Neil Jordan, writer-director of films like The Crying Game, The Good One, Interview with the Vampire and The Company of Wolves, apologizes for the chirping noise when he first greets us in his suite at The Four Seasons hotel.
“It’s this thing,” he grunts with a smirk. He holds up a cordless telephone emitting a low beeping, apparently low on battery power. Jordan returns it to its cradle and takes a sip from his coffee.
We’ve come together to discuss his new film Greta. An old-fashioned thriller, the movie stars Chloe Grace Moretz as Frances, a young New York waitress who befriends an older music teacher, the title character played by Isabelle Huppert. What begins as a tender friendship turns ominous as Greta begins a chilling obsession with Frances, and Frances discovers Greta is not what she first seems.
Greta hits cinemas March 1. For Jordan, it marks his first since 2012, and he’s eager to chat about his new film along with Interview stars Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt as well as the complicated sexual politics of The Crying Game.
So this marks something of a departure for you…
A total departure, yeah. I’ve never done anything so straightforwardly generic.
Well, it’s a genre piece, isn’t it?
I’ve never done that before.
What really struck me was how female-driven the film is. I think—with the exception of The Brave One— most of your films are all about men.
What made you want to do a film about two women?
No. The script was sent to me. I read it and thought OK, this belongs to territory I’ve seen before. But I thought what was interesting was that the “monster” was female. I could imagine this being an obsession developing between these two characters that I had never quite seen before. It was cool because, you know, the basis for the obsession wasn’t so much sexual as it was a mothering instinct. One character lost her mother, another lost her daughter. The whole question of where that would go I found quite fascinating. So that’s why I made it in the end: it was between two women.
And I’m not making it as some kind of proto-feminist statement or anything. I just thought it would be much more interesting to explore these characters in this context. Normally, it’s kind of rancid man with mother issues or some childhood wound he can’t get rid of. I thought that we could construct a really interesting monster in the character of Greta with Isabelle’s help.
You were saying this is a genre piece. This also seems to fit with the sort of “psycho-biddy” thrillers of the 60s which starred actresses like Joan Crawford or Bette Davis. What made you want to work in the genre?
It was the simplicity of it really. The hook of the handbags was so cool. As a writer—I write my own stuff, you know.
And I think, “Oh God, what am I going to make a movie about next?” So you sit down and you get a little script [like Greta] and you think, “Oh, that’s clever, why didn’t I think of that?” It was that kind of instinct, really. So I said I’d do it. And getting involved in contemporary Hollywood, it’s never as simple as you think. No studio behind it, it had to be made independently. So I talked to various actors. Some were interested, some were not. But eventually, when Isabelle and Chloe said they’d do it, I thought “Ok, that’s going to be interesting now.” I could have an American sweetheart, a blond figure with a European Joan Crawford-kind of prototype and I can see where it goes. In the original script, Greta was nothing like what Isabelle plays. She was an older woman, a Hungarian immigrant from the 50s. You know, the kind of woman you see overloaded with her shopping on her stoop outside her New York apartment climbing up four or five flights up the stairs with all her bags. When Isabelle became interested, I said, “OK, I’ll rewrite the part to suit you.” So I made her French, gave her a certain elegance, developed the piano, the whole musical [element]. And I had this sort of black, Grimm’s fairy tales element behind her too.
So why Isabelle?
Well she’s one of the best actors there is, isn’t she really?
I can’t quite remember now. Did I send it to her? Did she—I think I must have sent it to her and she must have read it. We discussed it…yeah I sent her the script. She liked it. She began to research various contemporary monsters that have been in the news. That guy called Fritzel [Joseph Fritzel, who kept his daughter locked in a basement for 24 years and fathered seven children with her] and somebody else in Belgium. There are a lot of obsessives in Belgium for some reason.
A lot of weird people in Belgium: somebody who kept children in a basement. And Isabelle began to sort of explore the kind of background psychology, and it began a kind of conversation between us.
Sure. One of the characteristics of the genre is black comedy—in fact, I see that in a lot of your work.
There are moments that are genuinely horrifying, and moments that are almost funny.
There should be parts that are funny, I hope. I just wanted to push the journey of the characters into areas that you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, really. They were in the realm of absurdity in a way, the theatre of the absurd kind of thing. When you chop off someone’s finger, of course, it’s comical, isn’t it? It’s funny but it’s also horrific.
You kind of squeal with horror and delight in a way. If I had a slightly bigger budget I could have pushed into even more grotesque areas. But I had to work with what I had.
The way Isabelle and Chloe play it, there is, at times, almost a sexual ambiguity about them. So in your mind, is Greta lusting for Frances or is she just lusting for a child?
I don’t think she’s lusting for her sexually. I never felt that. I felt that she was reducing her to the most abject state she could possibly be because [Frances] refused to be [Greta’s] friend. There’s a great simplicity and sickness to that. Greta does say to her, “Oh you’ll be gone.” And Frances says, “No, I tend to stick around.” So she makes this promise. To me, in a way, the whole movie is about making those kinds of promises to anybody. Someone could actually take you seriously. Then you’d be really f*cked.
No, seriously. I thought it was a simple as that.
It’s interesting because there’s so much talk about the “influencer” culture. I think it’s quite interesting that the story boils down to can you just be friends with somebody even if they’re crazy?
Mhmm. You can. Many people have to be, you know. But even Frances has complicated emotions. She feels guilty. So as well as rejecting [Greta], she still worried about her. Which is, I think, the way we all are if you have an obsessive acquaintance. Someone who engages in self-harm or damaging activities–you want to help them. And that very urge to help puts you at risk. So it’s about those kinds of contradictions.
You have a strong gay following. I don’t know if you’re aware of this.
I’m told that yeah.
So I have to ask then: queer people are a recurring theme in your work. What is it…
The Crying Game, obviously. I had to present The Crying Game in Toronto for the 25th anniversary. And the cultural conversation has moved on so much since then. I was asked about presenting a transgender character. And that kind of terminology didn’t—it barely existed then. There were many transgender people in the film, actually. And one of them was just pre-op, undergoing hormonal therapy.
Yes, transitioning. But Jaye [Davidson, who plays the character Dil] is a gay man. And Jaye said, “I’m not a transvestite, I’m not transgender. I’m just a gay man.” And I said “OK.” And he could see his way into the character, but it was quite a strange conversation that we had. I think it’s of its time—The Crying Game. Know what I mean? If I were to make it now it would be a totally different story.
What’s amazing to me is that Dil is so far ahead of her time as a character. And she’s the hero of that story. She’s the only really good person in that story, the moral center. I think everyone else there’s a lot of ambiguity to their morals.
So how do you feel about the character as you look at the film now?
I think the character is really like a saint. Again, it’s a character who takes a promise at face value. Stephen Rea [who plays Fergus, the lead, in The Crying Game] does say to her that he likes her and that he’ll look after her before he realizes that she’s transgender. And he stuck with that promise. It’s not as grotesque as in Greta, but it’s a similar thing. I suppose the basic inquiry is how much you can love somebody else who’s not yourself, really. To me, it’s as simple as that.
You know, homoeroticism is a theme behind a lot of male narratives. I grew up in Ireland and so many of the movies I’ve made have come out of that experience. It’s an experience where identity is thrust on you. You were Catholic. You were Protestant. You were a Brit. You were an Irish, that kind of thing.
Now let me ask you a question…
I made a movie called Breakfast on Pluto. And the gay community hated that movie.
It had Cillian Murphy as a transgender character.
Yeah, and the gay community didn’t like it at all. When I released it, it was kind of uncomfortable. I dunno…
What I recall is that the novel is extremely sexually graphic. And the character is very sexual. Her name is actually Pussy in the book.
Yeah, the novel is almost like a satire. It’s almost too satiric in a way.
Yeah. But from what I recall when the movie came out it was that the character was desexualized quite a bit.
Oh, that could be it. Maybe.
Interview with the Vampire is still one of your biggest hits. That was 20 years ago. What kind of freedom to explore the homoeroticism of that film do you wish you had at the time? To phrase it another way, is the movie as gay as you would have liked?
I mean the movie is true to the book, I think. Anne Rice wrote the script. I didn’t change anything. If anything, I made it more penetrating and troubling in that regard. But nobody said, I mean, David Geffen was the producer. Come on! You think David would make me take homoerotic elements out of that script? No way. No way. There was a lot of reaction against casting Tom [Cruise, who plays the vampire Lestat] and Brad [Pitt, who plays the vampire Louis]. And maybe that made the actors slightly paranoid because the entire world seemed to be saying, “You are the wrong people for these roles.” And they played it more like master-slave, or dominance is more the fore of their relationship than sexuality. That is true. But I wasn’t told to take anything out of it. I wasn’t told to pull back on the homoerotic elements at all. And that is true.
Going back to your Irish upbringing, you grew up in a very politically charged environment. We’re living in one of those now. Hollywood seems to be moving left—last year we had Black Panther, Love, Simon and Crazy Rich Asians. Three of the actors that won at the Oscars on Sunday played queer characters. At the same time, our political system has gone far-right.
Well, I mean I think the terrible trap is that every kind of gesture that’s made toward identity politics is used by the Right. It has become expert at weaponizing any kind of misstatement as a kind of whip to punish. The polarization of the conversation in America is extraordinary. It’s terrifying. I’ve never had the opportunity to address that in a movie. I grew up in a country that has just liberated and liberalized itself. They’ve made abortion legal. My daughter is gay and lives there. I have two grandchildren from her same-sex parenting. The country is a different place from when I grew up. When I grew up it was a bit more like Eastern Europe under communism except its Ireland and the Catholic Church. But America is, you know, the great liberator, the great leader.
It will either liberate itself or collapse, won’t it? Something gotta happen, right?
Greta opens in theatres March 1. All photos courtesy of Focus Features.