The Director's Chair Interviews

The Provocative Son

One of Ireland's most celebrated, and most idiosyncratic, filmmakers, Neil Jordan has delivered perhaps his finest film in The Butcher Boy. Paul Byrne talks to him about the long and winding road from Pat McCabe's novel to the big screen.

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"I really don't know how people are going to react to this film. I haven't got a clue. Anyone who's seen it has been tremendously excited by it. They get either so blown away by it they can't talk, or else they talk too much. It seems to affect people very profoundly."

And well it might. Taken from Patrick McCabe's bleakly comic novel of the same name, The Butcher Boy goes inside the dark and disturbing fantasy world of the self-proclaimed "incredible Francie Brady", a 12-year old boy living in 1960s smalltown Ireland. Escaping an alcoholic father (Stephen Rea) and a pill-popping mother, Francie's troubled imagination is fuelled by television - all aliens, Communists, Richard Kimble and the Atomic Age - and by his growing hatred of the po-faced and disapproving Mrs Nugent (Fiona Shaw). It was a book most sensible people argued was simply unfilmable, the book's author included. But Neil Jordan thought otherwise.

"I bought the screen rights to the book back in '92, when I was making Interview With A Vampire," offers the 47-year-old filmmaker. "And part of me knew it was going to be difficult to adapt the book to the screen - there are so many fantasy sequences, priests with alien heads and what have you - but there was also a part of me that just felt it was crying out to be made into a film."

The hardest part of getting The Butcher Boy onto the screen though was not to be found in the book itself, but in its author.

"It was really funny," smiles Jordan, "but the most difficult part of translating The Butcher Boy into a screenplay was getting Pat to concentrate on his own book. Getting him to remember what he'd written. Because every time Pat went to write it, he began to write a parallel work. It was like he was creating planets within planets within planets.

 "Pat wrote two drafts, and there was amazing stuff in them, but each was a departure from the novel. And I know, having written novels myself, exactly how that could happen. But I just wanted to get back to the book, so I wrote the third draft myself."

Once the screenplay had been finalised, Jordan knew that casting such a film wasn't going to be easy. First and foremost was the casting of Francie Brady.

"When you're casting a child actor, you always try to find someone that no one else has used before. Because you often get the best performances from someone who's been given no training whatsoever. And we just couldn't find anyone to play the specific wildness of the part."

But then casting director Maureen Hughes went to visit her uncle in Killashandra, and happened to mention their struggle to find a kid as wired and weird as "the incredible Francie Brady".

"And he pointed her in the direction of the local school," smiles Jordan. "And there was not one great little actor, but two."

And with no acting experience under their belts, Eamonn Owens and Alan Boyle were about to take the lead in a major motion picture.

"When I went and read with them, they were amazing. They were both so good in fact that for a time I didn't know which one was going to play Francie and who would play his best mate, Joe. And we ended up casting other kids from around the area, including Eamonn's younger brother, Ciaran. It was like there was a little generic pool of actors hidden there (laughs)."

The casting of the many colourful characters - real and unreal - that Francie meets along his road to hell was a little bit more difficult.

"It was very difficult, because we had to cast these characters very particularly - because it's a small town, and a lot of these kinds of characters would have been clichès in other kinds of drama.

 "Like, you've got an alcoholic father, you've got a mother who takes too many pills and is suicidal, you've got a paedophile priest. You've got a rake of almost generic characters that would seem to belong in a farce in a way. And I had to cast it really, really carefully, because we had to see these characters from the point of view of a child - so they'd be slightly exaggerated - but also they could never degenerate into caricature.

 "For example, casting Milo O'Shea as the paedophile priest. You had to be able to understand his awful predicament, and his awful sense of confusion as well. We didn't want a leering guy in a soutane, or anything like that. In other words, everyone was quite kind to Francie in the movie, it's just that they didn't notice his specific dilemma."

What about the casting of Sinead O'Connor as the Virgin Mary, an in-joke - given her outspoken objections about the Catholic Church - that many people will regard as being about as close to blasphemy as Irish cinema has ever managed to go?

"I cast Sinead because she looks like the Virgin Mary, as simple as that. And Sinead is obsessed with religion. She's obviously a very spiritual person, and she understood exactly where that character was coming from. I think Sinead's a very good actress. She's very beautiful, and she looks like the statues I remember as a kid."

Jordan's last two movies - Michael Collins and this - have been low-budget affairs. Is he more comfortable making such small, personal movies than he is making a big Hollywood blockbuster like Interview With A Vampire?

"I actually like making both kinds of movies though. Sometimes you want to work on a huge canvas, and you need huge money and huge resources and a huge studio. And sometimes you want to do something very intimate.

 "I enjoyed making Vampire tremendously. This was a much harder film to make in many ways, because it's all about the emotions of childhood. So for a director, it's a really terrifying challenge, in a way."

With Collins and The Butcher Boy, has Jordan had your bellyful of making Irish films for the foreseeable future?

"Yeah, maybe I should go and make a science fiction film now (laughs). Actually, if I can think of another film to make in Ireland, I will, but at the moment, the things I'm thinking about are abroad. But I'm sure I will come back and make an Irish film some day."

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