Neil Jordan wrote and directed his first feature film, Angel, in 1982, and went to write, produce and direct 15 other movies including Company of Wolves, Mona Lisa, The Crying Game and Interview with a Vampire.
His newest project is the miniseries The Borgias for Showtime, telling the intriguing story of one of the most notoriously scandalous families ever to be born. Jeremy Irons portrays Rodrigo Borgia, the cunning manipulative patriarch of the family who builds an empire through the corruption of the Catholic Church and orchestrates a relentless reign of power and flamboyant cruelty.
This was introduced by Showtime as a successor to The Tudors. Do you see any similarities between them?
The Tudors was about England! They’re both costume dramas. But this is more about a developing story. This is more about power. It’s more like a huge, enormous crime drama. I think the family in this is much more important. The family is the center of this.
It would seem you would have an advantage over the producers of The Tudors, because we may know their name and some of their deeds, but we don’t really have a fixed idea of what the Borgias look like, so how much license do you think you’ve taken?
I tried to stay as accurate to the broad historical shape as I could. But you didn’t have to invent much to make these guys fascinating. I didn’t have to invent a thing. What they went through was actually extraordinary.
Rodrigo Borgia invited his family into the Vatican. He put his daughter in charge of St Peter’s for a period. That doesn’t happen in this season, but in the next it will. He went away to do some business, and he left Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) in charge of the Vatican, which shocked the entire world at the time.
I didn’t have to manipulate events to make it dramatically engaging or to make them salacious or interesting as people.
Is the sex and violence an important element in doing a Showtime show?
No, not at all, it just happened to be part of the story of the Borgias. They were one of the most notorious families to have lived. And Rodrigo Borgia was definitely one of the most notorious men ever to have become Pope. He had a beautiful daughter Lucrezia, who became a byword for sinister female machination. But we want to present her as a real person and as a heroine, actually. So we’re trying to do our best to tell the truth.
Have you heard anything from the Roman Catholic Church about this?
Well, these events are well-documented. And this Pope was by no means the worst Pope. There was a guy before him who was accused of piracy and murder.
We’re telling a story about a man who, whatever you say about him, did believe in the end. And he did try and protect the institution of the papacy with all the weapons that he could muster. I don’t think the Vatican or the Church will be unhappy, because what we’re making is about characters who were perched between God and mammon.
The entire series is about religion and power and how they interact. And it’s been a reality of the Vatican since the church was founded, since there was an institution there after the apostles and the gospels.
How do you handle the intimate relationship between the brother and sister, Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia?
It was rumored at the time. A lot of the histories were written by the enemies of the Borgias, so you have to look at them with a jaundiced eye. It was rumored there was an incestuous relationship between Cesare (Francois Arnaud) and Lucrezia. Lucrezia did have a child out of wedlock. There were rumors that it was her father’s child.
But basically, if you read the history, you find this brother and sister were utterly fascinated by each other, and they regarded each as the ideal spouse. They got through many relationships, but they never found one that satisfied them as much. It’s not a story about incest, but it’s a story about two people who are absolutely enraptured with each other.
Everyone assumes that Lucrezia Borgia was evil. How much of that is just myth written by the enemies of her?
The entire myth of Lucrezia’s salaciousness and her nefariousness is totally invented. What did she do? She was married off one, twice, not three times. But she had a baby out of wedlock. Many people had. And she ended up as the Duchess of Ferrara. She ended up alone among all of the Borgias as kind of almost a saintly figure.
Can you give me an idea of what some of the more scandalous things that the Borgias did?
I was more interested in the story, in what getting the greatest prize in the world has to give does to the characters and the family. There are far more scandalous things that have been documented than we have shown on screen.
My feeling is that orgies with men in red skirts are kind of silly and they’re the stuff of comedy rather than of drama. So a lot of the orgies that have been reported to have happened, we did not include in the story.
There was ample opportunity for scandal there, but I was more interested in the story of the power struggle to survive and what it does to the family themselves.