Neil Jordan returns to undead world in 'Byzantium'
05:00 AM, Jun 27, 2013
The vampires in director Neil Jordan’s Byzantium are more like us than most you’ll find in pop culture.
They need blood to survive, but the immortal creatures of the new indie drama (opening in select cities on Friday) don’t have fangs, are quite fine walking around in sunlight and make the life decision to go down a very different path.
“Somebody doesn’t crawl into your bed and drink your blood at night or ravish you and suck you dry,” Jordan says. “You actually have to make a choice to go to this place, this strange and accessible island where this pagan/Christian interface is happening, and you walk inside and meet your own death.”
The director of a 1994 adaptation of Anne Rice’s best-selling novel Interview with the Vampire returns to make another story of the undead in Byzantium, yet he places more emphasis on the metaphorical than the supernatural.
Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are a mother and daughter who have been traveling from town to town for 200 years to avoid a mysterious group of men hunting them and to search for a stable life.
Clara, a former prostitute who gave up her baby to an orphanage in her pre-vamp state, sets up a brothel wherever they go, and this time she finds a temporary home in an English seaside hotel called Byzantium. Eleanor, on the other hand, is destined to be a teenager forever but wants to share her life story with somebody and finds an equally lonely soul in a neighborhood youngster named Frank (Caleb Landry Jones).
“The delightful thing in it was that the mother will never allow the daughter to be properly educated. Her nightmare is that she’ll tell her story in a full and florid and interesting way,” says Jordan, the Oscar-winning Irish filmmaker of The Crying Game, Michael Collins, In Dreams and The Brave One.
“One is watchful and full of guilt and the other is full of vengeance. They’re a bit like female versions of Louis and Lestat in Interview with the Vampire.”
The director admits he was initially “very loathe” to make another vampire movie after Interview, which cast Brad Pitt as the 18th-century Creole planter Louis and Tom Cruise as Lestat, who not only turns Louis but also teaches him the ways of the undead.
There are quite a few elements in Byzantium, Moira Buffini’s adaptation of her 2007 play A Vampire Story, that differ from Jordan’s previous undead offering.
Instead of fangs, Clara and Eleanor have thumbnails that become long talons in order to draw blood from others. Also, the word “vampire” isn’t uttered they are called “soucriants,” which were witch vampires in Caribbean folklore.
Plus, Jordan was fascinated with the idea that humans would have to choose this lifestyle rather than have it forced upon them.
“It’s like getting married, isn’t it? Or deciding to work for the National Security Agency or Google or deciding to make movies for Hollywood,” Jordan says, laughing. “You know your life is forever changed.”
At 63, Jordan wasn’t exactly the target demographic for the vampire-centric Twilight series, so he missed most of that teen-romance phenomenon. Instead, with Byzantium he wanted to bring back a sense of something deeper, like what he experienced doing Interview with the Vampire.
“Anne Rice basically rewrote the rule book for vampires,” the director says. “She said this thing of vampirism and eternal life is a metaphor for something, and in her case it was a metaphor for subdued sexual longing and eternal guilt.
“Once you’ve done that with a creature who was generally played by Vincent Price or Bela Lugosi, it frees people up to do other things.”
While Arterton would never call herself a horror fanatic, she counts Jordan’s 1984 werewolf film The Company of Wolves as one of her favorites because of its supernatural fairy-tale aspect
On set, the actress found that Jordan celebrated her “bold and breezy” choices when playing Clara. “Neil is such a splendid writer. He usually creates worlds in his head. You know that you are in good hands because he has such a strong vision and yet has this openness to what we brought to the emotional side.”
Jones says the main appeal of Byzantium for him as an actor was that it was “real honest” in the way it dealt with both the ordinary and the extraordinary. “Everything was a smart reflection on life. There was a supernatural element piece that he captures beautifully, but there’s that human quality as well.”
Jordan is sticking with the spooky, too: He’s written a ghost story set in Eastern Europe that he hopes to direct later this year. “It’s going to frighten people with beautiful music. It’d be good to scare people with beauty for a change.”
His favorite projects are the ones like The Crying Game which won Jordan the Academy Award for original screenplay where aspects appear to be one thing but are actually revealed to be something else entirely.
“I like to make films about how the real world interfaces with some world of fantasy or metaphor,” he says.
“Byzantium is that kind of movie. There’s a grim present-day reality that is hiding in an enormous amount of huge, dramatic and bloody things, really. That’s the kind of territory I’m always drawn to.”