THE CREATIVE PROCESS is perhaps never finished, but at some point you just have to trust in the process and walk away. That’s why Neil Jordan, one of Ireland’s greatest directors, never looks at his movies once the editing process is finito.
“I find it very hard to look at films I’ve made afterwards, I really do, because I just criticise them in my mind,” the Oscar-winning director tells TheJournal.ie when we sit down to discuss the twentieth anniversary of Michael Collins, which is re-released in cinemas this month.
“I say ‘why did I do that, why do I did this’, ‘should I re-cut this?’. You’ve seen them so many times by the time they come out that you’re kind of exhausted by them.”
When Warner Bros decided to strike a new digital print and give Michael Collins another cinema release, Jordan sat down to watch it for the first time in 20 years.
Something surprised him – he enjoyed watching it.
I looked at the whole film again, I looked at some of the earlier cuts, and I thought: There’s no point in me doing a director’s cut because actually the film represents all my intentions.
Jordan is not one to be satisfied with the status quo. Born in Sligo in 1950, he was raised in Dublin. It’s easy to forget that he was a writer before he was a filmmaker – he studied Irish history and English literature at UCD, and at 29, he published his first short story collection, Night in Tunisia (his sixth novel, the noir detective tale The Drowned Detective, is out on 8 March).
His film career started in the 1980s, when he was recruited by director John Boorman during his filming of Excalibur in Ireland. His first film, Angel, starred Stephen Rea, who’s been somewhat of a motif in numerous Jordan films since.
Jordan tackles elements of Irish culture and society – the Troubles, religion, sexuality – weaving them into blockbuster movies.
Cinema will say ‘we don’t want anything more to do with you’
In 2013, Jordan had a close call with a bus in Dublin. It left him out of commission for two years, and he holed up in his Dalkey home to recuperate. It was a long time to be out of work.
“I’m getting better,” he says when I inquire about his health.
“It was hard, it was hard. But it gave me an opportunity to go back to words really. I’m kind of lucky, because at some stage cinema will say we don’t want anything more to do with you.”
Does he really think that? “Of course I do. And I will be able to write a book, as long as publishers still publish them, I will do that.”
“This is a gangster movie”
When Michael Collins was released, it became one of Ireland’s biggest films. Before it even hit the cinemas, people were talking about it – it had taken around 12 years to get made, but once production was underway streets were closed off in Dublin city centre, and thousands of people donned flat caps and tweed trousers to play extras.
It was an event. But because Jordan was telling the story of one of the most controversial men in Irish history, his film was pored over for mistakes, or hints that he was nodding at the contemporaneous conflict in Northern Ireland.
“People said because I had a car bomb in [Dublin] Castle I was making a weird reflection on Northern Ireland,” he recalls. “I wasn’t – I was just saying this is a gangster [movie], the template of the movie [is] a gangster movie.”
For example, the scene where an armoured vehicle drives into Croke Park didn’t happen, though the bloody killings did. It came about because David Putnam, who commissioned the script, said to Jordan “if one of those silly little armoured cars drove in, everybody would laugh”.
“I said oh, maybe they would, and also we’d get over the scene much quicker,” says Jordan.
“The essential fact happened, but not in the way I described it. But that’s what you do in movies, that’s what you do.”
In a similar vein, Stephen Rea played Ned Broy, who was – on screen – a composite of around three other men. He was called Ned Broy because Jordan “liked his name and there was a strange pun that went on with Broy and boy”.
Regarding the criticism, Jordan says: “I could quite easily just say ‘look, it’s art’, but that’s too easy to say in a way.”
If you’re constructing a drama around historical figures, your first job is to tell a gripping story somehow… probably your first job actually is to work out what it’s about, and to me this film was always about one man’s engagement with violent action and his attempt to disengage with it. And that’s [why] it was interesting making [it] at that period, because there was the attempt at same disengagement.
“20 years ago it was a different Ireland”
In 1996, when Michael Collins was released, it was just two years after the IRA ceasefire, and the Good Friday Agreement was still two years away.
“I really welcome the re-release of it because 20 years ago it was a different Ireland, in a strange way,” says Jordan. “And it was probably was as different an Ireland as it was between, well not quite 1916 to 1996, but the differences in the political landscapes were vast and when I made that movie there was still an IRA, they were still bombing Canary Wharf, there was still political murder.”
“That kind of violence was still a fact of Irish public life, and I thought it would be really interesting to see it outside of that context,” he continues.
He welcomes the fact that today there is “quite an ideology-free discussion about those 1916 issues now, which I wouldn’t have thought was possible 20 years ago”.
Jordan was aware that Michael Collins would come under close scrutiny. “It’s very hard to please anybody,” he says when I suggest it’s hard to please everybody.
In that case you’re making a film about the most incendiary person in Irish politics.
He says that Collins “did more damage” than other Irish heroes. “And he changed people’s perceptions of the conflict and yet he essentially was not an Irish British figure, in the same way that De Valera was. His politics was conservative.”
He points out that Collins and company “were all middle class revolutionaries”, a theme which the film explores.
I’m not saying that’s a good or bad thing, I’m saying that was the reality and that’s what the performances reflected, it was interesting.
From page to screen
Jordan’s Oscar is for the screenplay for the Crying Game, but alongside his own screenwriting he has tackled the work of others.
One of his biggest movies, Interview With the Vampire, was an adaption of an Anne Rice novel.
“They sent me the book and I just got fascinated – I got obsessed with the atmosphere in the book,” says Jordan. “Anne had written a script and I rewrote it very quickly. I could see something there that I really wanted to get onto the screen. That’s how it works with a novel. With the End of the Affair, the Graham Greene book, again I could see a different version to what Greene had written – a parallel version, you know.”
When writing his own work, “it starts with the image and the dramatic context”. When he writes a movie, he sees the images in his head first.
A writer or a director?
Jordan is currently writing a TV series called Riviera, set on the Cote d’Azur and mooted to star Julia Stiles and Monica Belluci.
He started off as a writer, but it was films that made his name. So does Jordan see himself as a filmmaker first, or writer first? “Up to this I’ve seen them as two totally different things,” he says.
But now, he tells me he’s in talks about a film version of the Drowned Detective, making a film out of one of his novels for the first time (he thought his previous works were “too interior” to do this).
He’s also writing a secret project about another Irish historical figure, Lord Edward Fitzgerald.
Talk turns to how Hollywood and filmmaking has changed since Jordan first shot a movie.
“I’m just lucky that I have another muscle to work with. I wouldn’t like to be a purely film director in the current climate,” he says.
To be a writer-director is the only place to be, I think. Everything’s changing so quickly. Except people still need to eat. From where I’m sitting, someone in my perspective, things are changing so rapidly, it’s almost shocking.
“The kind of movies I started making and I’m known for making, they don’t make them anymore,” he adds.
“It’s very sad. Something like the Crying Game, that was in 1992 and you could make an independent movie for $4 or $5 million and it could become a huge hit all over the world, it could change the way people go to the cinema. That doesn’t happen anymore. Independent movies, people watch them on their computers, and they rip them.”
Michael Collins will receive a release for the first time on Blu Ray on 4 March, followed by a re-release in cinemas on 18 March.