DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: NEIL JORDAN - 'ONDINE'
TORONTO — Irish writer/director Neil Jordan first made an impact in Hollywood with his 1986 tale of obsessive love Mona Lisa, and then joined the big leagues with 1992’s The Crying Game, which earned six Oscar nominations and a win for his screenplay. Since then, his credits have included both big Hollywood productions and smaller films ranging from We’re No Angels and Interview with the Vampire to Michael Collins and The Butcher Boy. But Jordan’s varied work, which also includes The Brave One, Angel, The Company of Wolves, High Spirits and In Dreams, has always fared best outside the Hollywood system.
His latest film, Ondine, which he also wrote and produced, was shot entirely on location near his home in Ireland, and is a modern fairy tale starring Colin Farrell as an Irish fisherman whose life is transformed when he catches a beautiful and mysterious woman (Alicja Bachleda) in his nets. While at the Toronto Film Festival premiering his new film, Jordan took time to chat with Post. He spoke about making the film, his love of post, and the death of film.
POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?
NEIL JORDAN: “I wanted to make a fairy tale set in reality. A series of misunderstandings that lead to a fairy tale, and I wanted to create something very romantic and very Irish.”
POST: What were the biggest challenges? Is it true you had one of the worst summers on record in Ireland when you were shooting?
JORDAN: [Laughs] “Yes, we don’t experience summers anymore at all, just rain. I wrote the script specifically so that it could be shot all around the place where I have a house, in Castletownbere in Cork, on the west coast. I’d written it with all the locations in mind and I wanted to be able to just drive five or 10 minutes in any direction and get to the locations. But it rained a lot. On the other hand, it was very beautiful and the DP got all these magical landscapes. It was overcast all the time, but it was very magical, and it suited the story perfectly.”
POST: After shooting Titanic and The Abyss James Cameron told me, “Never, ever shoot in water!” So how tough was this, particularly all the fishing scenes?
JORDAN: “It was hard, but luckily we had pretty limited underwater scenes. There’d been some talk of using visual effects and a tank, but in the end we didn’t even use a tank. We actually shot in the real sea. We just plunged the camera in with the actors and went for it, and I thought it was fascinating, because when you shoot in a tank the water’s always clear and you can almost see too much. The mystery’s gone. But in the real sea, it’s all churning and brown with an almost amber texture to the water and quite beautiful, but it was very cold.”
POST: That must have been hard on the actors?
JORDAN: “It was, very hard. But they didn’t complain too much. Alicja was a real trooper even though she must have been freezing in all those scenes where Colin first fishes her out of the ocean.”
POST: You write most of the scripts you shoot. Is it a big advantage being both the writer and director?
JORDAN: “I think it is in the way that if anything goes wrong, you can rewrite it very quickly yourself and hopefully fix the problem. I actually approach filmmaking from a writing standpoint, so when I’m directing, I’m still thinking in terms of the writing a lot.”
POST: Do you like the post process?
JORDAN: “I love post. For me, it’s the nicest time of all on a film as the craziness of the shoot is over and now you get to sit down and really see what you have. I love editing and choosing the shots, and then you reconfigure the film and add the music and sound — all the fun stuff.”
POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
JORDAN: “We did all the post in Dublin at Windmill Lane Studios, and all the sound at Ardmore Studios in Dublin. The shoot was about eight weeks, and post was quite long, about six months.”
POST: This was edited by Tony Lawson, your longtime editor who also cut such films as Michael Collins, The Butcher Boy and In Dreams for you. How does that relationship work?
JORDAN: “Tony’s a very experienced editor who’s done some truly amazing work in cinema. He actually began his career working with Stanley Kubrick, for whom he edited Barry Lyndon, and Sam Peckinpah, for whom he cut Straw Dogs, and then he did a lot of work for Nicolas Roeg, including films like Track 29 and Bad Timing, so it’s been a great honor to work with him for me. And after so many films together I have a very close relationship with him. In fact, right at the start I always show him the script, and it’s almost as if I need to get his approval first before I even begin [laughs].
“He always comes on location with me, as you have to start cutting while you’re shooting, so if there are any holes or extra scenes that need shooting, then I know right away.
“So he was on the set and he set up his Avid and a little screening room in an office in the town, and then we’d watch dailies and he basically edits as I shoot. Then after the shoot, we moved the edit suite to Windmill Lane in Dublin, and by then we already had our first assembly. Then we’d break down each scene, discuss any changes, and carry on from there. It’s a great relationship because he’s someone I can totally trust and rely on, and if something’s not working he’ll always tell me. He’s very specific, and it’s almost like shorthand between us after all these years.”
POST: How many visual effects shots are there and how did Framestore get involved?
JORDAN: “There are hardly any visual effects shots in the entire film. The reason is because I wanted to make a fantasy film with no effects shots whatsoever. I wanted it all to be real and in-camera. The only effects shots done by Framestore, who are in London, were some very basic wire removal and clean-up stuff. Apart from those, the film has no effects shots.”
POST: How important are sound and music to you?
JORDAN: “Music is critical for me, although sometimes I really like to see a film without any music at all, such as Dog Day Afternoon. Did you know that there’s not one note of music in that from start to finish? Which is kind of music in itself [laughs].
“On this, I used Kjartan Sveinsson, who plays keyboards with Sigur Ros, the Icelandic band. They recorded all the music in Iceland and then they sent the files and we did all the mixing at Ardmore.
“I’m very involved in all the mixing, which I really love, and we had a great team working on it — supervising sound editor Sarah Gaines and sound effects editor and re-recording mixer Tom Johnson. They did a great job, as we needed a very inventive, unique soundtrack, and we used a lot of underwater sounds and whale calls and dolphin sounds, that kind of thing.”
POST: Did you do a DI?
JORDAN: “Yes, at Framestore, with the DP and colorist Brian Kingsman, who also did a great job. You pretty much have to do a DI these days. All the old lab processes of color timing and so on are now digital, and I love it. It allows you to go in and work on a single frame or part of a frame if you want, which gives you incredible freedom in post. It can be over-used if you’re not careful, but I think we did a great job and I was very happy with the finished look we got. I think the film has a sort of magical look to it.”
POST: Is film dead?
JORDAN: “I’m afraid it is, although I love film. It’s probably on its last legs now.”
POST: Will you shoot a digital film soon?
JORDAN: “The technology’s really catching up with film and I feel I should explore the possibilities. The whole thing now is 3D, and I’d do a 3D movie but it’s got to be appropriate subject matter. I might do my next film digital. To be honest, it’s hard for me to get really excited about it, but I think the move to an all-digital world now is inevitable.”
POST: What are the advantages of being based in Ireland?
JORDAN: “I’ve been based there most of my career, and it’s where I live. It would have been easy for me to move to LA, but I don’t think I would have survived there. I think less in terms of Ireland and Hollywood than in terms of what I need to get a film made, and the ironic thing is that often it can be far harder to get a little film made than some big Hollywood picture, where you have the whole studio machine behind you.”
POST: You’ve also produced nearly all the films you’ve made, so you must also really like producing?
JORDAN: “No, not entirely. I much prefer writing and directing to producing, but I have to put on my producer’s hat in order to get a project off the ground. Someone has to do it, don’t they? So it’s more a matter of necessity than choice — especially when it’s a small independent film like this.”
POST: What’s next?
JORDAN: “Before this I was working on a project called Heart Shaped Box, but it fell through, and now I’ve adapted the Neil Gaiman book The Graveyard Book, and I hope to do that next. I say ‘hope,’ because in this business you never know.”
POST: What’s the current state of indie film?
JORDAN: “Not good. In fact, I think there’s a real crisis, especially in distribution. And it seems to only be getting worse. I mean a platform release is a thing of the past now. We premiered this at the Toronto Film Festival, and there were so many films there without a deal.”
POST: A few years ago you formed a new company, “The Company of Wolves,” with DreamWorks. What happened to that arrangement?
JORDAN: “I don’t have it anymore. The idea was to develop projects under the agreement, to give them access to smaller independent projects made in Britain and Ireland. But those kinds of deals just don’t exist anymore — or at least, only for very few people. And sometimes they’re more trouble than they’re worth, as you get tied to a big studio when it’s not really necessarily the best place to be. So, I have no regrets about that being over.”
POST: You’ve made the big studio films in the past, so what’s your take on the current state of Hollywood?
JORDAN: “I think it’s all changing so rapidly now, so it’s a very weird time, especially because of this whole credit crunch. Audiences are going to movies, but the studios seem to have stopped making any serious films at all. It’s a great time to be in exhibition, but very strange for Hollywood, which now seems to crank out tiny variations on the same old plots, and they’re all aimed at 14-year-old boys who’ll go two or three times to the same film.
“It’s a little bit depressing, but then I’m very comfortable with the set-up I have and the way I work. I have absolutely nothing against Hollywood. I had a great time working there. The reason I left and came back to live in Ireland was because of my kids, so I could bring them up there.”