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.”