Neil Jordan - Breaking the silence from behind the camera

Emma Kiely interviews UCD alumnus and Oscar-winning screenwriter, director and novelist, Neil Jordan.

Photo Credit: Pat Redmond

Neil Jordan, the Oscar-winning director, screenwriter and novelist is one of Ireland’s most prolific filmmakers. From breaking the silence on issues such as transgender people and political violence to working with some of Hollywood’s biggest names, he has etched an ingrained mark in the history of cinema. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about his work, discussing social issues on the screen and his own UCD experience.

Neil’s 1992 film The Crying Game won him an Oscar for best original screenplay; it concerns and merges together themes of transsexuality, political violence and race."

Jordan is an alumnus of UCD, where he studied Early Irish history and English. When I asked if his studies aided his creative work, he noted how different the structure of education was back then, compared to now; “There was none of the engagement of the creative aspect of things like there is now, it was a different time back then.” Jordan added to feeling a daunting sense of emotion prior to the launch of a creative career, in part due to being without any education grounding in film, which he said was more exciting than intimidating; “Just to read and study with no end in sight, it was kind of a thrilling thing to do”. At that point, Jordan had not yet properly considered that he would follow the career path he ultimately did, saying he had planned to do a Masters of Arts in History. He did try to make changes to the UCD programme structure as he and Jim Sheridan set up a drama group to try to “invigorate the department there.”

His 1992 film The Crying Game won Jordan an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay; it concerns and merges together themes of transgenderism, political violence and race. The reception the film got at the time was divisive, as Jordan reminded me that it was still illegal to be gay in Ireland at this time. “It was one of those films that when it came out, it changed the conversation around a lot of issues”. He recalled that due to its taboo themes, it was difficult to get the film financed. Luckily it did as it is an important commentary on social issues that need representation in cinema, especially at the time of its release. I had presumed that the trans theme was the most “controversial” at the time, but Jordan told me it was the political violence of the film that was more challenging to audiences; “it was made at a time when political violence was a major problem.” The film touched on very personal and familiar topics to Irish viewers, as Jordan recalls “a very familiar situation, what a group of activists do with a hostage to use as a threat.”

Aside from his name in film, Jordan is also an accomplished novelist with critically-acclaimed books such as Shade and Mistaken, the latter of which he considers the most personal to him under his belt. He has extended his love for writing and literature into forming the publishing firm The Irish Writers Co-operative with Desmond Hogan and others.

“I hope to see more women characters and a more broader catchment of people making films and television”

When considering the future of Irish cinema, he is optimistic that it will bright with more and more Irish films being financed and made every year, coming a long way from when he started his career. His film debut Angel was one of the first indigenous Irish films since the 1950s. Now, the Irish Film Board is making Irish cinema more accessible, with Jordan noting “and now the film board is there to support indigenous Irish filmmakers, I’m very honoured to have been part of that process.”

Jordan’s upcoming film titled Greta stars two established Hollywood actresses, French cinema star Isabelle Huppert and Hollywood actress Chloë Grace Moretz. Huppert plays the titular character who lures a young and innocent waitress (Moretz) into her web of obsession, stalking and torment. Dispelling the theory of altering the way in which you direct individual actors according to how much experience they have (thirty-three years being the difference between the debuts of Huppert and Moretz), Jordan told me “when you work with actors you’re working with someone who either inhabits the part or doesn’t.” When making films, he noted that once you have cast the right actor, that eliminates a major portion of the workload, saying “if you cast the film correctly, if you cast the right actor, who understands what they want to do with the role, there is very little work to do for me as the director”. When I asked about his choice to have a dual-female centred film, post #MeToo, he said that it was more the allure of having a female villain at the front of the film- “I thought it was more interesting to explore if the demon was a sweet, elegant woman. It’s an interesting area of monstrosity to explore”. However, Jordan does hope to see more women in front of and behind the camera in the future, “I hope to see more women characters and a more broader catchment of people making films and television.”

The work of Neil Jordan is a reminder that cinema can stimulate and kickstart the discussion of taboo themes and give representation to those oppressed. To see a former UCD arts student having such a significant and long-lasting body of work, is a great point with which to refute those who slag off ‘useless’ Arts degrees!