For a director who made his name with the excellent adaptation of Angela Carter's gothic deconstructed fairy tales with "The Company of Wolves" and his big studio breakthrough with "Interview with the Vampire," it's been a while since Neil Jordan traveled into more horrific territory. There were genre elements to his last film, "Ondine," but that was more of a warm, romantic fable (and a very underrated film). It's really been thirteen years since 1999's "In Dreams," when Jordan tackled the darker side of the supernatural world.
But "Byzantium," the director's latest project, certainly marks a return to that kind of territory with a vampire tale from writer Moira Buffini ("Jane Eyre") that stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as a pair of vampires causing havoc in a British seaside town. And when we spoke to him in Toronto, where the film premiered this week at TIFF, Jordan says that the film was in a way, a conscious decision to return to his spookier roots.
"Moira sent me the script," Jordan told us. "I read it, and thought it was very interesting. On the one hand, it's kind of a story about a mother and daughter, on the other hand about a teenager growing up in this wonderful kind of mythological context of the period and I thought it was gorgeous. It was a chance to return to the territory of 'Interview With the Vampire' and 'The Company of Wolves'…I think the whole thing was a great opportunity to really reinvent the vampire legend really. It's become a bit tired of late, you know?"
Of course, part of the appeal was that the two strong lead female roles, and Jordan believes he found the perfect leads. Gemma Arterton caught his eye, Jordan says, in the underseen thriller "The Disapperance of Alice Creed," telling us "Gemma's a wonderful actress, she's physically beautiful but she's also just so bloody good, you know? And I think when I saw her in 'Alice Creed,' I thought, 'okay, this is a woman who's very professional and very brave, in a way that most actresses aren't.' If you want a vengeful, terrifying vamp, to be in a movie, that also brings all the protective instincts of a mother, I can't think of a better actress to cast than Gemma Arterton."
As for her younger co-star, it seem that the director had had his eye on Saoirse Ronan for some time. "I didn't know her," Jordan said of the young Irish actress, "but I've watched her work for the last six years and I've always wanted to work with her, she's incredible. She brings everything, doesn't she? She's amazing, very extraordinary. She's so young and so kind of tough and accomplished at the same time." And happily, the pair shared great chemistry during the shoot. "They don't actually look like mother and daughter, but the strange thing is that they seem like it. They ended up being very good together."
In terms of the film itself, Jordan wanted to steer clear of other vampire pictures for his inspiration for the striking imagery, including a memorable blood-red waterfall (which the director told us was from an elaborate CGI effect: "It's a real waterfall. We put dye into the water and the whole thing just turned red."). That said, a couple of other films were on his mind as he made the picture. "I kept thinking of 'Don't Look Now,' it's not a vampire movie at all, it's not really horror film, except maybe for that little red coat!. And I kept thinking of those great English films like 'Séance on a Wet Afternoon' (the 1964 Bryan Forbes-directed thriller starring Richard Attenborough)."
With the film now picked up by IFC Films for distribution in North America next year, Jordan will be looking to move onto something else, although he's not entirely sure what yet, saying that he's got "one or two films" percolating. What his next picture won't be is his adaptation of "Heart-Shaped Box," the horror novel by Stephen King's son Joe Hill, which was set up a few years back. "What happened with that was Warner Brothers commissioned it for me, you know, we were about to make it and they kept cutting the budget. In the end they kind of didn't want to make it, I don't know what to do with that. I did love that project. I wrote a script that I thought was rather good, actually. It's kind of tough when they're saying no, we don't want to make it, you know?"
It's a shame, certainly, but hopefully it'll see a second life down the road. In the meantime, you'll be able to see "Byzantium" on the big screen, courtesy of IFC Films, in early 2013.
Interview by Christopher Schobert