Neil Jordan Q&A: “I love Ireland but it’s so dank and miserable most of the year”

The writer and director talks Los Angeles in the 1970s, The Count of Monte Cristo, and his musical parrot.

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Neil Jordan was born in County Sligo, Ireland in 1950. He is the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “The Crying Game” and the writer/director of a number of feature films, as well as the 2011 series “The Borgias”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting in this little garden in Rosses Point in Sligo. There was a seascape outside, a little island called Coney Island. I somehow remember being in this garden, looking at it, eating a Goldgrain biscuit.   

Who are your heroes?

James Joyce, for the completeness of the imaginary life’s work, and the fact that he refused to compromise. He came from a background like mine, and created this world. And the city I live in is still recognisable from everything he wrote.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

I was stuck in a B&B, and there was a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, which I had never read. And I realised there’s so much in it – it’s an adventure of captivity and freedom, but it’s almost a vampire story. It changed my thinking about Alexandre Dumas, and that kind of fiction.

Which political figure do you look up to?

I just read a statement by Beto O’Rourke, about Binyamin Netanyahu, and it was quite extraordinary. If an American presidential candidate can express himself as clearly as that about the thorniest of all issues, I should admire him tremendously.

What would be your Mastermind subject?

Early and medieval Irish history.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you choose to live?

Los Angeles in the 1970s. It must have been really exciting to have been in the shards of Hollywood then. If you look at The Long Goodbye by Robert Altman, or Hal Ashby’s movies, you see a period where the entire system was breaking down and really fascinating, weird things were being made.

What’s your theme tune?

I have a very musical parrot and I teach it to whistle tunes. At the moment, I’m teaching it the Erroll Garner song “Misty”. I don’t think I could live without “Misty”.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

Don’t try so hard.

What’s currently bugging you?

The issue of cultural appropriation. It really bugs me that there’s even a discussion about whether or not one should write about or depict experiences that are not your own. It’s the basic line of duty of somebody who writes fiction. I see the discussion as an absurdity.

What would make your life better?

More bookshops. Better weather in Ireland. I love the country, but it’s so bloody dank and miserable for most of the year.

When were you happiest?

When I was doing a TV series called The Borgias: we built big sets in Hungary, and did everything from the ground up. I enjoyed getting set painters, decorators and camera operators involved in such a big project for the first time.

What other job would you have chosen?

My mother was a painter and my grandfather was a painter. I could have been very happy painting. You finish a piece of work, and it’s not like the entire press of the world rush to give judgement on it.

Are we all doomed?

It seems like it, doesn’t it? But Ireland’s getting better. Some things improve. The country was a horrendous, damaging place in the 1950s. But now it’s much, much more interesting. It’s almost liveable. 

Neil Jordan’s “Greta”, starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Isabelle Huppert, is out now

This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes