Warning! If you see a bag on a train — or anywhere — don’t touch it. You’d think Chloe Grace Moretz’s Frances would know this, but dear young, sweet, innocent and naive child makes the mistake of finding a purse on the New York subway and returns it to its owner.
Isabelle Huppert plays the title character Greta and what a performance it is. Turns out lovely Greta isn’t as lovely as she seems, but watching her in Greta is a complete thrill. Greta and Frances become friends – at first, and slowly things start spiraling out of control.
Neil Jordan returns. I caught up with him to find out why Greta was the perfect film for him.
It’s been a few years since you’ve worked in film as you’ve been doing TV work in recent years. What made you come back to Greta?
It was a script that I was sent. I usually write my own stuff, but what goes on nowadays is that studios are very unwilling to do the movies they used to make. They don’t make middle-range movies anymore, they don’t make thrillers anymore. I was sent the script and thought it was intriguing. I thought it was a script that could well have happened between a young woman and a psychopathic admirer. The fact that it was a woman, I thought was intriguing, and an older woman was even more.
I began talking to various actors about it. Of course, there was no money, but when Chloe and Isabelle got involved, the financing came together.
I really enjoyed making it. As well as being a part of the genre that everyone is familiar with, it was an exploration of an obsession of two people filling holes in their lives.
I can imagine how on Frances’ part her need to find a mother figure. I had great fun on Greta’s part her need to have a daughter in her life would lead to that obsession. Once she had someone that close to her she would never let them go. Ever. So, it was delightful.
How did you strike that balance of Isabelle’s character not being a total monster when she so easily could have been?
You discuss the part with the actor, but you can see her. You can see her obsession. The quieter she was, the more terrifying she became. In the original script, she was a much older woman. She was a Hungarian immigrant who came to New York in the ’50s. You can imagine her standing at the lights, ladened with supermarket bags and waiting for the light to change on a busy street.
When Isabelle agreed to play her, we threw all that out and I structured it around her. I gave her this French veneer and French persona. I gave her this sophistication and elegance. All which came to the fore in that restaurant scene.
I had a lot of fun with a character who was promised a friendship that was denied of them. I could understand that. I’ve met people like that myself. I haven’t been put in a box by them and I haven’t been drugged by them, but I’ve met people like that.
It was a matter of finding both the fun and the terror in the situation.
You talk about how you changed Isabelle’s character. What about with Chloe’s character. Was there much change with her from script to screen?
Much less with her. She was a lot like she was written. I relied on Chloe a lot and on Maika to make their friendship seem real. I don’t know the world of young 21-year-olds. I don’t know what term they use nowadays. I relied on them to make it their own and what was right and wrong about the dialogue.
Your opening in the city and use of space with the shots between the train, the platform and what you set up is this great mystery.
I didn’t want to show who the character was. I didn’t want the audience to know what was happening. I just wanted us to focus on the bag left behind. It was beautiful. I love doing beautiful shots and I had a wonderful operator. I wanted to move behind her and have the camera moving forward as the train is pulling away. It created that strange optical effect about who was moving what. There’s something dramatic about this woman yet we know nothing about her and it’s going to be revealed.
I love the visual movement of this film and making it because we start in the city and have those elements. We shrink the environment down to a little carriage house like Hansel and Gretel type cottage in Brooklyn. It’s not the woods, but it feels like it. We shrink the action into a tiny hidden room and we end up in a box.
It was like an exploration of claustrophobia. I think if you’re making a movie and you have a visual journey like that as a metaphor, it’s a series of visual suggestions and when you have that you’re very lucky.
You mentioned financing earlier. How much time did you have to shoot it?
We had almost zero time to shoot the film and we had almost zero money. I had to build the sets in Ireland. I had to do whatever I could in New York. Sometimes poverty leads to its own aesthetic. Because the film was so confined and it was really played out with three characters, it was possible to make it with such little money.
I enjoyed that men weren’t really the driving part of the narrative.
No, they had very unforgiving parts, but even those need good actors with Stephen and Colm.
Greta is released on March 1