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Hmmm hmmm hmmm.

Neil Jordan waited 13 years to make Michael Collins. Right now, though, he seems to be in a bit of a hurry.

Hmmm hmmm hmmm hmmm.

The Irish director, dressed all in black, with shoulder-length hair almost as dark as his shirt, sits down at a table in the Madison Hotel lounge a little behind schedule. He fidgets, he sips juice, he partially peels the Chapters inventory-control label off my copy of Tim Pat Coogan’s Michael Collins: The Man Who Made Ireland, only to roll it back into place. And when confronted with a moment or two of silence, he hums.

Hmmm hmmm hmmm hmmm.

“I wrote my script in 1983,” explains Jordan of his film, an account of the final years in the short life of the Irish rebel leader, who helped win partial independence for his country in 1921 and was shot down by one of his countrymen in 1922. “I was commissioned to do it by Warners,” during the brief period that studio was run by British producer David (Chariots of Fire) Puttnam.

Warner Bros. and Puttnam soon parted company, and subsequent studio executives found Collins’ story both “controversial and obscure,” neither qualities that Hollywood much appreciates. The script was revived only after Jordan’s successes with The Crying Game and Interview With the Vampire—and after he agreed to make it for a mere $28 million.

“Period movies are expensive,” notes Jordan, who kept costs down by hiring such well-known actors as Liam Neeson—originally cast in 1983—Julia Roberts, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, and Alan Rickman to work for union scale. (“I had to turn down several people I really respect,” he notes.) Once he got approval, the director says, the studio had only one request: “Just don’t ask us for more money.”

That hands-off approach shows remarkable forbearance, for Michael Collins is about a man and a period that are unknown to most Americans. It’s also about one of the founders of the Irish Republican Army, a group whose contemporary progeny recently tried to take out a few tourists by dispatching an explosive device to London’s theater district. (That one didn’t detonate, but plenty of other IRA bombs have.)

“This period is like a charnel house,” says Jordan of Ireland in the years after World War I. “It’s when the use of political force became a fact in Ireland. It’s when the deep divisions began in Irish political life.”

Still, he rejects the notion that his film, which features numerous assassinations of British agents and officials, takes a pro-terrorist stance. “From his point of view,” says Jordan of Collins, “he’d think of it as warfare. He didn’t engage in violence against the civilian population.”

“Collins is the father of modern resistance fighting,” Jordan argues. During World War II, he says, the British counseled de Gaulle to model the French resistance on Collins’ tactics.

Collins’ importance was ultimately accepted even by his bitter political rival Eamon De Valera, the New York-born, half-Spanish Irish nationalist (played by Rickman) who was saved from a British firing squad only by his American citizenship. “I think De Valera lost the battle. I think Collins is a tremendously popular figure in Ireland today,” says Jordan. “They see him as a figure that embraces a lot of contradictions.”

Michael Collins has the look and feel of an old-fashioned Hollywood epic, complete with larger-than-life hero and an unconsummated love triangle involving Collins, his pal Harry Boland (Quinn), and Kitty Kiernan (Roberts). Such elements seem a little too pat, yet Coogan’s book indicates that most of the script is true to history; Collins was widely known as “Big Fella,” after all, and the director took the fine points of Collins and Kiernan’s very proper romance from their own correspondence. “That aspect of it is based on the letters. It’s based on their own attitude,” he says. “It was quite innocent in a way. It was uninformed by contemporary ideas of sexuality.”

Letters and memoirs were among Jordan’s principal sources, since Coogan’s account wasn’t published until after the script had already been written. “I read hundreds of memoirs,” he says, citing especially on The Spy in the Castle, by David Neligan, one of Collins’ four double agents inside the British intelligence network. (In the film, these four are condensed to one, Ned Broy, played by Rea.)

The director is unprepared to concede even small points, such as the possibility that it was another IRA leader, not Collins, who once remonstrated the group’s assassins for pumping too many expensive bullets into their British targets. He insists on seeing the relevant passage in Coogan’s book, reads it, and then argues that Collins had made the same point on other occasions. “He was the center of these events,” Jordan states. “The issues did define themselves in terms of [Collins and De Valera’s] personalities.”

That may be true, but it also suits the film’s narrative logic. “I had to imagine someone in the audience who knows nothing about the events at all,” says Jordan. “You have to kind of reduce it to its essence.”

“I didn’t take [Collins] to the treaty [negotiations] in London,” notes the director. That’s partially because “I couldn’t afford to take him there,” but there was a narrative reason as well. “If we took it to London, we couldn’t spend just five minutes there. You’d have to spend an hour,” he believes. “There will be a movie to be made about Collins in London.”

Maybe Jordan will someday make that film, but temporarily at least, he’s through with Irish national epics. He finished Michael Collins in June, and then shot The Butcher Boy, based on an Irish “cult novel.” The former, he notes, “is not the kind of movie you release in the summer. So rather than sit around I decided I’d make another movie.” The director hasn’t edited Butcher Boy, but after Michael Collins he clearly doesn’t see the film as a challenge. “It’s a tiny little movie,” he says.

The interview over, Jordan escapes from the table. It’s a task that apparently absorbs his full attention. Striding from the room, he doesn’t hum. —Mark Jenkins