Here’s a shape-shifting filmmaker almost impossible to pigeonhole. After some fifteen films, Irish-born Neil Jordan is still most closely linked with his Oscar-winning masterwork, “The Crying Game” (1992), which meshes mysterious sexuality with the Anglo-Irish “Troubles,” and uncorks that twist that made viewers gasp. Then came campy studio pic “Interview with a Vampire” (1994); “Michael Collins” (1996), a docudrama about the founder of the IRA; “The End of the Affair” (1999), Graham Greene‘s battle between eros and faith; even a prison-escape comedy, “We’re no Angels” (1989).
Where, you might wonder, is the constant in such diversity?
“Breakfast at Pluto” marks yet another departure for the multi- hyphenate Jordan (also a novelist and short-story writer). Adapted from Patrick McCabe‘s novel of the same name, “Pluto” traces the picaresque adventures during the 60’s and 70’s of Irish transvestite Patrick Braden (Cillian Murphy). A fabulist tone is struck at the outset, as two robins speculate in voiceover on Kitten’s origins.
A conservative Irish village is no place for a cross-dresser, and Kitten heads for London in search of his mum, armed only with a sashaying gait, glam rock lashes, and fabulousness. His quest turns up a Rockabilly tough, who puts him onstage as an Indian squaw; a seedy magician played by Jordan stalwart Stephen Rea; and a serial strangler whom Kitten disarms by spraying Chanel #5 in his eyes. After Kitten lands a job in legal co-op peep show, a visitor tips him off to mum’s whereabouts.
A tranny embroiled in the Troubles evokes, of course, “The Crying Game.” But in fact, the inspiration for “Pluto” extends farther back to the 18th century. Call the film “Tom Jones” meets “Candide.” Echoing Fielding’s novel, written titles announce each scene. And the unsinkable Kitten calls up Voltaire’s Candide, the incorrigible optimist who insists all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, as ruin and mayhem envelope him.
IndieWIRE talked with Jordan during this year’s Toronto Film Festival. Now fifty-five, he’s boyishly ruddy, speaks with inflections from the old sod; and though courteous, tends to answer questions with another, and seems as though he’d rather, well, be making a movie.
indieWIRE: Could you talk about your interest in transvestites?
Neil Jordan: You mean, in regard to “The Crying Game” and then this one? It’s just an accident. When Patrick McCabe wrote “Breakfast on Pluto,” he was probably slightly influenced by the movie “The Crying Game.”
iW: So there was a back and forth between the two?
NJ: There might have been. The novel “Pluto” came out a bit after “Crying Game.” And Pat McCabe was probably influenced in part by the movie and the idea of combining these elements. And I simply responded to his novel.
iW: [Aware he’s not really answered]: But a neo-Candide insisting on the world’s goodness doesn’t have to be a tranny. He could be anything.
NJ: But what’s interesting about this movie is that the character created an alternative persona for himself — which was innocent, feminine, non violent, glamorous, you know? That counterpoised all that was oppressive in his life: the lack of parentage, the grey landscapes of small town Ieland. The black/khaki combat jackets that the IRA volunteers wear. That’s why I pursued the movie, really.
iW: Candide ends up with a life lesson: il faut cultiver son jardin (cultivate your garden.) What life lesson does Kitten end up with?
NJ: [laughing]. Hmm. He starts out looking for a family – and ends up constructing an alternative one. I do love “Candide.” I love the insane optimism of the character. And that’s really the parallel with “Pluto.” You’ve got very good French, it’s a bit alarming, y’know.
iW: How did you arrive at the mock 18th century picaresque form, and “Tom Jones”-style chapter headings?
NJ: Well, I mean, a lot of the 18th century novels were like that, weren’t they. And Pat McCabe wrote the novel “Breakfast on Pluto” with those similar chapter headings. But the ones he wrote were more a pastiche of the girlie fiction for teenage girls that was around in the 60’s in the UK and Ireland. Like, Sigh, one more rainy day on her own. [In my film] it’s a combination of girlie comic strip and 18th century picaresque. From my point of view as the director, it split the movie into 36 discrete segments. It’s a great pleasure really. Movies don’t often come in that form, y’know? Coming up with the titles was lovely. There were opportunities for multiple meanings.
iW: One striking aspect of the film – some would say jarring — is the mix of burlesque comedy and violence involving the IRA. Why did you choose to combine the two?
NJ: I’ll tell you why, really. Because I saw the film as a film that should have been, given the basic material, one of these dark tragic Irish stories. If it wasn’t for the central character’s insane optimism, it would have been a tragedy. But the character’s maintenance of her innocence makes it a comedy. I mean, Kitten insists on turning the entire story into a broadly comic fairytale. Which I thought was great.
iW: Like the scene with the cops beating him up.
NJ: Yes, and Kitten’s going, Don’t leave me alone. If Kitten hit them, that would be an easier thing to deal with. But because he doesn’t, they’re totally perplexed. I thought that was a wonderful response to the violence of life, really. The absolute simplicity. A type of goodness in a way.
iW: But won’t you be criticized for including scenes of bombings within this comic frame?
NJ: I hope I will be. I think that’s the only frame that’s productive. I don’t mean to make light of it — but I think one of the most valid responses to those intrusions in ordinary life is to vehemently insist on living life the way you want to, you understand what I mean?
iW: What’s the role of politics in your films?
NJ: Politics are not central. What interests me is how individuals work with what they’ve been given. Ireland and England in the 70’s is the world I remember when I was Kitten’s age. [“Pluto”] is quite an accurate portrait in a way of what it was like then, if you were traveling between Dublin and London and looking for glamor and excitement. You were in a kind of amphetamine-fueled glam rock environment, into which every now and then these horrible eruptions of violence would intrude. Kind of an extraordinary period, very similar to the present in a strange way, y’know?
iW: Cillian Murphy is androgynously alluring as Kitten, and also brings great sweetness to the character. Could you imagine having done the film with anyone else?
NJ: No, I think Cillian is the only actor who can play this really. When I finished the first draft of the script, I did a test with him, and he was greally great. I was a bit nervous about the subject matter for some of the reasons you mentioned – the combination of comedy and violence. But when I did this test with Cillian I could see an entire new emotion coming out of the stuff that I’d written.
iW: Such as?
NJ: Well, the peep show scene when Liam Neeson [as the hometown priest] comes in, and it struck me that there’s an emotional thing going on here that I hadn’t anticipated. Cillian made Kitten a more rounded character.
iW: What’s the impetus for you to make a film?
NJ: Excuse me, oh hello Cuba. Yeah, I’ve got a movie here tonight. Everything good? [back to iW] I generally choose a film because it’s something I haven’t done before. In terms of genre, visualisation, ways of telling the story. As a director you can dream up many things, you can write the most amazing script in the world, but your desire won’t make anyone give you the 20 or 100 million or whatever you need to make it. It’s a very accidental process. There’s films I’ve been wanting to make for years that I haven’t managed to make. For this one, I had the script, all the elements in place — but I thought nobody would finance it actually, it was so out there.
iW: With your reputation and track record you can’t get –
NJ: No. The financing’s easier than for first time directors. But I can’t just announce to the world I want to make a film about a crossdressing cabaret singer in Ireland in 1972 and they’ll all say yes, we’ll make this. It doesn’t happen that way. Basically, if you do something that doesn’t adhere to a formulaic template, you’ll have trouble financing it.
iW: Who did?
NJ: Pathe, a British/French company. It cost 13 or 14 million.
IW: How did you learn how to make movies?
NJ: Oh God, from my mother, she’s a painter. And my grandfather was a painter.
iW: What’s the connection between painting and directing?
NJ: It allows you to see things, clearly, visually. I used to draw a lot when I was a kid. In a film like this, you have to see the images and visual textures very clearly, to be able to make it. It’s quite an unusual movie, really, isn’t it?
iW: How did you come up with the idea of the talking birds?
NJ: [laughing] I started writing it, and I had Kitten begin to deliver a voiceover. Then I thought, well, there are some things he doesn’t know about, y’know? Okay, I’ll have a couple of robins chatting away. Maybe they’ll observe everything. Maybe they’re the godlike kind of voice. And it seemed like fun.
iW: The soundtrack is a musical tour of the 70’s. How did you select the songs?
NJ: I went through my memories of the music of the time, and made the selections before I shot. Certain sequences, though, were shot to music. Like the perfumed terrorist sequence to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” And “Feelings,” that creepy song, which was playing against Brian Ferry [of Roxy Music] strangling Kitten in the car. Kitten saw the whole world through songs, didn’t he. He kind of believed in the naive sugary hopefulness of those pop lyrics.
IW: Have you been influenced by contemporary Irish playwrights, like Martin McDonagh? He reminds me of you. He’s hilarious, but the subject matter is very dark.
NJ: I’ve only read his plays, they’re wonderful. Incredibly black. Yes, we do the same thing. He makes you laugh at stuff you shouldn’t be laughing at.
iW: Do you think the dark/comic is typically Irish?
NJ: I do, absolutely. Sean O’ Casey came up with the term tragicomedies for his plays. I think that strange combination of awfulness and black humor, that strange graveyard kind of laughter is particularly Irish. Black/Irish.
iW: You’re so eclectic. What’s the thread that ties your work together?
NJ: The thread that runs through my work I suppose is a certain impatience with reality in general.
iW: Do you think mainstream America is ready for a transvestite hero?
NJ: Mainstream America needs all the heroes it can get, cross- dressing or otherwise. Weaponed up with perfume sprays.