Walk the Line with Neil Jordan: ‘The Ireland I grew up in was an almost entirely literary culture. In many ways I dove into film to get away from that’
The Oscar-winning film director on the leap from fiction to film, creative control as a director, and inspiration for his latest novel ‘The Well of Saint Nobody’
For as long as I could read, I have wanted to write. I remember wondering why the word “ugly” looked really ugly and the word “foreign” looked really foreign. So maybe it was the look of words, as well as whatever they meant, that got me hooked. Even “hooked” looks really hooky, no?
I had written one book of short stories (Night in Tunisia) and a film script (Traveller) in my earliest days. I then began to work with the British film director John Boorman on the script of a yet unmade film, and on Excalibur. He set a whole generation of Irish artists on the film route: Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, and myself, to name a few.
John wanted to continue our conversations while he made the film, so he hired me to make a documentary on him making the film. I had applied some years previously to the National Film School in England and I had been awarded a place, but I couldn’t afford the fees. So John filled in that gap for me; he provided me with his own personal school in the Wicklow hills (where he lived for half a century).
Most of my films are original screenplays, so I definitely ‘think’ like a writer. I love being asked to adapt a book, however, since a lot of the groundwork is already done. But it is a different process.
The great beauty and terror of a film is that you are sharing your ideas with others, actors, cinematographers, designers. The great beauty and terror of a book is that there is nobody in the room but yourself.
I have written books that could have been films, but rarely the reverse. I can’t imagine Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, or Michael Collins as a piece of fiction. Although I would love to make a film of my novel The Drowned Detective, and indeed of my latest novel, The Well of Saint Nobody.
When I published my first book in the Seventies, the thought of a writer of fiction becoming a director was kind of absurd. And not only that, but the presumption was that there was something innately corrupting about movies; getting involved with them meant a betrayal of a vocation.
The Ireland I grew up in was an almost entirely literary culture. In many ways I dove into film to get away from that; to see these traditional Irish concerns reflected in a different way. I would have been happy just to write films, if they were made just the way I had written them, but I learned early on that this was rarely the case, so I began to direct what I had written.
Shyness is life’s biggest obstacle for me. I tend to run away from conflict. I have never punched anyone and I never will.
‘Make it new’ is a mantra I live by.
I had two stories bugging me for some years, both from films, oddly enough. One of them was Letter from an Unknown Woman, a film by Max Ophüls. The other was a small Japanese film I had seen in the Astor in the Seventies called Lost Sex, by Kaneto Shindo. They were both about misremembered desire, in different ways. I pulled strands of them together and set them in West Cork and my latest novel, The Well of Saint Nobody, came to life.
James Joyce, Graham Greene, William Faulkner, and lately, oddly enough, Stephen King, are among my favourite authors. I am always amazed by the sheer specificity of what Joyce did with Ulysses – it is a book I will always return to. Who on earth would be interested in a discussion of foot and mouth disease in a Dalkey classroom? It turned out the whole world would be.
Where do I find inspiration? If I knew the answer to that, there would be more of it.
This month I am:
Reading: Shirley Jackson. I have become obsessed with her stories, and her novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Listening to: Selk, my daughter Anna Jordan’s band
The Well of Saint Nobody by Neil Jordan is published by Head of Zeus and available in all bookstores