Beautiful dreamer

"End of the Affair" director Neil Jordan talks about sex, Catholicism and why "God is the greatest imaginary being of all time."

Published December 9, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Think of writer-director Neil Jordan as the highly literary Irish cousin of Monty Python wild man Terry Gilliam. Each has replenished adult and arrested-adolescent films with movie magic, taking tales of redemption and damnation to infinity and beyond. Contemporary cinema would be less colorful without movies like Gilliam's "Brazil" or "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and Jordan's "Mona Lisa," "The Miracle" and "The Crying Game." Even when a Jordan or a Gilliam film fails to cohere or catch fire, it opens up multiple air pockets in otherwise dusty imaginations.

Interviewed during a brief jaunt to San Francisco to discuss his loving, subtly irreverent adaptation of Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair," Jordan was more restrained than Gilliam would be in similar circumstances. But as he warmed to the subject of the novel, he too spoke with the sureness and calm outrageousness of a born fabulist. There was an inward-outward tug to his conversational flow. He has a way of making his listener feel part to his thinking while it surges to otherworldly realms. You can sense a silent chuckle beneath his outward seriousness, so the laughter is explosive when he gets off an explicit joke.

During the interview, Jordan spoke about where his interests and Graham Greene's intersected when he adapted the writer's novel. After the interview, I found my copy of Jordan's published film diary and script to "Michael Collins" (1996), which showed how close the making of this film was to his concerns as a director. At one point he writes of seeing "Vanya on 42nd Street" to check out Julianne Moore; she didn't get the part of Kitty Kiernan in "Collins," but he thought she was "a remarkable actress," and three years later he would cast her as Sarah Miles in "Affair."

Jordan remarks that "goodness is essentially undramatic" (a belief shared by his novelist anti-hero in "Affair," Maurice Bendrix), and goes on to say that though Liam Neeson was superb in "Schindler's List," the critical spotlight "went to Ralph Fiennes, who played a quite conventional caricature of evil." Of course, Fiennes appears in "The End of the Affair" as that Greene surrogate Bendrix, a writer of notoriously mixed character who hires a detective to follow the woman who was his wartime lover. How a single figure can embody opposing drives, thoughts or impulses preoccupies Jordan in his diary for "Michael Collins" as much as it does in his film "The End of the Affair." So does the need for works of theater and film to have structure and sense to them, no matter how far-out or lyrical. "Why is it," he writes, "that so many Irish plays now have the structure of a dream and use the language of poetry? There is a lack of astringency about the whole thing which is vaguely irritating."

Jordan speaks, of course, as a published fiction writer. Irish literary icon Sean O'Foalian praised him for (among other things) generating metaphors out of pop music and jazz -- "a new and releasing thing in Irish literature." Jordan has published three novels since his short-story collection "Night in Tunisia" appeared in 1976. Yet even in book reviews he has never ceased to be primarily identified as a filmmaker. Which is why, perhaps, he can be forgiven for repeating a passage from his film diary verbatim when he tells me, "We live in a world of brand names, I suppose. Heinz makes beans, Neil Jordan makes films."

I recently heard you answering questions on "The Connection," Christopher Lydon's PBS talk show out of Boston. Perhaps because of "The End of the Affair," callers were constantly trying to tie your work to Catholicism.

And it's not anything about Catholicism. I was brought up a Catholic and was quite religious at one stage in my life, when I was young. But it left me with no scars whatever; it just sort of vanished.

I like stories about the collapse of rationality, stories that bring characters to points where reason is no longer adequate, or where they come to grips with something that has no explanation from their past. I don't know if that is Catholic. Then again (laughter) -- it's definitely not Protestant!

I'd be quite a happy Hindu.

Because of reincarnation --

It would have suited me down to the ground.

You know, we do have this need for mysticism. That is in my movies. And I always like to do stories about gods and monsters and imaginary beings of all kinds.

And how does this fit into "The End of the Affair"?

Because God is the greatest imaginary being of all time. Along with Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, the invention of God is probably the greatest creation of human thought. And I guess that's what compelled me to do a film of this Graham Greene book -- the challenge of portraying a man who's in a triangular relationship that's really a quadrangle, and one quarter will never reveal itself.

And there was a kind of gravity to it that I liked. You see movies made from classics of literature, and you realize the filmmakers are trying to update things, to put a spin on them, to hip them up. Consciously or unconsciously, they're trying too hard to relate the movie to what they see as the audience -- say, by casting Gwyneth Paltrow in Jane Austen.

I'm 49, and like most directors I'm not getting any younger. Yet directors are constantly trying to relate to this chimera, and as a consequence often mess up what they do. With "The End of the Affair," I decided I was just going to do what the book is, try to make it for what it should be, not, for example, make it more "pacey." Because if there is something in it that is universal, it will come out.

Sarah Miles, the Julianne Moore character, is a married woman who has this highly erotic love affair with the writer Maurice Bendrix -- who's based on Graham Greene and played by Ralph Fiennes. Then she breaks it off immediately after he recovers from a terrible fall during the Blitz -- and the audience doesn't know how to react right away. That's risky, but it's also brilliant, because it forces viewers to acknowledge that the film isn't about sex: It's about transcendence.

It's definitely about transcendence -- and it's about infinity. It's about the experience of a woman who kneels over her lover's body and steps out of her time. It's like she goes into a whole other geological strata of being, and can no longer face what the rest of her life is like. That I really believe in.

What I felt more strongly watching the film than reading the book is that Bendrix has a moment like that, too.

Exactly. He experiences an out-of-body kind of thing. My mother almost died years ago; she went into the hospital in Dublin, and she described it almost this way. She saw her body down there and entered this kind of light-filled thing and knew she could have gone one way or the other -- and because of her grandchildren decided to go the way she did. I think to describe this as a religious movie is wrong. It's actually about mysticism, and I think people can't live without that in their lives.

When Sarah makes a pact with God and He seems to answer her prayer, it also deals with the power of belief.

And that's the biggest issue of all -- whether it drives individuals to suicide or it kills half the people of Iran and Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war.

Greene did bring an obsession with Catholicism to the end of the novel. I think in a way he became Thomas Hardy a bit: He began to push his characters toward different positions to express his point of view. The main thing I felt I had to do with the movie was to change the characters so they could find their way to their own conclusions -- that's why I put the birthmark on the boy and eliminated the character of the rationalist preacher, and merged him into a priest. But that guy was the least successful character in the book. Did he ever work for you? He was a position, wasn't he?

Yes, he is part of the book's deadwood, although he did lead to one of my favorite insights in the novel. Sarah says that believers didn't make a believer out of her, but a disbeliever did. Without this rationalist preacher, though, Bendrix's character is strengthened --

Because he carries all the weight of disbelief! That's interesting; I hadn't thought about that.

The way the movie plays, it's very tricky, because the first half is mostly bitter comedy, and then it changes when it shifts from Bendrix's point of view to Sarah's.

That's dangerous, isn't it? There's all this coldness and bile, and audiences may not like these characters. But do audiences always have to like the characters? The change was very interesting formally -- even the question of whether you could see the same event twice. I looked at "Rashomon," wondering how I could deal with the same sort of thing that Kurosawa dealt with before. But he didn't, actually. Your memory of it is that four people give some account of the same event, and that isn't the case, because they each tell a different bit of it. Then I thought I could do this: show the same event but with the benefit of separate levels of knowledge.

When Bendrix tells Sarah that she seems disappointed that he's alive, it gets an uncomfortable laugh. But you replay that scene quickly from her point of view, and by the time you replay one more scene from their past, you could hear a pin drop in the audience.

The audience can't leave, even though they may want to! Making a movie is so odd. It's always interesting to me how an audience responds. I have to preview movies all the time -- you preview something like my film "The Butcher Boy," and half the audience just walks out. They get angry and impatient with it. But I watched "Being John Malkovich" -- very funny -- with my daughter at a cheap theater in L.A. We paid $5 a ticket. Twenty minutes in, about 10 kids just got up and left. Isn't that funny? That's the nature of filmmaking. You always know some people are not going to go along with it.

Did you feel pressured into making the romance more "romantic"? For example, in the book Bendrix simply says he has a lame leg, not that he got it from a wound he suffered in the Spanish Civil War.

Well, we had this narrative problem -- how do you explain a guy who's not part of the war effort? And if you give a character a club foot, you build up his heel, don't you? And in fact that makes his foot taller, so the wrong leg limps. So I made Bendrix part of the Spanish Civil War. It was full of writers, that war.

There's also no discussion of Sarah having had other affairs.

To some extent, I did have to look at these relationships from a contemporary standpoint. People are profoundly disapproving of men and women who have not sorted out their lives and lived them according to the moral, therapeutic patterns you're supposed to have nowadays. I think people are terribly moralistic now -- not moral, but moralistic. I know this from showing the film in previews. They think a married woman having sex with another man is necessarily evil. And put two people in the throes of passion, having a sexual affair, and they think, "Oh, the relationship is entirely about sexuality, it's not about love." It must have something to do with American Puritanism.

I think we're in a transitional time.

Well, there's not a lot of eroticism around, not in the sense that Rubens would understand it. It's just bizarre to me.

So you didn't want to burden Sarah with any additional onus of "immorality"?

It's difficult enough to make a woman in a love affair understandable to people nowadays, know what I mean?

Julianne Moore has been telling the press that she grabbed your attention with a letter.

She tells that happily herself, doesn't she? She did write me a letter -- one of the sweetest letters I've ever gotten. She said the script was a beautiful story "about loss" -- and that told me she absolutely understood it. But she didn't have to grab my attention. She may have misunderstood me. I had written the script, and I didn't want it to get out. But the minute you give it to an agent it gets everywhere, it's like a virus, and all these people begin to read it. I almost had to change my phone number so many people were calling me, wanting the part. I didn't realize that Julianne was in London when I was in Ireland and that she expected to see me at a time when I was flying off to Italy; at that point, I was trying to resist getting my head around the casting. The problem with casting is that you can never trust what agents say. I was definitely considering her and was actually desperate that it work out.

There's a photograph of Greene's lover Catherine Walston in the second volume of Norman Sherry's biography ["The Life of Graham Greene"] that resembles Julianne strongly.

It's not quite Julianne, but we had that picture, and there's something there. Catherine was a very strange lady, very odd. When you read the letters of him to her, you realize she could take or leave that relationship. And he was in agony, you know? And you realize how much wish-fulfillment there is in the book. If only he could have read her diary and learned that she actually loved him desperately all along and that the barrier to their living together was the Almighty!

Is there something unique you do to get performances like Bening's (in "In Dreams") and Moore's here and Beverly D'Angelo's in "The Miracle"?

I write! Seriously. I do write, and when the actors read through it I often write again. You get into a relationship with the actors where their parts are part of a film's texture. When I cast Bob Hoskins in "Mona Lisa" back in the mid-'80s, I rewrote the whole script; even the rhythms of his speech were so important to the pent-up fury he had, and the humor. That must be what's important, because other than that I don't do a lot!

Stephen Rea is better than he ever has been as Sarah's husband, Henry.

He is good, isn't he? It's the most difficult part to make work, and in some ways the most rewarding. Greene made Henry in the novel a figure of fun; he's unforgivably cruel to the character. I wanted him to grow in stature through the film, till in the end you've got to ask a question. You're faced with a possessive lover swallowing this woman alive rather than have her with anyone else. Is that the best way to love this woman? Or is it Henry's way? He may not recognize her sounds of passion, but you could say he loves her more deeply than Bendrix does. If he feels she should be with another man, he'll enable that to happen. It's heartbreaking.

Ian Hart is also wonderful as Parkis, the detective.

There's a whole class thing going on in Greene's book with him, isn't there? You really see the detective character as someone that Greene would never ordinarily associate with. Very British that, don't you think? Thank you, the writer says, and Parkis obediently goes. ["A last pressure of the hand ... and he was gone. He was not one of those whom one expects to see again."]

Ian plays him so that he's observing all this passion, yeah? And he loves the job for this passion in a strange way, doesn't he? In that new scene I wrote where he meets Bendrix on the promenade in Brighton, he's kind of sad that something as sordid as divorce is going to intrude on their lives. Ian's a wonderful actor; he can do two contradictory things at once. Ian plays the detective so that he's the agent of their destruction yet he's also their guardian angel.

And that's what I think you have to do when you're dealing with something like aesthetic reality or art or whatever you call it -- present two mutually contradictory facts which have to live together without any stress. That's why people make movies or write fiction with passion. Otherwise they'd just do monologues.

It's ironic to think of former movie critic Greene, in what I think is his best "serious" novel, using a detective out of comic movie mysteries.

Greene was tremendously jealous of movies, wasn't he? He hated Hitchcock, didn't he? And it's a terrible pity, because if Hitchcock had done some of Greene's things -- of course, he never would have, because so much of the broader world enters into Greene, and Hitchcock was more about pure form.

But the entire thing in this movie is about looking. When Henry is thinking of hiring a detective, he's trying to imagine how he'd look in the waiting room with all the other wronged husbands. And Bendrix needs a pair of eyes to follow Sarah around so he can reinvent her image for himself. He uses Parkis to do that. They're all unreliable narrators. Even Bendrix, telling the story as it happens to him, gets it wrong. Everyone is telling a flawed story. That must be what's cinematic!

When I mark my ballots for best actress of 1999, they'll include Julianne Moore for this movie and Annette Bening -- not for "American Beauty," but for your film, "In Dreams," in which she co-starred with Robert Downey, Jr.

Annette Bening for "In Dreams" -- well, thank you for that; she was marvelous in it.

Yes, but she wasn't the whole movie. It was really a bold attempt do a horror film revolving around -- well, not just paranormal visions of a serial killer, but also a mother's worst grief. Yet a year ago, when the movie was scheduled to come out in January, critics couldn't get Dreamworks to screen it. And you still have a deal at Dreamworks. What happened?

I know. They dumped it, didn't they? I'm aware of that. There were a lot of things -- Robert Downey was getting in and out of jail, I don't know. Look, they asked me to do it. It was a script that belonged to Amblin' [Steven Spielberg's production company] that Bruce Robinson ["Withnail and I"] had done. I found it fascinating for its themes, and used it as a kind of touchstone. But I had to write a new draft to see if it was something I could direct. When they saw my script everyone got terribly excited and put it into production.

I don't think any movie can recover when a kid is killed in the first third of a film. There's something so deeply unpleasant about a child-killing, I had problems even thinking about directing it. It creates this gaping kind of narrative upset. But I loved working out the mad internal logic of the film. This was a movie that had to be visually based -- you couldn't rely on words.

I think "In Dreams" has one of the greatest deep-focus long shots in the history of movies. Way off in a reservoir divers are recovering the girl's body while police and the girl's mother, Annette, line the road leading to the water; then Annette abruptly takes off right when her husband, Aidan Quinn, has come to meet her. It's this long line linking death and life and the perils of a family.

I know. I know. And it's all on a crane -- I really worked that movie. That's really beautiful, when the car comes driving down.

Look, don't ask me, what I can say? The big horror explosion was yet to come. I said, OK, I'm going to make a horror movie that's not "Scream" -- not a slasher movie and not tongue-in-cheek -- a nonironic horror movie. And that's what came out last summer! Maybe if my film had been handled more carefully, in that way ....

Still, killing the girl didn't allow anyone to engage. The movie presents this idyllic-looking American family -- they have problems, but they're idyllic-looking, with this little blond girl -- and when she gets killed, you get upset at the filmmakers and it throws you out of the movie.

For me, it was delightful to do. And Annette is a wonderful actress. Of necessity, she plotted her course out very precisely, because her character was in a state of madness. She was amazing to work with.

The narrative was the pictures in this movie; the themes were in the images, not the dialogue. When Annette was escaping from the mental hospital and went inside the brain of the killer and followed the route he took to escape when he was a kid -- it was like two forms of narrative meeting, taking the past and the present and merging them in the final bit. It was wonderful to do. I really liked that.

Pure cinema.

Yes. [Laughter.] And they don't like that today, do they?

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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