The Good Thief
Neil Jordan hunkers down on the Four Seasons' brocaded sofa, peering occasionally out the window to the sunny day. Best known for his dark and moody films -- for instance Mona Lisa (1986), The Crying Game (1992), The Butcher Boy (1997), even Interview with a Vampire (1994) -- the fifty-three-year-old, Irish-born novelist and filmmaker is possessed of a striking self-awareness and sly sense of humor, as well as an impressive store of film history.
He's in town to talk about his new film, The Good Thief. Designated a "remake" of Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob Le Flambeur (1955), it's more like a combination deconstruction and elaboration. By turns lively and dark (and sometimes both at once), The Good Thief stars the world-weary Nick Nolte as the world-weary Bob, an American thief and heroin addict self-exiled to Nice. Here he's surrounded by an assortment of international characters, played by Tchéky Karyo, Emir Kusturica, Ralph Fiennes, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ouassini Embarek, Marc Lavoine, and newcomer Nutsa Kukhianidze.
Cynthia Fuchs: The film has a decidedly "global" cast and sense of style.
Neil Jordan: Basically, I was asked to do a remake of Bob le Flambeur, and I came up with the concept where it would be set in Nice, and I just wrote into it all the characters who you'd find around there, like the little Russian refugee. I went to Paris to cast it. I met Emir Kusturica, who had been in The Widow of San Pierre, and, as he says himself, he doesn't act but he does have a bit of a certain presence. Saïd Taghmaoui, I knew from La Haine and a number of other films. And Ouassini Embarek, the wonderful actor who played Said, I just met him in Paris. Tchéky Karyo I'd known, I loved what he'd done in Nikita, and other films where he'd played "baddies," you know, where he scowls. But he's a really lovely actor; you have a sense of him being a real person with whatever he does. And Nutsa [Kukhianidze], I met during auditions. I met as many actors as I possibly could, from Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, and when she walked in, she was remarkable.
CF: Given the pervasiveness of the U.S. film industry, it's good to see a movie that embraces -- or even acknowledges -- this spread of experience.
NJ: Yeah, that was the basic idea. Normally when they remake movies, they set them in America, don't they? I don't think this story would work there.
CF: Did anyone ever suggest that to you?
NJ: No, they didn't. It was more a matter of me trying to come up with something interesting enough that I wanted to do myself. Warner Brothers had the rights to the film and I wrestled with the script, trying to make it as much fun as I could. And to try it make it more a character study of Bob. He's a man who's got all these problems, he's kind of failing, trying to bring himself back to life through a robbery, basically. So, it was more about that than the original movie. The original movie was more about style.
CF: And he seeks this redemption in a kind of class infiltration, or transgression?
NJ: Well, Monte Carlo is the perfect place to want to rob, because it's full of all this pretentiousness. It's the most annoying place, run by Prince Rainier, who's probably a nice man. But someone described it once as a place where the police's job is to play the criminals. Monaco is run like a business, by the Société de Bain, which means the Society of the Bath. When we were trying to get permissions to shoot, it was extraordinarily complicated, and in the end, you have to go to the Prince.
CF: They're concerned about image, how the movie might make the area look?
NJ: They didn't like a movie about this character; if it had been James Bond, I'm sure we wouldn't have had any trouble. But we had to make our own casino, for what we needed to do. They only give you permission to shoot when the gambling's finished and before it starts again the next day, so you've only got about four hours. And they leave it open as long as anybody is doing serious betting.
CF: Bob is a serious gambler.
NJ: In my mind, I wanted to start with characters in the worst possible state. And the only thing that will get him to clean up his act, to give up his narcotic habit is the impossibility of this job. The movie was about him getting himself back into that state of elegance and style where he can happily wear a tuxedo again, and put himself in a position where, if luck does come his way, he can take advantage of it. But that was the main thing in the original film, wasn't it, the way that luck comes into his life?
CF: I was happy to see the Polish brothers, and here (as in their own work), they embody a kind of doubleness of experience and view.
NJ: I just doubled everything that was in the original film. I use the original robbery as a decoy; there are two collections of art, a pair of twins trying to execute the robbery that Bob is pretending to execute, and, because I had doubled everything up, there had to be two endings. I suppose it was my way of getting around the idea of doing a remake. The Melville movie is beautiful. It seems to occupy a pivotal place in so many film lovers' minds. And it's quite small. And it's not his most resonant or engaging film, more of a chamber piece. And it's a very American film, his version of The Asphalt Jungle . And Robert Duchesne is doing a Sterling Hayden, isn't he? So, it's a French copy of an American film.
CF: That opens up something of a philosophical question: can art be "original" in any sense?
NJ: Well, everything refers to something else, doesn't it? It's almost like it's gone beyond the point where there's even an argument about it. Far From Heaven is a Sirk copy, and Fassbinder made a copy previously. What I kept thinking of when I was making this movie was The Long Goodbye , with Elliot Gould. That was kind of a delightful lope, and any original ideas weren't Altman's, but he just kind of bounced in and out of plot, and referred to it when he needed to, and let the characters do what they wanted. I was asked to do an article on [Luchino] Visconti's Ossessione , his version of The Postman Always Rings Twice [1946; both films are based on James M. Cain's 1934 novel]. They're both the same story but they have almost nothing to do with each other.
CF: What are the connections between writing and filmmaking for you?
NJ: I can't do a film if I don't start with the writing. I can't even know where to place the camera or where to get a visual image. I write the script first, to see if it's even vaguely interesting, and then if the script becomes compulsive, then I can do the film. But that's because I started as a novelist, and I suppose it's where the ideas come from for me. For me, the filmmaking has to be about the dramaturgy.
CF: That suggests that films are specifically about characters for you, externalizing some sort of internal state.
NJ: Oh yes. Particularly projects like this film. Heist movies are based on very simple principles [laughs]. A bunch of guys get together to rob something, and they succeed or they fail. In the more interesting ones, they generally fail, don't they? They always use the idea of the robbery for a center point for the needs, desires, or failings or possibilities that people have. That was what was interesting about this movie. I decided to keep the aspect of it underneath the exploration of character.
CF: And what function does the heroin addiction serve here?
NJ: The idea of an older man putting heroin into his arm is so awful, in a way. And there are quite a few people who do that, who have lived with these on and off habits quite late into their lives. So, it's the idea of starting in that place, a really abject and self-destructive place. And the character that Nick plays does nobody harm, in a way, except himself. In a strange way, it didn't give him nobility but it gave him an odd kind of moral core even though he's a thief. I know it's quite an amoral movie, but it's not the kind of amorality you find in the average action film, where people happily blow all other people away. There's only one shooting in this film, to which Bob reacts with outrage. The addiction became the character.
CF: And it defines his relationship with Anne.
NJ: Absolutely. Well, at the very beginning, yes: she's too young to be in that [bar] and he's too old to be doing what he's doing [shooting up]. When you write something, you start from a place, and you stick with them or you don't.
CF: How much shifting of ideas or plot points do you do once you're into production?
NJ: This one, this was kind of set, because there was so much talk. Characters don't do that enough in films, and here they talk a lot. And, half of it you can't hear, I'm aware of that! [laughs] So the rapidity of speech was already written, and they can't really improvise it. There were a couple of points where Nick and Nutsa wanted to try a few things, but there was a texture to the stuff I'd written, so we went back to the script.
CF: In that sense, it reminded me occasionally of good screwball, when the dialogue is so fast and complex.
NJ: And these characters are lying all the time. Actually, Nick is a very practiced liar. I was at the Toronto Film Festival and we were showing the film for the first time, and he was telling the audience of journalists that he experimented with heroin for the part. And I looked at him, with my eyes wide, and said, "You didn't tell me that." And subsequently, he said he was lying.
CF: It's a beautiful film, and I'm wondering how you worked with Chris Menges for those visual details.
NJ: There are many great cameramen, but often they have the same style from film to film. And Chris rethinks it from the ground up each time he does it. We looked at a lot of Hong Kong movies for this, all that neon at night. So it's becomes a beautiful style, the wipes and flares that neon gives you.
CF: Most spectacularly, in the Kusturica character's warehouse.
NJ: Yes. But because we were shooting in Nice, in the old town, there was none of that available light around. So, we built in all these different light sources, eliminated everything we could but principals. And we hung these lights over the top, and it kind of created its own atmosphere. I decided to use a very mobile camera, a lot of handheld and Steadicam shots, which I normally am averse to. I wanted the camera to give the impression of the way you look at the world when you're hung over, all your nerve ends are shattered, and movement is jagged. The lights flare too much. Menges being the kind of artist he is, I'd be shooting all this incredibly jagged and mobile stuff and every time you'd look into the frame, it was a beautiful shot. So there was combination between ragged and raw camerawork and incredible texture in the images we ended up with. And it became richer as we came to the casino scenes.
CF: And it gives the film a very different sensibility than those usually set in the South of France, which are "respectful."
NJ: Oh yes, it's always that horrible bright light (laughs).
CF: And it's Bob's internal state reflected.
NJ: But Nice is actually quite a grimy town. It's now full of East European and Russian money. A bit like a glittery place that attracted different versions of what we used to call the mafia. But it's not immediately apparent to you if you walk around the place. So, we made it look more like what it actually is. It's using the real environment as a set, similar to what we did in Mona Lisa. In most ordinary parts of London, it's suburban or an ordinary city, but I wanted something quite lurid and hellish. You have to add things to the streets and redesign the environments you choose.
CF: How do you think about relationships between films you've done, even from film to film?
NJ: The one before this was The End of the Affair. And I think I often choose to do something because it's quite different from what I've done before. It's not confusing to me but it seems to be confusing to a lot of people. The End of the Affair is almost like a play.
CF: And [Graham] Greene's structure is so refined.
NJ: Yeah. And all the dramatic movement was internal. This is quite different. This kind of had to be pleasurable, and had to give pleasure in ways that I've not had to do in films before. It's the opposite journey from what I've usually done with films. I find it very easy to go from, say, a lit, pleasurable environment, like what you see outside there, to a very dark place. But the opposite journey, which is what this movie takes, is much more complicated.
CF: How were you thinking about the Picasso forgery that Bob so adores?
NJ: Well, Bob knows his Picasso is a fake, though the idea of it is so dear to him. He's a minor criminal who's mythologized himself. He's a thief, probably not a very good one. He's obsessed with numbers, theories of probability that go along with gambling. He's invented this story to himself about Pablo Picasso because [Picasso] is "the best thief who ever lived." He admires the thievery of imagery and influence, and putting them together to make something new. He would love to be that kind of thief, but he's not. He's a basic failure.
CF: But he recognizes greatness.
NJ: Yes, and he's excluded from it, totally. Whence probably comes his heroin problem! These characters are all excluded, from a certain kind of significance? And they don't end up doing what they intended to do, at all. A higher power grants them and evening of luck.
CF: And Anne embodies that.
NJ: Yes, exactly, He meets her, "rescues" her, in his way, and she thinks his interest in her is sexual, and takes her clothes off. He says, "No, sorry, you're wrong." She puts her clothes back on. Not quite like that, but that's basically what happens. He's there to teach her a few lessons in survival, because he knows she's not going to change. He knows she's not going to study nursing, that she's going to be attracted to action and glamour. And so, he teaches her a few tricks.
CF: He sees himself in her.
NJ: Absolutely. And she's learning to be him. And to negotiate the world with a minimum amount of damage, which I think is lovely, really.
CF: And he's willing to be what she needs.
NJ: Oh yes, a father. The thought that there'd be any sexual contact between them would be repulsive, wouldn't it? But they do that sort of thing a lot in the movies, don't they? People seem to buy it. But I thought it would be lovely if they had this very pregnant relationship between them, with sexuality removed. As it would be for a man of that age. Or should be.