I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
When I find Neil Jordan, he is sitting with his back against the banquette of a hotel dining room. He is fingering the stem of an elaborate water glass, speaking so softly that for a moment, it’s not clear whether he’s addressing me or the glass. Jordan was an award-winning novelist in Ireland before he directed his first film, Angel, in 1981. Since then, he’s made The Company of Wolves, Mona Lisa and The Miracle and survived a brief flirtation with Hollywood. His stories are familiar only to the point of comfort, where they spin off into restless contradictions and provocations. Recently, he directed The Crying Game, an unruly narrative of colliding identities and troubling resonance set in contemporary London.
Lawrence Chua What were your intentions when you first started writing The Crying Game?
Neil Jordan My intentions at the start of the film came directly out of conflict—a film of men in a state of war with each other which developed into mutual and sexual obsessions, into a love story about the extremities of those situations. Does that make sense?
LC Yeah, in a general way. You’ve talked before about “stripping away those appearances that we think constitute our identities” and you name race, nationality, and sex among them. Can you talk a little about that? Aren’t those differences part of what makes us human?
NJ Of course, but I come from a country and a race that is obsessed with identities of various kinds and that’s been involved in conflicts that all come out of the urge to express identity. I thought of the story after I did my first film, Angel. Black soldiers had appeared with the British army in the streets in Northern Ireland. It was the first time that Northern Irish people encountered people of color. There were all sorts of ironies inherent in that situation. Guys from an oppressed community in Britain were part of an oppressive machine, policing disenfranchised communities in Ireland. The soldiers were treated in a quite racist manner by the people they encountered. I thought of the story of an Irish guy who kidnaps a black soldier and, after his death, wants to reinvent the man. He goes to England and establishes a relationship with the woman he assumes is this man’s wife. I didn’t do anything with it because I didn’t want to make a drably political movie that ends up, as most films about the Irish situation do, saying, “Oh, how dreadful it all is, isn’t it terrible and aren’t we all depressed.” I wanted to draw it into other areas about mutual responsibility and where affection begins and ends—or where it should begin and end.
LC I’m interested in how you connect the IRA captor, Fergus (Stephen Rea), and the British soldier, Jody (Forest Whitaker). There’s one point where Jody is running away from Fergus and says, “You wouldn’t shoot a brother in the back.” Even though you identify both of them as members of oppressed communities, up until that point their relationship was almost patriarchal.
NJ He was like the mother, the IRA captor, Fergus, wasn’t he? I suppose it’s one of the ironies of the army. Armies recruit people who need jobs—anyway, in Britain they do. It’s a common theme: people on opposing sides who are brutalizing each other, in other circumstances would have been friends. Really, one belongs to the army, one belongs to the IRA. Fergus would find it possible to kill Jody if he didn’t have to come close to him. But, he’s brought into those close confines of captor and victim. Once Fergus takes the hood off his face, he can’t but react to Jody as a human being would.
LC But there is still this dynamic of power to their relationship.
NJ Yes, and it becomes like a sexual relationship where there is dominance and submission. Fergus is in the apparently dominant position. Jody is tied and can’t move—his only power is the power of seduction. In a very real way Jody seduces him, emotionally, and manipulates the situation to bring Fergus into closer contact with him. Fergus has to help him urinate, he has to unzip and take out his penis.
LC In the second part of the film, Fergus reinvents Jody’s girlfriend, Dil. He owns her, in a way.
NJ I structured the script so that everything that happens in the second part is a mirror image of what happened in the first part. If Fergus had been emotionally brave enough in the first encounter, he could have saved Jody’s life. Fergus is confronted with the situation in the second encounter where he actually has to protect this woman. His obsession with the man leads him to reshape her in the image of the guy he’s lost. The second part of the film is far more psychological, far more metaphorical. It’s far more of an abstract thriller, really. I wanted the second part to reveal all sorts of implications about the first part. I wanted to drag out the same situations where all of the priorities are reversed. Or have the sexual issue become overt. It’s like fate is leading Fergus back into exactly the same situation. But in any case, he has to make an emotional leap that he hasn’t allowed himself to make in the first part.
LC And what is that emotional leap?
NJ He has to love Dil (Jaye Davidson). He makes a promise. Dil says, “What do you want from me?” and he says, “I want to look after you.” Once he says that he has to do it. She forced him to do it, and he is forced by his own nature to do it. It’s complicated, but stories should be complicated.
LC People relate to that complication. For very obvious reasons, The Crying Game has been compared to Mona Lisa. They happen in London. They both deal with black women reacting to more powerful forces that try to define them.
NJ Yeah, and they deal with an emotionally fraught obsession. The Crying Game deals with situations where the protagonist, Fergus, thinks the woman is one thing and he finds out she is something different. It’s almost the same in Mona Lisa, except in this film, he embraces that difference.
LC That embrace wasn’t always articulated in The Crying Game. There is that moment where Fergus is remaking her completely according to his desire. It reminded me of Vertigo. My immediate reaction was astonishment—that either Kim Novak or Dil let these men re-make them.
NJ She was in love and people are vulnerable when they are in love. That’s how I saw it. He’s trying to protect her and his urge to protect her is to disguise her. His urge to disguise her, me being the emotionally manipulative storyteller that I am, is to turn her into him. It was only when I came up with that fact that I could finish the story.
LC Both Dil and Mona Lisa go through their respective films looking for some kind of sexual fulfillment and in the end, they’re denied it. Mona Lisa resolves itself when she winds up with this young white woman who’s too fucked up to be sexual …
NJ Oh, I thought they were lovers in Mona Lisa.
LC It seemed more like she was some kind of mammy for the white woman.
NJ It seemed more mother and child?
LC Well, not exactly.
NJ I thought they were lovers, though. I thought that was what Bob Hoskins realized when he saw them in bed. In The Crying Game, does Fergus have sex with Dil? He does, obviously, because she gives him a blowjob.
LC That moment didn’t seem to be about her pleasure. It’s about his. And in the end, she becomes another black nursemaid.
NJ In the end, it’s asexual. I leave him in a glass cage. In my mind, it’s a perfect marriage. Love is something quite different from sexuality. Sexuality has everything to do with love but love does not necessarily have anything to do with sexuality. I wanted to make a love story that actually came out of circumstance itself. For Fergus to be a lover, he has to be making a choice that is beyond sexual issues. Whether their relationship becomes sexual, I guess the audience has to decide that.
LC Can you talk about the way you wrote Dil’s relationship to other women.
NJ She shoots Fergus’s comrade, Jude (Miranda Richardson).
LC It’s not until she actually shoots Jude and comes up with that whole, “You used your tits and your ass to get to Jody,” that there is this aspect of misogyny.
NJ She hates Jude, because she used her femininity to get Jody. I thought it was as simple as that, actually.
LC And yet she doesn’t kill Fergus, who is more directly responsible for Jody’s death.
NJ She likes Fergus. What exactly are you asking? Are you saying it’s problematic that she is reacting the way a victim would react or that she is demonizing the image of a woman?
LC I am asking a lot of questions at once. There are a lot of questions I have about why you invented their relationship the way you did. For very obvious reasons, because she is black and because he’s white … She seems to constantly be trying to assert herself and in the end, it backfires.
NJ I wrote this script out of my own imagination. As I was writing, it happened that Jude’s part, the feminine role, came to bear all of the masculine weight. She became the traditional macho, violent figure that a male villain would assume. All the men in the film were expressing their humanity through feminine choices. People have said to me that I’ve presented Miranda’s character, Jude, as a woman who is driven by the urge for revenge and for blood. That is true, that is the way it came out. To me, it was a fascinating female role because she was so tough. I found Dil’s character fascinating because she was an invented woman and the male obsession with woman is with that. They invent all the sexual obsessive elements and latch them on to the “evil woman.” Which is very rarely, in a relationship, what a woman is. I wrote this character, Dil, where all those aspects of femininity were invented and were rather idealized in her own construction of herself.
LC In The Miracle and The Company of Wolves, your characters can see themselves better in their dreams than “reality.” In The Crying Game, one character reinvents another through his dreams.
NJ It’s a habit I have to keep a reign on. To push a narrative into an area of fantasy is something I find very easy to do and something I love to do. In some ways, movies do that of their own accord. They give it patina. But I do try to photograph real situations as if they’re being dreamed up by somebody, or even me. I do dream the shots. I wake up in the morning and the camera’s moving, you know. But The Crying Game, I find particularly enjoyable because the second part of the movie is almost an idealized dream of what the first part of the movie could have been. And yet, it was all realistic. It wasn’t like in America where the characters were actually being told about the truth to their dreams, you know. The Company of Wolves was all a dream. The Miracle was a story where the central character only understood what was going on through his dreams.
LC In The Company of Wolves, the grandmother says, “A wolf is not always a wolf.” Likewise, you’re quite conscious of the material with which you’re working. How does that figure when you are writing?
NJ I write very fast when I get down to the script. The ideas come and if you write quickly, they happen in a natural way. With this script, if I had tried to plot out what everything means and what the implication of every single individual piece of the jigsaw implies, I would have never got through it. People have said to me that I haven’t explained any of the political context in Ireland. The racial issue—that I haven’t put that in a context. It is a word I don’t understand myself: context. But I think I know what people mean when they say that. Then, the sexual issue has not been contextualized. But it is a story, and its power is as a story not as a piece of exegesis. It would become something different if I was to do that. It does bring up these questions though. But movies should, stories should. And then I always answer them. At the end of the day, to use a phrase Irish practitioners use all the time, “Things are paradoxical, aren’t they?” Life is composed of intractable opposites that you can’t reconcile very often. I thought of those two characters as two characters who are reconciling themselves to what, in many ways, is irreconcilable. That’s what people do when they pursue relationships. That’s how I thought about it. The story starts with a world of male conflict which you get in Hemingway, you get in a lot of fiction, a lot of movies, you get it in David Mamet quite a bit. There is always this sense where you realize that these guys are forging relationships that are far deeper than they would encounter in life outside these situations of conflict. There is always a slightly erotic subtext to those stories which is never brought to the surface. In many ways the conscious writing of the script was a way to bring all those elements to the surface of the story. Not quite shove them in people’s faces, but drag them out and make them a fabric of the piece.
LC What’s been the response in Britain and Ireland to the film?
NJ I think I’ve found quite a bit of uneasiness about this movie because Britain is quite a class-bound society that hides its issues with language and politeness. It’s created a bit of disturbance on that level. There’s a cinema-culture that demands that films be about nothing. I find that they’re either abstractions or they’re generic pieces that relate to other movies or they’re pieces of Hollywood emptiness. When I was writing The Crying Game, I realized that so many movies are about nothing which is another reason not to make the film. You can enjoy the story but you can’t explain the issues that it raises. Whether the film engaged or explained them all completely, I don’t know. But, it does raise issues that people have to address sooner or later. It caused quite a bit of discomfort and there were bombs going off at the same time at Picadilly. That didn’t help.
LC Apart from the bombs, how have things changed for you?
NJ I didn’t realize that as a filmmaker you have a career. Before I started making films, I was a novelist. As a novelist, you don’t have a career—you just write books. But as a filmmaker, you make one, it’s a critical success. You make another, maybe it’s a commercial success. You make another, it may be successful in America. You never know. You’re in this balloon that just gets bigger and bigger, you know. I wrote out this story called High Spirits which I was going to do very simply in Ireland. I went ahead to a Hollywood studio and they wanted it to be made into this huge thing. I got involved with some American writers on it and found myself in this situation where the movie changes beyond all recognition in the course of making it. The whole thing became a bit of a nightmare. Then I was offered a script written by David Mamet—We’re No Angels. I found a certain contact with that script because it was about issues in my own backyard which I could be nostalgic about. It didn’t do too well at the box office. Both experiences were a little bit exhausting so I went back to Dublin and wrote something called The Miracle. A very simple movie. And then I made this. If Hollywood would do the scripts I want to do, I’d work there gladly. But they don’t. I think everyone knows what Hollywood is, though, don’t they?
LC How have the economic changes in Europe effected you?
NJ The depression, you mean? There are companies in Europe that are trying to make Hollywood films but they generally make them in Hollywood. They cast American actors; they make star movies. In Great Britain, it’s dreadful. The funding has collapsed over there. The industry has collapsed. The only people who manage to continue to make films are people who work extremely cheaply, like Mike Leigh and Peter Greenaway. I suppose I’m a different kind of animal. At the moment, there is no alternative for me as an Irish director because there isn’t anything else. But it’s always a battle if you make independent films. You just have to be resigned to a lot of difficulty finding funding. You also have to be resigned to making films that do well critically but don’t get large audiences. There’s a system, the executive sift, that scripts go through nowadays, that strips films of any semblance of meaning. They just do that because they’re afraid to make decisions that will leave them exposed. On the other hand, with the material for The Crying Game, if I was allowed to be true to myself and cast it correctly, I was aware that it would be a very enchanting experience for an audience for precisely the reasons that people were afraid of it: because it dealt with issues. I had executives reading the script saying to me, “Hey, I love this script but I’m ashamed to like it.” We managed to do it without any American financing. It was the only way to make the movie, really, because if I’d gotten the studio or I’d got even an independent distributor over here, the first thing they would have asked was that Dil’s character be changed, to make it palatable. The only way to do it was totally independent of Hollywood, which is a pity. You’ve seen the films they’re making. I mean, Jesus. I was on the jury at the Venice festival with Dennis Hopper and a few other people. They had Gilles Pontecorvo. He invited writers from all over Europe to discuss the crisis in cinema. They loathe the United States. They loathe the influence of Hollywood. But they didn’t seem to realize that it’s as big a problem for American directors as it is for European directors. It’s as big a problem for Robert Altman and Martin Scorcese and David Lynch as it is for Tavernier or for myself or for anybody. It’s a global problem. Hollywood distribution may be at the center of it, but it’s as much of a crippling problem for Americans as it is for anyone.
LC There is a critical practice acknowledging cinema as not so much a mirror of reality, but a place where identity is constituted. When you were growing up …
NJ … Hollywood informed everything. That’s part of the reason why I started making movies. I was obsessed with movies from a very early age. I was more familiar with the American landscape visually. I had never been to America. There had never been an Irish cinema that I knew of and part of the reason why I wanted to make movies was actually to film the mental world and the physical landscape I grew up in. I’d always loved movies. I just never thought they’d be made by someone of my background.
LC Which is?
NJ Irish. Basically. Dublin. I thought Irish films were made by either gods or American men with cigars. I started doing what an Irish person does: writing novels. And I wrote stories with quite a bit of success. I grew up in Dublin so I had quite a bit of affection for Joyce and Yeats. And those two figures had covered every aspect of the imaginative terrain—of the fabric of life that I grew up in. You’re writing with this huge sense of history and it’s all on your shoulders. And when I came to make films, it was tremendously refreshing to me because there was no history. When I made Angels, all I had to do was point the camera at a road or a landscape and I knew that nobody had done this before. I suppose I found it so seductive, that sense of freedom, that I got more obsessed with making films. And I’ve only written one novel since.
LC Do you miss that—the interior spaces a novel permits?
NJ No, I don’t. Films, in some ways, are the most interior medium of them all in a strange way. I don’t know what it is. They tend to express things subconsciously even though—you don’t know that you’re doing that. I suppose one of the things I enjoy is that there are certain heavily defined genres which you can play with because they’re such written categories that you can turn them on their heads. You can bring an audience in one way, make them think they’re going to see one kind of thing, and then you can pull the rug from under them. Or you can work with melodramatic effects. You can work with knowledge, character … On the other hand, I am finishing my next novel at the moment. It’s called Sunrise with Seamonster. The title comes from a picture by Turner about a fish on a beach. My publisher is telling me, “Don’t ever make a film again.” The last book I published was in 1984, The Dream of the Beast. I just came back to it really seriously last year. If movie making becomes so trashy that it’s not a respectable occupation for an adult, I take comfort in knowing that I can always go back to writing novels. (laughter)
Lawrence Chua is a writer and radio producer. He is the Managing Editor of BOMB and a contributor to Crossroads, a weekly newsmagazine on National Public Radio.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee