The business of translating a novel to film is a difficult process–a fact that Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan can especially appreciate, having written a number of novels himself as well as making a series of notable pictures, including “The Company of Wolves,” “Mona Lisa,” “The Crying Game,” “Interview with the Vampire,” “Michael Collins” and “The End of the Affair.” The matter naturally arose when he visited Dallas recently for a screening of his new film, “Breakfast on Pluto,” at the Deep Ellum Film Festival. It’s the second picture he’s made from a book by his fellow countryman Patrick McCabe. The first, “The Butcher Boy” (1997), was a darkly imaginative tale of a deeply troubled boy from a dysfunctional family. The new picture treats some of the same themes, but though it’s equally imaginative, it’s far lighter in tone. It’s a colorful picaresque of an Irish youth, played first by Conor McEvoy and then Cillian Murphy, who goes through a series of adventures in an effort to find his long-lost mother (he was abandoned–as it turns out, for a good reason–on a priest’s doorstep as an infant and brought up by a hostile foster mother, who was especially disturbed by his predilection for wearing women’s clothes). And although some of its nearly forty episodes, or chapters, deal with dark topics–IRA violence, unplanned pregnancy, even a street killer–it’s mostly about Patrick’s (or Kitten’s–the name he eventually prefers in his female garb) refusal to be deterred by what he sees as undue seriousness and the power of his eternal optimism to overcome the obstacles to his dream of a happy, if unconventional, family. “It probably is like an Irish ‘Candide,’” Jordan said. “The theme of ‘Candide’ is the incurable optimism of the central character. And that’s the central matter of this, too.”
What attracted Jordan to a second book by McCabe? “I relate to him because he’s got this imaginary kind of madness going on [in] the way he writes things,” he explained. “I generally don’t like to make films from books–I prefer to write them directly for the screen. It’s a totally different medium, you know? In many ways they have nothing to do with one another. For some reason lots of people are making films out of novels at the moment, aren’t they? It was kind of frowned on in the seventies, wasn’t it, as uncinematic. Maybe fiction has changed, maybe there’s a much more ready cross-fertilization between the world of publishers and writers and the world of movies. Now writers are happy to collaborate with filmmakers, where somebody like William Faulkner or Graham Greene would have regarded the films made of their books as kind of beneath them somehow, wouldn’t they? You talk to any novelist [today], they sort of envy filmmakers. For one thing, they just want to get out of the house. It’s very hard, writing a book. Anything that would take you from the house, you kind of jump at the chance.” He distinguished writing a novel from penning a film script. “I can write scripts in an airplane, I can write scripts in a hotel room, I can write scripts anywhere–because you realize the script is not a finished product, the script is only a kind of little sketch of what the movie’s going to be.” But a book takes extended isolation and concentration. “I have to find a way to write a novel without having to stop making films and sticking myself in my house for two years,” Jordan joked.
So it was hardly foreordained that Jordan would adapt “Breakfast on Pluto” for the screen. “It just happened this way,” he said. “But I think [McCabe]’s one of the most interesting writers to emerge in the last twenty years in Ireland, definitely. ‘The Butcher Boy’ was an amazing book, and this one was amazing in a different way: it was very fractured and very episodic, in some ways not as complete as ‘The Butcher Boy.’ But he kind of wanted me–when we began the screenplay and I began to work with him–to complete the novel for him, you know, in a strange way. Does that sound strange?”
Jordan went on to describe the actual process he and McCabe engaged in to fashion the script. “I’ve written novels myself, so it’s kind of like working with yourself, in a strange way. But it’s quite simple. I asked him to write the first draft, and he did. And then I began to write other drafts–I took over. And if I was stuck for a bit of inspiration, I’d ask him to write little bits, and he’d fax them to me or e-mail them. With this e-mail stuff, you could work with somebody on the other side of the globe, couldn’t you, and never meet them.”
He then explained some of the differences between the novel and the finished film–many of them very substantial. “I made enormous, many changes,” he said. “That’s what I meant about finishing it. But it just developed that way–it just seemed to develop organically. I mean, he did the first draft, and [unlike in the book], he brought the father back in at the end. Then I just took over from there.” And despite the alterations, Jordan emphasized, “the spirit of the book is there.” He added, “When I showed him [McCabe] the finished film, he said, ‘It’s exactly like the novel.’ So it’s bizarre.”
One of Jordan’s additions will catch the viewer’s eye at the very start, when a couple of birds fly around the town and, through subtitles, explain to the audience the circumstances that start the story rolling. How did he come up with that idea? “It’s kind of silly, really,” he said. “There were birds in the novel, but they didn’t have conversation. But there were bits of the story–Patrick is telling his own life story–that he obviously doesn’t know about. So I said, who’s going to tell this story? Everybody in the town keeps quiet about it–it’s a secret. So I thought, maybe these robins can put all the pieces together as they chat amongst each other, and nobody can understand them. And they can tell that bit of the story that nobody else will talk about. That’s why I created them.”
Once the screenplay was written, attention turned to casting. “When I finished the script, I was wondering, is it possible even to play this role without it being totally arch and ridiculously camp?” Jordan recalled. “I did a video test with a lot of the younger Irish actors, and Cillian did this extraordinary performance. [But] I was writing a novel at the time, and I was making another movie, and I wasn’t that anxious to get into issues of political violence again, myself, so I kind of waited.” He held off for several years, in fact, “until Cillian said to me, ‘I’m getting too old to play the part, really.’ He did! And that’s when I looked around and read the script again, and I thought, okay, maybe we should make it now–it’s time to make it. For me, I suppose it was a matter of revisiting a lot of the themes I’d dealt with in other movies through the lens of this character who had quite a forgiving attitude to the world and demanded a happy ending. It became a happier movie than most I’ve made.”
As for Murphy’s performance, Jordan said, “He kind of went through the transformation. Actors nowadays, after Robert De Niro put on eighty pounds for ‘Raging Bull,’ they love to do that, you know.” Murphy didn’t have to gain a lot of weight, “but he approached it with the same kind of physical intensity. But he’s a bit thin, you know, and he treated himself like a woman–[using] a lot of those things that guys don’t do, facials and that sort of stuff. He basically treated himself well, I suppose. Men don’t generally treat themselves well, do they? Not as well as women. But more to the point, really, he got under the skin of the character. There are some actors who can actually just enter the skin of somebody else so totally that they seem to have changed.”
Apart from Murphy’s eye-catching turn, one of the picture’s joyous elements is the soundtrack, made up of a raft of popular songs from the sixties and seventies. (The title itself comes from a song by Don Partridge, who goes by the name “King of the London Buskers.”) Apart from what Jordan called “the piano music, those Eric Satie-like pieces,” which were composed by his daughter, “all the rest of the music I chose myself. A lot of things we couldn’t afford. But in the end I was glad, because it would have become just like a documentary of the period if you heard songs that were so well-known. [The use of music] was in the novel. The character kind of wanted to live in the lyrics of popular songs, to interpret the world through pop songs. So it was a matter of me kind of working out the soundtrack before I began to shoot–a matter of me building a personal play-list for Kitten.”
And in the end, Jordan said, it’s Patrick’s–Kitten’s–ability to do that, actually to change the world to make it conform to his dreams, that “Breakfast on Pluto” is about. “What he’s doing, in a way, is creating an ideal universe in his head. But in the end he finds a version of it. In a way, you think of your typical Irish movie–a priest who’s done a dirty deed, bombs by the IRA–it should be a tragedy, basically. But it’s only not a tragedy because of the need of Patrick to turn it into a fairy-tale.” And ultimately, an edgy modern fairy-tale is what McCabe’s novel, and Jordan’s film of it, turn out to be.