Fabulous Beasts: Neil Jordan, Interview with the Vampire & Byzantium

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neil jordan

Fabulous Beasts:

Neil Jordan, Interview with the Vampire & Byzantium

With the passing of Angela Carter and plans for a cinematic Vampirella abandoned, director Neil Jordan nonetheless produced two films examining vampire lore. Graham Williamson discusses how the spirit of Carter is instilled in both...

On 16th February 1992, Angela Carter died, leaving a void in British literature that has yet to be adequately filled. The scope and the scale of her final novel Wise Children suggests she would have continued to evolve and produce work no-one else could imagine.

Of her unfinished projects, there is one that is easier to speculate about, not least because it would rework material she had already used as the basis for a radio play and a short story. The film, named Vampirella, was nevertheless derailed by her death, leaving director Neil Jordan searching for a new project.

He found it in Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire, an understandable way to handle the loss of Vampirella but a surprising move after The Crying Game made him an internationally prominent, Oscar-winning director. How many people follow such breakthroughs with a horror film? Interview With the Vampire, though, was no ordinary horror film.

Funded by the record industry giant David Geffen, it has all the virtues of a Hollywood film made by a Hollywood outsider. Standard Tinseltown logic is that horror movies are always profitable because they’re cheap; Geffen took the gamble that even more people would see them if they were made on a blockbuster scale. It worked, too, grossing $224 million against a $60 million budget.

Jordan was thrilled, noting later that “it’s not very often you can make a complicated, dark, dangerous movie and get a big budget for it”. [1] It wasn’t all plain sailing, though; his collaboration with Rice proved as volatile as his time with Carter was harmonious. When Tom Cruise, then at the height of his all-American flyboy years, was cast as Rice’s anti-hero Lestat, the author was furious, bombarding the production with alternative choices from John Malkovich to Julian Sands to Cruise’s co-star, Brad Pitt.

Rice relented once she saw the finished film, but Pitt’s doubts about the film only grew. He hated the make-up process and endless night shoots, and felt his character, Louis, was less complex in the script than he was in the book. “They took the sensational aspects of Lestat and made that the pulse of the film”, he later noted, saying it left him with nothing to do bar “just sit and watch”. [2] Jordan identified a similar problem with the book, noting that “once Louis becomes a vampire, they kind of bitch through the ages, don’t they? [3] But Pitt’s criticism strikes at a deeper difference between Interview With the Vampire and what Vampirella might have been.

The Company of Wolves is about coming of age; (Interview with the Vampire) is about arrested development.

Angela Carter’s horror stories are rooted in fairy stories, describing the tragedy and the necessity of growing up. Interview With the Vampire isn’t full-on vampire wish fulfilment in the manner of The Lost Boys, but a film made on this scale will inevitably become about spectacle to some extent. It is perfectly possible to watch the film and simply enjoy the amoral carnage Lestat causes, and the ending – with Lestat blasting off in a sports car listening to Guns ‘n’ Roses – leans into that reading. The Company of Wolves is about coming of age; this is about arrested development.

That said, this theme is complicated by the existence of Claudia, played uncannily well by a young Kirsten Dunst. Turned by Lestat at eleven, she is frozen unnervingly at childhood even as her mind becomes increasingly adult and disturbed. Her status as a kind of surrogate daughter for Lestat and Louis also points to another of the film’s great strengths: despite being made at a time when mainstream Hollywood was deeply squeamish about gay relationships, it preserves the homoerotic charge of Rice’s novel. It’s hard to imagine any contemporary producer other than the openly gay Geffen holding the line on that matter.

Interview with the Vampire is more than just a consolation prize for Vampirella, of course. It has its own pleasures, from its impossibly plush production design to an early role for the great Thandie Newton. It remains fascinating to look at it through a Carteresque lens, with Vampirella‘s key theme of nature versus nurture resurfacing in Claudia’s growing mind-body schism. His next vampire film would take him even further into this territory, based as it is on the work of an author who cited Carter as a key influence on her original play.

2012’s Byzantium received a tepid response, failing to pass the $1m mark at the international box office and subjected to a slew of lazy, frequently Twilight-obsessed reviews. (Wearyingly, a number of critics decided it “lacked bite”: ho ho ho) Yet whenever I told people what I was currently writing about, it was Byzantium that excited people – not bona fide cult classic The Company of Wolves, not box-office sensation Interview With the Vampire, but this tiny film starring a pre-Lady Bird Saoirse Ronan and a post-Bond Gemma Arterton as a vampire daughter-mother duo. Why?

The increased profile and credibility of both leads has doubtless helped it find an audience, but the most compelling reason would be that Byzantium is, in fact, extremely good. Jordan has compared the relationship between Arterton’s Clara and Ronan’s Eleanor to Lestat and Louis, but he avoids the narrative stasis of Cruise and Pitt bitching through the ages by adding a chase element. And what are Clara and Eleanor running from? A misogynistic clan of vampires who they’ve stolen the secret of eternal life from, which brings the story right back around to Vampirella‘s central theme of women versus patriarchal tradition.

One of the interesting what-ifs of the Vampirella project is how Jordan would have handled the eroticism of the feeding scenes, which is absolutely unrepentant in Carter’s radio play; the male lead whispering about feeling “the suction of her tongue” as Anna Massey moans orgasmically. Jordan’s vampire films often go for gore rather than sensuality here, and Byzantium is as full of split wrists and stabbed throats as Interview With the Vampire. But he also draws out a wide spectrum of sexuality from Moira Buffini’s play, from the brassy sex appeal that Clara monetizes for survival to Eleanor’s surprisingly tender romance with a leukaemia-stricken teenager played by Caleb Landry Jones.

Indeed, one scene in Byzantium posits aberrant sexuality as a potential rationalist explanation for the vampire myth, with Jonny Lee Miller’s syphilis-ridden Ruthven complaining that he can no longer bear sunlight. Perhaps the vilest figure in any of Jordan’s films, Ruthven is the vector of every infection in the story. When he’s dead, he turns people into vampires; when he’s alive, he rapes them and forces them into prostitution, considering Clara the best of “the harlots he’s made”.

Ruthven is named after the Byron-inspired figure in John Polidori’s The Vampyre, just as Sam Riley’s character Darvell is named after the hero of the unfinished fragment that Byron himself left Polidori to finish. These would be little more than cute Easter eggs were it not for the repeatedly stressed theme of storytelling. Eleanor’s opening voiceover line is “Our story can never be told”, a statement she immediately contradicts: “I write it over and over, every time we find shelter…”

Byzantium‘s nesting structure of flashbacks brings it surprisingly close to The Company of Wolves‘s stories within stories, and in handling this Jordan shows that Carter’s challenges to film form were, perhaps, still on his mind. Carter praised radio for its ability “to cross-cut from subjective to objective reality”, implying that no other medium could match it. Yet when Eleanor sees scenes from her and her mother’s past play out before her on the beach, Jordan achieves something very similar with purely visual grammar. The past is never gone; at worst it kills you, at best, as Eleanor says, “I walk and the past walks with me. It lives…”

Vampirism means many things in Byzantium: a blessing, a curse, a way to survive, a way to embrace death. It is a method of control and a method of liberation. It is also a way of remaining immortal and ageless, and here the film becomes a metaphor for itself. In collaborating to tell Eleanor and Clara’s story, Buffini and Jordan created something destined to outlive its initial reception in the vampire-saturated early 2010s. Today, it looks newer and stranger than ever, and the spirit of Angela Carter is unquestionably alive within it.


Sources:

[1] The Belfast Telegraph, ‘Interview With the Vampire director Neil Jordan: I had a great time making this movie, but there’s a dark Catholic guilt underneath’, Una Brankin, November 10th 2014
[2] Entertainment Weekly, ‘Brad Pitt on this week’s cover: a frank, funny, uncensored interview about his life and career’, EW staff, September 15th 2011
[3] p. 176, Personal Visions: Conversations With Independent Film-Makers, Mario Falsetto, 1999

Graham Williamson

Graham Williamson

Graham is a critic and film-maker from Teesside. He's worked for The Geek Show, Byline Times and Second Run DVD, but has never, to his dismay, seen a UFO.

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