The highly idiosyncratic bodies of work amassed by seasoned filmmaker Neil Jordan and film star Colin Farrell bear a striking resemblance to one another.
Jordan, a native of Sligo, achieved early acclaim with gritty crime films like 1982’s “Angel,” set in his native Ireland during ‘the troubles,’ and 1986’s “Mona Lisa,” set in the seedy London underworld. These critical successes attracted the eye of Hollywood, where he floundered with the comedy flops “High Spirits” and “We’re No Angels.” Then, Jordan returned to Ireland with his 1991 IRA psychological thriller “The Crying Game,” which vaulted him back to the top. He won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and the film’s revealing climax remains one of the most shocking film twists of all-time. Since “The Crying Game,” Jordan’s career has been a mixed bag, with his smaller efforts in the UK and Ireland (“The Butcher Boy,” “The End of the Affair”) proving far more compelling than his Hollywood productions (“In Dreams,” “The Brave ONE”).
Farrell, a native of Dublin, made a name for himself as the sleazy brother in incest drama “The War Zone” and brash antihero in Joel Schumacher’s Vietnam War flick “Tigerland.” Then, Hollywood came calling, resulting in a string of, shall we say, ‘disappointing’ projects: “American Outlaws,” “Daredevil,” “S.W.A.T.,” “Miami Vice,” and, of course, Oliver Stone’s disastrous epic, “Alexander.” And yet, Farrell has peppered his resume with potent turns in smaller films: as the chrome-domed thug Lehiff in the Irish black comedy “Intermission”; a Golden Globe nominated performance as a melancholy hitman in “In Bruges”; and most recently, a country music superstar in “Crazy Heart.”
Jordan’s latest film, Ondine, conflates several of his recurring cinematic themes: unusual sexuality (“The Crying Game,” “Breakfast on Pluto”) and fantasy (“The Company of Wolves,” “High Spirits”). Syracuse (Colin Farrell) is an Irish fisherman who discovers a woman named Ondine (Alicja Bachleda-Curuś) in his fishing net who he believes to be a selkie or mermaid. The locals conjure up different theories about her origins as she slowly but surely becomes a part of the community. Syracuse’s disabled daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), believes her to be a mystical creature, while Syracuse himself falls in love with her.
MMM sat down with Neil Jordan and Colin Farrell during the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival to chat about Ondine, Irish mysticism and Farrell’s bad boy reputation.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: I’ve got to find out about your swimming skills.
COLIN FARRELL: Nonexistent. Can I swim? No. I won’t even take a bath.
NEIL JORDAN: Can you swim?
FARRELL: Not really, no. It depends on how close I am to shore. I’m not a good swimmer. I’ve got a family of good swimmers, all the kids. My brothers and two sisters are great swimmers, particularly Claudine was like a tadpole when she was born, but I could never swim.
MMM: Why is your mermaid so special and different from all the others that we’ve seen in film? Johnny Depp is going to have a mermaid in “Pirates of the Caribbean 4.”
JORDAN: And Johnny’s got an island. Why is mine so special? It’s the Irish legend. The seal woman, they have seal hair and this beautiful picture emerges out of it and you fall in love with them. Then, they mess you up and they go back to the sea.
MMM: Why is the mermaid so special to you, Colin, and why is she so different from the rest of them?
FARRELL: In the film she’s very different. Although Syracuse is living in a town he’s given the chance once and he comes from a dissolved marriage, a marriage that was probably very painful and was about the mutual destruction of each other, and so he stopped believing. He’s someone that equates love to loss. His mother has just recently passed. His daughter is terminally ill. So he just equates love to loss and he’s kind of fine with that. There’s no kind of self-flagellating pity going on his life. He’s okay with it and then this woman comes in and she’s very different. By the mere nature of catching her in the fucking net it’s a little bit odd from the start. It’s not like he met her in a pub or over a nice portion of fish and chips at the local chip shop as so happens romantically in Ireland on Friday night. This woman brings something into his life that he doesn’t quite comprehend or stop believing that he could comprehend. She represents that thing that transcends the drudgery of everyday existence, the kind of wee insertion of love into his life.
MMM: You have a history of fractured fairy tales, the introductions and the endings are sort of that way. Is there a meaning behind that for you?
JORDAN: The reason that I like fairy tales – this sounds stupid – is that even when I was doing “Mona Lisa,” Bob Hoskins kept relating his character to the Frog and the Prince. I like stories or characters that don’t fully understand themselves. I’ve never made an entirely realistic movie ever in my life. I suppose that I was told too many myths and legends and fairy tales when I was a kid. My father was a national school teacher and he used to terrify the life out of me. Everybody in Ireland comes from some weird rural background but he told me a lot of ghost stories that I’ve probably never recovered from.
MMM: I see that you have a couple interesting film projects coming up including “The Graveyard Book”–
JORDAN: Yeah. It’s a great book. I’m trying to make it. Studios don’t seem to want to make anything that’s remotely interesting at the moment. It’s kind of depressing. I was meant to be doing it in September but I’m doing a TV series for Showtime about the Borgia Family. So hopefully, I’ll start preproduction in September. The money is gradually falling into place but it’s a bit of a struggle.
MMM: Do you find any difference in directing actors on film than for a television series?
JORDAN: I’ve never done a television series. I haven’t got a clue, but I’m enjoying writing it. It’s like writing an enormous novel. Normally, in scripts, like I made a movie called “Michael Collins” about a big huge chunk of history and if I’d been able to make a forty hour movie out of that the subject matter would’ve embraced it and I would’ve been thrilled by it in a way. So, this “Borgia” thing I’m doing, we’re writing the first ten hours at the moment and it’s brilliant because I’d written the screenplay before, of the movie. That didn’t get going and it’s brilliant to see how a long format enriches the material.
MMM: Colin, when you heard that this was a bit about the myth of the Selkie did you do any readings on that or were aware of it already?
FARRELL: No. Syracuse is a man where one of his greatest strengths is his ignorance in many ways. He’s very much a hero but also just pursuant in the idea of the present.
JORDAN: And he moves his head when he reads.
FARRELL: And he moves his head when he reads. So, I didn’t feel the need to indulge in any of those kinds of things. I remember some of the tales from when I was growing up. My father plagued me in other ways. He was a football coach for the football team that I played for and so those were the kinds of nightmares he gave me, but it was very clear from day one that all I needed was in the script, from page one, and I didn’t really have to go outside the script. I just thought about a lot from the first time I read it to the time that I agreed to do it. You become consumed by imagining what it’ll be like to walk in this man’s shoes and to immerse yourself in this world. I spent some time two weeks before we started shooting on the boat spending every day about the fisherman and we just trolled up and down the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean. It was just a magic, magic time.
MMM: You’ve played some brutal and aggressive characters in the past. So what was it like playing this gentle, loving guy?
FARRELL: It was so boring. I didn’t get to scalp anyone. I did it in one take. He might use it. It was really lovely. It was really nice to be able to play a character that wasn’t burdened by the notion of responsibility or wasn’t consumed with the idea of pretense, even in an unaware way. He cared a lot but seemed to care a lot about some very important things and cared not a lot for those things that consume a lot of us that aren’t really that important. So, there was a simplicity and a humility to the character that was really, really lovely. It was somebody that had both removed himself from the societal grid and had also been kind of ostracized from the community as well. It was the first time in twelve years to play a character that I wasn’t looking forward to leaving. The first time in twelve years that I felt, like, “I’m going to miss Syracuse a bit,” even his name.
MMM: Can you talk about what drew you to this story that’s so rooted in magic and Ireland?
JORDAN: What brought me to it is that I’ve made a lot of harsh movies in Ireland. I’ve made a lot of movies with violence. I thought, “Could I make a film that was terribly simple and terribly forgiving where nobody dies in the end and nobody transforms into some ghoulish, monstrous thing?”
MMM: Is there a comfort in shooting in Ireland that you like?
JORDAN: No. Ireland is very expensive to shoot in, or it did get very expensive for about ten years. There was a thing they called a Celtic Tiger, this mad building boom and the area that we shot this film is one of the few places on the western seaboard that’s not been ruined by building hotels and all the other stuff. So that was one of the reasons that I wanted to do the film, too. I didn’t want to prettify the country but there is an extraordinary beauty to that landscape and I thought that I would love to get to photograph it before I die. That’s part of the reason that I wrote the film.
MMM: Can you talk about Christopher Doyle’s work as DP? I think that’s part of the beauty of the film.
JORDAN: Well, Christopher is a very interesting man. He should stay off the Heineken though. I didn’t say that. I did say that every movie he does seems to have a different aesthetic, the Wong Kar Wai ones, the stuff that you’ve done with Gus Van Sant and he said that’s because each of them demands a different aesthetic. I was kind of probing him, “How are you going to do this movie while we work together?” We went down there and he’s the most amazing chooser of stocks that you’ve ever come across. He does all these tests and looks at them in different exposures, but he knows the camera. He knows shutter speeds and all of that stuff. It’s almost like he put on a wet suit and got in the water for the entire movie. So, if your cameraman is willing to do that, you do get this beautiful natural world that’s so present that becomes it’s own thing.
MMM: Is there a shorthand for you two being from the same culture?
FARRELL: I don’t think so. Maybe per capita there would be more similarities for those that share a cultural history together but there are plenty of Irish people that I’d have more in common with or Americans that I could introduce you to. So, what I’m saying is that I think it transcends just culture. It transcends national backgrounds. I like this fella and we got on really well and worked together and it was really easy from day one. I don’t know how much of that is to do with being Irish.
JORDAN: When you find an actor that you’re going to explore a character with, for somebody like me who writes and directs, it’s a real gift and you can explore all the hidden bits in the character, the longings and all the unexpressed things. It’s a great thing to find an actor that you can do that with.
FARRELL: Maybe your cultural background and your heritage inspired you to write the script that you wrote and maybe my natural inclination would allow me to understand it, in a way.
JORDAN: There’s a kind of dialogue that’s a lot more underneath than what’s said.
FARRELL: I did feel like it was one of the three or four things that I read that completely from the second that I read it I went, “Oh, God, I get it. I understand it and I feel it in my belly.”
MMM: Can you talk about your female leads and the character of Ondine?
JORDAN: It’s hard to put together independent movies at that moment. It’s like, “Okay, you’ve got Robert Duvall and you’ve got Johnny Depp. Can we also have Jennifer Aniston or we can’t sell it in Hong Kong,” or something. So I cast Colin and they give the project to this international sales company. They do what they call running numbers.
FARRELL: I’m not too big in Hong Kong either.
JORDAN: But people would say, “If you have Colin Farrell…” and so and so. For Alicija [Bachleda] I thought she should be unknown because I want to see someone that I’ve never seen before which very rarely happens unless you cast kids. I saw a lot of East European actresses and Alicija came in one day and she gave this reading, read the part and I thought, “She’s really making this work. This will be interesting.” Then, I watched her work and I thought she was a really great actress. She had a very difficult part to play because her character, she’s playing the interpretation that other people put onto a character. That’s a very difficult thing to do. I suppose that you can’t let it rip at any stage.
MMM: And working with your daughter, Colin?
FARRELL: Alison, yeah, she’s lovely. She’s really smart, really bright and really kind and loads of fun to be around. Some of my favorite scenes in the film are the scenes that are just Syracuse and Annie while she’s going to get dialysis. There’s a real kind of simplicity to them and an unspoken depth of love. She lacked ambition completely. She didn’t have stage parents. She wasn’t somebody who was pushed into this or pulled into it or even suggested and somehow you found her but she didn’t come in for the audition, did she? A schoolteacher said, “I have this girl.” She’d never thought of it anyway and so she didn’t come with any kind of ambitious drive. She was just really, really pure and had no habit.
MMM: You didn’t get a lot of credit for “Crazy Heart,” but when I talked to Scott Cooper he said you were one of the most humble, modest and intelligent people he’d ever met.
FARRELL: We only spent three days shooting. He doesn’t know me.
MMM: Why do you think you’re misrepresented in the press?
FARRELL: I don’t know. We all as human beings probably do a good job of misrepresenting ourselves a lot of the time. The press has got its space to fill. I’ve read some nasty, nasty things written about me through the years and I’ve read some really nice things written about me. Neither of them really hold the essence of truth as I would like to ascribe my thoughts to it.
MMM: There’s a lot of myth versus reality in this film. Do you see a lot of myth versus reality in your career as an actor?
MMM: But who you are and the kinds of characters that you want to play?
FARRELL: No. I mean we all have possibly a responsibility, an obligation, a really exciting opportunity to design our lives to a certain extent. Some of us are born into a particular demographic or situations which are very hard to design anything but the needs of survival in that. But I’ve been very fortunate in my life and I’ve had a chance to design where I want to go or what questions I want to ask or what issues I want to take a look at, just personal issues or human issues or existential issues in my own sort of way. So, with that in mind, the work is really interesting. I don’t do it for therapeutic reasons at all. I would be a basket case if I did, like if it was therapy. But it is interesting to approach the idea of walking in another man’s shoes. I don’t think I answered any of your question.
MMM: It just came out in the press that you turned down Terry Gilliam’s much beleaguered “Don Quixote” interpretation.
FARRELL: Did it? Where?
MMM: I talked to Robert Duvall on Monday and he told me that you had turned it down six months ago.
FARRELL: Okay. Six months ago that wasn’t even me. That was another incarnation of me.
MMM: What’s next to come then?
FARRELL: I don’t know. That’s all I know, that I haven’t got anything lined up and I’m just reading a lot of stuff. It seems to be an interesting time, you’ve probably heard, for filmmakers, and obviously more and more and more importance is being placed on the big tent pole films and it’s kind of hard for the lower bracket, the middle range, the $20 million films to be made.
MMM: Is there a comfort to shooting in Ireland, Colin, or maybe is there a greater feeling of pressure when you’re shooting there?
FARRELL: No. The only kind of element of fear would be going home to people from where I’m from not thinking that I’ve changed and all that kind of stuff that’s understandable and childish and you get over quick enough. I love Ireland very much. It makes sense to me. It uplifts me and it frustrates me and my relationship to it is the same. It’s beautiful. One of the most beautiful parts of the world that I’ve ever been to is the Beara Peninsula and I did my first job there twelve years ago. I did a four-part mini-series for the BBC called “Falling For a Dancer.” It was great to go back to that part of the world and work with a director/writer that I’d wanted to work with for seven or eight years on a story that was so inherently beautiful and was so predominantly about the necessary need for hope and the need to believe that transcends the real world as you perceive it – was just a perfect storm for me. So it was cool. And I worked with some of the drivers and caterers that I’d known for twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years. Those are happy days.
ONDINE opens on June 4th in limited release.