Director Neil Jordan and actor Gemma Arterton talk vampire feminism in Byzantium
The thriller is 'a continuation' of Jordan's earlier Interview with the Vampire
Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire arguably kickstarted the current trend for bloodsuckers. James Mottram speaks to him about returning to the genre for his new flick Byzantium.
‘There have been too many vampire films lately,’ laughs Neil Jordan, perched on a chair in London’s Soho Hotel. You might say the director of Interview With the Vampire only has himself to blame. Without his 1994 take on Anne Rice’s novel, starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, there’d arguably be no Twilight. And while that series is now thankfully at an end, with a sixth season of True Blood and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive on the way, our thirst for these blood-sucking characters seems unquenched.
Returning to the genre with his new film Byzantium, this vampire renaissance has left him incredulous. ‘The extraordinary thing is [it now] appeals to young teenage girls,’ says the 63 year old Irishman. If Rice’s vampires symbolised the spread of AIDS, the creature of the night has become something altogether more ‘strange’, he estimates. ‘[When I saw the first Twilight] I thought “OK, well now it’s become this allegory about chaste love between teenagers. How weird!”’
By comparison, Byzantium is neither bloodless nor sexless; Gemma Arterton plays prostitute Clara and Saoirse Ronan her daughter Eleanor (initially posing as her sister); both, as it turns out, are blood-suckers simply trying to survive. ‘It’s a girl power movie without it being about “girl power”,’ says Arterton, who clarifies by calling Clara a feminist. ‘She’s a fearless mother and very protective of her daughter. They’re not traditional vampires. They’re feminine vampires.’
With not a fang in sight – they use razor-sharp thumbnails to draw blood – the characters are dubbed ‘soucouyant’ rather than vampires. ‘I looked up the word on Wikipedia, as everyone does, and it’s a Caribbean version of a vampire,’ says Jordan. ‘If you can imagine living in a small shack and someone creeps out at night and comes back in the morning re-invigorated and you find dead cows and dead people around... every culture has its myths around the undead.’
Not that Byzantium is set on the sunny island of St. Lucia; rather it draws a lot of its atmosphere from its shabby English coastal town setting (with Hastings serving as the location). Arterton calls it right when she dubs the film ‘an arthouse horror movie’; and there’s much to admire here visually – like the sight of her sitting in the window of the Byzantium boarding house where she and Ronan hole up, bathed in neon light. ‘There are these beautiful shots that I will be eternally grateful that Neil had the idea to shoot me in,’ she says.
To prepare, Arterton – who previously worked with screenwriter Moira Buffini (here adapting her play A Vampire Story) on the breezy romcom Tamara Drewe – re-watched Interview With The Vampire. Does she see Byzantium as a companion piece of sorts? ‘It is sort of a continuation, I would say. It’s like the female version, these two girls that live as vampires.’
The way Jordan sees it, it stems not just from his Rice adaptation but his love of fantasy – including his take on Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves and his little-seen 1991 film The Miracle about two adolescents spinning wild stories. ‘It probably comes from my father telling me ghost stories when I was a kid. It comes from a certain impatience with reality, I suppose. I wouldn’t be a great social realist.’ Maybe not, but he sure knows how to start a trend.
Byzantium is on general release from Fri 31 May.