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  M.   April 08, 2013

by Alan Jones


Director Neil Jordan triumphantly returns to the vampire genre with a scintillatingly unique take on undead mythology with Byzantium. Starring a radiant Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as damaged mother and daughter bloodsuckers running a bordello in a seedy seaside guesthouse to escape a secret society hunting them through the centuries, the finely tuned balance of art-house Gothic and Hammer Horror makes for an evocative flashback fairytale using vampirism as a twisted prism to comment on humanity. Remarkably giving a whole new flavor and magical perspective to traditional vampire imagery – no fangs, just sharp thumbnails extending for feeding time, a river of blood denoting the rite of undead passage – it’s a haunting, touching and visually sublime reinvention from the Oscar-winning Irish director of The Company of Wolves and Interview With the Vampire.

As with so many movies in Jordan’s career, it began with his long-time producer Stephen Woolley as I found out when visiting the location on the last day of filming in Dublin last winter. “I accompanied my teenage daughter to a school play titled ‘A Vampire Story’ by Moira Buffini,” Woolley recalls. “She had written it for the National Theatre Connections programme in 2008, and it has been performed all over the world by student actors. What perked my interest was its central characters were these two women, Clara, the mother only a few years older than her daughter, Eleanor, who have been around for centuries. One knows nothing about life, the other has seen it all, hates men and just sees sex as a means to an end. Clara sucks the blood of pimps and the scum of the earth, whereas Eleanor acts as an angel of death by only preying on elderly people who want closure to their suffering. One has a fatalistic view of the world, the other an optimistic outlook, and that made for an intriguing clash. It also reminded me of one of my favourite ever vampire movies, Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness with which is also shared a bleak seaside backdrop.”

Woolly met Buffini and asked if she’d be interested in developing her play as a film. “At the time Moira was heavily involved with her screenplays for Tamara Drewe (starring Gemma Arterton) and Jane Eyre,” continues Woolley. “Frankly she didn’t seem to get what I was after, but I was persistent in my offer to turn her play into something stronger in terms of character and construction, the stories within time-shifting stories structure. Finally after three years Moira had a version we both liked”.

“I had wanted to write a vampire story for years with fantasy action and bad romance,” confesses Moira Buffini, “Mainly because Christopher Lee’s Dracula movies had terrified me as a child. Angela Carter and Anne Rice novels inspired me to write the play and I’ve read and re-read Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Camilla’ countless times. For the Byzantium screenplay I went back to Lord Byron’s ‘Fragment of a Novel’ written during that famous 1816 summer in Switzerland that resulted in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. ‘Fragment of a Novel’ featured the character Augustus Darvell, and was the very start of the vampire story. John Polidori, Bryon’s paid companion, then took ideas from it and changed it into ‘The Vampire’ with Lord Ruthven holding central focus. I pay homage to both with the male vampire characters played by Sam Riley and Jonny Lee Miller being named Darvell and Ruthven.”

She continues, “Basically I could only see ‘A Vampire Story’ in theatrical terms when Steve first came to me with the movie idea. So I had to re-imagine it completely and, in fact, there’s hardly a line left from the play in the script. The sexual stuff was implicit in the play, now it’s more explicit, and is used to underpin what I wanted the main questions raised to be. What makes us tick? How do you survive damage? How do we move through time? What has happened to Clara to make her so ruthless, to make her the perfect vampire who doesn’t give a damn? Why does Eleanor feel so compelled to share her life with someone other than her mother? Ultimately, what is the meaning of life? I hope I took everything fantasy horror offers, embraced it, subverted it, re-invented it and turned it on its head to create something unusual in the genre.”

Precisely because he’d directed Interview With the Vampire, Stephen Woolley wasn’t sure Neil Jordan would be interested in covering some of the same ground again. “But I love the horror genre,” remarks Jordan, “And in one of those rare coincidences I’d just written my novel ‘Mistaken’ when Steve offered me Byzantium. That book was about a character named Kevin Thunder who grew up with a double – a boy so uncannily like him they were mistaken for each other at every turn. As children in 1960s Dublin, one lived next door to Bram Stoker’s house, haunted by an imagined Dracula, the other in a more upper class area. So the vampire myth was back in my conscience and when I read the BYZANTIUM script it reignited my enthusiasm further”.

Jordan continues, “Steve and I had dinner to discuss the project when it struck us that just after making The Company of Wolves, we had talked to author Angela Carter about adapting her radio play ‘Vampirella’ to the screen. That was a reversal of the vampire myth to some degree too like Byzantium. I helped Moira with certain parts of the script by adding Irish undead myths into the mix. Because we could never afford going to Asia as she originally wrote, I suggested holding the key vampire sacrament on an Irish island as I did some research and found out that in County Antrim some Neolithic tombs had been found with the corpses heads cut off and stones holding down their bones to stop them rising from the dead. That extra Celtic flavor made me connect to the material more.”

It was the complex, time-shifts that excited Jordan too. He adds, “It’s set mainly in the world of contemporary Britain. But the seedy seaside resort our horror heroines end up in (Hastings on the south coast of Britain was the location for these faded glamour scenes) is haunted by the past in very radical, graphic and dramatic ways. That was the reinvention challenge for me beyond Interview With the Vampire and The Company of Wolves dynamics. Plus there were many facets to Byzantium that connected to my previous work; the religious overtones, the strong female leads stretching back to Mona Lisa, even The Crying Game if you think about it. The relationship between Clara and Eleanor being mother/daughter, sisters, rivals is full of complexities, very exciting ones to play with. One is a lascivious whore, the other her refined student, and that was wonderfully rich and moving material to get my teeth into. They might be anti-heroines with separate destines ultimately, but for me this duo buck the current vampire trend in far more thrilling ways than the Twilight saga or the ‘True Blood’ TV series. Their hunger for blood, life and every experience is beyond good and evil and that’s such a brilliant starting premise.”

Both Woolley and Jordan instantly knew the actress they wanted to star as Clara the moment they read the script. And they both travelled to Berlin where Gemma Arterton was shooting Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters to convince her to headline. Jordan says, “We were fans of Gemma’s body of work especially after seeing The Disappearance of Alice Creed. She was so ballsy in that and we needed an actress who wouldn’t be scared of showing the pain Clara goes through. We found out pretty quickly that Gemma isn’t afraid of that much and was happy to be strident and aggressive one moment, passive and demure the next. Gemma did all her own stunts and was very game and bright. In fact she suggested Saoirse Ronan for Eleanor after loving her tough resilience in Hanna. Saiorse was 17 years old but looked younger while seemingly sporting the face of a far older soul. Saorise proved extraordinary, she’s a natural, despite the control of her talent being almost unnatural. She has this eerie ability to bring her entire character to life. As these two were front and centre of the piece the casting had to be impeccable. Usually in vampire myths it’s the dominant male who draws all the women to him as personified by Dracula. Here the monsters are two women who lure you into their web but make you care because they survive all the shocking violence inflicted upon them.”

Since her breakthrough role in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace, Gemma Arterton has become one of the top British actresses of her generation, comfortable in such independent hits like Unfinished Song as blockbusters Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. “Moira had mentioned Byzantium to me on the set of Tamara Drewe,” recalls Arterton. “She didn’t have me in mind for a part or anything, it was one of those passing conversations you have on such location shoots. Then I was in Germany in Spring 2011 making Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters when Steve turned up and gave me the Byzantium script to read. I thought it was great with a brilliant story and super characters. I loved the part of Clara instantly and knew she would be a terrific challenge to play. Look, I would never see Saw or Paranormal Activity but I do like traditional Gothic horror because of its more romantic bent. That’s why I responded so much to Byzantium and the Nosferatu inspired style Neil said he would bring to the movie, which is far more in line with my horror preferences.”

She continues, “Clara must do whatever it takes to make sure their undead secret and location doesn’t get discovered. There aren’t many movies being made these days where the two main protagonists are women. You barely get anything featuring one, despite The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Hunger Games and Hanna – even Bridesmaids to some extent – bucking the trend. That’s what really struck me about Byzantium because it’s clear from the start that Moira wanted to write a film for women that’s real. I always crave an honest portrayal of women. I loved this story because I was interested in the characters and I really felt I wanted to follow their story to whatever conclusion. While Neil does have a wonderful history of highlighting the feminist side of his films, Byzantium is the most feminine movie he’s directed to date.”

She adds, “When I was offered the role, I thought it was the perfect thing to do as I was looking for something different. It turned out to be a gift as I can be physical, relentless, charming, funny, frightening and Clara is all those things, motherly and loving too. It meant I also got to sing. Music is a big part of Clara’s life because it’s one of the things that gets her through the day and helps her move on. She uses song as a siren call to lure and calm and seduce. Neil told me to view Clara as a revolutionary, someone it’s taking characters like Darvell and Ruthven centuries to catch up with. He also told me I had to think long and hard about what I’d been up to through the ages so I did a lot of research about the Victorian era and the fact prostitution and hanging around the music hall was mutually inclusive because it was so risqué. We rehearsed a lot to show interesting ways of incorporating that subtle way of showing her true age, even though Clara is very modern, because she always adapts to her surroundings. That came with specific challenges though as you have to be the same character in different scenarios. You have to change timbre too, make the contemporary modern scenes authentic while remaining true to the Victorian era she lived through.”

Arterton and her co-star Saoirse Ronan came on board the movie within a month of each other. She muses, “I thought Saoirse was perfect for Eleanor, the tortured soul who confesses all to a teenage haemophiliac (Antiviral’s Caleb Landry Jones), because she exudes this deepness, knowledge and sensibility despite her young-looking age. Eleanor is a very poetic character who can speak a million words without saying anything at all. Saoirse could convey that richness so I suggested her to Neil and Steve and she got cast pretty sharpish soon afterwards. I’d just seen HANNA and thought she had this killer side to her as well that meant she could be strong and frightening. Then the cast just came together perfectly really. I’d recently seen Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyle’s ‘Frankenstein’ at the National Theatre and thought how wonderful he was in that – physically committed, unafraid to be ugly and grotesque. And he’s the monster in Byzantium, the ultimate monster. Sam Riley looks like a vampire to me anyway, he has a stillness that is completely arresting.”

Arterton concludes, “Ultimately though Byzantium isn’t about vampires, it’s about life. Clara has to let her daughter go because that’s what every mother does. The emotions we raise are very moving because they are truthful ones. Moira and Neil have taken everything the horror genre has to offer and embraced each facet. That’s why Byzantium is such a refreshing, ambitious, smart and provocative take on the whole vampire movie tradition.”