Ian Sandwell talks to Neil Jordan about the making of Byzantium, out this week in UK cinemas.
Marking Neil Jordan’s first return to the vampire genre since 1994’s Interview with a Vampire, the appeal of Byzantium to the director might not be what you expect. “The only thing that put me off doing this was that it was about vampires, really,” notes Jordan.
Instead, what attracted Jordan to the project was Moira Buffini’s script, based on her play A Vampire Story. “[Producer] Stephen Woolley sent me the script and I knew nothing about it,” recalls the director. “Normally, I’d look at the script and do another pass at it, but the voice was so distinctive and not necessarily feminine at all, but it’s only a woman that could have written it. Her sense of the 18th Century mould of storytelling was so specific that I didn’t want to interfere with it.”
An atmospheric thriller, Byzantium centres on two mysterious young women, Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), who take refuge in a rundown guesthouse. Eleanor finds herself drawn to outsider Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) and unwittingly tells him her secret: that she was born in 1804 and drinks human blood to stay alive.
Jordan is full of praise for his leading stars. “Gemma’s a wonderful actress. She’s kind of unique as she’d never done that respectable middle class thing in movies. I don’t think she’s used enough,” explains Jordan. “Saoirse, I’ve wanted to work with for a long time. She’s an amazing presence and an amazing talent. They both wanted to do the film, so that’s great.”
Yet, the production wasn’t without its difficulties, particularly when it came to finance, which meant that Jordan and Woolley had to think on their feet. In order to fulfil a section where Buffini had echoed Polidori (who wrote one of the first vampire stories in English literature), the filmmakers had picked locations in Morocco before the money fell through.
“In that version, one got lost among the ruins of ancient Greek culture and was bitten by this strange snake,” recalls Jordan. “I said to Moira, just look into the Irish versions of the same legend because every culture has their own version of the undead, and we began to explore them and she became terribly excited.”
That mythology involved going into a hut under a waterfall where something strange happens, resulting in the film’s most striking image of a blood-red waterfall. “We found this magnificent waterfall near this house that I have in the west of Ireland and it was great to make that origin of vampires and to construct it out of imagery.”
Reflecting on the differences between making a film now and back at the start of his career, Jordan believes it’s getting “harder and harder to make independent films”.
“I wrote Angel and made that, then made Company of Wolves, Mona Lisa and High Spirits, which I didn’t enjoy making, but I kept making films. Any time I’d be in post production, I’d start writing a script and lo and behold, the money would be there to make it. It doesn’t seem to happen that way now.
“The problem with making independent films these days is you feel that nobody seems to want them. You end up going to festivals like Cannes, Venice or Toronto and trying to find distributors, and it’s a different thing.”
Noting the contrast between the expanding TV world (Jordan created and produces Showtime’s The Borgias), the director says that even though creating a series is “exhausting”, the great thing is that TV seems to “want challenging stories”. “They seems to want combatative, inventive stuff and in the world of film, that seems to be the last thing they want,” says Jordan.
“As a working director, you’d have to want to do Iron Man 4 and I’m not sure I could want to do that. I think when they make these movies, they don’t want directors. They want people who they can tell what to do. They’re afraid of somebody like me who knows what they want.”
But Jordan is still upbeat about the future of cinema, particularly due to one notable 2012 debutant. “The film that I thought was the best film of last year was Beasts of the Southern Wild and that is such a profoundly imaginative film, made with such minimal resources,” explains Jordan.
“When I saw that, I thought OK, if someone can make a film like that, there is still hope for cinema. Cinema does still exist.”
Byzantium is released on May 31 through StudioCanal