Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Neil Jordan

Neil Jordan, Toronto, Sept. 1992

IN THE FALL OF 1984 I SAW A FILM AT THE FILM FESTIVAL that took my breath away. The Company of Wolves was the second film by an Irish filmmaker, an adult re-telling of the Little Red Riding Hood story with elements of horror and fantasy and a strong feminist undertone, back when that wasn't yet the sort of thing that would have set off warning bells for me. I was a 20-year-old virgin when I saw the film, and its depiction of the onset of adolescent sexuality (albeit from a female perspective) as full of danger and terror rang true, especially for someone who'd grown up in the '70s.

Looking back, it's a very '80s film, lush and romantic and more than a little bit overwrought, with acres of artifice and production design and a newly confident reliance on practical special effects that would have looked corny or tentative even a decade earlier. Even the pointedly feminist perspective - the male director had collaborated on the screenplay with Angela Carter, the author of the original short story that inspired the film - seems very much of its period, which is to say that it holds the main character's budding sexuality like a primed hand grenade, capable of immense collateral damage when it goes off.

Neil Jordan, Toronto, Sept. 1992

It would be almost a decade before I was assigned to photograph Neil Jordan, the director of The Company of Wolves, when he was in Toronto for the same film festival where I'd first heard his name. He'd had a very peculiar career in the meantime, directing everything from a neo-noir (Mona Lisa) and an Irish drama (The Miracle) to a pair of comedies with big name Hollywood stars like Robert De Niro, Sean Penn and Daryl Hannah (We're No Angels, High Spirits.)

Except for Mona Lisa I hadn't been particularly taken by any of them, and wondered what happened to the director who made a film as lush and unsettling as The Company of Wolves. He was in Toronto to promote his next film, another noirish thriller with an interesting twist called The Crying Game, and it would be the film that made his career. I know a lot of men who found the twist in that film unsettling, for sure, but frankly I couldn't imagine that anyone couldn't see it coming a mile off. ("Oh my Gawd, it's a guy!") But then I guess that living next to Toronto's gay ghetto for two years had primed me to recognize a transvestite - even a very good one - when I saw one.

Now, of course, the word transvestite seems to have become verboten. Times have changed, and I suppose there are a lot of reasons why I find myself missing the '80s and even the '90s more and more these days. I never thought I'd say that.

Neil Jordan, Toronto, Sept. 1992

I didn't have a lot of time for this shoot - the customary five minutes at the tail end of a fifteen- or twenty-minute interview slot. This is either the old Four Seasons in Yorkville or the Park Plaza (now the Park Hyatt) and I spent the whole of this shoot with Jordan next to a bit of soft window light, working with a single hand and the top of a nicely veneered hotel writing table. I'd probably be able to date the photo just by the generous cut of his shirt, with its ample folds of cloth. Then as now, I love drapery, but we're not living in an age of drapery today, alas.

Jordan is known today as both an author and director, and after the success of The Crying Game he made a very star-studded, big budget film of Anne Rice's Interview With A Vampire that should have (but didn't) evoke the same unsettling take on sexuality that I saw in The Company of Wolves. His next film (Michael Collins) did me the very great favour of reminding us why the creation of the Irish Free State was as much a tragedy as a triumph.

Lately, he's retrenched himself as a director of the sort of adult, medium budget dramas that once filled cineplexes and art houses and now go straight to video on demand, orphans of film industry economics mutating into extinction. He's also done some TV. I've always liked these portraits, but they haven't been seen anywhere since they ran in newsprint in NOW magazine, with nowhere near the rich grays and blacks I worked hard at getting here.

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