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Neil Jordan on "The Butcher Boy"

by Karen Jaehne

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Neil Jordan's "Butcher Boy" is an astonishing comedy - to tear your heart out. Out of a celebrated Irish novel he has made a universal film about Francie, a child with a hyperactive imagination who loses every link he has to society. Dennis the Menace on acid was how several critics at the Berlin Film Festival described Francie. The film is "Tom Sawyer" meets "Clockwork Orange". The violence would be nihilistic and objectionable had Jordan not built the character in such a loving, psychologically astute way. The story delves layer after layer into the perceptions of childhood and the mishmash churned up in the brain by comics, television, alcoholic parents and religion. Francie's world can only be compared to the kind of visionary cinema found in Tarkovsky films, but with an unmistakable Irish twist. As Jordan says, "I come from a country where people pray to wooden statues that talk back to them."

In anticipation of Butcher Boy opening in New York, Jordan made himself available to journalists, one gang at a time. Our gang caught him first, before the questions start boring one by repetition, before he's tired of repeating that the 9-year-old character in the film is not a homosexual, and rolling his eyes because "The Crying Game" put him in a never-ending dialogue with the gay community about what comes first - politics or creativity?

He likes questions like that, but he doesn't like interviews. He prefers discussions, because, as he says, "Interviews are set up so that I'm the only one with any answers, and I don't get to ask any questions. It's not fair really." The following may illustrate what Jordan thinks is fair play.

Jaehne: So Butcher Boy has opened in England, and the critics love it. It's a great success, but is there anything you would change about it?

Jordan: Oh, you should never ask a director that, now, should you?

Jaehne: Why not?

Jordan: Because there are a thousand things you always want to fix, to go back and do just a little different, don't you know?

Jaehne: Sorry, but the reason I ask is that it's so perfectly executed. Whatever flaws it may have, I didn't see them, so...

Jordan: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Q: You always seem to make films about extreme behavior, and the strategy of the film is to show us how that behavior came about - why it's only logical...

Jordan: Well, I had to deal with what was in the novel this time, so I didn't have much choice. the novel has its following, its acolytes and there was no disappointing them now, was there?

Q: OK, then, what was it that attracted you to this material?

Jordan: Well, it's Irish. (laughs) Famously Irish, y'know? And it's not, thank goodness, about the IRA or any of that. I'm getting a wee bit tired of that stuff, and this gave me a breather. And although it's uniquely Irish, I get the feeling it's not so very different from what a small town or country life would be like somewhere else - in Iowa or Dusseldorf. Small towns run in a certain way, and that's what this is about. What it's like to be on the outside and to be rejected by everybody. There are lots of stories like that, but usually they are... (he puts his fingers in the air to denote quotation marks) ..........coming-of-age stories. They're not about childhood as a time of fear and violence and need and losing everything. They're sorta bittersweet, eh?

Q: Well, you can't accuse Butcher Boy of that.

Jordan: Good, good. I mean, it's nice to look at Ireland in this way. After all, I come from a country where people pray to wooden statues that talk back to'em. I'm from Dublin, so I didn't grow up in the country, and this is definitely a country lad, Francie is. But some of what I knew is in his life. Ireland's school system is run by celibate men in skirts who're more concerned about things that didn't exist than those that did. Francie has to go through that, and he picks it up. His mind can entertain all manner of things, beings, bring the comics and the telly to life, to play with his mate Joe in the woods and pretend to be a Knight in shining armor or worry about the communists, which is what we did when I was a lad.

Q: You show the Cuban Missile Crisis in the film and the women gossiping about that nice Irish lad Kennedy letting the world go up in smoke. As long as it doesn't go commie....

Jordan: Oh yes, the commies. Did you hide under your desks and practice what you're gonna do when the bomb goes off? It was scary but it was also exciting to think about such big events when you're so little. You don't even know how insignificant you are at that age.

Q: I've heard several people remark on the implicit homosexual relationship between young Francie and his buddy who betrays him and makes Francie so crazy. It's the kind of tragedy that is felt with first love. How do you explain that?

Jordan: Well, it's not homosexual at all. It has nothing to do with that really. It's pre-sexual. Francie is 8, 9, 10, at that age where young boys would just rather be with other boys, not little girls. And they have a bond that is strong and proud. It's part of what they rely on as they separate from the family, and in the case of this particular character Francie, the relationship between Francie and Joe is all the more important because Francie loses his mother and father. Another thing you ought to remember - and what the film tries to show - is that children have no language, no expression for certain enormous tragedies, like the death of a parent. Of course, it's a loss, and they are desperately said, but they can't really express it. But a mate betrays them, and they have the language and the justice of the playground and that's something they can invoke. Francie's anger sends him over the edge to destroy whatever took Joe away from him. But he can't destroy what took his father away - alcoholism. Or his mother - suicide. He can't really do much about that. But he can kill Mrs. Nugent. That he can do.

Q: Did you ever worry about casting Sinead O'Connor? About her not fitting in to what is really a small picture?

Jordan: Not really. She's perfect. She has the right kind of face for that kind of statue of the Virgin Mary. She's just enough, casting Madonna would have bothered me. That would have scared me!

Q: May I ask a biz-type question? How did this art film come to be distributed by Warners? It's not the kind of film we expect from the majors...

Jordan: No, it's not. That's what I kept telling them. It was the darndest thing. You see, I had made a couple pictures with them - with stars like Liam and all that. I wanted to do something really different, so I bought the rights to Butcher Boy and paid for it myself, then I paid myself to work with the writer of the novel to adapt it into a screenplay.

All the time we were working, I'd see people from Warners. You know how it is, they ask you what you're doing. I kept saying, it's nothing for you.

Q: Who's "you" - who from Warner Brothers?

Jordan: Oh, y'know. The executives...and they'd say, no, we want to see it. We want to do this with you. Even though they didn't know anything about it.

Q: Who's "they" - who exactly?

Jordan: Oh well, I guess... David Geffen... and when we finished it, they insisted, so I sent them a copy of the screenplay, not expecting anything else. But they sent me back elaborate notes about the language. Y'know? "The problem of language" they called it - asking me to review other ways of saying what we started calling the F-word and the C-word. So I asked Peter to make up a list of alternatives, and good Gawd! Did we come up with some innovative swearing!

Q: Did the language and the violence and all ever give you pause? Did you ever think twice about asking a child actor to do all that?

Jordan: Ahhhh, yes. Well. Hmmm, that was the problem really. At one point, I wasn't even sure I'd ever make the film. Not unless I could find someone to play Francie, which didn't seem likely. Because he has to be in motion. Constant motion and uninhibited and daring and innocent. It all seemed fairly unlikely. But then we found Eammon, and he was perfect.

Q: How could you know - just from an audition?

Jordan: Well, I asked them to do several scenes. But it was the movement. He was always doing something. He's irrepressible. And likable in real life, and I trusted that to carry over.

Q: Would you ever ask your own children to act? You have five, I believe - although I have no idea how you ever found time for all that!

Jordan: I was but fourteen when I started! No, that's a different matter. (stares long, quietly) My own children? No. But then acting is a talent. And if somebody wants to act, you can't stop him. But I don't see that in mine. So far.

Q: You've just finished shooting a film for Dreamworks?

Jordan: Yes, a psycho-horror picture called "In Dreams." It'll be fun to see how it turns out.

Q: You don't know yet?

Jordan: You never know until it's finished. And even then, there are always so many things you rethink...

Q: Is that why I shouldn't have asked you the first question?

Jordan: The first...? Oh yeah, that's how we got started. Well that's not so bad. Everything should start with a question. Everything.

So, dear Film Scouts, does this show the essential fairness of Neal Jordan?

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