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Interview with a Vampire director Neil Jordan: I had a great time making this movie, but there's a dark Catholic guilt underneath

Ahead of a special 20th anniversary screening of Interview With The Vampire, director Neil Jordan tells Una Brankin why he's still in love with the movies two decades on.

Neil Jordan always looks for actors with an "emotional reality" about them when he's casting his vivid, moody dramas and thrillers. So it's easy to see why our own Stephen Rea has featured in so many of his movies, from his directorial debut Angel (1982) and The Crying Game (1992), to Michael Collins (1996) and Ondine (2009).

The drowsy-eyed Belfast actor also appears, memorably, as an 1870 Parisian bloodsucker in Jordan's highest grossing film, Interview With The Vampire, which has a special 20th anniversary screening tonight at the Strand Arts Centre on the city's Holywood Road.

"Stephen is a great actor - in everything he's done he has almost always been the author's alter ego," says Jordan. "In Interview With The Vampire I developed his character (Santiago) to make him more playful. I don't think anyone could have done it better than Stephen. He's the kind of actor that goes back to the roots of the role for his research, and does it brilliantly."

Jordan (64) will introduce the film at the atmospheric art deco Strand, the primary location for his cult classic Breakfast On Pluto (2005), which was also shot in Glenavy (and featured some of my cousins boogieing in the former parochial hall there).

"The Strand's a great little cinema, isn't it?" says Jordan.

"Warner's have provided Interview With The Vampire on celluloid, which is the way it should be seen, rather than digital. I'm looking forward to it, and yeah, I'd love to make another film in the north - but not about the Troubles."

Sligo-born Jordan was central to the superb Oscar nominated art direction of the 1994 box office hit, hence his sniffiness on the screening format. Having seen him in laconic form on RTE's Late Late Show down through the years, I expected monosyllabic answers - which I get when the questions aren't directly related to the film.

But he's surprisingly engaging, once he warms up.

He had fancied making a vampire movie since his teens, when he would cycle past Dracula author Bram Stoker's house in Fairview, Dublin on his way to school every day.

"I'd just made the Crying Game; it was big hit and won an Oscar, you know, and I was sent the Interview With The Vampire script by Warners, and thought it was really interesting and slightly theatrical," he recalls in a Transatlantic-tinged brogue. "Then I read the novel, which is extraordinary, so I said I'd do it on the condition that I did my own script, but I didn't get a credit - it's very difficult to do so within the Hollywood system.

"I did try to make it more faithful to the book. I was just anxious to get it made - it was a piece of luck, really. It's not very often you can make a complicated, dark, dangerous movie and get a big budget for it. Vampire movies were traditionally made at the lower end of the scale, on a shoestring, on rudimentary sets. (US producer) David Geffen is very powerful and he poured money into Interview. I wanted to make it on an epic scale of something like Gone With The Wind."

The film's budget of $70m was huge at the time but modest in comparison to today's $150m blockbusters. Based on the 1976 novel Interview with the Vampire by Irish-American Anne Rice, it stars Tom Cruise as the evil vampire Lestat who transforms the young Louis (a pouting Brad Pitt) into one of the undead, in 1791.

The movie chronicles their time together, and their turning of a 12-year-old girl, Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), into a vampire. The narrative is framed by a present day interview, in which Louis tells his story to a San Francisco reporter, played by Christian Slater, who replaced River Phoenix when he died three months before shooting began in New Orleans.

Author Rice wrote the screenplay in the 1970s with French actor Alain Delon in mind for the role of Louis. The English actor Julian Sands was later considered to play the role of Lestat by Rice herself, but, because Sands was not a well-known name at the time, being only famed for his performance in A Room with a View, he was rejected and the role was given to Tom Cruise. Anne Rice was famously critical of the decision at first, describing Cruise as "no more my vampire Lestat than Edward G Robinson is Rhett Butler", and railing that the casting was "so bizarre; it's almost impossible to imagine how it's going to work".

Nevertheless, she ended up happy with Cruise's performance after seeing the completed film, saying that "from the moment he appeared, Tom was Lestat for me", and "that Tom did make Lestat work was something I could not see in a crystal ball".

Jordan didn't share the author's original reservations about Cruise, who became pale, blond and gaunt for the role of Lestat.

"I always thought he had incredible strength as an actor," he says. "I mean, he's f****** brilliant in Born on the Fourth of July and Rain Man, excuse my French.

"Then I met him and saw this chilly quality which was perfect for the role. He's a star.

"Brad Pitt was right for his role, too, and Kirsten Dunst did the most extraordinary test. We found her - I think it was her first role. She was very young and very brilliant, great."

Jordan was fascinated by the novel's themes of eternal life and guilt - Louis is tortured by it after he is lured by the charismatic Lestat into the immortality of the damned, then tormented by an unalterable fact of vampire life: to survive, he must kill.

The director/novelist was brought up Catholic by his mother Angela (nee O'Brien), a painter, and father Michael Jordan, a professor, and educated at St Paul's College, in Raheny, Dublin. He has spoken in previous interviews of being quite religious when he was young, "but it left me with no scars whatever; it just sort of vanished".

Catholic guilt feeds well into the arts, however - no less than in Graham Greene's The End Of The Affair, which Jordan made into a Golden Globe-nominated film in 1999. And he has admitted that it has subconsciously influenced his work choices.

"That was the reason I wanted to do Interview With The Vampire. It seemed to me to be about guilt," he told Esquire magazine.

"It was the most wonderful parable about wallowing in guilt that I'd ever come across. But these things are unconscious: I don't have an agenda.

"I'm neither a bad Irish Catholic nor a good one. What is weird, though, is to watch a movie I made years ago and see how revealing it is about me."

He's evasive, though, when I ask him what Interview With The Vampire revealed about himself.

"I've no idea but I'm always surprised years after making a movie about how it reflects your state of mind at the time or how low you are. I had a great time making this movie but there is a dark Catholic guilt underlying. And you know, Anne Rice comes from an Irish Catholic background; she bought an old convent in New Orleans when we were filming there."

Jordan has five children: Anna and Sarah from his marriage to solicitor Vivienne Shields; Dashiel and Daniel from his current marriage to Brenda Rawn, and Ben, from a brief relationship with architect Mary Donohoe. I'm surprised none of them, or anyone else, has ever introduced him to the smash hit American series True Blood, with its very own guilt-ridden, heart-throb vamp, Bill Compton (played by English actor Stephen Moyer), but he has admitted to watching the first Twilight film, starring Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, branding it "weird … a chastity tale or something … very strange".

His own more recent vampire film, Byzantium (2012), starring Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan, was, predictably, a lot darker. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gave it a score of 62%, and the site's consensus reads: "Director Neil Jordan remains as expert as ever when it comes to setting a chilling mood, but Byzantium struggles to match its creepily alluring atmosphere with a suitably compelling story."

He concedes he was frustrated by the low budget he had to work with on Byzantium but loved working with the "magnetic" Ronan. So what is it about vampires, does he reckon, that continues to fascinate us?

"I think we all think about the concept of eternity, and we're running out of substitutes for religion," he says. "There's also the blood-spilling - it attracts and repels at the same time. It goes back to fairytales, which I was obsessed by when I was growing up. But it's hard to make a vampire film nowadays. It's all been done. My personal favourite of the genre is the Swedish film, Let The Right One In (2008)."

Having started out as a writer in 1976 with a collection of short stories, Jordan went on to pen five well-received novels and is currently working on his sixth, The Drowning Detective.

Set in an Eastern European city, it's due for publication in 2015.

He says he's going to look up my favourite Brothers Grimm story, Snow White and Rose Red, which he isn't familiar with, but likes the sound of.

Funny how fairytales linger in the imagination, even that of Oscar-winning directors.

Interview With The Vampire will screen at 8pm tonight with tickets available from Strand Arts Centre priced at £8 or £6 concession. For details, visit www.strandartscentre.com, or telephone: 028 9065 5830

The Troubles he's screened

While his subject matter has ranged from werewolves to vampires over the years, Neil Jordan has also often revisited the issue of Ireland's political turmoil over the past 100 years as a focus and a backdrop for his work

  • Angel (1982) - Jordan's directorial debut starred Stephen Rea as a musician who witnesses a brutal paramilitary murder, and sets out on a self-destructive mission of vengeance
  • The Crying Game (1992) - Jordan scooped a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for this compelling tale of an unlikely friendship between IRA gunman Fergus (Stephen Rea) and his British squaddie captive Jody (Forest Whitaker). Fergus's subsequent relationship with Jody's girlfriend provided one of the most memorable movie twists of the Nineties
  • Michael Collins (1996) - fresh from his Oscar-nominated turn as Oskar Schindler, Ballymena man Liam Neeson gave a typically larger than life portrayal of the rebel-turned-politician who became a divisive figure to many in partition-era Ireland
  • Breakfast on Pluto (2005) - the Troubles once again provided the backdrop for this dark comedy, which stars Cillian Murphy as a transgender man searching for love in small town Ireland and London during the 1970s

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