Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Neil Jordan

The 'Thief' of Jordan

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

March 28, 2003—After his one-two punch in 1999 with the atmospheric horror film In Dreams and the moody romantic drama The End of the Affair, Neil Jordan simply ran dry.

"I ran out of scripts," says the Irish-born director during a recent visit to San Francisco. "When I was making The Crying Game, I had all these things I wanted to do. I had the rights to The Butcher Boy and The End of the Affair. But after that, I ran out of things. It was shocking."

Since then, Jordan took a few years off. "I've written a lot of things now. It takes a long time. You mess around with an idea, and then you put it aside and something happens and it sparks it." He's also finished a 400-page novel entitled Shade. "Nobody's read it except my wife, and she seems to like it."

Jordan's first film out of the gate after his hiatus is The Good Thief, a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le Flambeur (1955), starring Nick Nolte as a rough-edged, strung-out American gambler living in Nice, France. The bored Bob gets wind of a possible heist, stealing a safe from a casino, and begins assembling a top crew to help him out.

"Obviously it's not a big flash of genius to make Bob an American. He's a version of Sterling Hayden," Jordan says. "It was a challenge to see if I could come up with a story that used the original as a jumping off point. I used the original as a decoy. Basically I doubled everything in the original plot. The original title was 'Double Down.' But there was another movie called 'Double Down' that went straight to video."

Since The Good Thief is his first remake, Jordan worries that audiences will compare it unfavorably with the original.

Melville (1917-73) is often mistaken as a member of the French New Wave, but in reality, he came just before and was actually an inspiration to filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. Melville even has a cameo in Godard's film Breathless as the famous filmmaker whom Jean Seberg interviews at the airport.

But Melville's films -- which also include Le Doulos, Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge and Un Flic -- are relatively straightforward and lacking in the cinematic tricks and flash of the New Wave classics.

So Jordan felt justified in playing around with the material a little bit, such as using brief freeze-frames at the end of certain sequences as a kind of punctuation. He also simply tried to avoid the usual heist movie clichés.

One way he did this was simple. "I just decided to have the characters talk all the time," he says. "I think when people go to see heist movies and characters are explaining how they're going to do it, they turn off -- they're going to do something really complicated and it's going to work."

Indeed, Jordan's "Bob" is a master BS artist, spinning crazy yarns and giving advice to everyone he meets. And the actor sinks his teeth into the role like nothing else he's ever done.

Jordan first caught a spark of Nolte on stage in San Francisco, at the Magic Theater's 2000 production of Sam Shepherd's The Late Henry Moss, also starring Sean Penn, Cheech Marin and Woody Harrelson. "The entire play seemed to consist of Nick being kicked around the stage by Sean."

In the role of Bob, Nolte has even been compared to 40s and 50s tough guys like Robert Mitchum and Humphrey Bogart. "I wasn't really thinking about that," Jordan says. "I was thinking of a refugee from the 60s, kind of a faded rock star. He has this cool, loping abstraction to him. I couldn't imagine anyone else playing him."

And Nolte's recent real-life troubles with illegal substances actually ended up helping the film. In one scene, Nolte's character was supposed to subdue a gunman by stabbing a needle in his arm.

"He knew all about needles," Jordan says. "He said, 'one needle wouldn't make that kind of impact.' He took out a needle and he threw it into his arm; it just hung there. 'I don't feel it,' he says. He says 'hold out your arm.' He throws it and, sure enough, I don't feel it."

Nolte explained that a user would have a kit containing four or five needles and that all the needles would have caps on them. "I didn't know any of this stuff," Jordan says. So in the finished scene, Nolte jabs a handful of needles into the gunman's arm.

Besides his perfect casting of Nolte, Jordan scored with the rest of the film's players as well. He cast Bosnian film director Emir Kusturica (American Dream, Underground) as a security system techie who helps Nolte pull off the heist.

"If this was an American movie, it would be a guy with big glasses and a t-shirt that says 'Truth Sucks.' So I made him a big, rambling astrophysicist. His hero is Jimi Hendrix and he's playing a guitar," Jordan says.

Kusturica told Jordan that he was not an actor, but that he had a certain quality. "Which is true. He just is. You don't have to do much for him to be in character."

When he needed identical twins to help pull off his heist, Jordan looked to two more film directors, Mark and Michael Polish (Twin Falls Idaho, Jackpot). "They're absolutely indistinguishable. They played these tricks on me and I'd have to guess, 'you're not Mark, you're the other fella.'"

To round out his cast, Jordan found a striking newcomer, 20 year-old Nutsa Kukhianidze -- from Georgia, in the former Soviet Union -- in the role of Anne, the young prostitute Bob takes under his wing. Kukhianidze is a bit on the unconventional side, but the camera clearly loves her.

"Nutsa's kind of a discovery," Jordan says. "Some people find her annoying; I think she's incredible. She's like Emir; she just is. She's beautiful, and extraordinary actress. And she has this wonderful baritone voice. She should do more movies, but she doesn't like Hollywood at all."

These are all the ways in which Jordan managed to make the Bob le Flambeur remake interesting for himself -- otherwise he says he wouldn't have done it.

He brings up the French director George Sluizer, who made a great thriller in 1988 called The Vanishing and then remade the same thriller for Hollywood in 1993. "I remember speaking to him, and asking him why he was doing this," Jordan says. "The original movie is terrifying and perfect. And he told me that he was quite old and wanted to experience the beast -- meaning Hollywood -- at least once in his life."

Next up, Jordan has in the works a film he says will be like "Mona Lisa set in Manhattan," referring to his excellent 1986 film starring Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson and Michael Caine.

"Somebody wanted to remake that," he says, incredulously. "They asked me if I would remake it! Can you believe that?"

Partial Neil Jordan Filmography:
Angel (1982)
The Company of Wolves (1984)
Mona Lisa (1986)
High Spirits (1988)
We're No Angels (1989)
The Miracle (1990)
The Crying Game (1992)
Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Michael Collins (1996)
The Butcher Boy (1997)
The End of the Affair (1999)
In Dreams (1999)
The Good Thief (2002)
Breakfast on Pluto (2005)
The Brave One (2007)
Ondine (2009)
Byzantium (2012)

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