about. Every little brick, every corner, every place you go has a literary association, be it through Joyce or Patrick Kavanagh or Flann O’Brien or whomever. One’s palate becomes sort of jaded. One’s imagination becomes paralyzed.
RS: How was “Angel” received in Ireland?
NJ: Oh, I was thrown out of the country. Literally. It caused such outrage — it offended every possible segment. It offended extreme nationalists in the south, who thought I hadn’t taken a political stance. It offended loyalists. It particularly offended members of the film community of Ireland, because I was a novelist and I’d made a movie myself. It offended literary people. The only people it didn’t offend were in Anderson’s Town, in the ghettos of Belfast; they rather liked it. (Laughs)
RS: Were you conscious of becoming part of an explosion of British filmmaking?
NJ: I was very conscious of being in an environment that allowed people like myself to make films. I was aware of Channel Four — they did “Angel.” Without them I would never have directed a film. I was aware of an environment that was hungry for filmmaking. As a cultural capital ten years before, London had the greatest theater in the world. For some reason that changed, and for a certain period it was directed toward the cinema. Peter Greenaway was making films, and Stephen Frears …
RS: Are the British directors who came from TV commercials, like Ridley Scott and Tony Scott and Adrian Lyne, part of this bunch?
NJ: I think the great filmmaker in Britain whom everybody has ignored is Ken Loach. He can’t make a movie anymore. When he made “Kes” and his other movies, he didn’t just throw a great wash of gray paint over your entire being; he managed to photograph real people in all their dimensions. But Ridley and Tony Scott and Adrian Lyne make Hollywood studio pictures without any questions. They make them on Hollywood’s own terms. Whereas Stephen Frears and David Leland and myself and others would make American films, but we’d probably make them with some questions.
The only other director I’ve met at all regularly is Stephen Frears. He’s the only one I’ve talked to more than a few times, except for David Leland, who wrote with me on “Mona Lisa.” British society for some reason is not terribly communicative. England is a rather constricted place. It can drive you crazy as an Irish person. What you have to realize about the British is that they’re not very happy with themselves and never have been. They have no way, even in their socially conscious films, to find redemptive images. Because there’s something in the British psyche that doesn’t actually like life. A movie like “Do the Right Thing” in many ways takes a social perspective similar to that of the British movies that were made in the past eight years. But none of them would be able to carry the political and social intent with the same amount of liveliness, of fun.
RS: You married very young.
NJ: Yeah, and had two kids. In the Irish way. I was about twenty-one when we had the first one. With “Company of Wolves” I wanted to make something that would illuminate what my daughters were going into. In my fiction I’ve always liked to write from inside women’s parts, for some reason. You have to imagine yourself into an experience that’s totally the opposite of your own. There’s great freedom in that, a strange release. Angela Carter’s story was the basis for the film, but I wanted to create the visual approximation of a girl’s mind at that age — with the narrative confusion and the association from one image to another. Which is why the film probably has a confused structure. Or, not confused, but not quite circular. There’s a film I saw a long time ago called “The Saragossa Manuscript,” a wonderful movie, made by a Polish director. It was one of Luis Bunuel’s favorite films. That film does have that circularity. There’s an authorial organization to the entire thing. I resisted doing that in this case; I wanted some aspect of the accidental.
RS: “The Company of Wolves” is so strange because it’s a very thought-out film that addresses the unconscious.
NJ: It’s a cheeky film. It was after Spielberg had come out with his films, and “Star Wars” had been released, and Ridley Scott was working in London. I was working with these guys who had worked on all these big movies. So Anton Furst and the cinematographer and I were making a film that belonged to the realm of these large special-effects movies, but with bits of twine, and dolls, and twelve trees that we had to shift around the studio to give the impression of a forest. That’s all we could afford to build.
RS: How did you daughters react to “Company of Wolves”?
NJ: They love it. Kids love that movie, particularly young girls. My youngest daughter is nine, and she holds screenings of it.
RS: Which of your films is your daughters’ favorite?
NJ: Oh, the worst of the bunch, I suppose. The one I made last — “High Spirits.”
RS: Do you see the girls a lot?
NJ: I do. If I’m doing postproduction on a film, the only way I can see them is to bring them into the theater: “What do you think of this, kids?” “Do you like that?”
RS: Your films have a familiarity with going backstage.
NJ: Oh, I love that world, don’t you? I think some of the best films are about people who have to perform: “Sawdust and Tinsel” and “The Magic Flute.” I love “La Strada.” I want to do a film in Ireland that’s about backstage performance. The thing I’d love most to make would be a backstage musical set in outer space.
RS: Are you putting me on? Your eyes are twinkling.
NJ: No, I’m serious. It’s an interesting problem, how one would make a musical that would still have some kind of resonance today. I wrote a story a long time ago for my daughter which was about hoofers in space who traveled around entertaining troops in these intergalactic wars. It was basically a backstage musical that went from asteroid to asteroid. But now I want to do a film in Ireland that’s a simple little film about a musician — about a marriage that went wrong. I’m just writing it. The woman had a child and left before the child was even one, left it to be brought up by its father. She comes back and the son doesn’t know that she’s his mother. It’s set in a theater in Dublin. It would be a very simple film with three or four actors — a bit of an antidote the big film I’ve just made.
RS: There’s something of a backstage musical in all your films.
NJ: Especially “Angel.” You know the way when you begin to make a film with someone for the first time you show each other films? Chris Menges, the cinematographer, would show me a lot of realist movies and I would show him musicals. I wanted a tension between both things.
RS: It’s very sophisticated for a first film.
NJ: Not in terms of the narrative. What I had to learn was narrative, which was an odd thing for a writer. The visual aspect, the composition, came easier to me. I had written the script with the images in mind: the girl by the tree, the guy in the pink suit on the beach.
RS: Where are you based now?
NJ: I’ve been in Canada for nine months shooting “We’re No Angels.” It’s very pretty up there — too pretty in many ways. What happens in Vancouver is that when the sun comes out it’s too healthy. There’s no diffusion in the sky. You get this horrible blue. It’s very beautiful, but photographically it’s ugly. So we kept waiting for clouds, and sometimes the clouds wouldn’t come.
But I live in Dublin — I go away to work and come back to Dublin. It’s a nice early-Victorian house in Bray, a seaside town. The weaves actually hit my third-story window. I get flooded every now and then. Have you read “Portrait of the Artist”? You know the Christmas-dinner scene, where Dante talks about Parnell? That took place in the house next door. That family lived there. Most of my life is spent alone. I have a girlfriend, Beverly D’Angelo, who was in “High Spirits.” I’d say she’s my fiancee. When I’m in Dublin, she comes to Dublin; when she’s in L.A., I go to L.A.
RS: Did you have a good time working together on “High Spirits”?
NJ: We had a very good time. She’s very fiery. But it’s such a noisy film as it exists now. I was on a plane with Beverly, and it was on, and I thought, Oh God, this is the noisiest film ever made. It’s terrible to see a movie you’ve made that you’re not that happy with. It makes you not want to make films again.
RS: When I saw “High Spirits,” I thought, Gee, Neil Jordan seems to want to do something delicate, and the producers seem to want “National Lampoon.”
NJ: That’s a fair impression. The entire thing was a bit of a mess. “High Spirits” was meant to be a coherent farce, not an incoherent farce. I pictured it as a farce — like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — that concluded in an erotic series of encounters. Where on one night everyone goes through an experience that changes them radically. The experience is the falling in love with ghosts. I wanted to set up this complicated series of characters and throw all these balls up in the air, and the question was: How are you going to resolve it all? And then I would resolve it through a series of deaths and rebirths. It’s a classic form. Every films I’ve ever done, I write out a two-page description of it first. The shape of it is there. I wanted to do “High Spirits” quite simply. I knew I needed American actors and all that. For whatever reasons — probably because it needed quite an expensive budget — I involved myself with American producers.
What happens with independent productions, even ones with big budgets like mine, is very simple, really: You bring a script to a bunch of people, and they say, “O.K., we an get yo the money for this, but we will need a star name.” They go to a festival or market like Cannes, and they sell it to different territories. Bit by bit you find yourself backed into a corner — first of all with regard to the casting, maybe later on with regard to the script. That’s the kind of thing that happened to me on this film. To get the resources to make it on the scale I needed to make it on, and to deliver the effects and build the set, I had to get into that world. That was my very first time.
RS: Wasn’t “Company of Wolves” an expensive film?
NJ: Inexpensive. It cost about $3 million. “High Spirits” cost $17 million. I wrote the script; I got my designer, Anton Furst — the guy who designed “Batman” and “Company of Wolves” — and all his crew working on the sets while I was still negotiating with the producers. All the guys I work with were desperate to make this film because so few films were being made in Britain at the time. So to keep the project alive I began to back myself into a corner, thinking I could solve all these problems during the shooting. Most of which I actually did. But then we had a lot of arguments over the cut at the end. Bit by bit I lost control.
RS: Which are the arguments you lost?
NJ: The argument about the structure of the entire piece. The structure of the film was about the castle itself — the hotel — and the inhabitants of that hotel, with the American characters being visitors, flitting around the main story. And all the Irish actors — their parts were decimated.
As I shot it, the tale of all these shouting and screaming Americans was auxiliary. The entire balance of the film was upset. In the end it seemed like a stupid story and structure for a film. The only thing I like is that there is a beauty in the visual organization of the piece.
It was heartbreaking. It almost killed me. I’d not done anything before that I’d not finished. With this, I filmed everything I wanted, but what was released was unfinished.
It makes me very violent, I must say. It makes me very angry, very vindictive. I would gladly have done serious damage to people’s joints.
In the end, either you have power or you’re working with people who have enough moral integrity or intelligence to share your vision. I was working with idiots — I don’t mean the actors; the actors gave everything.
Making films is a very tiring thing to do. There have been moments when I’ve just wanted to resign from them. It’s too much trouble. It’s not that too much responsibility is placed on the director. In an odd way, it’s not enough. If as a director you were responsible from beginning to end for every decision, you wouldn’t have these endless discussions and meetings, so you could actually do it rather quickly. But as it is, you’re responsible yet you’re answerable. And that takes a tremendous amount of time. It can be very exhausting. All the decisions I make are out of my instincts. I can’t do it otherwise. But sometimes you have argue, and sometimes you have to be diplomatic and kind of sly. You have to do things and not reveal why you’re doing them at the time.
RS: Can you give me an example?
NJ: If you’re told by a producer that this set can stay up for only a week and you know you need it for two weeks, you say, O.K., we leave it up for a week. You’ve already argued about it for two weeks anyway. And when you come to shoot it you deliberately leave the major scene till Friday, and you won’t get it finished on Friday, so it has to stay up on Monday for the next week.
RS: Does this come easily to you?
NJ: Well, it’s stuff one learns very quickly when one’s back is against the wall. It’s stuff like that that’s very tiring. But the truth is, there’s nothing more pleasurable than making films. you’re dealing with color, you’re dealing with light, you’re dealing with actors, you’re photographing things that move through time. It’s a wonderful medium. And you’re not doing something that’s a potpourri of these various arts; you’re making something that’s quite different. It’s a pleasure that’s difficult to relinquish.
RS: Did your theater work teach you how to talk to actors?
NJ: Well, up until this most recent film everything I did was from my own script. So I was in the happy position of being able to rewrite the dialogue very rapidly, or to restructure the scene if something wonderful happened when we were shooting. And as I cast a the film I could change the parts. I would rewrite to get their personalities into the script. I used to try to get the actors to reinvent the whole story themselves as they doing the film.
RS: What was it like working with American actors?
NJ: American actors seem to want to invent their parts themselves. I find them fascinating. They work with much more commitment to the actual idea than British actors do. To a certain extent, British actors are slumming when they’re in movies, except for the good ones, like Hoskins and Caine — people who are no so much of the theater.
RS: Caine can be an astounding actor, like in “Educating Rita.”
NJ: Or “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
RS: But sometimes he just seems to be checking in at a cocktail party. You got such a malevolent performance from him in “Mona Lisa.” I wouldn’t have thought of Michael Caine if I were looking for malevolence.
NJ: A lot of the stuff he did in England when he was younger was straight out of his background — South London working-class boy who wants to make good by whatever means possible.I just tried to tap into that aspect of him. he loved it. It’s interesting — he will take the easiest of possible options for the first take. If he’s allowed, he’ll come in and do it and go home. But the more you probe and demand, the more excited Michael gets. And the happier he gets, really.
RS: Do you rehearse with the actors?
NJ: Except with Bobby [De Niro] and Sean [Penn] — we rehearsed for a day — I’ve never rehearsed with the actors. I’ve had discussions; I don’t find it productive. He walks in the door, he looks around, the bar explodes. What can you rehearse about that? I would like to work out the characters sometimes in more detail.
RS: If you could wave a magic wand and change the way films are made, what would you change?
NJ: First of all, I would ask that they be budgeted correctly. In other words, when the script is passed and accepted, and they want the script to have certain elements, they should put enough money into the film to realize the script correctly and coherently. This very rarely happens. Usually they want everything in it, the big bits and the small bits, but they limit you: you’ve only so much time and money, you can have only two hundred extras here or twenty cars there.
And I would also ask for a certain period to reshoot stuff. It’s the only medium in the world where you never get a second chance. In practice people do it all the time, because things go wrong, but they don’t budget for it. So it causes a lot of argument and friction.
RS: What’s the David Mamet script for “We’re No Angels” like?
NJ: Over the years I’d been sent many scripts, and I’d always turned them down. But if I’d ever written my ideal script, this would have been it. It was extraordinary. Amazing. This is David’s most sentimental, sweetest script to date. It has two guys escaping from prison who are not-quite-made-it crooks, innocents, who are mistaken for priests. There’s a prostitute with a heart of gold who goes through a religious conversion. I think it’s his best script. I did the film because the script is so good.
RS: De Niro and Penn are said to be very demanding actors.
NJ: They’re quite demanding, but quite wonderful. It was a new encounter for me, because I had never been confronted with as many questions. Their demands on the specific reality of the parts they played were painstaking. It was very good for me, because it forced me to ask a lot of questions. I have never been concerned with the realistic nature of performances. I never thought about it really, probably because I’d written the parts. On the other films, it was more like: This script will never be made if I don’t make it. It was different here. I was a director for the first time. It’s a very interesting thing to be a director.
David’s script was spare, and my entire attack on the movie was to make it lush and large and circuslike and emotional. The script is an anti-religious parable about redemption. Which was wonderful, because what people hope for from religion — which it never gives them — is the whole center of the characters. Sean makes a wonderful speech which expresses the whole thing – why people want to believe and why the systems that are meant to give them belief never match them. But if they do want to believe, what’s wrong with that?
RS: When Cathy Tyson shoots Michael Caine in “Mona Lisa,” you —
NJ: I gave her a kind of saintly aspect, yeah. One longs for the serenity of that world. In the new movie I have a deaf-and-dumb kid. If you’re talking about wounded innocents … The images that move me most are redemptive ones. My sense of that probably comes out of Italian paintings. My mother used to surround me with them as a kid. There’s a wonderful painting by Velazquez in the National Gallery in London which is called “The Immaculate Conception.” Mary is sitting on a globe among the planets with a halo of stars around her head. And she has a little bruised and wounded face, like a kid about fifteen who you’d want to have sex with. I’m sure Velazquez did. Have a look at it and you’ll see the same face you see in “Angel,” the little girl before the tree. I tend to look at pictures like that to find images that will resonate and some starting point for a visual structure.
RS: Was Penn awed by working with De Niro? What kind of rapport did they have?
NJ: Everyone was slightly awed by working with De Niro, because he’s such a complete actor. He has done less bad work than anybody else I can think of. I’m sure that to actors in general he is quite an awesome figure. As to whether Sean was awed by Bobby, I don’t think so. Or maybe he was privately, but maybe he was saved by the part. They both involved themselves very deeply in their parts, and they played two opposite kinds of people: one innocent and full of wonder, the other fast-talking and tough. Bob was the fast-talking guy and Sean the innocent.
RS: I understand that De Niro is not the most verbal of people.
NJ: No but one of the most intelligent he is. It’s kind of an instinctive intelligence one is working with. I hate it when people can articulate things too clearly, because then it’s said and there’s no other way of saying it.
RS: Yet you are very articulate.
NJ: But I don’t articulate when I’m working. I almost deliberately try not to. Because if you can describe it, there’s no point in doing it. Really!
They’re both very demanding actors, but the demands they make are very productive ones. Because of the level of reality both guys bring to their performances, it’s best to surround them with reality. If they’re reacting to something, it’s far better to have the thing they’re reacting to there behind the camera rather than just to imagine it. There’s a level of falsity that doesn’t exist in that style of acting, which I had not come across before.
RS: Bob Hoskins seems to be that kind of actor too.
NJ: He is, yeah. I think acting in a film has a lot to do with the realism the medium demands. But I love when it can go into levels of mime, burlesque, melodrama. I found Hoskins was that kind of guy. He could become a song-and-dance man in a minute. And he could awaken in himself these huge, almost Dickensian kinds of emotions – a think which you don’t specifically connect with movies. The great thing about working with him was that I had anticipated somebody who would be terrifying about the interior logic of his part, but he wasn’t that way at all. He was able to take imaginative leaps and make quite an irrational journey through it.
RS: How much of a student of movies and thrillers have you been?
NJ: When I was a kid, I was not allowed to go to the cinema all that often. I remember wanting to see “The Battle of the Sexes,” which I thought was a war movie. My parents wouldn’t let me, and they would never tell me why When I saw “La Strada” the first time, that’s when I was taken over by film; that’s when I lost faith in the written word. I saw it when I was about eighteen. Then I saw Kurosawa movies and Bunuel films … Something about the idea of photography knocked me dead. The idea of photographing Giulietta Massina playing the trumpet, the idea of that both belonging to stories and actually happening, began to make me think, Why write a fiction that says, “He woke up and he remembered the sweet taste of her perfume” or something? Why write something as false as that when something like photography exists?
In many ways, all the fiction I wrote was refusing to be a novel. I could never describe a character’s inner life. I could only describe the physical realities of their fictional existence. I could never allow myself to take that liberty. I despised it. I regarded the novel as defunct, basically. I used to read too much Robbe-Grillet. That was it, really. I could not describe anything other than what could be seen or smelled or heard.
RS: Do you still hang out with your old theater friends?
NJ: I do. But Dublin’s a very small city. It’s an ideal place to return to. It’s not too good a place to live all the time.
RS: How do you find time for your literary writing?
NJ: I don’t. I’m meant to deliver a novel by Christmas. I’m trying to start it at the moment. I’m trying to find a way of writing again. I think the solution is to be more vulgar than I have been in the past, to actually begin to talk about the characters’ inner lives — to allow myself to make those statements. I was too strict with myself before.
RS: Do you have hobbies?
NJ: I ski. I go skiing with my kids, to Switzerland. I took it up because Christmas in Ireland is quite a horrendous time. Everyone drinks so much that you’re literally wrecked afterward, or at least I am, because I like to drink. So I said, All right, I’ll take my kids away to Switzerland. And they enjoyed it.
I rarely stay at home. I go out all the time. I go around the pubs — that’s what I like to do with my time. But I hang out with my kids. I spend as much of my spare time with them as I can.
I am the only gainfully employed person that I know where I come from. So I have to look out for a lot of people. It’s a very embarrassing position to be in. People want to borrow money off me, but once they do they hate me, because they can’t pay it back.
RS: How do you handle that?
NJ: I give them the money. I say, Here, don’t borrow it, take it.
RS: What do you read? What music do you listen to?
NJ: I mainly listen to classical music. When I was younger I used to listen to everything before 1500 and everything after 1890. I’ve never really gone through Mozart, so for the moment I’m trying to listen to as much of Mozart as I can. I reading a biography of Shaw — a bit dull. Have you read his plays? You can read them, but they’re hard to watch. I’m reading a volume of art criticism by John Ashbery. I’m a fan of his poetry — I’m intrigued; I want to find out where the meaning is. But I basically like movies. I go all the time, especially when I’m making a film. It relaxes me and makes me think of things. On a Saturday, I used to go see five movies if I was shooting a film. Recently I saw “The Abyss.” I saw “Casualties of War,” which is beautifully made and definitely a film of stature, but I don’t know if I enjoyed it.
RS: What do movies represent for you?
NJ: I connect movies with sex and isolation. I connect them with forbidden things — rich, strange things that don’t happen in real life. I mean sex, sexually charged images. I don’t mean dirty, nasty, prurient things. I mean a level of eroticism and sensuality. I connect it with intoxication, with what storytelling should be. When I was a kid, it was something that aroused emotions that were far, far bigger than the things one was surrounded by.
RS: There are a lot of indications of the irrational and the spiritual in your films.
NJ: It comes out of my background. The Irish psyche is impatient with reality. There’s a great quotation: “It refuses to subject itself to the tyranny of fact.” It’s true. it’s much happier with lies than it is with truth. It’s much happier with inventions than it is with reality. It’s actually much happier with failure than with material success. There’s a feeling that too much concentration on the mundane matters of business and everyday life stifles your … I guess your ability to have fun is what it comes to. (Laughs)
©1989 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Interview magazine.