Beyond the Multiplex

Neil Jordan explains why his psychedelic new film, "Breakfast on Pluto," about an Irish transvestite, is nothing like his hit "The Crying Game."

Published November 17, 2005 1:00PM (EST)

Neil Jordan isn't the easiest interview subject in the world. During the course of our half-hour conversation in a darkened Manhattan hotel room, the fireplug-stocky, 55-year-old Irish filmmaker paces uneasily around, removes his black leather blazer and then puts it back on, fidgets with his half-full cup of milky tea (sipping from it only once) and sometimes murmurs his quiet, rapid-fire replies through an open hand or closed fist.

He agrees with things I say to him, then turns around and disagrees with them. He politely but firmly notices when I've made a pronouncement of my own, rather than asking a question. In discussing his new film "Breakfast on Pluto," a peculiar, picaresque tale about the adventures of a small-town Irish transvestite who becomes caught up in the 1970s dramas of terrorism, nationalism and self-discovery, he's prone to unhelpful and sometimes evasive comments. He'll respond to questions with cryptic utterances like, "Well, that's the character, isn't it?" Or, "Well, that's what the story was, really."

Despite the national reputation for loquacity, there's something distinctively Irish about this. Although they're great talkers on politics, religion, horse racing, football and other realms of abstract philosophical inquiry, the Irish are reticent when it comes to anything personal, and perhaps especially when it comes to something simultaneously as personal and as grandiose as artistic ambition. Best known for his startling 1992 love story "The Crying Game" and his lavish 1994 adaptation of Anne Rice's "Interview With the Vampire," Jordan is by far the most important living Irish filmmaker, with a long and varied career on both sides of the Atlantic. But he seems at great pains to avoid being seen as pretentious, to steer away from grand declarations about art or the movies or much of anything else.

In fact, for someone whose films display a taste for the grotesque and for sexual exoticism, Jordan seems eager to be perceived as a technician or craftsman, rather than an artist. Even in the relatively liberated Ireland of the 2000s, it may be beneficial to be seen that way, rather than as a twice-married heterosexual filmmaker (with five children) who for reasons of his own seeks out willfully perverse and challenging material.

"Breakfast on Pluto" is an oddly kaleidoscopic movie that may cram too much material, too many changes in setting and dramatic plot shifts, into its 135 minutes. Nonetheless it's an exhilarating work, featuring an extraordinary performance by Cillian Murphy as Patrick "Kitten" Braden, the cocksure kid who constructs a faux-naive drag persona that allows him to survive a brutal small-town childhood, the terrorist (and counterterrorist) violence of the Irish "Troubles" of the '60s and '70s, and a litany of exploiters, abusers, would-be murderers and other specters after he escapes to London.

As Jordan explains it, Patrick has to create Kitten from the resources he has at hand, mostly old Hollywood movies and English magazines aimed at teenage girls. If gay culture had begun to develop its own performative codes in places like New York and San Francisco, they hadn't reached towns like Kitten's, on the remote border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, where IRA "hard men" staged ruthless killings and bombings, and the two governments involved clamped down in return. And as Jordan also observes, as peculiar as Patrick's created persona is, he also makes for a strikingly beautiful androgyne, neither masculine nor entirely feminine. Kitten can seem hard to take at first, but stick with him/her -- he's an extraordinary character who survives a cruel environment without surrendering his autonomy of spirit. Betrayed and mistreated by a whole range of characters, including an IRA-supporting rockabilly musician who becomes his lover (played by real-life Irish cult musician Gavin Friday), a lugubrious English magician (Stephen Rea), a British cop (Ian Hart) who takes him for an IRA bomber, and a suave but sinister late-night pickup (rock god Bryan Ferry), Patrick remains innocent and hopeful, firmly committed to the vision of life and love expressed in Bobby Goldsboro's cheeseball 1968 single "Honey."

Based on a novel by the supremely underrated Irish writer Patrick McCabe (as was Jordan's 1998 film "The Butcher Boy"), "Breakfast on Pluto" has obvious points of connection to "The Crying Game," the work that for better or worse has defined Jordan's entire career. Even if these are superficial questions of theme rather than profound linkages -- as Jordan explains, Patrick is never trying to fool anyone into believing he's a woman -- they reflect the filmmaker's abiding interest in "monsters," in the oddballs, eccentrics and fringe personalities that had to find a way out of a priest-ridden, backward society like rural '70s Ireland.

In crashing from hilarity to horror and back again, "Breakfast on Pluto" also features Liam Neeson as the small-town priest who is Patrick's unacknowledged father (for my money, it's one of Neeson's most enjoyable roles), a cameo by Brendan Gleeson as a "Womble," which will seem utterly mysterious to anyone unfamiliar with British pop culture of the period, and brief appearances by two animated (or perhaps animatronic) robins, who actually seem to be the film's narrators. Like all of Jordan's movies, it has an awesome, period-specific soundtrack -- Goldsboro's song is only one element, I promise -- and a streak of bravery and profundity Jordan doesn't quite want to talk about.

Despite his prickliness and the occasionally begrudging quality of his responses, I quite enjoyed talking to Jordan, who reminds me in a general way of my own middle-class Irish relatives. Eventually, I figure out that I have to ask him a question and then shut up and let him convince himself to answer it. Notice that when I ask whether he misses anything about Ireland in the '70s, he first says no, nothing at all. By the time he has finished talking, he has gotten around to saying that the landscape is being destroyed, the rural folk traditions are dying and the Irish imagination has been damaged, but no, he still doesn't miss it. Of such paradoxes is Neil Jordan made.

I don't know if I'm misreading this movie completely, but it seems to me like a history of the recent Irish "Troubles," told in your eccentric fashion, through the lens of this particular individual in this particular place.

That's what it is, basically, yeah. From a perspective none of us had at the time. It is the Troubles, obviously. But it's also the story of the provincial going to the big town, going into the big world. The story of a boy who's been told lies about his parentage and tries to reconstruct his family. Here's one thing it's not: It's not about coming of age or about loss of innocence or about discovering your sexuality. That was one of the reasons I wanted to make it. I loved the way the character just has no question about sexual issues, from the word go. I found that very refreshing, you know? You didn't have these moments where he realizes what his sexual attractions are; you know that kind of thing? Straight off, he knew who he was for sure.

So it's not a story of loss of innocence; it's a story of him maintaining his innocence. He constructs his persona precisely so he can remain innocent while the world is trying to abuse him, smash him down, break his spirit.

Right. Patrick is innocent, but he's not completely naive about the way the world works. He seems so at first, but then you realize that he knows exactly how dangerous the IRA guys are. You have that startling scene when he begs an IRA man to shoot him, and the audience realizes he understands everything that's been going on around him.

Well, he's tougher, isn't he? He's tougher than most of those around him. It's the particular character. The character insists on turning a story that could be bound for grotesquerie and tragedy into fairy tale or comedy.

You have to balance elements of fairy tale, silliness and even campiness, with moments of grotesque brutality. There's that moment in a London disco, when Patrick is in the arms of a British soldier whom he wants to call "Bobby," and then a bomb goes off and many people are killed. It's like the movie has to turn on a dime, over and over again.

It's not like it turns on a dime, it's just that the events turn out that way. You know? When I made the film, I was trying to be accurate to my memories of the period, to what the characters would have actually done. I mean, the pivotal sequence in the film is where that bomb goes off in the discotheque and then [after Patrick is arrested] he's being beaten up by that policeman. And then the police gradually come to realize that they've got the wrong person. They feel very bad about it, as they would. I mean, if you're not an Anglophobe, you'd have to admit that. Even the most irredentist Republican [i.e., IRA supporter] would have to admit that a policeman who beats the shite out of a young transvestite and realizes he's the wrong person would feel bad about it.

So the policeman carries him to his cell, very gently, you know. Patrick loves the security of that cell, he loves the fact that he's being looked after. There's something slightly perverse in him that could perhaps remove him from what was happening physically as he's getting the crap beaten out of him. It all seemed logical to me. If you follow it logically, then a horrific situation seems funny. And often life is like that, really. It's that I suppose we're used to these structures in movies and television dramas and theater where things are presented in another way.

What we came up with when we finished the script was that everybody Patrick encounters in some way is led to goodness. Like the priest [played by Neeson] comes to acknowledge his child. He becomes more priestly, in a way, as he does that, although not a figure of priestly reverence to the little Irish town -- they burn him out of it. That's what a priest should do, isn't it? I just followed the logic of the characters and the basic situations as far as I could, so I ended up with this balance of comedy and -- not tragedy, but, there's a word for it -- grotesquerie. Brutality. Comedy and brutality.

You've done something very difficult for an Irish director, which is to present this conflict in an evenhanded way. Usually there are monsters, whether it's the British side or the IRA side. In this film everybody seems very human, maybe because we're seeing them as Patrick sees them.

Well, for me -- I've made three movies about it. I made "Angel" [released in the U.S. as "Danny Boy"], I made "Crying Game" and I made "Michael Collins" -- three movies, and they're all different, about the place of violence in Irish life. This one gave me the opportunity to have this perspective of this lovely character on these issues, which I suppose if you're living through it you can't have. I was able to place some distance on it and just see through those eyes, and that perspective was very simple and quite profound in a way, I felt. In the end, whatever you think about politics, when you think about the loss of life and the violent taking of life, there's really only one appropriate response, which is his: that it shouldn't happen.

Change has come gradually to Ireland in the last decade or so, but I was thinking it would have been difficult to tell this story before the Good Friday agreement of 1997, and maybe later than that.

Yeah, probably. Actually, it would have been difficult to tell this story when I first wrote the script. Let's say around the time of 9/11, it would have been almost impossible. Seriously, it would have. So when I wrote it, when I got a script I was happy with, I did another movie ["The Good Thief"], I wrote a novel ["Shade"], and I was a bit nervous about returning to it. Eventually I just thought, OK, it's interesting and maybe there's enough distance and there's a way in which the Irish experience can be -- it's not a metaphor for what's happening globally, you know what I mean? But there are resonances and similarities.

Are you concerned that non-Irish audiences may not understand the context for Patrick's adventures?

I don't think that's as important as people might imagine. My job as a writer and filmmaker is to be accurate above all else. I think if you're accurate enough to the context, and you're accurate enough to the characters and you allow the characters to go where they want to go, that's all you can do, really. If you do that well enough, people will relate to it because they understand the essentials even if they might not understand the broader context. I mean, let's face it: It's a kid growing up in an environment where it's priest-ridden, the society's rather brutal, it wants him to be one thing and he refuses, eruptions of violence come into his life -- some of them are from rapists, like the guy Bryan Ferry plays, and some of them are from these brutal acts of terrorism -- I think people can relate to that without having to know the minutiae of the Irish situation. At least I hope so.

Ireland of the '70s was a pretty different place than it is now. It was still a fairly repressive society, but in McCabe's work, and in yours, I think you can see this weirdness coming out around the corners.

Yeah, it's true. There were monsters. Sorry, what do you mean by that?

Well, there's been this major reconsideration of the past in Ireland lately, whether it's about Irish independence or the clerical abuse scandals or the Magdalen laundries...

Oh, God, no, I don't want to do that. No, no, no. I hate those things. Searing indictments! Why make a movie? Well, I suppose it's obvious, but why make a movie about monstrous social injustices that don't exist anymore? It doesn't make sense; you should have made it then. Are they making a movie about the monstrosities in contemporary Ireland, about the employment of Filipino workers and Turkish workers at below minimum wage, which is happening all over the place?

As for me, I grew up in Ireland in the '50s. I was born in a small town, I grew up in Dublin. London was always the great escape. The place was rather gray -- fascinating, but it belonged to the 19th century. If you wanted to get into the 20th century, you went to London. Suddenly it was the smell of incense and marijuana. All sorts of little purple pills that were hoppin' around, you know? Suddenly there was a huge, colorful metropolis in which you could lose yourself totally. And I did, I definitely did.

So there's a personal resonance to Patrick's story, for you.

Oh, absolutely, in terms of the journey. For me to get that shot of Big Ben -- and it's very difficult to shoot -- I just wanted to show this kind of splendor in coming to a city that seems full of possibility. Then I suppose he realizes that it's full of degradation at the same time. I remember that very clearly. It's one of the reasons I wanted to make the film. Because London was the great escape for Irish people -- until the violence happened [beginning in the late '60s]. Then it became infinitely more problematic. But you know, they had a welfare state system, they had socialized medicine, you could get contraception, the availability of abortion, nobody asked you what your bloody religion was, nobody knew who your parents were.

I remember what Ireland in the '70s was like too, and I can understand why anybody who grew up there would want to get out. Is there anything about that place and time you miss?

Just the beauty of the landscape. That's all, nothing else. The Irish are great at wrecking their own physical landscape. The beauty of the physical landscape was staggering -- and it still is, but it's being destroyed daily. But I mean, I don't miss anything about that period at all. I suppose there's a bit of rural folk magic -- magic realism, you could call it -- that I remember that informs this movie, a lot of Pat McCabe's work, a lot of my own work. There's a bit of that that I miss.

I guess the talking robins in this film come out of that tradition.

The robins are the narrators. The robins are telling the story, right? Which of us knows that animals don't have conversations? I've got a parrot who talks to himself and can whistle the American national anthem. That parrot has intelligence, he can communicate. But you know, maybe something in the Irish imagination is going to vanish. Because the place is not as harsh, maybe you won't get as extraordinary a genius as someone like Flann O'Brien. Maybe that's the case. But I don't miss it.

Talk about Cillian Murphy's performance in this film. I mean, he's being deliberately outrageous, deliberately effeminate and deliberately campy, but it still seems real, and eventually very affecting.

First of all, he's not playing a woman and he's not playing someone who pretends to be a woman. Whether or not he looks like a woman doesn't matter; he's playing a guy who dresses like a woman. There's no deception there. He's playing somebody who finds relief through a character that is constructed out of teenage girls' fiction. He says lines out of comic strips and girls' magazines. That's really what Cillian was playing. He's also playing an androgynous, effeminate, gay character before the culture had defined itself in that way. Even if you think of the music, the Village People came with the advent of disco, and Freddie Mercury, with his zip-up white suit, is about seven years too late for this character. There was androgyny everywhere in popular culture, and Patrick just takes it one step to the left, you know?

I really left it up to Cillian. I just said, "I don't want high theatrics here, I don't want camp. I want the innocence of the character up there." That was the most important thing, really. The fact that he turned out to be a staggeringly beautiful woman in certain sequences, you know, was almost incidental. This isn't Jaye Davidson [the striking transsexual from "The Crying Game"]. He's not trying to fool anybody.

Well, since you brought it up. The similarities between this film and "The Crying Game'" are pretty superficial, but you're well aware by now that people will raise the question. You seem to make a deliberate joke out of it, in the scene where Stephen Rea [Davidson's on-screen lover in "The Crying Game"] and Cillian Murphy actually have a conversation about whether or not Patrick is a woman.

I didn't mean that to be the case. I didn't, really! As I was shooting that scene I thought, "Oh my God." I became painfully aware of it, but I just thought, look, come on. It's about misunderstandings, that scene. It's very weird. You make some movies and some of them become big hits and some of them nobody even goes to see. You can't work out why. Why did nobody make a movie before about a character who fell in love with a woman who turned out to be a man? Apart from a sex comedy like "Some Like It Hot," I guess. Why did people take to "The Crying Game" in extraordinary numbers? I don't know. Do you remember that movie Ingmar Bergman made, "Cries and Whispers"? Now, why did everyone go to see that? And not, say, "Scenes From a Marriage"? Perhaps it was the theatricality and the costumes, the colors. But you generally don't know. This film probably has more to do with "The Butcher Boy" than with "The Crying Game." I hope it has more to do with itself, really.

This is the second time you've worked with Patrick McCabe. Is there some fundamental similarity in the way the two of you view the world?

No, it's not that. I liked "The Butcher Boy" and I liked this novel. We collaborated on it, and it was great. When I did "The Company of Wolves," I loved Angela Carter's book of stories, and I loved her world. We collaborated on that, and it was brilliant. I was just starting out making movies then, but I was kind of aware of myself as being in a position to flesh out what I had read in this rather more stringent form. And I took great pleasure in building these big, bloody forests and digging into that. It's similar with this, but I don't want to always make movies out of books. I think I'll get back into writing stuff for the screen now.

I've been trying to come up with other examples of filmmakers who've done what you do, moving between worlds relatively easily. You've made independent films in Ireland for modest budgets, and you've made studio films with big money and big stars. And you've also kept a literary career going. So many filmmakers say they want to work in different realms, but few do. What's the secret?

Gus Van Sant would be another example, actually. Even "Good Will Hunting" was a Gus Van Sant movie, and it was a big movie. It wasn't as pure as his earlier films, but it was still recognizably his. I think it's very easy to get seduced by the big Hollywood budget, and by the assumption: "Now I'm a big director." Once you get there, it's kind of hard to go back. I'll tell you why I did it -- because of my kids. I wanted to raise my kids in Ireland. I'd be in Hollywood, and I'd be making a film -- you know, I got divorced quite young, but myself and my ex-wife shared the upbringing of our two daughters. So I couldn't stay in Hollywood that long, really. I had to go back to Dublin, so I'd go back home and make a smaller movie. That was it.

After "Interview With the Vampire" -- a hit movie, with Hollywood's biggest star -- you could have written your own ticket in Hollywood. You definitely decided not to.

It's difficult for a writer-director to be at the top end of the Hollywood food chain. I direct my own stuff. If I was to remain in Hollywood, I'd have to begin pitching for all the big movies, and I'm not into that. I just want the Hollywood studios to make stuff that I write. The way the movie industry is structured, it's very treacherous. If you don't keep your feet in your own region, your own perspective, you can lose whole decades of your life.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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