French legend Isabelle Huppert is unleashed in Greta, in which she plays the title character: a desperate, lonely but unfortunately not-all-there woman seeking companionship and finding it, at least initially, with Frances (Chloe Grace Moretz), a waitress who recently moved into her friend’s (Maika Monroe) New York City loft and is grieving the loss of her mother.
When Frances finds Greta’s lost purse on the subway, she dutifully returns it to the woman at her Brooklyn apartment and they strike up a friendship. But the more Frances finds out about Greta, the less she wants to be around her — a state of affairs that the increasingly unstable Greta will go to any length to change.
Greta is directed by Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan, something of a legend himself for his restless, inquisitive, genre-jumping movies. From the surreal fairy tale trappings of The Company of Wolves to the gender-bending romance and thrills of the groundbreaking The Crying Game (which still features one of the best reveals of all time) to the Gothic darkness of Interview with the Vampire, Jordan has always probed into characters and scenarios that are just outside the reach of normal everyday life.
Greta examines some of Jordan’s favorite recurring themes — loneliness, urban isolation, memory and longing — within the lurid confines of a Brian De Palma-type shocker. It’s Jordan’s first feature in seven years, since 2012’s Byzantium, and Den of Geek had the chance to speak with him recently about returning to the big screen after spending time in TV (with The Borgias and Riviera), working with Huppert and more.
Den of Geek: I wanted to ask about the origins of this because it’s a little bit different, but it also touches on the kind of things that you’ve touched on in previous films — people in isolation who find each other. How did it kind of coalesce into this story?
Neil Jordan: I would say it was the script, really. It felt in areas like that stalker genre, I suppose, that I have known. That was kind of familiar territory. What was amazing to me was that, actually, it was a woman that was the bête noire of the whole piece, really. I thought that was smart, so interesting, and it was really worth examination.
That’s why I decided to try and make a film. It being contemporary Hollywood, it’s not permitted in a movie that perhaps would have been made by Sony or Paramount like 20 years ago. Having said, “I’ll make this,” we had to make an independent film. The reason I was interested in it was the drama was concentrated on three women really and that really worth exploring for me.
Normally in a film dealing with a stalker, it’s always sort of an opposite sex type of thing. But this was all about women.
I thought it was also interesting that the obsession was not sexual. The obsession was through motherhood. Motherhood, friendship, the need for contact, loneliness, whatever we call it. I really enjoyed building up the portrait of Greta as this woman who was so desperate for human contact that she was willing to fish for it and once it was found, she wouldn’t let it go. I thought, “Okay, that could be a really interesting character.” That’s what I felt and that’s why I wanted to make the film.
It’s also a frightening prospect to have somebody who seems, initially, very maternal, very worldly, and then turn that around so drastically.
Yeah, absolutely. Mothers are terrifying, aren’t they? Particularly sophisticated mothers who wear Chanel jackets and use beautiful perfume, and stuff like that. Once you push the center of gravity towards the female, all sorts of other things crawl out of the closet, so to speak. All sorts of issues come out of the closet.
I suppose when you see an older woman that’s supposed to be nurturing, supportive, and kind of understanding, but the fact is that all of the opposite emotions are evoked by the character, to me that was intriguing really. It was within the context of a very well-known and well-trodden genre, which has its own problems, but it also has its own advantages, for me as a filmmaker.
What I find interesting too is that Byzantium also had a strange mother-daughter dynamic to it as well. When you look back, do you realize in retrospect that this has been a theme you’ve pursued on a few different projects?
Well, there’s quite a few reasons why I choose to do what I choose to do. Both Byzantium and Greta were scripts that were written by somebody else. Byzantium was written by an English writer called Moira Buffini and Greta was written by an American writer called Ray Wright. But it’s almost accidental that Byzantium deals with a mother-daughter, and this deals with a mother searching for a daughter, and a daughter searching for a mother. There must be a reason why I’ve chosen them. I’d have to work that out. I haven’t got a therapist (laughs).
Particularly in regard to Greta, I just found the character fascinating. The minute Isabelle said she wanted to play it, I found it doubly fascinating. Initially, in the original script, she was much older, she was less physically attractive, she was an immigrant to New York from the ’50s from Hungary or from Romania, one of those places. Frances’ connection to her really was pity really.
When Isabelle took on the role, I said, “Hey look, we’re going to change this part entirely. We’re going to give her sophistication, we’re going to give her wit, we’re going to give her acquaintance with fine wine and fine dining. We’re going to have her play the piano, and those are going to be tools that seduce Frances into your world rather than just pity for an older woman.” I made her considerably younger and constructed these various layers behind her personality, so she has this French persona that hides something underneath that is really from a Grimm’s fairy tale.
Was Isabelle always in the forefront of your thoughts for the part?
When Isabelle said yes to it, that’s when I said I’ve got to make the film. That way I could see the movie properly.
Were you able to get Isabelle and Chloe together for a lot of rehearsal beforehand?
We had quite a bit of rehearsal. But I use rehearsal as an opportunity to rewrite things. We would read through the different scenes, then I’d rewrite a bit of dialogue and restructure the scene a little bit. I kind of use rehearsal very selfishly, as a writing tool really. So we had less rehearsal and more conversation and exploration about what the characters should mean and what they would mean to each other.
The film also touches on this idea that as much as people are able to stay in touch via phones or cameras or whatever, that we are more isolated almost as a result of having more ways to communicate with each other, if that makes sense.
I think we’re absolutely more isolated, you know what I mean? If you’re ever on a bus or in a public place, you see all these people around looking into their phones and sending silly little text messages. It does two things: on the one hand, it isolates the person whose eyes are on their phone and not on the person next to them. On the other hand, it makes people who don’t do that feel, “Oh my god. Why am I not in touch with all these people?”
For me, it was interesting to explore the kind of isolation that a character who is in their mid-60s would have in a contemporary urban setting. I can imagine a character like Greta being all the more alone because the presence of social media. Then we have the delightful irony that she is kind of an expert at it when the chips are down.
And again it’s a theme that’s run through a lot of your work. People living almost under the radar, or on the fringes of the world around them, whether it’s the vampires in Interview with the Vampire, or even Stephen Rea to some extent in The Crying Game, or the women in Byzantium.
Yeah, yeah. They’re kind of meant to be outsider. I’m fatally attracted to having sympathy for the monster. To try to understand monstrous figures, really. That’s what drove Interview with the Vampire, that’s what drove Byzantium. In a way, that’s what drove The Crying Game. I’m not saying Stephen Rea is a monster, but he played a character who was willing to do monstrous things in a certain stage of his life. I suppose I’m just interested in human beings. All of these elements made me what to make this picture Greta.
You’re certainly a filmmaker who jumps from genre to genre and even combines genres in movies. You’ve also been doing some work on TV. As we’re seeing the landscape change, are the opportunities to tell the kind of stories that you want to tell getting better now?
I don’t know really. They’re still in the studio system, but combined with Netflix and others now. My experience with television — and the only experience in which I was totally engaged was The Borgias — is that it’s amazingly rich terrain for a writer. It’s not that rich for a director really. I mean the schedules are just so intense, so hurried. I really enjoyed writing The Borgias, showrunning it and all that sort of stuff, but working to television schedules does not allow you to build the kind of opulent pictures that you have in your head sometimes. For me to come back to making an individual movie, a single piece of film entertainment and storytelling like Greta, was a tremendous relief.
Greta is out in theaters now.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye