Neil Jordan returns to the vampire film for the first time in almost 20 years with Byzantium, but he does so on his own terms - reinventing and challenging the genre in a story centred around two women, who could be sisters, but who are actually mother and daughter.
Galway audiences will be among the first to see Byzantium when it is shown in the Town Hall Theatre on Monday in a special fundraising screening for the Solas Picture Palace. In advance of this, Jordan took time to speak to the Galway Advertiser about the film.
‘An intriguing premise’
Jordan predominantly scripts his own films, be they original stories like The Crying Game and Mona Lisa, or novel adaptations such as The Butcher Boy and Breakfast On Pluto. However Byzantium was written by Moira Buffini, and adapted from her own play A Vampire Story.
“It was her script that convinced me,” Jordan tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview. “The potential of it was very intriguing. It was something I knew I had to get involved in. It impinged on so many areas of the movies I had made - there is the relationship between the mother and daughter, who could be sisters, and who live in this small, abandoned seaside town. I think the least appealing thing about it was that it was a vampire film.”
Clara (Gemma Arterton ) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan ), fleeing the scene of a violent crime, arrive in a run-down coastal resort, looking for somewhere to live.
Clara becomes a prostitute in order to make money, in the process meeting the shy and lonely Noel (Daniel Mays ), who provides a roof over the two women’s heads in his guesthouse, Byzantium, which Clara promptly turns into a ‘pop-up’ brothel.
Meanwhile Eleanor, the eternal schoolgirl, meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones ), a kindred spirit in whom she confides her secret - Clara is her mother, who gave birth to her during the Napoleonic era of the early 1800s, and that she and her mother must drink human blood to stay alive. It is then that people in the small English town begin to die.
Jordan elaborates on the relationship between the Clara and Eleanor.
“You have a mother and daughter who had to be living together for 200 years, so they had to be vampires - you can’t separate them from the archetype,” he says. “However the script had an intriguing premise - Clara had a child out of wedlock in 1804, when she was about 14. She became a vampire and realises that for her daughter to have any life with her she must make her a vampire as well, and so they remain forever 21 and 16, making people think they are sisters.”
Jordan is also full of praise for Saoirse Ronan.
“She’s wonderful, one of the best actresses alive,” he declares. “She’s been working in films since she was something like two! She was particularly suited to this. She plays a 16 year old who has been 16 for 200 years and has all this experience of life and yet she’s never been kissed.”
Reinventing the female vampire
Byzantium marks Jordan’s return to the vampire film, his first since Interview With A Vampire became a phenomenal hit in 1994. He describes the new film as “similar to Interview With A Vampire, but a female version”.
Jordan admits he had certain reservations about taking on the project given that over the last number of years, vampires have enjoyed an enormous prominence on film and TV through such as the Twilight saga and True Blood.
“The vampire thing has almost all been done,” Jordan says. “You have the anodyne stuff like Twilight and all these endless renditions. That was the one worry I had - does the world need yet another vampire film? But the script is so fresh and original and I said ‘Yes’.”
Re-inventing the vampire story and dispensing with its usual clichés became a goal for Jordan throughout the making of the film. Normally, such movies depict women as either victims or sexual object, but Byzantium seeks to subvert this ‘normal’ run of events.
“The presumption is the vampires are a kind of brotherhood, a priesthood, that women are not allowed enter,” says Jordan, “but we’ve tried to reinvent the vampire legend here. We have two women, one of whom infiltrated that order and stole the gift of immortality. Now only two women have this gift but the brotherhood is coming after them. It’s kind of like Sinead O’Connor becoming a priest, the hierarchy will always be after her for it.”
The Irish have made an enormous contribution to the development of the vampire myth over the centuries. Its definitive text, Dracula, was written by Irishman Bram Stoker in 1897 and many argue that he drew much inspiration from Irish folklore and from reports of the struggles of Famine victims in the aftermath of the disaster. Dubliner Sheridan Le Fanu also made an important contribution with his short story of a lesbian vampire, Carmilla, in 1872.
Jordan had initially considered the possibility of setting the story in the west of Ireland, but in the end the location chosen was Hastings in East Sussex on the English coast. “It’s an abandoned seaside town,” he says. “It’s a more rundown version of Brighton, and it was perfect for the story.”
However Jordan was keen to involve Ireland in the film and encouraged screenwriter Moira Buffini to read some Irish myths and legends of a kind of vampire/zombie - Na neamh maribh. He also shot many scenes from the film in Cork, Wicklow, and Dublin.
“I live here, I have five kids and three grandchildren, and it would be odd if I didn’t make films in Ireland,” he says. “The film was shared between Ireland and England as funding came from the Irish Film Board and the UK Film Council.”
Byzantium will be shown in the Town Hall Theatre on Monday May 20 at 7.30pm in a fundraising screening for the Solas Picture Palace arthouse cinema on Merchants Roads.
For more information contact
091 - 569777 or see www.tht.ie