"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Two women, one in her late 30s and another perhaps in her early 20s, move into a rundown seaside hotel named Byzantium. They are pursued by menacing strangers who prove to have no connection to the police or any legitimate authorities. The atmosphere is moody, the night air neon-lit. The plot becomes increasingly ominous, and we see violent flashbacks of the same women, not years but centuries in the past.
Neil Jordan’s 17th feature film, “Byzantium,” is already confounding critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Starring Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement,” “Hannah”) and Gemma Arterton and co-starring Sam Riley and Jonny Lee Miller, “Byzantium” is adapted by Moira Buffini from her play “A Vampire Story.” The film is at once identifiable as a Jordan film but is also kind of a busman’s holiday. “There are definitely elements of my other films in this one,” he told me by phone from his home in Dublin, “but I decided not to work on this film as a writer because Moira’s adaptation of her play brought the story to the screen very well. So I was a bit more relaxed while making it.”
Jordan has dealt with vampires before, in his 1994 Anne Rice adaptation “Interview With the Vampire.” In that film, Brad Pitt’s Louis is asked if Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an accurate depiction of the vampire life. “The feverish dreams,” replies Pitt, shrugging off the question, “of a demented Irishman.” Jordan’s interest in vampires is much different from Stoker’s. “I’m very interested in the burden of memories which people carry from one generation to another. Imagine how much more of a burden that must be for creatures who live for centuries. I was intrigued by ‘Byzantium’ because this time it was two women, and the idea of a mother-daughter relationship added a whole dimension. In some ways it’s a little sad, don’t you think? All the things that human beings must carry with them from decade to decade. Imagine carrying so many sad memories with you from century to century.”
“Byzantium” came out in the U.S. on June 28, and it’s just another step in Jordan’s uncommonly varied life and career. He was born in Sligo, in the shadow of Yeats’ Ben Bulben. (“Not so impressive as it sounds,” he once told me, “since virtually all of Sligo is in the shadow of Ben Bulben.”) He was raised in Dublin; his grandfather, mother and sister were all painters.
The ’60s and early ’70s were a time of restlessness and early rebellion in Ireland as in the rest of the West, but with a difference: The young were rebelling against two generations of older rebels – their parents and their grandparents. As Jordan puts it, “We grew up with so much talk of ‘The Troubles’ that we finally came to realize The Troubles were unfinished business and that they would stay unfinished until people began changing their attitudes. The ideal of much of my parents’ generation was that Ireland was a kind of pristine Gaelic culture that would be untouched by the outside world, and the Catholic Church did much to enforce this attitude. The ’60s brought cracks; writers who had no direct emotional stake in the old political and religious quarrels became restless and sought new means of expression.”
Jordan was 26 when his first collection of stories, “Night in Tunisia,” was released – the title taken from the Dizzy Gillespie classic. The slim volume caused ripples of reaction throughout what had become a complacent Irish literary scene. The much acclaimed novelist Seán Ó Faoláin, Jordan’s senior by half a century, called the title story about a young Irish jazz musician obsessed with learning Charlie Parker riffs, “One of the most remarkable stories I have read in Irish storytelling since or, indeed, before Joyce … It’s a new and releasing thing in Irish literature. It’s a personal language. It has no echo of worn-out, now rather boring old language and symbolism of rural Ireland’s whitewashed country cottages … the patriotic songs and laments of country pubs.” No one knew it at the time, but the book would turn out to be one of the first shots fired to herald a new Irish renaissance in the arts.
“I’m a literary person,” Jordan told me years ago, “and my technique as a film director is an extension of my technique as a writer. I’m aware that the term ‘literary’ has a pejorative ring to a lot of critics – they associate it with something like ‘Masterpiece Theatre.’ But I’m talking about 20th century literary technique. I can’t stand the usual kind of English fiction. You know, ‘She was bored with the day’s trivialities’ – that sort of thing. I decided a long time ago to take the most outrageous chances with narration. I refuse to use devices that would let anyone think they were getting to the story too easily. I want to get beneath that level of understanding, stir things up a bit.
“I like the idea of someone walking around days after they’ve seen or read something and then realizing, ‘Oh, so that’s what that’s about.’”
Jordan’s introduction to filmmaking came when he earned a job as creative consultant on John Borrman’s King Arthur film, “Excalibur,” shot in Ireland. “I had no idea what filmmaking entailed,” he says. “I thought films were made by machines or gods. Watching John work I realized that film could be a medium amenable to all your personal quirks.”
Borrowing some material from his own story “Night in Tunisia,” Jordan submitted a script to Britain’s Channel 4 about a young Irish jazz musician who becomes involved, against his will, in a violent incident in Northern Ireland. Channel 4 liked the script but was wary of Jordan’s desire to direct it until Boorman agreed to become executive producer.
The 1982 film “Angel” (retitled “Danny Boy” in the U.S. by distributors who didn’t want to attract patrons of a soft-core porn exploitation film of the same name) was shot in seven weeks. It showed astonishing assurance for a 31-year-old without any previous directorial experience and won him the London Evening Standard’s Most Promising Newcomer award. Almost overnight Jordan had a new career.
“The Company of Wolves,” released the following year with a script by Jordan and English novelist Angela Carter, showed a breathtaking leap in scope and technique. Shot in nine weeks for around $2 million, the film retold Little Red Riding Hood with imagery that suggested the influence of Jung, Bruno Bettelheim’s “Uses of Enchantment” and perhaps Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” – though Jordan denies any conscious influence.
“The truth is that a lot of the imagery in the film came from my own dreams. A couple of those dreams were so strong I could still summon them up years afterward.”
The world Jordan created for wolves is one where huge boa constrictors wrap themselves around trees as packs of wolves gallop by, where tarantulas fall from ceilings in churches during services – even religion offers no certain refuge from the unknown terrors of the primeval forest.
The film was as much the product of ingenuity as inspiration. Working with the late scene designer Anton Furst (who would become famous for creating Tim Burton’s Gotham City in “Batman”), they overcame budget limitations by building eight three-dimensional tress, rearranging them and shooting from different angles to create the illusion of an entire forest. Jordan relates with no small satisfaction that on seeing “Wolves” Ridley Scott hired Jordan’s entire crew for “Legend,” the Tom Cruise vehicle. Scott did what Jordan couldn’t afford to do; not knowing of Jordan’s and Furst’s resourcefulness, he built a whole fake forest, consuming much of his film’s budget.
Little seen on its release – in New York City it played only at a theater on 42nd Street on a double bill with “An American Werewolf in London” – “The Company of Wolves” has, in recent years, built up a sizable cult following. The future director of “Interview With the Vampire” related that when he met author Anne Rice she told him that “’The Company of Wolves’ was Lestat’s favorite film.”
Jordan’s next film was the remarkable “Mona Lisa,” from a script co-written with David Leland starring Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine and Robbie Coltrane with Cathy Tyson as a high-priced call girl. “I wanted,” Jordan says, “ to direct an adult love story, a kind of contemporary, moral tale. One Sunday at lunch, I was talking with some friends about an actual incident regarding an ex-convict who had killed someone to protect a prostitute. The idea was planted in my mind by that story. At first, it looked as if San Connery would play the lead – that could have worked, but it would have been a different film. When I met Bob Hoskins, the whole character of George – and then the whole movie – began to fall into place.
The teaming of Hoskins and Jordan was an important step for both of them. “Mona Lisa” launched Hoskins as an international star, and the critical reception set Jordan’s reputation. The moody, multilayered “Mona Lisa” was compared favorably by some critics to a film with a similar story line, Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” But, as Jordan points out, “That’s a film about a man going mad. ‘Mona Lisa’ is about a man finding himself.” As with his early films, “Mona Lisa” shows traces of influence from the work of others while retaining Jordan’s undeniable voice.
“I suppose there’s a bit of Raymond Chandler in it,” he admits, “maybe ‘Farewell My Lovely.’ But it owes more to a peculiarly London kind of noir represented by Jules Dassin’s ‘Night in the City,”‘the 1950 expressionist thriller with Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney. It’s less a film noir story, though, than it is about a man who sees himself as a hero in a film noir story.” (In an eerie touch, the adventure Hoskins becomes involved in includes scenes from the 1940s and ’50s crime novels of American mystery writer John Franklin Bardin, which he and his friend Coltrane have been reading.)
Jordan’s American films have met with mixed reception. “High Spirits,” a film he intended as a “phantasmagorical comedy” starring Peter O’Toole, Beverly D’Angelo and Liam Neeson, was taken from him and cut to ribbons without his approval; “We’re No Angels,” another attempt at comedy starring Robert De Niro and Sean Penn, was hampered by a strict adherence to an unwieldy script by David Mamet.
Yet he has had success with big-budget, star-studded vehicles, most notably “Interview With the Vampire” and the Academy Award-winning “The Crying Game.” That film marked a return to Irish politics from Jordan’s early fiction. “Some people have said that there’s a sharp division in my work from the personal to the political. I don’t see it that way because Irish politics are always local and therefore personal. But in ‘The Crying Game’ I was able to combine the themes of politics and sexual politics.” The major plot twist, delivered about halfway through the film, remains one of the genuine cinematic jolts of the decade.
He has also shown a flair for the epic with “Michael Collins” (1996), his hugely controversial (especially in Ireland) film about the revolutionary who made modern Ireland with Liam Neeson in the title role and co-starring Julia Roberts, Aidan Quinn and Alan Rickman as Collins’ friend and ultimate rival Eamon De Valera. The storm surrounding it has never entirely abated. Jordan now calls the making of the film and its aftermath “an interesting but quite uncomfortable experience. I thought I was prepared for everything that would come in the movie’s aftermath, and I was really surprised at all the things I was accused of. Things like there being ‘strange coded messages’ about the political aspects of the film, But I really didn’t want to make a film about the politics, I wanted to make a comment about the violence and how it spiraled out of control. It was really such a shabby little war.”
But his real depth as a filmmaker is revealed in an amazing number of small, personal films, including two literary adaptations of novels by his countryman Patrick McCabe, “The Butcher Boy” (1997) and “Breakfast on Pluto” (2005), Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair” (1999), and his fable about a mermaid and Irish fisherman, “Ondine” (2009), with Colin Farrell. Like “Byzantium,” these were not intended for a large audience or even mainstream critics. All have found audiences through independent movie houses, cable and video – all spurred by word of mouth. “Byzantium” will also find its audience outside the mainstream.
Jordan has somehow found time to write six works of fiction, work that he doesn’t see as essentially different from his other writing. ”It’s all just writing,” he says. “The real advantage to fiction is you’re able to revise and rewrite. But I’m asked sometimes how many books would you have written if you hadn’t made films? The truth is I don’t know I’d have written more books if I hadn’t made the films. I’ve written all the books I’ve wanted to, and I’ll probably write more.”
Neil Jordan embodies the Irish arts renaissance of the last few decades, and all the while, despite his travels for different films, has maintained a strong base in Ireland. “It’s a funny thing,” he says. “I remember back in 1982 how I was pilloried in the press for ‘Angel’ ['Danny Boy'], which seems now to be an innocent little movie. I had to leave the country for a while. Now, even in the wake of ‘Michael Collins,’ I’m the stuff of which Sunday supplement articles are made.
“Ah, Ireland is a tough little place,” he says. “You’ve got to leave to be accepted. Fortunately, there’s always the land of art. We can spend part of our lives there, too.”
Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.More Allen Barra.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)