Personal projects are often a minefield for directors — for every Schindler’s List there is an Alexander, for every Lawrence of Arabia, a Heaven’s Gate.
And it is into this precarious territory that Irish director Neil Jordan has taken a step with his latest film, Ondine.
The fable of a fisherman (played by Colin Farrell) who falls in love with a young woman he rescues in his nets, might well have fallen at the first post given the whimsical-sounding nature of its plot.
Yet the film manages to balance a touching romance with a gritty view of loneliness and family breakdown in the boondocks of West Cork.
For Jordan — whose CV includes such modern classics as The Crying Game (for which he bagged a screenwriting Oscar), Interview with the Vampire and Mona Lisa — it was a chance to reconnect with his Irish roots after years of working in and out of Hollywood.
“It was a lovely film to make, very sweet,” the earnest, yet friendly 60-year-old says.
“This is a fantasy, a bucolic fantasy, a late Shakespearean fable.”
That fabulous subject matter might incline one to think of his 1984 film The Company of Wolves, which presented a surreal and twisted adult take on the Little Red Riding Hood story. Yet Jordan was adamant he did not want to try and detract from the simple human drama of the recovering alcoholic fisherman Syracuse (Farrell) and his ‘mermaid’ love Ondine (played by Polish actress Alicja Bachleda).
“There’s no scalpel in the tale, we don’t take anybody’s eyeball out and pretend it’s an apple or anything,” he says.
“The nature is that you either do what the story suggests or you don’t. This story had a redemptive quality to it and I just decided to follow it. That’s what attracted Colin and Alicja.”
Farrell was also a crucial element in getting the movie the financial backing necessary for any director.
“We needed a considerable budget,” says Jordan. “So we basically needed Colin to get the film made.”
It is a revealing comment that even a director as established and successful as Jordan should still come up against the basic challenges of getting a film off the ground.
“It gets harder every year, but maybe it’s because I’m getting older,” he says.
“Film directing is a young man’s game. But let’s not complain, because when you get through it, it’s beautiful.”
Jordan is certainly no stranger to Hollywood, having made some high profile films within that system, among them hits such as Interview with the Vampire, as well as flops like We’re No Angels and High Spirits. The experience has taught him that there are perks to working outside the Hollywood machine, however.
“The problem in Hollywood is that sometimes things get between yourself and your care for what you are doing,” he says.
“The advantages of working with a small budget in the environment we did is that nobody gets in your way and there’s nobody to blame either.”
Shooting in Ireland also meant he was able to draw upon a range of established Irish acting talent in casting the film, including Farrell, as well as Ballykissangel actress Dervla Kerwin and his long-time ‘muse’, Ulster actor Stephen Rea, who plays a world-weary local priest.
Although a native Dubliner, Farrell immersed himself in the role of Syracuse, spending time aboard a real working fishing trawler to get this character looking and sounding authentic.
“At one point I told Colin his character could have Dublin roots but he wanted to go the whole way and I’m glad that he did,” says Jordan. “It was really brilliant to work with him as an actor because his commitment was extraordinary and beyond acting in a way.”
The emotional honesty of the tale was also something Jordan was keen to emphasise in the production, although he is relatively shy about expounding on what inspires and drives his stories.
“Every time I write something I always write it because it’s not me. I’m not very good at exposing myself; part of fictionalising things is asking ‘Wouldn’t it be great to live that guy’s life?’.
“It’s not like you do versions of yourself everywhere — although Woody Allen does that, but I do the opposite, I think.”
The location in Castletownbeare was also one of the stars of the film, and the cinematography of the piece captures the moody intensity of rural Ireland.
“Sometimes circumstances force you to strip down your aesthetic to the bones and reinvent yourself,” he says. “Sometimes large is great, sometimes small is even better. I think that the worst thing you can do is repeat yourself.”
Ireland’s political troubles have also characterised much of his work set on the island, from his moody 1982 debut Angel, about a vengeful gunman, and the critically-acclaimed 1992 hit The Crying Game, to his big budget biopic of IRA leader Michael Collins, which starred Liam Neeson. “I started making films in 1982 when all that was going on,” he says.
“It would have been myopic not to make films about those issues because it’s been such an important part of Irish life. But thank God I don’t have to do that any more.”
He is keen to return to Northern Ireland as a subject, albeit to chronicle the new, more peaceful province.
“I always found Ian Paisley an absolutely fascinating character,” he says. “His kind of rhetoric was extraordinary. It would be interesting, considering the changes he went through.
“And you know who wants to play him — Liam Neeson!”
Ondine is out now. See tomorrow’s Belfast Telegraph Weekend magazine for an interview with the film’s star, Colin Farrell