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"I wanted to allow myself to be simple and much more forgiving than I ever have in the past!"
"The western coast of Ireland is a particularly magical place...all jammed up against a kind of contemporary life. "
"Is it possible to create this fantasy through realistic means?"
"Hollywood didn't really stretch him or allow him to demonstrate the kind of talent he really has."
"If it were the traditional Celtic legend, it would end in sadness and loss."
"Make sure your intentions are absolutely clear to yourself before you embark on anything."
Neil Jordan  

Interviewed by Mark Sells
June 2010

Academy Award winner Neil Jordan is synonymous with passionate, violent, and political infused dramas like Angel/Danny Boy, Mona Lisa, and The Brave One. In 1993, he hit Oscar gold with The Crying Game, a controversial thriller involving sex, terrorism, and one shocking little secret. And immediately afterward, took on Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and a starladen cast in Anne Rice's epic, Interview with a Vampire.

With both critical and box office success in hand, Jordan broke new ground by tackling the life and death of IRA leader, Michael Collins (1996), in a project that had baffled filmmakers for over four decades from John Ford to Robert Redford to Kevin Costner. Gripping and historically rich, the film would go on to earn several Oscar nominations and cement the career of Liam Neeson. Next, Jordan would continue his exploration of complex relationships from the quintessential indie, The Butcher Boy (1997), to a wartime love triangle, The End of the Affair (1999), and a transgender boy searching for his mother in Breakfast on Pluto (2005).

Still, there exists a softer, simpler side to the Dublin native, who began his career, writing acclaimed novels and short stories. Such stories focused on children, family relationships, and whimsical memories from Ireland. However, nothing quite as uplifting as his latest feature, Ondine, a modern day fairy tale about a fisherman, his daughter, and an Irish mermaid or selki. Says Jordan, "I just wanted to make a movie about the Irish imagination. I wanted to allow myself to be simple and much more forgiving than I ever have in the past." The end result, of course, is nothing short of magical.

Reel Questions, Reel Answers

When I first saw Ondine, one of the first things that popped into my head was how it could easily have gone into darker, more serious territory, perhaps along the lines of The Butcher Boy. What made you opt for a fairy tale?

I think it was because I wanted a fairy tale, you know? It started with this image of a fisherman pulling up this girl onto a boat out of a net. And as I developed it, I thought, 'Okay, this could be very dark. It could be very sinister. It could be very weird and strange. But it could also be very simple, as if it were a part of the daughter's imagination.' And I just felt like being a bit more gentle than I've been in the past (Laughs)!

Do you share such stories with your children?

Of course I do, yeah. I've got five kids and I've always been reading them fairy tales or making them up in one way or another.

Was there a particular tale that provided inspiration for Ondine?

Oscar Wilde wrote a lot of fairy tales that, I think, people still read. And William Butler Yeats, when he started out, did a big collection of folk tales of Ireland. He walked around the west coast, collecting all these local legends and stuff. And I just wanted to make a film that would reflect that kind of reality in a contemporary Irish context. Because the western coast of Ireland is a particularly magical place with all these shards and memories of mythology and they're all jammed up against a kind of contemporary life. And I just wanted to make a film that reflected both of those things.

There have been many films made about mermaids. What makes Ondine (a Selki) different?

Well, it's the Celtic version of the ancient legend. I think every culture seems to have these kinds of legends. And the Scottish and Irish versions of it are 'Selki.' The stories all follow the same pattern: a woman comes out of the sea, is discovered by a fisherman, and the fisherman finds some evidence (either a seal's cap, or a coat, or a seal's skin), something that is buried or lost. And the relationship ends in tragedy when the woman finds out who she is and returns to the sea.

So, I took that legend and siphoned it through the young girl's imagination and placed it in a contemporary Irish context. But it was odd how much of the legend survived, almost as a fairy tale, without me having to manipulate the realities that much.

My only worry with the film was that you build up a sense of enchantment and then reveal to the audience that it's not a fantasy after all, you know? But an odd thing happens with the story because, if it were the traditional Celtic legend, it would end in sadness and loss. The woman would go back to the sea leaving the man alone. Instead, it's a series of real events or real coincidences that are interpreted in a way that enables me to give a happy ending to a story that otherwise would have had a tragic one.

Colin Farell really has come into his own, as an actor, particularly as he's stepped away from the studio system and taken on more dynamic roles. This has to be one of his finest performances because it's hard to imagine anyone else playing Syracuse. When you wrote and developed the film, did you envision anyone else playing the part?

As I was writing it, I had Colin in mind. I'd never worked with him, but I produced a small movie that he'd made called Intermission. So, he kept coming into my mind. And I've always thought he was an absolutely, superb actor. Hollywood didn't really stretch him or allow him to demonstrate the kind of talent he really has. So, when I finished it, I just called up Colin and said, "Look, do you want to read this? I've written this (script) and I'm not sure what to think of it.' And he read it and loved it. He just said, "Look, we have to do this." And so, in a way, it was kind of written or tailormade for him.

Alicja and Alison are equally fantastic, bringing a simplistic, innocent quality to their characters. How important was the notion of purity?

Well, I wanted somebody to play the part of Ondine who was not well-known, who was from Eastern Europe, and someone no one had ever seen before. So I began to look at a lot of Eastern European actresses. And it's a very difficult role because you have to play a part that is imagined by other people in a strange way. So, it's a very complicated psychology that went into that part. And I thought Alicja managed it very beautifully. I had a meeting with her and she had this remarkable quality. And I also saw a film she was in called Trade, which was produced by Roland Emmerich. It was the first English language movie that she'd ever done and was terrific.

Regarding Alison Barry, I did what you do when you have to look for a kid - you go around to all the schools and the local areas. We must've seen about 2 to 3 hundred kids and she stood out. She fit the part like a glove, really.

I loved the naturalistic quality of the film, untouched by special effects or digital wizardry. Why was it important to ground the film in reality and shoot it in Ireland as opposed to a set, blue screen, or locale where it might be cheaper?

That was the reason I made the film. I wanted to see if it was possible to tell a fairy tale in this very specific corner of Ireland that I know very well, without using any digital effects or imageries and stuff. And I suppose, I wanted to see if the landscape would give up those secrets. Or give up its mythological past in a way. And that was the challenge I set for myself. 'Is it possible to create this fantasy through realistic means?' I had Christopher Doyle on camera, who's a very, very inventive DP - one of the best there is, really. Particularly for something as adventurous as this. He finds a different aesthetic for each project he chooses that is always different from his previous work.

Was there something specific about his prior work that made him perfect for Ondine?

It's tough because most of his prior work, if you've seen the things he's done with Wong Kar Wai or Zhang Yimou and Hero or what he's done in China and Hong Kong, you know it's very, very stylized. Very manicured. He creates highly, sophisticated images. And in this case, we had to deal with nature, with water and blowing clouds over the Irish Sea.

But he's the kind of guy who finds a different set of tools for every project. He did some movies with Gus Van Sant where he really stripped down the aesthetic, which was very different from the work he's known for. And he carefully chooses a stock and pushes so many things with exposure, frame rates, and shutter speed. He's really interesting that way, working within the camera to deliver a very beautiful image.

What sets Ondine apart from your previous work?

I think it's much gentler than any of the others I've done before (Laughs). It's much more forgiving. I mean, I've made many movies about Ireland and violence and really disturbing things, you know? The kind of Irish experience in The Butcher Boy or Breakfast on Pluto.

I've made 3 or 4 movies that were specifically about political violence in an Irish context. But in this case, I just wanted to make a movie about the Irish imagination. I wanted to allow myself to be simpler and much more forgiving than I ever have in the past.

You're and Academy Award Winner, an established writer, a successful director. As an independent filmmaker, what were some of the challenges you faced getting Ondine made?

Independent film is in a fiercely difficult state right now. The big challenge, of course, is with distribution. Or getting a film made at all because all of those talents or platform distribution outfits have all collapsed.

It's a worldwide problem, I think. But it's particularly critical in America. A movie like this ten years ago - if we would have given it to Fox Searchlight, there would've been people bidding for it and stuff like that. But that kind of thing doesn't happen anymore.

There are different modes of distribution emerging. The internet is changing things. And it's just becoming a very fluid and difficult time for independent movies.

For aspiring independent filmmakers or writers out there, what's the most important lesson you've learned so far?

Make sure your intentions are absolutely clear to yourself before you embark on anything. And that it's reflected in the script, particularly the ideas you want to put up on the screen. It's easy to have incoherent thoughts when you first start making movies. And clarity is most important.



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