Unmasking the Essential American Soul
Sitting on the beachside terrace at Shutters in Santa Monica, Neil Jordan looks slightly uncomfortable, which could just be the beating of the sun against his pale Irish skin, or the fact that Jordan and Hollywood have historically made for uneasy bedfellows. In the 1980s, fresh from the success of Mona Lisa?, Jordan accepted a major studio's invitation to make High Spirits, a supernatural-themed comedy remembered as more ghastly than ghostly, and found himself banned from the editing room. Next came We're No Angels, another studio comedy (starring Sean Penn and Robert De Niro), better than reputation suggests, but a box-office bomb. A decade later, after another of his Irish films, The Crying Game, became an international phenomenon, Jordan embarked on a more fruitful Tinseltown sojourn that led to Interview With a Vampire, Michael Collins and, one of his best films, The Butcher Boy. Now Jordan is again on American shores to promote what he calls a uniquely American story: The Brave One (which opens September 14), a violent, already-controversial vigilante movie starring Jodie Foster as a talk-radio host who becomes an avenging angel on the streets of Manhattan following a violent attack in Central Park.
L.A. WEEKLY:At first glance, Neil Jordan directing a Joel Silver–produced vigilante movie starring Jodie Foster looks like an incongruous grouping of elements. How did you get involved in the project?
NEIL JORDAN: There’s a movie I’ve been trying to make for years called Borgias, about the Borgia family, and I keep getting on the verge of making it and it keeps not happening. I was about to make it yet again — a big independent production, blah, blah, blah — and of course, it fell apart. Then my agent sent me this script. Jodie Foster was attached to it — she gets brutally mugged in New York and becomes a vigilante. I thought, “What?” But when I read it, the story really intrigued me, even though the script was kind of in exploitation territory at that point. What intrigued me was that this woman was doing these crimes and talking about them on the radio. So I read it again, and there was a moment when I totally forgot about the fact that it was a retributive story. Then that scene came where she goes to the police lineup and says that she doesn’t recognize anyone, and I thought, “This is good.”So I came over here and met with Jodie. I said, “Look, I’ll have to make this my own way and make the material go where I want it to go. At the moment, it’s pretty basic.” She said that was what she wanted to do too. Then it became a matter of seeing if (a) Jodie would go to the dark places this movie seemed to want to go to and (b) the studio would let us do that. And luckily, it kind of turned out that way.
There’s a sense in which the film feels like an urban fairy tale of sorts, a journey deeper and deeper into a very disturbing rabbit hole.
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Oh, it’s a dark forest with a monster in it. But I didn’t put any unjustified things into the movie — there are no white horses wandering through. What attracted me was that this woman finds this kind of monstrous thing inside her and allows it to grow and to become her. I knew that, morally, the entire story was questionable, but I get tired of everybody being good all the time and everybody wanting to save the world.
One of the bold things about the movie is that it’s remarkably free of judgments — whether what this woman is doing is right or wrong, whether or not she’s taking any satisfaction from it.
I think she is taking satisfaction. People may call it a vigilante movie. I would call it a revenge movie, and perhaps at times I might even call it a serial-killer movie. I think she’s someone who becomes attracted to killing, and that’s what I find fascinating. It’s very forbidden, and it’s obviously very questionable. When we shot the last scene, I thought that I’d never seen anybody in cinema want to kill a person so much as Jodie in that scene. The only comparison I can make is to John Wayne in The Searchers, when he finally gets to Natalie Wood and there’s that line about her being nothing more than the leavings of a Comanche buck. When I saw that as a kid, I was so shocked that any human being could feel that, that these emotions could exist.
There’s a sense in the movie of people living in fear, whether it’s fear of street crime, or war or terrorism.
I think it is about that sense of unease. You know, I’m your traditional European leftie, basically. But I don’t believe anybody knows the territory that they’re in as a person who lives in the West at the moment. Nobody can explain why a doctor in Glasgow set himself on fire in a truck laden with explosives — a sophisticated, Western-educated person. We’re in unknown territory, and people genuinely don’t know what to feel. I think even people who are to the left in the United States are confused, and there’s a lot of fear, a nameless fear. That’s part of what the movie is exploring.
Do you feel that the movie justifies revenge killing?
I think people have to make up their own minds, but it’s kind of “What if?” [What] if you’re at a bus stop and someone drives by in a BMW and splatters you with melted snow. Part of you would love to jump on the back of that car, kick your way in, grab the guy by the throat, throw him out in the street and drive away in his car. You’d love to be the person who does that kind of thing. I’m not. Most of us aren’t. But what if you were? What if you allowed that part of yourself to dominate your actions? If you pose moral arguments in film, you shouldn’t give solutions to them. You should allow people to argue them. I liked the brutality of the questions that were asked by this story.
You’ve had your various ups and downs making movies in Hollywood, but it sounds like this was a basically positive experience.
It all has to do with luck, really — more than anyone will ever admit. Everybody starts a project like this saying, “Of course, we want you to make it your own; of course it has to be Neil Jordan’s film.” But it’s always a lie. When push comes to shove, they forget about what they’ve said. But we got lucky here. Once or twice, I did have to say, “If you don’t like the direction in which this is going, tell me and get someone else to do it.” I was doing a deliberate thing with it. It could have been directed by one of these more flashy, younger, video-type directors; the violence could have been less real, more balletic. But I wanted to make it dirty and nasty and real.
At one point in the film, you have Jodie’s character quote D.H. Lawrence’s famous line: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.” How did that come about?
I read that quote years ago and I thought, “Whoa, that’s weird.” It seemed so contemplative somehow. Originally, there was another quote I was going to use: If you go into any New York police station, there’s always a quote from Hemingway that’s printed out and posted in the locker room, which goes, “There is no hunting like the hunting of men, especially armed men, and those who have done this long enough to like it, they never care for anything else thereafter.” The Hemingway estate said we couldn’t use it. At which point, I thought, okay, I’ve got this great D.H. Lawrence quote which is really savage. I’ll use that instead.
Is there something uniquely American about this story?
I think so. Retributive justice, deciding to kill someone without compunction or pity and stuff like that. It’s in the movie culture too: It’s what Clint Eastwood has played his whole life, really. Lately, he’s begun to examine that characteristic, but he has played those roles. You know, that biblical justification for killing, that certainty that things will end in bloody violence. It all has to do with .?.?. my wife is Canadian and she grew up as a Mennonite, and she was convinced there was no point in planning for anything after the year 2000 because the world was going to end. It’s a Protestant biblical condition.
Were you surprised that Jodie Foster would want to play this role in the first place?
Very. We were shooting up in Spanish Harlem or Washington Heights, and she was there in her tank top and sweating, and I asked her, “Are you not worried about playing this role, where you’ve got a gun in your hand and you’re kicked around in Central Park and you keep getting blood splattered in your face, given John Hinckley and all of that?” I think it’s one of the reasons why she wanted to do the film. She wants to explore those areas of conflict. She wants to put herself in the center of this emotional turmoil. You’ve seen The Accused . . . that rape scene. That’s quite disturbing. What’s odd is the thought of a woman wanting to play that scene. It’s a bit like Marlon Brando in that Arthur Penn movie, The Chase, where he gets the shit beat out of him — and you wonder, why would an actor want to do that? For me, it was fascinating to work with someone who wanted to explore precisely those things.
The two films of yours I was reminded of most watching The Brave One were Mona Lisa and The Company of Wolves, which have a similar sense of somewhat naive characters being pulled into a sinister underworld.
They thought they were in a city but in fact they’re in a dark wood. I don’t know where it comes from, but I know I’m only interested in a story if, at some point, the characters get into a moral landscape they weren’t prepared for. It’s just what I find interesting dramatically. People find themselves in a place where there are no rules, and they have to make them up.
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