AICN HORROR talks with director Neil Jordan about his new vampire film BYZANTIUM!
Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. This time around I had a chance to chat with director Neil Jordan who returns to the world of vampires with BYZANTIUM starring a fantastic cast made up of Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones, and Jonny Lee Miller. Here’s what Mr. Jordan said about the film and below that is my review of BYZANTIUM.
AMBUSH BUG (BUG): I’m going to get right into it, because I know we don’t have a lot of time. I’m a huge fan of your work. I’ve seen quite a bit of it and I guess the most important question here that I wanted to ask you today was just that why after so long after INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE, why the trip back to the world of vampires with BYZANTIUM?
NEIL JORDAN (NJ): Oh my god, it’s just because of the script. I was sent the script and there were so many different elements in it that I found interesting, you know? It was… There were so many elements that were common with the movies I make and it was set in a seaside town, it was about two women… It was about storytelling and the story reflects through different people, about the present and the past, and it was about vampires, you know? The least attractive thing to me, in the package, was that it was about vampires. I just decided to go for it, because the possibilities are so interesting. Believe me, I was not out to make another vampire movie.
BUG: Okay. I was also seeing how you have returned to the horror genre through the years with A COMPANY OF WOLVES and INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE and now with BYZANTIUM. Is there something about horror that keeps bringing you back to that genre? For most people, it’s a place where people start out. When they are doing one of their first films, it’s a horror film, but you seem to return over and over again. What attracts you to that genre, specifically?
NJ: (Laughs) I’ve done it wrong then, haven’t I?
BUG: No, not at all. I love your horror films!
NJ: What attracts me to the genre is that it’s about our reality, you know? It’s about things that aren’t real. It’s about a world of shadows. You know, the movies I make are always about how the real world is never quite enough. The genre of horror, fantasy, ghost stories or whatever you call it, they give you the opportunity to create great visual images I think, and create worlds. That’s why I keep coming back to it.
BUG: Okay. Well this film stars two of really my favorite up and coming stars with Saoirse Ronan as well as Caleb Landry Jones. How did you assemble this cast and what was it like to see these two really young stars… I think they have really huge careers in front of them… What was it like seeing them do what they do on screen or in front of your camera?
NJ: Oh, it was great. I’m Irish, so I live close to Saoirse. I didn’t know her personally, but I’ve observed her progression form ATONEMENT onwards. Caleb I saw in the first X MEN, but he put himself on tape. He put himself on digital with a scene from the film and sent it to the casting director. I thought he was remarkable and I didn’t recognize him as “the kid who was in the X MEN movie” you know? He came over and did a few readings for me. He’s a remarkably intense actor and I really wanted to work with him. I mean the part of “Frank” he played was English and I thought “Okay, I guess we can make this kid more American… His father is from America…” but that’s the only adjustment I had to make, to make it work for Caleb.
BUG: And the other actress in the film, Gemma Arterton as well is fantastic in the film. How did you decide on her for the role of “Clara?”
NJ: Well she read the script. Around he same time that I was sent the script, she had read it and she loved it, so I went to meet her. She was in Berlin shooting HANSEL AND GRETEL, I think… VAMPIRE HUNTERS or VAMPIRE KILLERS…
BUG: I think it was WITCH HUNTERS or something like that.
NJ: Yeah, WITCH HUNTERS, sorry. So I met her there. I’ve always loved Gemma. I’ve always felt she hadn’t had the movie roles she quite deserves for her talents and she’s a very unusual British actor, because she doesn’t bring any of that theatricality. She doesn’t come from that world, you know? She’s straight out of some extraordinary meadow or something and I really wanted to work with her and I could completely see her in this part. She has such intelligence and such sensuality at the same time, so it…
BUG: Yeah. The differences in the vampire mythos, was that in the book? How did you pick and choose what to use as far as the rules of vampirism in the film?
NJ: Okay, well the writer is going back to the eighteenth century version of vampires tales, by a guy called Dr. John William Polidori and Lord Byron and that’s where the characters of “Ruthven” (Jonny Lee Miller in the film) and “Darvell” (Sam Riley in the film) came from. So she follows the logic of it in those tales and in those tales you didn’t get turned into a vampire by being bitten by a vampire, you actually became a vampire by wondering through some ancient burial sites and being bitten by a snake that was dropped by a bird… It was some kind of injury like that. I thought it was really cool and really interesting. It was very unusual. So I reworked all of that and placed it in this Irish context for a lot of reasons, because I’m Irish I suppose. So we had the waterfall of blood and the hut where people would go in and meet their own death and stuff like that. She didn’t want these vampires to have teeth, so I asked for them to have this long nail, and the only rule that we decided to stick with was that you had to be invited into the house, a home basically. I thought it was really sweet actually. That’s the only one we actually would abide by, you know?
BUG: One of the things I noticed, and I watched the film last night with a fan of TWILIGHT and she noticed in the film, and it’s very subtle, but “Clair de Lune” by Debussy was played by the elderly lady in that scene before Soairse kills her. Was that an intentional riff on TWILIGHT or just one of those crazy coincidences?
NJ: No, she suggested she could play “Clair de Lune.” I didn’t mean to be making any reference to TWILIGHT.
BUG: (Laughs) She actually noticed that and pointed that out, so I just had to ask.
NJ: Yeah, I didn’t even know they used “Clair de Lune” in TWILIGHT. Sorry.
BUG: All right. Soairse plays an amazing piano in this, was that all her playing?
NJ: Yeah… Oh, in the final soundtrack? No. She did learn to play it. She learned to play that certain concerto and she could play it perfectly and remarkably actually, so what we hear in the end isn’t exactly her play, but it is close to her fingers and all of that.
BUG: Yeah, well it fooled me. It looks like it’s her. So now it seems like you take your time picking your films and what you’re going to be doing next. Do you have something else lined up?
NJ: Yeah, I’ve written a ghost story that I’d like to make next, kind of an erotic ghost story. But at them moment, I’m just trying to find out what I can get made this year. I’m not sure what’s next.
BUG: Okay. Are you one of those that… you don’t hurry to get your films out, do you?
NJ: No, no I like to work all of the time. It’s just very difficult to get the financing together these days. It’s very hard.
BUG: So the film is going to be released through IFC and I’m really looking forward to covering this when it does. Does it bother you that it’s not going out wide or does that not matter to you?
NJ: Well I don’t fully get the video on demand thing, but in the present time where it’s difficult enough to get a movie released, I’m glad that IFC is doing it.
BUG: I’m going to do my best to get the word out as much as possible. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today, I appreciate it.
NJ: Thanks very much. Thank you.
BUG: Have a great day. Bye. BYZANTIUM is out now in limited theatrical release and available this week On Demand! Below is a review of the film!
In theaters beginning June 28 in NY and LA, and available nationwide On Demand July 1, 2013 from IFC (Find this film on Netflix here)!
BYZANTIUM (2012)Directed by Neil Jordan
Written by Moira Buffini
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones, Jonny Lee Miller, Barry Cassin, Warren Brown, Ruby Snape, Thure Lindhardt, Daniel Mays, Uri Gavriel, Sam Riley, Gabriela Marcinkova, Tom Hollander
Find out more about this film on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
I know it’s a tough pill to swallow, but much like the TWILIGHT series, the Hammer horror films were just as much about troubled romances, burning inner conflict, and gorgeous settings. Sure TWILIGHT Hollywood-ed it all up, cast it with some pretty cardboard actors, and dumbed down the story, but all of the same the elements are in some of the best of Hammer vamp films—just amped up in quality, in my opinion. While some might see the young cast and the attention to relationships and angst and write this one off as TWILIGHT Version 2.0, the talent of the actors and the director behind it, as well as the strength and epic aspects of the story, make BYZANTIUM a cut above anything TWILIGHT ever dreamed of. If anything, it’s TWILIGHT for those who have good taste.
BYZANTIUM is a story that spans decades about a pair of vampires; Clara, a mother (Gemma HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS Arterton) and Eleanor, a daughter (Saoirse HANNA Ronan), struggling to survive one as females in a world which seems to objectify and outcast them and two as vampires, which we find out has a whole new set of troubles. As we follow these two troubled souls, we see Clara trying to provide for her daughter by using her feminine wiles as a means to attain shelter, wealth, and power. Eleanor on the other hand is much less sensual here, and seen in a more innocent light. Though the tone shifts occasionally, Eleanor’s naiveté is seen as a blessing, but ultimately curses the pair since she continually reaches out to others to tell her tale and find some kind of connection. Basically, BYZANTIUM is a story about a daughter growing up and trying to break away from her mother, the metaphor of vampirism symbolizing those ties.
Not your usual vamp fodder, I know, but that’s what makes BYZANTIUM so fresh. Because the story is so thematically emotional and deep, some may write this off as melodrama, and in parts this film does feel like it is as the music rises and falls at all the right times and there are plenty of shots of Eleanor angstly gazing off into the distance, dreaming of a different life. Still, because of the level of skill both Arterton and Ronan possess, I found the film to be much less grating than if it had been cast with lesser folk. Ronan especially could easily have turned into a cliché here, but her skill, which is way beyond her years, makes me seek out anything and everything she appears in.
Arterton as well is fantastic here as the protective and impulsive Clara, doing what she believes she has to in order to protect her daughter. Though I’ve talked a lot about feelings in this review, the blood, which comes in copious amounts, mainly comes from Arterton’s parts as her Clara is a bloodthirsty vamp who is not afraid to scratch, bite, and claw her way to safety for herself and her daughter. There are some fantastically orchestrated bits of gore in this film which doesn’t really hold back. It’s the type of thing that would make most Twi-hards faint and most gorehounds drool.
This film also stars Caleb Landry Jones, an actor who shined brightly in this year’s ANTIVIRAL (reviewed here) and does a great job here as well as Frank, Eleanor’s human love interest. Again, though teetering on the edge of TWILIGHT, the film manages to make the save by casting this fascinating actor in the role. With the roles he’s chosen lately, Jones could either be the next River Phoenix in the level of intensity he shows in every performance or fall off the cliff into weirdsville a la Crispin Glover. Here, what could have been a stock character is anything but.
I don’t want to forget to mention Neil Jordan’s direction here. What makes this film exceptional is the fact that the director focuses on the calm and beautiful moments Eleanor enjoys like a blue-green field of cabbages that looks like an alien landscape or a beach lined with orphan girls in white hoods highlighting how out of place they and ethereal they are all at once. Jordan also orchestrates some amazing moments of spraying blood and gore in an almost operatic level that we’ve seen before in INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE and A COMPANY OF WOLVES. He also illustrates the actual becoming of a vampire in a vividly distinct manner involving a mountain waterfall of blood and swarms of bats that I’ve never seen before. This film is a classic in terms of Jordan’s handling of the imagery alone.
It’s not until later in the film that we really realize the plight of being a woman vampire. For the most part, the reasoning behind the fact that female vampires go against some guy vamp code of brotherhood is kept vague. Still, being female vamps puts a target on Clara and Eleanor’s back as a council of vamps are pursuing them from the beginning of the film. If this story is lacking, it’s this area as the male vamps motivation for killing the females is unclear throughout. Sure there’s the age old reasoning of males fearful of allowing females too much power, but some simple dialog or explanation somewhere would have made it all sit better with me.
Like all of you, I’m very choosey in the vampire films I choose to watch since it feels like everything and anything has been done to death with these monsters. Still, films like BYZANTIUM give me hope that the vampire subgenre’s corpse still has blood left in it. All it takes is a strong story, a talented cast, and some gorgeous directing. BYZANTIUM has all of that in spades.
Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole/wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of AICN COMICS for over 12 years & AICN HORROR for 3. He has written comics such as VINCENT PRICE PRESENTS THE TINGLERS & WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE DEATHSPORT GAMES, & NANNY & HANK (soon to be made into a feature film from Uptown 6 Films). He has co-written FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND’s LUNA: ORDER OF THE WEREWOLF (to be released in 2013 as a 100-pg original graphic novel). Mark wrote the critically acclaimed GRIMM FAIRY TALES PRESENTS THE JUNGLE BOOK from Zenescope Entertainment & GRIMM FAIRY TALES #76-81. Look for GRIMM FAIRY TALES PRESENTS THE JUNGLE BOOK: LAST OF THE SPECIES available in February-July 2013 and the new UNLEASHED crossover miniseries GRIMM FAIRY TALES PRESENTS WEREWOLVES: THE HUNGER #1-3 available in May-July 2013! Follow Ambush Bug on the Twitter @Mark_L_Miller.
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