Neil Jordan is one of Ireland's most successful directors and has worked with some of film's biggest stars, including Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Jodie Foster. His film, Interview With The Vampire, reinvigorated the genre and paved the way for the likes of Twilight, True Blood and Let The Right One In for the next twenty years. Returning to vampires with his latest film, Byzantium, Jordan admits he's "never seen a Twilight film" and thinks that there's "simply too many" vampire films out there. Here's what he had to say...
What can you tell us about Byzantium?
It's a story about two women who are vampires. They've been on the run for the past 200 years from a strange brotherhood after stealing a gift, a secret from them. The central character, Eleanor (Saorise Ronan), has been trying to tell her story to someone, anyone. But her mother, Clara (Gemma Arterton), is trying to keep it a secret, keep it from getting out and she kills anyone who reads it.
You've done these fantasy films in the past, like Interview With The Vampire, Ondine or Company of Wolves. What draws you to them?
I'm not Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. I wouldn't be very good at doing social realism. I'm always drawn to stories that have an element of myth or the fantastic, that tells us that the real world isn't the full story.
The themes of Byzantium are very broad – you have religion, feminism, unusual relationships – yet, when you take the likes of Twilight or any other vampire film, none of these are in it.
If you make a vampire film these days, you're almost honour-bound to do something interesting with it. I'd have no interest doing a film like Blade, I haven't seen the Twilight film and I'd have no interest in seeing it all. If you take the two common elements in any vampire film; they live on blood and they live forever. If you take those two principles and examine them and make them metaphors for whatever you want, then it can become interesting. The reason I made Interview With The Vampire years ago was because, it seemed to me, to be about guilt. The central character, Louis, was telling the story and he lived with this anguish for three hundred years.
There's a similar theme in Byzantium with Saoirse Ronan's character trying to tell her story and rid herself of the guilt.
It's almost like a female version of Interview With The Vampire, in a way. Clara (Gemma Arterton) is LeStat, Tom Cruise's character. She loves the fact that she can wield power over men, she loves the fact that she can kill at will, she sees nothing wrong it and can leave bodies wherever they are and leave somebody else to bury them whereas Eleanor (Saorise Ronan) is afflicted by a sense of pity and guilt.
On-screen, Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan have great chemistry together. What made you cast them together?
I went to see Gemma in Berlin, we both read the script and I thought she'd be great for it. I knew Saoirse's work, I had never met her, but I wanted to work with her for a long time. She's one of the best actresses in the world, I think. She had an absolutely exact sense of this character. The only problem with casting them together is they don't look very similar. One's blue-eyed, the other's brown. One's pale, the other's dark. But often, that can be the way with families, I think. When they started rehearsing, this bond really started to develop between them and their energies seemed to compliment each other really well.
Byzantium is adapted from Moira Buffini's play. Was there a temptation to alter the script in any way or were you happy with it as it was?
It's a case that her voice was so particular, the authorial voice. The way she'd written these characters was so alive and it was something I couldn't have done. I probably wouldn't have the balls to do it, in a way. To write women characters that way, like Clara (Gemma Arterton) who uses her sexuality as a weapon. She doesn't mind being a lapdancer or biting people's noses off. On the one hand, it was incredibly refreshing because they were real females. On the other hand, it was incredibly brutal in a way that I hadn't seen a female voice write that kind of way before. I thought there's something special, I'll just shape it as I need to. My main contribution was the origin myth, the parts set in Ireland.
The vampire makeup and special effects are very stripped back and natural. Was that a conscious decision?
The film is in two parts, there's the modern bit and the 18th century bit. The modern bit is almost like dirty realism, it's almost like Mike Leigh could have shot it. It's set in a wintry seaside town, burnt-out piers and so on. The 18th century part has that storybook richness, full of opulence. The story was written that way and we could realise that contrast.
Going back to Twilight, Blade and the general pop culture of vampires, what do you make of modern vampire films today?
There's too many of them, I think. It seems since Interview With The Vampire, they've become ubiquitous to the entire culture. I don't think you blame Interview With The Vampire for that. These books, Stephanie Meyer's books, they have these devoted fans, don't they? But honestly, I don't know them.