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INTERVIEW WITH THE DIRECTOR Neil Jordan put his signature on vampire film

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Neil Jordan won a Best Screenplay Oscar two years ago for "The Crying Game." He will not win his second for "Interview With the Vampire." Best Director, perhaps. But Jordan's name, which along with Anne Rice's was on an early print of the film under "screenplay by," is not on the print at theaters all over the world. "It's a thing with the Writers Guild," is all Jordan will say.

However, Neil Jordan's signature is on every frame of "Interview With the Vampire." He underlines it in a scene where a journalist (Christian Slater) asks a 200-year-old vampire (played by Brad Pitt) about the powers popularly credited to vampires. "The vulgar fictions of a demented Irishman," Pitt replies with a wry smile.

The line, of course, refers to the creator of the modern vampire story, Bram Stoker -- like Jordan, a Dubliner whose mother hailed from Sligo. It's also Jordan's offhand way of taking a bow for

bringing the Great White Whale of modern movie properties to the screen.

Anne Rice's novel was first published in 1976, and over the next decade and a half, it would defy the efforts of an array of producers and screenwriters to turn it into a film. Then it was offered to an Irishman whose only recommendations would seem to have been an art film called "Mona Lisa," an even less-seen art film titled "The Company of Wolves" and a slim novel, "Dream of a Beast" -- but "Wolves" and "Beast" happened to be favorites of "Interview With the Vampire" author Anne Rice. A year later, after the most controversial casting decision in modern movie history -- "Top Gun" Tom Cruise would play Pitt's predatory mentor, Lestat -- and a swarm of troubled-production stories, Neil Jordan delivered his film, and a beautiful terror was born.

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"It's a shame about Oprah," says Neil Jordan, referring to the talk-show host's freak-out at a "Vampire" screening that culminated in a prayer circle designed to exorcise the demons that Jordan's (and Rice's) demented minds had called forth. "I don't mean to sound flip, but prayers wouldn't do much good with the vampires in this movie. You can't chase Lestat away with a cross, you know? I think that's basically what's upset some people about the film: It gives you the sheer horror of a world where vampires exist without the comforting homilies of movie Christianity. This isn't Bram Stoker or Stephen King."

Jordan says that attraction to Rice's high-Gothic tone is one of the reasons he chose to do the film. "In the past, to gain supernatural powers, the hero always had to pay some kind of price -- you know, the Faust thing. What's great about Lestat is that he doesn't pay any price. He has no remorse at all for what he must do to survive. He's relentless and has no soul left to trade; he's really one of the most terrifying figures in modern literature."

Neil Jordan looks a bit younger and seems a bit older than his 43 years. He does not dress to make an impression; like the attire of his Dublin compatriot Jim Sheridan (who almost got thrown out of a New York premiere of his own film, "In the Name of the Father"), Jordan's might charitably be described as ranging from casual to tacky.

The undercurrent of self-deprecating humor in the "demented Irishman" line is typical of Jordan. His calm, melancholy smiles are usually tight-lipped, and when confronted with questions he doesn't want to deal with, he'll shrug, grimace and say, "I don't want to talk about that." Questions that draw this response are invariably about his private life -- for instance, his five-year relationship with actress Beverly D'Angelo, with whom he made "High Spirits" and "The Miracle."

Jordan was born in Sligo and raised in Dublin; his grandfather, mother and sister were all painters -- "a painterly family," as he says (his father was a teacher).

First stories

Jordan was 25 when his first collection of stories, "Night in Tunisia," was published, causing ripples of reaction throughout an Irish literary scene that is small by the standards of the United States or Britain, but which takes its literature seriously. The grand old rebel of Irish letters, Sean O'Faolain, called the title story, about a young Irish jazz musician obsessed with learning Charlie Parker riffs, "one of the most remarkable stories I have read in Irish storytelling since or, indeed, before Joyce."

"I'm a literary person," Jordan explains, "and my technique as a film director is an extension of my technique as a writer. I'm aware that the term 'literary' has a pejorative ring to a lot of critics here -- they associated it with 19th-century English novels and 'Masterpiece Theatre.' But I'm talking about the kind of 20th-century literary technique which has a fluid, jazz-like quality. I decided a long time ago to take the most outrageous chances with narration. What did Godard say? 'I like beginnings, middles and ends, though not necessarily in that order.'

"I didn't come up through the film industry, and I still know ridiculously little about it," he says. "When I was a boy, I didn't see movies with the idea of making them. The truth is, I didn't really become aware of them as an art form until I was about 18 or 19, and I started paying a lot of attention to Fellini."

In the '70s, Jordan worked with small Dublin theater groups. One group featured another young actor about the same age as Jordan whose star would soon rise, a ruddy, red-headed writer-journalist-director named Jim Sheridan.

"Yeah, we had a lot of fun," says Sheridan, a native Dubliner. "Neil was a better director than actor. And someone might have said the same thing about me."

Both men began their film careers by writing scripts for television, though Jordon never aspired to directing film until one of his TV ideas was so badly done that "I decided I didn't want anyone to muck around with my work, y'know? If I'd found a director who would re-create each image I'd written just as I envisioned it, I might never have directed." When he shot "Excalibur" in Ireland, John Boorman gave him a credit as a "creative consultant," "in lieu of a writing credit. It was really my introduction to filmmaking. I had no idea what it entailed. I thought films were made by machines or gods. Watching John work, I realized that it could be a medium amenable to all your personal quirks."

Borrowing some materials from his story "Night in Tunisia," Jordan submitted a script to Britain's Channel Four about a young Irish jazz musician who becomes involved, against his will, in the violence of Northern Irish politics. Channel 4 liked the script but was wary of Jordon's desire to direct until Boorman agreed to executive-produce.

A promising newcomer

The film "Angel" (retitled "Danny Boy" in the States by distributors who didn't want to attract patrons of a soft-core exploitation film with the same name), was shot in seven weeks. It showed astonishing assurance for a 31-year old without any previous directional experience, won him the London Evening Standard's "Most Promising Newcomer" award.

"The Company of Wolves," released the next year with a script by Jordan and English novelist Angela Carter, showed a breathtaking leap in scope and technique. Shot in nine weeks for about $2 million, "The Company of Wolves" retold "Little Red Riding Hood" in imagery that suggested Jung, Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment" and perhaps Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast." The world Jordan created for wolves is one where huge boa constrictors wrap themselves around trees as packs of wolves gallop by, where tarantulas fall around churches during Catholic mass -- even religion offers no certain refuge from the unknown terrors of the primeval forest.

The film was as much the product of ingenuity as inspiration. Working with genius-in-progress, production designer Anton Furst (who later won an Academy Award for "Batman"), they overcame budget limitations by building eight three-dimensional trees, rearranging them and shooting from different angles to create the illusion of an entire forest.

Though it was dumped on the double-bill horror circuit, "The Company of Wolves" built up a sizable cult following on video cassette. One of the film's biggest fans was author Anne Rice. "When I met Anne," says Jordan, "she said to me, 'You know, 'The Company of Wolves' is Lestat's favorite movie.' "

Jordan's next film was the remarkable "Mona Lisa," from a script co-written with David Leland. "I wanted," he says, "to direct an adult love story, a kind of contemporary moral tale," based on an actual incident about an ex-convict who had killed a man in order to protect a prostitute.

The moody, multilayered "Mona Lisa," which starred Bob Hoskins, was one of the year's surprise critical successes; some compared its intensity to Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver."

Jordan then set out to make a film "about Irishness -- how Irish-Americans tend to re-create it in sentimental terms and that in turn affects the way the Irish see themselves."

Hurt by committee

A self-critical perfectionist, Jordan found the completed "High Spirits" "witty and elegant." It never got to the screen. The film's independent producers began an editing-by-committee process, in which some actors' parts were butchered and some were chopped out altogether. The memory of it still hurts him.

In 1990 he allowed himself to be lured back into Hollywood filmmaking with "We're No Angels," which ended up being referred to by insiders as a $30 million vanity project for screenwriter David Mamet and star Robert De Niro. Hamstrung by a contract that prevented him from changing anything in Mamet's screenplay, "I found that I can't work that way," he says. "I'm a writer; that's what I do."

Discouraged and disgusted, Jordan went back to Ireland and considered quitting the movie business. Yet, somehow, being back in a country he once referred to in Irish America as "a bloody country, a savage place" rejuvenated Jordan. He returned to a theme he had explored in "Mona Lisa" and would explore again in "The Crying Game": a man who fixates on a love object whose true identity is a mystery to him (Jordan calls it his "Holy Grail" theme). "The Miracle" -- which proved to be just that ++ in relation to Jordan's career as a filmmaker -- involved a teen-ager's obsession with a small-time traveling actress. Made for around $3 million and starring Beverly D'Angelo (who worked for much less than her usual fee), the film grossed several times its cost and gave Jordan the filmmaker a new life.

The first big commercial success of Jordan's career came in 1993 and developed out of a story he had written years earlier. He came across it while rummaging through a desk. Of the story, Jordan says: "I was never entirely satisfied with my treatment of it in the story, so I never published it. The more I thought about it, the more I saw it as a film." It took him less than two months to write the screenplay for "The Crying Game." With its stunning plot twist, "The Crying Game" grossed more in the United States than all Jordan's previous films combined. It won him an Academy Award for Best Screenplay and put him in the same situation he had been in after the success of "Mona Lisa" in 1986.

He had no intention of repeating the process that had brought him to near despair four years earlier. As producer David Geffen says, "I knew the last thing Neil wanted was to get involved in 'We're No Vampires.' "

"When David called me," says Jordan, "I made it clear from the beginning that I wanted nothing more to do with Hollywood movies. This time I knew exactly what I would and would not get involved in. David said, 'I've got this Anne Rice vampire novel. . .' I said 'I'll do it. . . I'll do it on my own terms; I've got to do the screenplay.' And I told him, 'You're crazy to agree to this.' David said, 'OK, let's do it.' "

More than a year and $60 million later, Jordan had made what he calls "the biggest independent movie ever. I really feel that, despite the size and money and the stars, it might be the most personal film I've ever done.

"I think the controversy that's building around this is fascinating, but it's not something that's going to bother me on a personal level, y'know? I have things to get home to."

Jordan means his children, his new novel, to be published in Britain early next year, and a film on the life of the legendary Irish rebel Michael Collins, which he hopes to begin next spring -- though he may have to allow for a trip to Hollywood the first week in April for the Oscar ceremonies.

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