John Kelly

Neil Jordan on movie music. 1999.

Last night on RTE's The Works I interviewed Neil Jordan on the set of his new movie Byzantium. Here’s a piece of nonsense I wrote for a web publication called Muse back in 1999 when Neil had just made a very fine movie called The End of The Affair.

An Interview with Neil Jordan

A John Kelly interview
Starring Neil Jordan as himself
Peter Lorre as John Kelly

Also starring
Stephen Rea as Henry Miles
Sophia Loren as the Merrion Hotel waitress

And Francie Brady as himself

INTERIOR – The Merrion Hotel, Dublin – Day

(Camera moves through the almost empty foyer and into the bar. We find Neil Jordan and John Kelly sitting with their backs to the wall. Between them, on a small table, is coffee (untouched), a recording device and a very snazzy microphone with a bright yellow pop-shield. Jordan appears nervous. Camera moves in close on his face.  We hear Kelly’s voice but do not see him again.)

KELLY – The End of the Affair takes us deep into what they call “Greeneland.”  This involves many cultural leaps for you, and that must surely include the use of music, and the choice of Michael Nyman as composer?

(Jordan relaxes. This is clearly the most incisive and intelligent question he has ever been asked in his long career.   The two men begin to get along very well indeed.  The coffee is poured. Biscuits are munched.)

JORDAN - The composer I normally work with is Elliot Goldenthal, but he has a far more flamboyant sensibility in a way.  When I was doing this movie I was actually trying to find the equivalent of the ‘Englishness’ and the understatement of the film, so I was listening to stuff like Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten. But of course the classical music of that period is very austere, and it just didn’t work.  So then I listened to Michael’s work and it seemed perfectly right.

KELLY (with a hint of menace) – I had assumed that Nyman had been your first choice?

JORDAN (cautiously) - No.  But I’ve always loved his work. I think some of the most imaginative combinations of music and film have been in those first few films of Peter Greenaway.  It was so exhilarating and madly inventive. It was that Baroque kind of thing. I think Greenaway actually cut to Nyman’s music. Then of course Nyman’s work for The Piano was marvellous stuff.  And I actually thought the score he wrote for Gattaca was very good too.

(in the background we hear the pulsing tones of Nyman’s music.)

KELLY – Nyman’s music is usually fairly recognisable. It’s full of repetition and often employs a very insistent rhythm.

PASSING WAITRESS – that’s a very astute observation Mr. Kelly.

KELLY – Thank you very much. Any more bickies?  Custard Creams maybe?

(we see a flashback of Francie Brady in “The Butcher Boy” and briefly hear Santo and Johnny’s version of Mack the Knife.)

JORDAN – Yes, Nyman’s music famously has a pulse in it.  But I didn’t want that for The End of the Affair and we discussed that.  Michael didn’t want it either actually. But what he’s brilliant at is just the persuasiveness of a simple melody.  His orchestrations are so much his own and you can say that about very few composers – particularly film composers. They tend to use orchestrators.  Michael uses almost an expanded string quartet with heavy strings and a lot of viola.  And there's something rock n’roll about it too.  There is something of the simplicity of the great rock n’roll songs.

KELLY – This is a delicate sort of film. I don’t think it would have taken very much to skew it off in completely the wrong direction. And so I’m guessing that this wasn’t an easy movie for which to find the right music. 

JORDAN - It was one of the most difficult films to put a temporary track to.  If you used something that was too emotional or too rich – too syrupy – the whole thing would descend into sentimentality very rapidly – or it became the wrong statement.  And if you’re using music to manipulate an audience in that way, it leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth in some way.  The music just had to be there and express the essential tragic nature of the story.  Michael wrote an enormous amount of music and we did it all to the film, and we changed it around and worked at it, recorded a bit more and stripped it down to its essential melodies. It was a very difficult film to find the right tone.

(a flashback of Stephen Rea, in a hat, in the pouring rain.)

JORDAN - In the sixties and seventies directors started to have different expectations of musical scores.  Dog Day Afternoon had no music whatsoever.  But then the old fashioned score crept back though John Williams and people like that. I won’t mention any names, but there are all these composers and they all sound exactly the same. I think it’s appalling. Look at Southpark – everytime a little sad moment comes up they pick this really cheesy piece of music – and of course that’s what Hollywood is always supposed to do.

(Jordan shakes Kelly’s unseen hand and smiles.  Again unseen, Kelly silently leaves. As the music of Michael Nyman swells underneath, the camera remains close on Jordan’s face. We hear his thoughts – “that’s the best interview I’ve ever done.” he thinks aloud,“I must put that fella in a movie sometime – he’d be very, very good.”)


© John Kelly

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