Interview (abridged) With Jeremy Irons

Credits include Lolita; Damage; Reversal of Fortune; The French Lieutenant’s Woman

The voice is thoroughly English, authoritative accents delivered in a languid manner. A deep voice, all port and cigars, in tones that suggest the oak-panelled interior of a gentlemen’s club. Its owner, actor Jeremy Irons, was in Australia recently for the opening of two of his new films. Chinese Box (directed by Wayne Wang) has opened in Sydney […] and Lolita (directed by Adrian Lyne) has been passed for showing in Australia with an R rating by the Office of Film and Literature Classification, but the Howard Government is considering banning it.

Irons’ voice and persona signify an iconic Englishness that has informed films from The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Irons’ first starring role in 1981) to Louis Malle’s Damage, from television’s Brideshead Revisited to the recent The Man in the Iron Mask and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty. On occasion, it has been his cultured English voice that has distinguished the evil-doer from the rest (a device not uncommon these days) in the Hollywood mainstream in movies like Die Hard: With a Vengeance (with Irons the mad bomber) and The Lion King (with Irons voicing the part of the soured and treacherous Scar).

How English is the man behind the voice? The response is swift: ‘I live in Ireland.’ Then, reconsidering: ‘I don’t think I’m typically English, really. I’m not sure who the typical Englishman is now, though I think he lives in Essex, aspires to driving a Porsche and earning lots of money…We still live with the Thatcher legacy in England (sigh)…’
‘I don’t know, I hope I’m broad-minded, a gentleman, that I believe in fairness and justice – all those things that I hope remain English characteristics. But I’ve always been a bit of a loner, never liked being a club-member.’ (Scotch that image of the gentlemen’s club!) ‘I think English people like being club members. They like to know which niche they fit into and I’ve always avoided all of that. My pleasures are somewhat solitary, you know. I’m not a golfer and I like horse-riding, sailing and skiing.’

Travelling is a pleasure too. He has been here a number of times, and likes to visit Sydney. He was here early in the 1980s to film an Australian version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck with Liv Ullman, directed by Henri Safran.

Of solid middle-class background, Irons was born on the Isle of Wight in 1948, the son of a chartered accountant. ‘I had no desire to keep playing charming Englishmen. I’d die of boredom if I did that,’ he says. ‘I felt there was more interesting ground to cover.’ Instead, he has found ways of escape from the apparent sobriety of his background, and made a virtue of film roles of some thoroughly unpleasant people, such as the arrogant, self-serving (and sensitive) twin brother in Dead Ringers (directed by David Cronenberg, 1988). With Reversal of Fortune (Barbet Schroeder, 1990) Irons won an Academy Award for his performance as the morally corrupt millionaire who may or may not have tried to kill his wife, and in Damage he played a Tory politician who indulges in a rabid affair with his son’s fiancée. His paedophile Humbert Humbert in Lolita has just joined the list.

Lolita, completed three years ago, is a second adaptation of the book by Vladimir Nabokov, published in the United States in 1958 while the author was professor of Russian literature at Cornell.

Irons is keen to emphasise that Nabokov’s controversial classic about a middle-aged European man’s infatuation with a 12-year-old American girl, with its overlay of satire on American cultural values, is the proper starting point. Not Stanley Kubrick’s brilliantly satirical film of 1962, based on a screenplay by Nabokov, which the author later disowned. ‘The original is of course the book, don’t forget that! Kubrick’s attempt was the first attempt, ours the second.’

Irons was active with director Adrian Lyne in defence of the project from the start, and threatened to leave England (he later said it was only a throwaway line) when it looked as if Lolita might not gain distribution there. In an interesting set of parallels, Stanley Kubrick before him felt compelled to leave his country of birth when censorship problems dogged his Lolita in the early 1960s. He transferred his centre of operations to Boreham Wood studios in England, where he remained till his death last Sunday, days after completing his last movie, Eyes Wide Shut. After publication of his novel, Nabokov moved to Switzerland in 1959 and lived out the rest of his life there.

In the US, Lolita lost out on theatrical distribution and went to Showtime cable. It can be sensed that, throughout the saga, Irons has been asked one too many questions.
How does he feel about the role now? There’s a pause. ‘I’m rather proud of it. I think it’s a very complex role and it turned out to be a very interesting and fascinating movie. A very well-made movie.’ Technically, we’re on safe ground. ‘I’m pleased with it. I’m a little bored with people’s reactions.’ The voice has gone languid again. ‘All those people who haven’t seen it – their reactions. I quite like the reactions of people who have seen it.’

A moral tale? ‘It shows what happens if we do something wrong, as Oedipus does, as Titus Andronicus does, as Macbeth does, as all great stories do, or many great stories. If you step outside the bounds, you will be punished.’

What did he think about the representation of sex scenes in Lolita? ‘I think it’s pretty tactful, and not titillating and fairly strangely unnerving. There’s actually very little of it.’
Did he consider that he had taken a certain risk with this film, subject matter aside at this point, but in relation to its representations, given that Adrian Lyne had made films like 9 1/2 Weeks, Indecent Proposal, Fatal Attraction, films that had brought the director to prominence because of the very nature of their sexual representations?
‘We talked a lot about that, how he wanted to cover that area of the film. I thought he was basically an honest man and that he’d probably do his best by me, which is what he did. I was a great admirer of Fatal Attraction which I thought was a film that dealt with an area of phobia rather well, and I was also an admirer of Jacob’s Ladder (about a Vietnam veteran and made in 1990).

‘It’s always a risk when you make a film because you’re out of control of it when it starts to cut, but I thought he’d take care of me, which he did.’

[…]

Has Irons any personal project that he would like to bring to life? ‘At the moment I don’t have a story I want to get up and run with. Doesn’t preclude it happening in the future.’
‘At the moment I’m involved in a vast rebuilding project in Ireland which I’ve been doing since last June and that’s what is using my energies at the moment. It’s an old Irish tower house in Cork, a castle, built in about 1410 and ruined in 1600. We’re rebuilding it, to make it a place of refuge again, which is what it was originally.’ It is planned as a youth refuge.

Any particular character Irons still covets now? ‘There are many, many areas I’d like to work in [still]. The problem is I’m known for certain sorts of roles.’ Male obsessives? ‘Male obsessives, and slightly quirky, dark guys, enigmatic guys.’ Pause. ‘I’d like to do something different, you know, kick in with a comedy.’

[…]

Has he ever been directed by a woman? Lengthy pause. ‘I’ve been directed on stage by a woman but not in film. Why?’
Women screenwriters and directors, this could be your chance.

Interview with Samantha Lang

Credits include The Well; The Monkey’s Mask

Photography was film director Samantha Lang’s first career choice. Was it a natural progression to film? From an early age she’d been interested in film but felt she needed life experience first. It wasn’t until after her first degree, a Bachelor of Design in Visual Communication (UTS) that she began to think seriously about moving from the individualist craft of photography to collaborative filmmaking.

After a prize-winning short fiction film, Audacious (1995), and her comic short drama Out, Lang’s first feature film was invited to screen in Official Competition this year at Cannes, the only Australian film to do so. The Well, with its strenuous visual language has all the conviction of silent film, the sophisticated visual language of the films of the silent era in the late 1920s. A photographer’s control? Perhaps, but critics have applauded the lead performances of Pamela Rabe and Miranda Otto, clearly not dominated by the mise-en-scene. ‘The right balance is something you pray for’.

The lean, clean images in The Well are really arresting too. Author Elizabeth Jolley on whose book The Well is based, has a liking for the use of objects with metaphorical applications. To take things one step further, there is the visually evocative screenplay from Laura Jones and then Lang’s own aesthetic strategy which is ‘always to communicate with an image rather than words. Show, don’t tell’.

Lang’s work looks really well thought out in advance, before the shoot. ‘I’m very controlling in a way. Because I come from a background in photography, I know that an image has the opportunity to communicate so much and you shouldn’t waste that opportunity.’

‘I’ve always been very open in telling the actors how I was going to shoot the scenes. On the day, I’d think how can I get that [improvisation]. In preparing a film I’m very controlled and organised, so when I’m actually shooting I can use what happens in the moment, then the process feels more organic.’

‘Laura Jones writes dialogue very economically, precise and to the point. Pamela and Miranda found a way to be those characters, to speak in the way those characters speak….In editing I cut some of the words out – I don’t know if I should say that – but if I’ve got it in a look, then I’ll cut the words out.’

What other choices was Lang entertaining at the time she decided on the location in the Monaro region of ‘rocky outcrops and treeless plains’ near Cooma, southern NSW? There weren’t any others. Monaro was somewhere she’d visited as a child. She did a location reconnoitre on the basis of the feelings it had evoked. It was just right. The region’s shapes lent themselves to a semiotics of colour, or rather absence of it, to connote aridity and isolation.

Has there been any contact with Elizabeth Jolley? Not until after The Well was finished. When Lang got back from Cannes, Jolley had written with her response to the film. Last week in Perth they met and had dinner together after Samantha gave the Elizabeth Jolley lecture at Curtin University. ‘Jolley was wonderful.’
So, a woman novelist, a female producer (Sandra Levy), screenwriter, female leads, a female cinematographer (Mandy Walker), some of the key creative personnel – what is the sum of these female parts? ‘Yes, it is about a female world, but this (the composition) wasn’t intentional.’

So many recent Australian films focus on women. Why is women’s cultural production so fertile at the moment? ‘I’m not sure how to explain. There seems to be a confidence among women in terms of telling their own stories. And it’s of interest to men.’

The complicity of two women alone, a man is despatched – some comparison could be made with Shirley Barrett’s Love Serenade. ‘It’s not a comparison that is drawn that often, but yes they are both about the disturbing side of the female psyche.’ It’s no accident that a marauding male is thrown dead down the well, a location for both horror and desire.

The Well is rather like a fable. Is it a cautionary tale? ‘I was interested in the way that here were two people who connect desperately for love but when they get it, it corrupts them. I liked that idea – We want something, and then we get it and then we’re corrupted by it – and I wanted to play with that and what basically motivates Hester to commit murder and what it is to have this relationship with this girl to the exclusion of all others.’ And later, ‘I love that passion, her intensity.’

Lang went to university in France for a year after high school. On another later occasion she was in Europe, on an arts scholarship. It was during this period that saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall. She moved on from Germany to film school in Prague and was there during the turbulent collapse of the Czech government. She graduated from the Bachelor of Arts course in Directing at the Australian Film, and Television and Radio School in 1995.

Is she taken with German cinema? She likes Fassbinder (though there’s no mention of Fritz Lang) a lot but admits she tends to being Francophile, though she does understand ‘why Hester liked German music and culture.’

Favourite directors? ‘I very much like Spanish director Luis Bunuel for his absurd and perverse depiction of the middle class and his non-romantic portrayal of poverty. He’s probably the major one I always come back to. I also like French filmmaker Robert Bresson who had interesting ideas about cinema.’ An influence on the other side of the world is the work of Japanese director Mizoguchi, compelling and ‘exasperating’.

But why have only classic directors been nominated without mention of ‘the cinema du look’ of Luc Besson and others of the current generation of French filmmakers? ‘I guess it’s that when you’re learning it’s good to get a classical foundation. Then you can go anywhere. If your influences are based on your contemporaries, you don’t get a sense of perspective of where they’re coming from.’

Where would she like to go now? ‘I hope to continue making films, what I truly love doing, hoping to entertain people every two years or so’. Lang is currently making The Monkey’s Mask, based on a book of crime fiction told in verse by Australian writer Dorothy Porter. ‘A kind of contemporary film noir, similar to The Well as it also has strong female characters – and there’s love, lust and betrayal.’ Audience return looks guaranteed.

Diverging Australian cinematic futures (1991)

© Jane Freebury Published in Australian Society magazine September 1991 The Sydney season of the 1991 Australian Film Festival opened with the striking juxtaposition of Jocelyn Moorehouse’s Proof and Rolf de Heer’s Dingo. Both nominated for best feature in the Australian Film Institute awards, they represent the wildly different directions…

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