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Interview: Neil Jordan

“Oh, serious, serious, serious!”
Patrick “Kitten” Brady

Few years after the forgettable The Good Thief , Neil Jordan comes back in perfect shape for what can be easily considered his best film since The Butcher Boy. As delirious and exuberant as it is sincere and moving, Breakfast on Pluto is an extreme, uncompromising exaltation of the power of imagination.

Welcome to the glamorous, desperate life of Patrick “Kitten” Brady, an Irish child born from an illegitimate love affair between a priest and his maid, “sold” into adoption to a greedy widow, and matured with two great desires: to become a woman and to finally meet his real mother, who ran away to London soon after Patrick’s birth in search of fortune. As the IRA harvests victims in the North of Ireland, Patrick – having become Kitten – moves to “swinging” London in search of his mother and a place to be finally accepted.

Original and intriguing yet, at times, rambling and messy, the story could be easily mistaken for a sort of Hedwig and the Angry Inch meets Millions. As in Hedwig, we watch the incredible “musical” adventures of a transvestite who apparently wants to become famous, but in reality, just wants to be loved. As in Millions, the main character is a dreaming and naive child who lives more in his fantasies than in the real world, and who dreams, one day, to see his mother again (in Danny Boyle’s film, the mother is dead, while here she has run away soon after having given birth).

But, luckily, Breakfast on Pluto is more accomplished, both in his visions and in his emotions than Hedwig and Millions. If in the past, Neil Jordan disappointed audiences when he could have dared to take the most chances (Interview with the Vampire), this time, he has finally freed his imagination.

Amongst manipulative magicians, killers of prostitutes, unlikely spies, unusually caring wardens, musical numbers and speaking birds, the result is so kitsch, camp and colorful that, in comparison, Almodovar seems Ozu.

Yet, as strange as it is, Breakfast on Pluto is perfectly coherent to the themes and the universe of Jordan. Actually, it directly recalls his two best films. As in The Crying Game, in fact, transvestitism and terrorism are strangely intertwined in a fascinating, unusual combination. As in The Butcher Boy (also based on a novel from Breakfast on Pluto author Pat McCabe), there’s a kid, prey to his own visions, who takes shelter in his own imagination to cope with the harsh, depressing reality that surrounds him.

But unlike his previous films, this time Jordan’s strength relies on something else: the soundtrack! Music has, in fact, a key role in Breakfast on Pluto, because Patrick “Kitten” Brady, in his innocence and naiveté, wants to live in a love song and sees the world through the lyrics of love songs (the title itself, Breakfast on Pluto, is a Pat Patridge’s song from the Seventies, just as The Crying Game was an English pop song from the Sixties).

What’s more, if the movie, in the end, stays together while shifting from one second to the next into completely different moods and atmospheres, it is thanks to the wide-ranging score put together by Jordan from the melodrama of Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” to the glam explosion of “Children of the Revolution”, from the oversentimentalism of “Feelings” to the retro-pop of “Sugar Baby Love”, from a stirring Handel chorale to the rock of Van Morrison.

This way, juggling between tragedy and comedy and immersing the story in the heart of the Seventies, Neil Jordan manages to reveal the never-ending conflict between fantasy and oppression through the unusual, yet deeply revealing, contrast between a naive transvestite in search of unconditional love and a nation consumed by the hatred of a fratricidal war.

Marcello Paolillo met with helmer Neil Jordan and actors Cillian Murphy and Stephen Rea in New York.

Neil Jordan

Q: Was it difficult to choose Cillian Murphy for the role of Kitten?

A: He is amazing, isn’t he? He has great cheek bones, facial structure and everything! And beautiful eyes. But most of all, he is a very physical actor. We did a screen test, but honestly, my main fear wasn’t the drag aspect. I was wondering if somebody could ever play such a naïve character without turning it into La Cage aux Folles!

Q: It’s not the first time for you. There are actually legends surrounding The Crying Game with Stanley Kubrick warning you that the role of Dil would probably be uncastable…

A: He did tell me that! Well, he exactly told me it would have taken me years to find the right actor and asked me “When are you planning on shooting?” and I said “In 5 weeks time!”. He thought it was a very interesting project. But in a way, The Crying Game was more difficult. In that film, the character disguises himself as a woman, and we have to completely believe it. In Breakfast on Pluto, instead, Patrick is just a deeply effeminate boy that creates the character of Kitten in order to preserve his innocence.

Q: It’s the second film you adapt from Patrick McCabe after The Butcher Boy.

A: Yes, he actually wrote Breakfast on Pluto right after I directed The Butcher Boy, but somehow he didn’t want to show it to me. I asked him: “Did you write a story of a son of priest who is a transvestite?” and he answered: “Ohh… you don’t wanna read that!” So, when I finally read the book, I found it lovely, very special, even though kind of strange and unfinished, with an open ending. So I asked Patrick: let’s try to finish the story. The first change he did was to bring back the character of the father, who now, after many years, wants to help his son. And I thought that that was very interesting. Also, as for The Butcher Boy, I gave him a cameo role in the film. He plays the teacher, and his performance is totally based on my father, who was a real teacher and taught him every tic. He is a good actor. As far as other changes between the novel and the film: in the book, there is no glam rock band, there is no magician, and there’s no theme park.

Q: Did all these changes have the purpose to turn the story more into a fairytale?

A: I wanted to play with the beautiful innocence of the character. I did quite a few movies about the harshness of the Irish experience, and this time, I wanted to do something else. I love the character of Patrick, he is so pure and innocent and good. I wish we all could be like that.

Q: It’s a very risky script that switches sometimes in a few seconds from tragedy to comedy. How did you manage to find the right tone for it?

A: It was very clear when the tone was wrong. But most of all, while I was shooting this movie, I had a precise goal. I wanted myself to get an enormous amount of pleasure. I think this kind of grotesque comedy is very Irish, in a way. You find it in the literature and in the theatre as well.

Q: Do you think that this story could have only taken place in the Sixties and Seventies, or anytime?

A: No, it could only take place in that era, and in particular in the early Seventies, because of the androgyny of the character. Only few years later, you would have had the Village People, Freddy Mercury and the whole gay subculture who was ready to adopt this child. But Patrick didn’t have this around him. He had to construct his own self.

Q: The soundtrack is a crucial element in your film. Can you tell us something about it?

A: The music is crucial in the film because our main character wants to live in the lyrics of a love song, in a world as beautiful and sweet and tragic. So, I realized that songs could be part of the narrative. We went through the whole repertoire of the early Seventies. For some strange reason, David Bowie didn’t suit it. Weird, isn’t it? One of the first songs David Bowie wrote was London Boy about a kid coming to London, and I thought it could be perfect, but it didn’t match the film, in a way was too “operatic”. Otherwise, I would have called him up and begged him to use his song. Other glam artists suited though, like T-Rex for example [Children of the Revolution]. Buffalo Springfield tuned perfectly. I wrote a sequence around For What it’s Worth.

Q: And singers appear in the film as actors as well!

A: I knew Gavin Friday, but I didn’t know he could act, so I did a little test with him. He is extraordinary! With Brian Ferry, I took a chance. I asked him if he wanted to play a killer of prostitutes. He was concerned that he had never acted before, but he is very good!

Q: Is there something that drives you specifically to adapting from books?

A: I think it just happened. Books stimulate a lot my imagination, but I think I’m done for a while. I went to see Pride and Prejudice the other day, and I thought: the story is beautiful, but why can’t we simply make up stories like that? Why do we have to go back to Jane Austen?

Q: Did you ever worry about the comparison that audience might make between the book and the film?

A: I worried only once, when I did Interview with the Vampire. Everybody in the United States seemed to have read that book, and I did love that novel, so I decided to stay as faithful as possible. But in a way, the center of the movie suffered for this because it drifts away. It goes where the novel goes, but that doesn’t necessarily works on screen. I think you have to be faithful to the fact that you are making a movie!

Q: Since you are also a writer, would you ever adapt one of your novels?

A: No, I don’t think so. I did once, at the beginning. It was a movie called The Miracle, based on a collection of short stories I wrote when I was 24. I’ve written overall 5 novels, but I wouldn’t turn them into a movie myself. When you have written a novel, you are finished with it, believe me. Or better, it is finished with you. I used to think that I would never give the rights to translate on screen one of my novels, but now I probably would say yes if they asked. But nobody is asking! My last novel came out last year. It’s called Shade. It’s a ghost story.

Q: Upcoming projects?

A: It’s hard to say. I wrote a family film for Sony called Me and My Monster. But apparently, it’s too expensive and it’s not going to happen. And I’ve been asked to make a film about the life of John Lennon, which would be interesting but probably impossible. There are other projects but it’s too early to talk about them… [It’s actually just been announced that his next film will be Borgia
, a sort of Godfather set in Italian Renaissance starring Colin Farrell and Scarlett Johansson].

Q: In the end, it’s the second time after The Crying Game that you mix sex and terrorism, transvestitism and IRA. Why?

A: It’s weird, isn’t it? I can’t understand it myself. It must be the screaming queen inside of me… I guess, in a way, it’s accidental, but it’s true that I do love stories about identity. I’d say that in both cases, what really drove me was the idea that by assuming a fake identity you reveal more of yourself.

Sony Pictures ClassicsBreakfast on Pluto opens exclusively in New York on the Wednesday the 16th and will open wider in the weeks to come.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s interviews with Cillian Murphy & Stephen Rea.

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