CONSTANTINE - Q&A with director Francis Lawrence
Movie Review by Neils Hesse
So do all music video directors want to be movie directors?
Umm, you know what I don't know. I don't know if they all want to be. I think a bunch do, I know that I wanted to be beforehand, I sort of lucked into doing music videos. I thought I'd graduate film school; make a movie and win an Academy Award but I didn't realise how ill prepared I was at the time. I had a friend who had a music distribution company and he just asked me to help on a music video and I did used that job to get the next job and it sort of went from there. I saw it as a really good training ground.
How did you jump from being a video director to a big film like this as your first film?
As my career progressed I was working with bigger artists and bigger budgets and things like that. And then you get an agent, you get a manager, you start reading scripts and then you go through that battle of you know, all the stuff I knew I could get which was stupid teenage skateboarding movies and music driven, musician movies and all the things I didn't want. All the things I liked were getting nabbed by all the A list guys and then I found this script which I thought was really cool and really unique and it was in no way perfect shape when I found it which was sort of a blessing because sort of people stay away if it's not perfect. But I thought the character was really unique and the possibility for the world was really unique so I went after it. I had to sell quite a lot to try and get the job 'cos it's quite an expensive movie. Music video directors have a reputation of being irresponsible and not thinking at all about the story and the character, just thinking about the visuals and trying to make a flashy movie so it took about six or seven months to get the job and I finally got it.
Was the first day on set daunting?
No, no that wasn't daunting. I have to say the scariest stuff, as a music video director you get music, you write a treatment, you hand it to your rep, then send it and then you hear whether or not you've got the job. But I had to go in and meet with the studio and stand up in front of them and pitch them my ideas for the movie and how I would do. That was the scariest stuff, the public speaking and making the rounds of the studios and producers and then finally Keanu, who was already on board.
Was it hard to get the film going because Constantine is such a dark character?
No, the studio was always behind it. The fight that we had was that the studio always thought it was a little bit lighter fare, they never understood the tone that I was going for. Luckily the producers were really supportive and the studio for whatever reason, even though I was new, didn't think I was trying to be sneaky in any way 'cos I kept trying to communicate - I just don't think they really understood it. So they let us do but it was a bit of a battle, especially in prepping the movie but when they saw the footage they really got behind the movie and supported it.
In the comics Constantine comes from Liverpool - what prompted you to relocate him to LA?
This project existed for like six of seven years before I came on board. At some point before me, because it actually existed in another incarnation for a minute - it was almost going to be made with Tarsem [Singh], the guy who made THE CELL, and Nicolas Cage - I don't know if he was English then either so he was changed into an American either during that process or before that process. I don't know why it was changed.
The location thing is always interesting to because the Hellblazer comics are all over the world. There's a big series of him travelling the mid-west of the United States, he's in New York, Africa, modern England so I always thought Constantine's stories could be told anywhere so that was never an issue for me. I can understand the fans being unset he's not English and not being blonde but the location question has always sort of surprise me.
Is this globetrotting something you could possibly explore in potential sequels?
Oh definitely. I think if people like this and we get the opportunity to make a sequel, it wouldn't be in Los Angeles it would be somewhere else. It could be England... it could be anywhere.
What do you think of the finished product and does it represent what you visualised?
I'm really proud of the film actually. Obviously having had a hand in creating it I have my own issues. I could keep working on it forever and you constantly want to change things but I'm really proud of the film and I'm proud that a film like this got through the system 'cos I don't think it's your standard studio film in any way.
Are there any particular scenes that really stand out for you?
Yeah there's a few. I really like Constantine talking to Satan a lot. I think that really sums up who Constantine is and what his world is and what is relationship to the way the world works. I really like the scene when Angela comes to his apartment for the first time. I think you really get a sense of who he is, who she is and the story really starts from that point.
What about the casting of Keanu Reeves? He seems to have cornered the market in these sort of Messiah-type roles, why is that?
It's interesting. I think this role is so different for Keanu and we keep getting this comparison to THE MATRIX and I know that even if we'd cast someone else and didn't make him blonde and dressed him in black we would never get THE MATRIX comparisons. I don't see him as a Messiah because he's so into just saving his own ass and he does things for his own selfish reasons and that's it. He's so different to Neo because Constantine's a prick. Neo is discovering who he is and learns that he's The One but he' a real hero. Constantine's not, he's an anti-hero and the only reason any of this is happening is because he wants to try and get out of going to hell.
What about mixing the film's religious tones with a comic book sensibility? Are you worried about how the religious right in the US might receive the film?
I wasn't worried. I sort of thought it was going to be more offensive than it would be. I didn't mean for it to be offensive, I didn't mean it not to be offensive, we just wanted to make the movie that we thought would be cool and interesting. What is weird that once the movie was finished, we started showing it to religious press and they've actually kind of embraced it which was a surprise because they see a guy struggling with his faith, the battle between good and evil and ideas of redemption but what whet they're not seeing as some of the jabs we've made at the Christian right with characters like Gabriel in the movie. They're picking up what they want to pick up and other people are picking up hat they want to pick up, it's been fascinating. I thought that they'd be a lot more offended than they are.
Do you believe in God and the Devil yourself?
No, I'm not religious.
So why did this subject matter appeal to you?
The character really appealed to me. I like the idea that the world word in ways we don't really know or understand. And I liked the idea that there's a character who does have it figured out, does know it. I said I'm not religious but also I don't know, there's always that possibility and I liked the idea of taking some of those ideas and making then a little more universal - you don't have to be a Christian or a Catholic to understand it.
It's very film noir as well. Did you study noir and is LA the right place or represent hell on Earth?
There's definitely that sort of quality to the character in general in the comic book and in his attitude. And with the script taking place in Los Angeles sorted added to that a little bit because it's such a classic noir city and I've been a fan of noir films since high school. I took this humanities class and I remember my Professor showing me The Third Man, The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity and all these films and I've always loved that genre so I tried to put some of those elements in. Obviously some of Constantine's attitude helps with that and location choices in Los Angeles, trying to find slightly seedier, off the beaten track locations as opposed to some of the tourist spots a lot of movies tend to shot in when they go to Los Angeles so I really tried to work that in.
Can you see aspects of modern LA life representing a moral descent into Hell?
I think there are some jokes to be had with that like the freeway traffic jam in Hell. But no I actually really like Los Angeles but I like the history LA has with noir. There's a certain architecture that people are familiar with, with noir and LA has what a lot of other cities don't have, that sort of '40s, '50s look that really works for it.
How long did it take you to figure out how to portray the Devil in the film?
That was the hardest decision in the movie and it went through many, many incarnations. My first idea which I think was the only idea that actually got nixed by the studio was that 'Ok, Satan is the anti-Christ so I'm going to make him the dark version of Christ.' And he was going to look like Christ except he'd have black blood and this crown of thorns made out of bugs. And the studio were like 'No fuckin' way' so that didn't happen. I was trying to come up with new versions of this thing. I had that idea in my head for so long that it was really hard to start over and it was one of the last things we shot. I'd met with Peter Stormare early on in casting but we didn't hire him until we were nearly done shooting and it took a long, long time and it was just about trying to avoid, you know, the beast, the kid, the well-dressed man, the seductive woman, so I came up with this idea that Satan doesn't really necessarily have to get angry, maybe he's just really insouciant and so powerful that he doesn't have to yell or scream. Maybe he's the kind of guy who just wants to fuck every man, woman, child, elderly person, animal on the planet so he's just got that sort of sick perversity and he really enjoys all of that so I started to think of Fagin from Oliver Twist and started to mix up those things up and then ended up casting Peter Stormare because I thought he could play that really well. He it turned into this sort of fun character I think. It's cool because when he first enters the screen he comes down rather than coming up which I don't think people expect and he's wearing white so people don't realise who he is for a minute, which I think, is good.
What I ended up doing, I researched the documents that The Exorcist was based on. There's this case about this little boy that was possessed and what I found was not much new that you haven't seen in The Exorcist, all the speaking in tongues and the vomiting and the weird noises, things flying off shelves and the writing on the skin and all this kind of stuff and it was really hard to find sort of a new language for possession and so what I had to fight actually in that scene was it feeling like a spoof until Constantine sort of changes the scenes. You know when he pushes the medallion in her forehead, then it's like a different scene, it not like the priest standing over this girl saying the prayers which is why I avoid showing her face. I shot it but, if you cut it in, it's like this girl acting like Linda Blair in The Exorcist because she's tied to the bed so that was something I was trying to fight a little bit.
You've been awarded an R rating in the US. Was that the kind of rating you were looking for and is it the kind of rating the studio was looking for?
Er no, the studio was looking a PG-13. It was a weird thing 'cos I never wanted to make a movie that was just super graphic and super gory, I just don't think those movies are effective, I think they make them very genre specific. So they thought there was this kind of balance where they thought they could get a PG-13 and I was making the movie I wanted to make so we never battled during production at all. They were sort of hoping for that, I was like 'I'm not planning on having blood spurting, we don't have a sex scene, I don't need people swearing all time' so they thought there was this balance but I think a lot of us were always worried about the theme, the religious themes, the suicides - just these things are heavier subjects. And what ended up happening, which I'm proud of but the studios unhappy with but supportive, was that the movie just had an intensity that was too strong for the MPAA and I guess for audiences. It's interesting because there are people who see the scene where Constantine slits his wrists and they think we show it. But it's all off screen and it's a weird thing that's happened. When we got the MPAA rating of the R, I was really nervous that the studio was going to try and make me cut it down or change it all. You hear all these studios of films like KING ARTHUR getting hacked into PG-13s and they didn't make me change a thing.
You mentioned suicide. A recent study has shown that UK audiences are worried about self-harm on screen so how did you decide how to portray suicide?
That's what my big worry was going in, like when I said 'You know, we seem to be on the same page on terms of graphic violence and gore and sex but you cannot get past the suicides in this movie' and you just have to be careful with that because there are numerous suicides in the movie, not just one. You feel some responsibility that that is a an adult theme but what's really interesting about the rating though is I think most of it comes from the religious themes in the film because if you look at our movie compared with one of THE LORD OF THE RINGS in a scene by scene basis, those films are much more graphic, much more violent than our film but because our film has demonic imagery and religious imagery it's not seen as fantasy which is really scary to me. If we'd called our demons Orcs instead of demons we probably would have been a PG-13 but some reason people, in America at least, suddenly it's religious, it's very real - it's not fantasy any more.
The suicides in your film are presented as quite positive - does that leave you open to criticism?
Sure, I remember there were even people on the crew, my visual effects supervisor, the very first time I met with him when he was interviewing for the job, sort of up front told me he had a real problem with the end of the end, with what Constantine does - I don't want to give away anything to people who haven't seen the film - but he had issues with it and I'm sure people will have issues with it but I haven't heard too many complaints yet so we'll see.
Did you shoot any other endings for the film, something we can expect on the DVD perhaps?
We actually shot two, we have two endings but this is the original one. But there is a little bonus moment after the credits that was our alternate ending but we now have as a little coda with Constantine in the cemetery where he visits Chas's grave.