Neil Jordan interview: Byzantium, The Company Of Wolves, vampires

With his new film Byzantium out this week, Neil Jordan chats to us about vampire movies, and his career to date...

In a career spanning more than three decades, Irish writer and director Neil Jordan has created some unforgettable movies. Some, such as his adaptation of Angela Carter’s The Company Of Wolves, or Mona Lisa, or The Crying Game, are cult classics.

His glossy 1994 vampire movie Interview With The Vampire was his biggest box-office hit to date, with its starry cast – including Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt – and the popularity of Anne Rice’s source novels behind it.

Since then, Jordan’s brought a varied range of movies to the screen, from thrillers (In Dreams, The Brave One, The Good Thief) to dramas (The End Of The Affair, Breakfast On Pluto).

Just under 20 years after Interview With The Vampire, Jordan’s returned to the horror genre with a very different take on the undead. Starring Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton, Byzantium is a very British, stylish and atmospheric movie, and a welcome return to the field of the supernatural for Jordan.

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Ahead of the film’s UK release, we were lucky to sit with the director to talk about his new film, vampire movies, and the work of Angela Carter.

I believe your producer [Stephen Woolley] described this script as ‘Angela Carter’s Vampirella’ when he sent it to you.

[Laughs] That’s true.

Considering that you’ve previously made both vampire and Angela Carter-movies, why were you attracted to Byzantium?

The script. Also, the fact that it was two female vampires who were a mother and daughter. That it had this kind of… [pauses] dirty realism to it.  You could see them wandering around the South West Coast of England with their sleeping bags wondering ‘where do we hide out next’. It was that kind of thing.  It was just a terribly attractive package in a way.

It felt quintessentially British.

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I agree. One thing I think British cinema is really good at is, not so much horror movies, but ghost stories. That old idea of a séance on a wet afternoon. [Pause] What’s that old portmanteau film with the ventriloquist’s dummy? 

Dead Of Night?

That’s the one. There’s just something about that mood… [pauses] It’s just that the English landscape has always been good at conveying that sense of just… spookiness! And I guess that’s just the kind of movie Byzantium is. 

I felt like it fitted within the world of some of the films you’ve made before.

Yeah, perhaps.

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And you do seem to like stories at least partly set by the sea.

Well, there were a lot of things in the script that were common to other movies I’ve made. There was the fact it was about two women, that there was someone trying to tell their story through different points of view and timeframes, the setting of a little seaside town and the fact it was about vampires! [Laughs]

When did you become attached to the project?

I wasn’t attached at all, but they just sent me the script. Stephen Woolley saw the play this is based on and asked the writer [Moira Buffini] to write a screenplay. The script they sent to me had Darvell [Sam Riley] as a psychiatrist in the present and it was almost played as if this was a fantasy that could have happened in this young girl’s mind. I remember saying to the writer: ‘Don’t be afraid of this being a vampire movie ‘cos that’s what it really wants to be.’ She went away, had a think about it and came back with what we ended up shooting. 

That’s quite interesting because when I watched the film I really liked that fact that it seemed to know exactly what it was.

Oh, thanks.

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No, I mean it. And it’s refreshing that in amongst this wave of pseudo-vampire material that’s flooded the market these last few years here’s a film that doesn’t apologise for its source material. It felt like a throwback to something like Daughters Of Darkness or even the Hammer movies.

But some of the Hammer movies are so bad though, let’s face it! [Laughs]

Definitely the later ones.

Daughters Of Darkness is good. That’s the one made by the Belgian guy, right?

Harry Kumel.

The Hunger wasn’t bad, either.

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The Tony Scott movie?

Yeah.

Another one with two female vampires.

That’s right. [Pause] I think this movie is like a scary fairy tale and that’s what good vampire movies are always like. It’s similar to stories of meeting some evil fucking witch on the road or a strange monster that lives in shadows! [Laughs] 

That’s probably why the Angela Carter thing resonated, because it reminded me – tonally, at least – of The Company Of Wolves.

Yeah, very much so.

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I wanted to ask you about working with Angela Carter, because she’s almost been forgotten in some respects.

She has a bit, hasn’t she?

And yet you go back and re-read her work and it’s still so potent and alive and… relevant, I guess.

What have you re-read?

Recently? The Bloody Chamber and American Ghosts and Old World Wonders.

The short stories. The novels are harder, aren’t they?

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I wouldn’t say she’s really a novelist.

No, she wasn’t really. [Pause] Angela was a great allegorist. With The Company Of Wolves she’d written a short radio script based on that story in The Bloody Chamber. She showed it to me, and it was too short for a movie, but I read it and the other stories and said: ‘If we can come up with a structure, whereby someone tells a story which is The Company Of Wolves, and within that story someone else starts telling a story and within that story someone else starts…’  

A bit like Chaucer.

Not so much Chaucer. Have you ever seen a Polish movie called The Sargossa Manuscript?

No.

Well, that’s the structure of that film. Fictions within fictions. So I said to Angela, if we can play with that idea then maybe we can make a movie that uses all of the stories in your collection. So that’s what we began to do and that eventually became The Company Of Wolves.

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It wove together incredibly well.

Kind of.

I watched it again recently and I was struck by how it really shouldn’t work as a movie and yet, somehow, it really does. I just think the tone is just spot on and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it has great performances by Angela Lansbury and David Warner, as well as a brilliantly strange cameo by Terence Stamp!

You’re right. [Laughs] But the effects are so cornball now, aren’t they?

But you have to watch it in the context of when it was made.

I know. [Laughs] They brought it out on Blu-ray and I wanted to have a look at the effects again and re-cut bits of it and all these fans said: ‘No, you can’t do that because it’s the movie we love.’  So I thought… okay! [Laughs]

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Byzantium is out on the 31st May in UK cinemas. You can read our review here.