Neil Jordan, director of Interview with a Vampire and Michael Collins, has returned to vampires at last, with Byzantium. Starring a mother-daughter pair of troubled vampires, this movie is everything the supernatural world has been missing for so long. We asked Jordan for the secret to a compelling vampire story, and he told us everything.
Why return to vampires?
Neil Jordan: I don't know. The script was good, the script had so many interesting possibilities. I never saw the original [stage] play [that Byzantium was adapted from] but it was sent to me as a director. There were so many elements in the play that were common to the films that I've made, it was weird. Kind of weird. It was set in the present and the past. There was a long history between [the two characters]. It was set in an abandoned holiday town and was about story telling. And it was about vampires, and that was the least attractive aspect of it. Otherwise, everything was great.
I read somewhere that you called this script ‘Angela Carter’s Vampirella’ can you elaborate on that? I know you worked with her on The Company of Wolves, so what parts of Byzantium felt inherently Carter-esque?
Angela Carter had written a script called Vampirella. But it never quite worked out. And it was kind of almost a short radio play, or an unlicensed work. I wanted to make that, but Angela tragically died. One of the reasons I made Interview with the Vampire is because it had the similar kind of imagination as Angela, and her work. When Byzantium came up, it was again, similar to Angela's [work]. It's that English Gothic fairytale thing that Angela helped to found. She seemed to plug into that. I don't think I called it Angela Carter's Vampirella — I think someone else did.
What attracts you to monsters with long, complicated backstories?
Because I'm a monster with a long, complicated backstory. I think. I like stories that deal with being faced with the real and the unreal. What you see on the surface is never what the reality is. People who were once human who sold their souls to become these fairy tale monsters, forever. It's interesting to me. And specifically about vampires whether they can fly or have superpowers [I'm most interested] in the fact that you have to endure centuries. What would that be like?
There are so many supernatural movies out right now, and yet Byzantium really stood out in because it had depth to it that so many recent supernatural films have lacked. What does creating a world that immortals dwell in really require? What do you need to tell an immortal story?
When I read the script, I could just see two visual modes. One was a kind of grungy, modern-day realism. The other was an almost storybook 18th Century — [a] very, very composed [view]. The fact that it happened in two time zones gave me the opportunity to have two contrasting styles. And to shoot it in two different ways. My hope was one would reinforce the other. That every time you went into the past, it would be a strange release, in a way.
Byzantium also feels like it has this love affair with the sea. The town is a seaside town, the vampires are created on an island, what's the importance of the sea in Byzantium? Was that in the original play?
It wasn't in the original play. The entire way in which they turn into vampires, that was my contribution to the movie. In the original script, and I think in the original play, she followed some 18th century vampire stories and vampire literature, where you'd have to go to an ancient graveyard somewhere in Asia Minor. You had to experience these ancient mythological experiences — I think you got bitten by a snake. And that didn't work out with the filming, so I said [to the writer] let's embrace the West Coast of Ireland and these Pagan remnants around these ancient Christian burial sites. Our imagination got a bit wild. They set out into the sea onto this island getting into this tiny little beehive hut, you meet a version of yourself and then the waterfall turns red [blood] — it's a celebration of having your blood drained out.
Honestly, it was a breath of fresh air in an overly stuffy supernatural world. Blood waterfall!
In fact the vampire rules that we've ended up with are kind of dull, aren't they? You can't go out in the daylight, you can't see yourself in the mirror, you have to use your eye teeth to bite. It's become a bit complacent. One of the main bits of fun we had on this film was reinventing [the vampire].
You only kept that they drink blood and live forever, right?
That's about it, yeah. And you have to be invited into the home.
Why isn't the character Eleanor more worldly? She tells people her story and acts surprised when her mother kills them? Shouldn't she be more worldly by now, like her mother? She should know that her actions have consequences?
That's not my fault, that's the screenwriter [laughs]! Have you seen Absolutely Fabulous? You know the insane mother and the little girl, that just wants to go to school and do her homework? I like the contrast. I like the setup. There's basically an exhausted one and an underling one. That was very Interview With The Vampire as well — Louis was full of guilt, about the necessity of taking a human life. And Lestat was kind of triumphant about it. He loved the thrill of it. I like that far that there's two totally contrasting attitudes towards the gift they have been given, that's one of the main things that attracted me to it. And as to why? Maybe she never told anyone before. Maybe she had never seen the consequences of telling someone?
Not to change gears too much, but I have to say High Spirits might be one of my favorite films of all time, it's a perfect balance of horror, supernatural lore and comedy.
What! Ok thank you.
Do you think movies like this even exist anymore? Do you think it holds up?
Well I had a very hard time in High Spirits, because the cut was taken away from me. It was one of the first bruising encounters I had with movies. All I can remember is, what I intended to do. But if you enjoyed it, maybe I succeeded in some aspect of it.
How different would it have been had you had the final cut?
It would have made more sense, the story. There were whole bits of it taken out. It was my first encounter with American financing and [a] low-end studio kind of movie, and those sort of things. It was a bruising experience, to put it that way.
You've returned to vampires, do you think you'd ever revisit werewolves?
I think it's time for a new creature. Something constructed out of the shadows. I think we're tired of all of them, don't you?
What kind of creature would you create?
I'd like to see a creature that consumes people's dreams. But maybe it won't be me who comes up with it.