Neil Jordan on Greta, his favorite genre, and working with Isabelle Huppert
I saw Greta at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. At the time, I had no idea what the film was about but went to see it because I like Chloe Grace Moretz and Neil Jordan. Let me just say that if you haven’t seen Greta yet and you like weird and wacky movies, you should make it a priority to see it. Seriously, it’s a ton of fun.
Last week, I got to chat with the film’s director Neil Jordan about the project, working with a legend like Isabelle Huppert, and a lot of other things. Please know that this film does include some spoilers so be warned that Neil and I talk about certain scenes in the film.
Neil Jordan: Hi Scott.
Scott Menzel: Hi, Neil, nice to meet you!
Neil Jordan: Nice to meet you too.
Scott Menzel: First and foremost, a huge congratulations on the film. I saw it back at the Toronto International Film Festival during the world premiere and it was quite the experience, that’s for sure. I didn’t think anyone in that theater quite knew what to expect from this movie and I think you blew everyone away.
Neil Jordan: Great, well thank you. It’s an odd one, isn’t it? It’s a really intriguing kind of propulsive journey. I suppose it’s generic characters and material. But actually, it’s fun sometimes to plum what lies beneath that kind of generic presumptions. It wasn’t my own script initially, but I thought there was really something interesting I could do with this. I was so glad the audience responded to it.
Scott Menzel: I think you did a great job. You’ve premiered films before at film festivals and things of that nature, how were those experiences for you different from this film?
Neil Jordan: The extraordinary thing with this film is it seems to work so well with audiences. I saw it at UCLA last night with an audience. They seemed to be quite enraptured by it. There was a screening in New York and Philadelphia as well. I’m doing a lot of publicity at the moment, and I have to attend several screenings and it seems to be a real audience experience, which is kind of extraordinary for me. I’m used to audiences questioning after a movie and asking questions. Being troubled. Perhaps being intrigued. But they seemed to exalt in this little animal which is strange, but rather great, actually.
Scott Menzel: I think it’s because you tap into multiple genres within the film. You have the horror elements, you have some comedic moments, and of course, you have the mystery.
Neil Jordan: It seems to be something that comes to exist with a bunch of 400 people that doesn’t exist otherwise. It’s really cool, actually. It’s great. And they also seem to enjoy the flair of it all and the extravagance of it. Particularly the extravagance of Isabelle Huppert’s character and the extravagance of the various moves that the movie makes. They seem to enjoy the journey.
Scott Menzel: I think that’s what it is, it’s so unexpected. It’s kind of funny, I remember watching it in Toronto and in the first 30 minutes or so, I kind of felt confused. Almost like, how am I supposed to feel about this movie? And then it gets to this point, I think it was that scene where Greta goes into the restaurant and flips the table, where the movie has this shift, and I was like, “Oh, I get this now.” I totally get what it’s going for. It just becomes this enjoyable roller coaster ride of thrills and laughs along the way. I don’t know where you came up with some of this stuff that you got Isabelle to do, but kudos to you, for doing that because it’s crazy.
Neil Jordan: The last part of it, I kind of constructed for Isabelle. For Isabelle and Chloe, really. Once she flips that table and she has that double dream, and once she ends in the box. It was a matter of seeing how far you can push this material and keep it on the edge of believability. I wanted to still keep both the fun and the terror of it intact at the same time. It’s a journey and as a filmmaker, it’s fun to construct these little journeys for me, for an audience, and for the actors as well.
Scott Menzel: I love that you got to work with Isabelle, and she’s so great in the movie. But this is so off-script for her because it is something that I’ve never seen her do before. Did she have any reservations to such absurd material?
Neil Jordan: No, she totally embraced it. The thing is, she played it, even in the quieter moments. She kept the character intact, and that’s what was rather wonderful to me. When she threw over that table at the restaurant, I basically designed that restaurant so that scene could happen correctly. Isabelle took great care over her costume. We had to borrow a costume from Karl Lagerfeld, who ran Chanel at the time, who’s sadly no longer with us. I think it was brought by security personnel to the set.
She took enormous care over the minutiae of her character. Yet, given the care she’d taken, when you would ask her to make these extravagant moves, she would just make them without a question, which was amazing to me. When we chopped off a finger after she kills Stephen Rea’s character, I remember saying to her, Isabelle, could we do this as kind of a ballet, where your dancing around and plunge the syringe into his neck. And she said, of course. It’s so cool and it’s kind of interesting. What’s most interesting to me is how much the audience gets her character and they enjoy her. That’s just really fun.
Scott Menzel: You’ve been talking a few spoilers, but I love how you open and close the film the same exact way. You nicely book-ended the movie. Of all the things that someone could leave behind, why a purse?
Neil Jordan: That was from the original script. It was cool. A purse that a young person would never kind of even think of owning. It was interesting to me. Thank God it wasn’t a backpack, because she would never have picked up the backpack, would she? It’s just on the total edge of believability that she would actually have picked up the purse. Bu, t says a lot, doesn’t it? A woman’s handbag has information about her entire life in it. In a strange way, that’s what people give to the internet these days. They give their whole lives to Facebook, to the social media sites they’re on and stuff like that. I know I’m rambling a bit, but there was an interesting exchange.
Scott Menzel: I love the fact that you kept it purse a the reason why I asked this question is that it would have been so easy for you to do the typical, I left my phone behind, kind of thing. A purse is so traditional and classic and the way that you made it an older woman’s purse where it looks like someone who sort of has money. You’re kind of intrigued by that alone, like who does the purse belong to? And that is just in the beginning.
Neil Jordan: That’s to the credit of the original writer, Ray Wright who wrote the original script that I read. That’s one of the things that drew me to the movie in the first place. Do you remember Cornell Woolrich, the dime writer? He wrote Rear Window and was great at hooks. Really great at hooks. And I just thought that purse is a great hook. I wish I thought it up myself, but I didn’t.
Scott Menzel: How much collaboration did you do with Ray?
Neil Jordan: When they sent me the script, I called Ray up. He was very anxious I got involved. I asked him to do a few passes himself, which he happily did. Then, when Isabelle and Chloe came on board and we were actually making the movie so I did my own draft for them. In Ray’s original screenplay, Greta was an older Eastern European woman, like an immigrant to New York in the 50s. She was slightly more downtrodden, the kind of women you’d see laden with supermarket shopping bags and waiting for the traffic light to change and you’d feel sorry for her. And Frances’ relationship to her was mainly based on pity.
So, when Isabelle came on board, I said, look, we’re going to do something else with this character now. I’ll rewrite it and structure it around you. I’ll give her this French persona. I’ll give her this sophistication. I added the piano playing and the whole musical theme to the thing. She became much more interesting and much more playful, I think.
Scott Menzel: The gum reference line, was that in the original script? I love that.
Neil Jordan: I put that in.
Scott Menzel: That was brilliant. I haven’t seen the film since I was in Toronto so the fact that I can remember a couple of scenes tells you how good your movie is.
Neil Jordan: You’re great. Thank you very much.
Scott Menzel: I thought that was so incredible how you did that. Another thing I was gonna ask you was, what is your favorite genre? You’ve done so many different films and I’ve loved so many of them. Like Breakfast on Pluto and The Brave One, and going back to We’re No Angels, what’s your fave genre to play in?
Neil Jordan: I like urban thrillers as a genre. I love the whole scope of horror movies. I wouldn’t be too fond of supernatural kind of horror thrillers, though there are some great ones being made at the moment. I suppose my favorite genre would a movie like Mona Lisa. An urban film noire. If somebody would give me one of those, I would make it in a minute.
Scott Menzel: I always ask directors this, because I’m always intrigued by this answer. You’ve worked with so many icons in the industry, is there a particular actor or actress who you have not worked with who you would absolutely adore working with?
Neil Jordan: That I have not worked with?
Scott Menzel: Yeah.
Neil Jordan: That’s an interesting question and a tough one.
Scott Menzel: You can have more than one, you can pick a couple.
Neil Jordan: Pick a couple. Oh my God, I’d love to do a movie with Marion Cotillard. I think she’s superb. It’d be many women, actually. I’d love to do a movie with Jessica Chastain.
Scott Menzel: Jessica Chastain is freaking brilliant.
Neil Jordan: I think she’s brilliant. Amy Adams is amazing. Actually, when you think of the current crop of actresses, between the ages of 24 and 54, they are extraordinary; just extraordinary. Much, much stronger than the men actually, which is interesting.
Scott Menzel: I was just thinking about that recently. I love Chloe. She started off with Kick-Ass, and she was in those types of movies for a bit, and now, she’s kind of transitioned into the dramas. A lot of very indie-vibe type things. So it was kind of interesting seeing her in this type of movie as well because I felt like she was really out of her element. It was nice. That’s what I love about her in the movie.
Neil Jordan: Chloe really had to stretch herself for this. It was great. She has amazing range and amazing talent. She’s got an extraordinary immediacy to what she does. I could not have believed somebody could have expressed that kind of claustrophobia and terror as well as she did.
Scott Menzel: I completely agree with you. I don’t know if you could give me the answer but I’m actually curious about scenes that were cut. Is there anything that was cut out of the film that you really wanted that didn’t make it into the final cut.
Neil Jordan: No, there wasn’t actually. There were some scenes that I removed. Some scenes involving Chloe and Maika that just took a bit too long. With the editor, for better or for worse, we propelled the film forward very rapidly. I would have loved to do a bit more towards the very end, in terms of the battle between Chloe and Isabelle. But I had so little money that I just had to make do with what I had. If I had had a bit more money, I perhaps would have made that final confrontation between the two of them a bit longer. In the end, I’m happy with what we got.
Scott Menzel: Cool. I wanted to ask you, you’ve been a filmmaker who’s been working in the industry for quite some time. You’re going on almost 30 years at this point, right?
Neil Jordan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Scott Menzel: As the industry keeps changing, we see a lot of shifts where directors are going into doing more television work and a lot of stuff is going to streaming services. How do you feel as a filmmaker about this new wave of storytelling and the way that the industry is changing?
Neil Jordan: You mean the cable TV extravaganzas and all that stuff?
Scott Menzel: Pretty much. The Netflixes, the Hulus, the Amazons. Everything going on.
Neil Jordan: Well, there are two different questions there. On the one hand, there’s the movies that Netflix and Amazon and Hulu are making. On the other hand is the long-form thing that is available to people like me, now. I’ve never had the Netflix experience.
This movie is being opened in quite a few cinemas. 2,000-plus cinemas which is a very unique thing now for an independent film. Normally they open in about 12 or 13 movies in New York and L.A. as you know. I’ve never had that experience where you make a movie and Netflix just put it up on Friday. It would be very stress-free. It’s a pity for the cinema experience. What are they going to do at Martin Scorsese movie? They’re going to put it in cinemas, surely, aren’t they?
Scott Menzel: Yes. During the Oscars, they actually put a trailer out that said it would be playing in movie theaters.
Neil Jordan: I know, but it doesn’t guarantee that they’ll put it in cinemas across the United States.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I agree.
Neil Jordan: The other thing is, the long-form option, or the long television form, the series form, it’s really a new option for people like me. But mainly as a writer, not so much as a director. I did The Borgias for about three years. It was a great experience, but you do not have the same relationship to the image as a director, when you’re making those shows. Do you understand what I mean?
Scott Menzel: Oh, yes.
Neil Jordan: That was one of the great things about making Greta was that you have to construct the entire visual landscape of the movie from the start. From scratch. So you start with a set of dreams, you start with a set of pictures and colors in your mind, and you end up having achieved them. Or sometimes having failed to achieve them. But you start with a goal and with a group of collaborators and group of partners, you achieve that goal. Whereas long-form television is a different thing. It’s less immediately visual and less immediately impactful. But I will still work in it because I’m a writer. I love to write.
Scott Menzel: Are you a bigger fan of doing the writing or directing, or you just love the combo of being able to do both?
Neil Jordan: I’m the biggest fan of writing a script and then making it. If people allow me to do that. But I have many scripts written that have not been made. It’s a tough environment we’re in at the moment. I’m working on a large TV series at the moment. I’m also working on a movie that I want to make that’s an adaption of a novel that I wrote four years ago called The Drowned Detective. It’s a matter of seeing which of these projects happen first.
Scott Menzel: For those projects are you doing a similar approach like you did for Greta where you’re hoping for certain people to be a part of those movies, and you’ll tweak the script for those people?
Neil Jordan: Yeah, I’m forced into that situation, sadly. I don’t know have a studio behind me.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I know. It’s a little bit of a bummer.
Neil Jordan: We’ll see what happens though. I’m still making films, which is good. A lot of people of my generation aren’t.
Scott Menzel: In all fairness, you’re a legend in a lot of ways. You’ve made a lot of iconic films. What I appreciate about your work is that you haven’t just embraced one genre, you’ve kind of went and done a whole bunch of different projects. And I think that’s what makes your work so unique.
Neil Jordan: Maybe I haven’t repeated myself. Thank you very much.
Scott Menzel: I appreciate you talking to me. It was a great conversation. I look forward to spreading the good word about this movie and I hope a lot of people react to it.
Neil Jordan: Thank you very much.
Scott Menzel: Alright. You have a great one.
Neil Jordan: And same for you. Goodbye now. Cheerio.
Scott Menzel: Bye-bye.