Poetic Film Marks Jordan's Return
A quiet, intimate story, 'The Miracle' takes place in the filmmaker's Irish hometown. DIRECTOR INTERVIEW
NEW YORK — AT a time when movie budgets are higher than ever, filmmaker Neil Jordan has set his sights in the opposite direction.To direct his latest picture, "The Miracle," he returned to the Irish town where he grew up, armed with a modest bankroll and an unusually intimate story about two teenagers, a broken family with a melancholy secret, and a mysterious American visitor. The movie has been respectfully received by American critics, and while it is modest in achievement as well as ambition, it marks a comeback of sorts for Mr. Jordan, whose early success with "The Company of Wolves" and "Mona Lisa" was followed by a couple of box-office disappointments - including the Hollywood production "We're No Angels," a sadly unpopular (and badly underrated) comedy starring Robert De Niro and Sean Penn. "As a director you tend to make bigger and bigger and bigger films," Jordan told me in a recent interview. "But some films don't need a big budget, some films don't need a studio, some films don't even need particularly big stars. I felt the need to make something very quiet, very personal ... which is big in its emotions, but not necessarily in its budget or scale." Was it risky to make "The Miracle" according to this plan, given the inflated pocketbooks of most current productions? "It probably was very risky," the filmmaker says with a smile. "My agent would certainly tell me so!" The main characters of "The Miracle" are Jimmy and Rose, teenagers who pass their time inventing stories about people they see in the local streets and shops - including Renee, the new American visitor, who turns out to have a strange and unexpected relationship with one of her new acquaintances. Jordan himself is a dreamer and storyteller whose talents developed in the same Irish community where Jimmy and Rose live. Is the movie autobiographical? To a degree, says the filmmaker. "These kids are like the way I was at 15 or 16," Jordan explains. "I was a writer manque. I was somebody who read obsessively, went to the movies obsessively, and tried to compensate for a rather drab environment with whatever imagination I could drum up every day." Once again using his imagination to liven up the town of Bray, he has set "The Miracle" at a time when a circus is in the area - making the village, in a contradiction that Jordan seems to relish, "a rather prosaic environment which is full of fantasy and poetry." The people of Ireland have long been associated with a special interest in poetic language - a "gift for gab," as the cliche has it - that gives their speech a unique lilt, whether they're ordinary teens like Jimmy and Rose or professional storytellers like Jordan himself. Is there any truth to this common impression of the Irish as verbally gifted, or is it merely a stereotype? "Irish people do speak in rich ways," Jordan muses. "Literature is important to them, and always has been. It has probably been their only outlet because it's the [least expensive] of all things: to write and to talk." He deliberately gave language a place of honor in "The Miracle," he continues, because he has "grown very tired of films where ... language is reduced to monosyllables. "I wanted these kids to communicate, and to explore all sorts of ironies in the words they use." Jordan started his career as a writer, publishing two novels and a prize-winning volume of short stories. Then cinema became his main interest. "I don't know what leads anyone to filmmaking," he says when asked how the change came about. "It just happened to me. I was writing scripts, and some of them were made, and I became progressively more fascinated by movies.... I ended up directing them - probably to protect the stories, since I had seen them so completely as I was writing them, and I wanted to ensure that they'd emerge the same way." Music often plays a strong role in Jordan's movies, as the title of his most successful film suggests: "Mona Lisa," referring to the memorable pop song of Nat "King" Cole. The jazz tune "Stardust" threads its way through many scenes in "The Miracle," reflecting Jordan's view that "a song expresses all kinds of emotions you cannot put into words." He adds that "Stardust" is "one of the most beautiful songs ever written" and "expresses the soul" of this particular film, with its collection of music-loving characters who need exactly this kind of beauty in their frequently lonely and sometimes tormented lives. Looking at today's film scene as a whole, does Jordan feel it's in a healthy state? "I'm a European," he answers, "and while I've worked in Hollywood and have a relationship with the United States, it's difficult for me to say because I'm not really part of that system. "I do feel it's becoming increasingly difficult to make a film outside Hollywood, however, and every six months it seems to become more difficult.... There's danger of it becoming a rather monochromatic movie culture. That's why I make the kind of films I do, I suppose." Which is no easy job, he continues: "It's always a struggle to get a film made that doesn't cohere with the type of movie that people are making at the moment, that doesn't cohere with the system. "It's always a struggle if you want to make a film that's individual, that expresses something you can't convey in two sentences - that isn't "high concept," to use that awful term - and that doesn't have big, massive stars. It's always difficult to get those films made. But they're probably the ones that are most worth trying to get made!"