Coming from a music video background is usually not a good omen for a first-time horror movie director. The first thing most people think is “flashy visuals, crap story” and just hope for the best. In the case of Francis Lawrence, though, it seems the best has come true if most early reviews of Constantine are to be believed. Our man Sean got a chance to talk to the director as part of the recent junket, and here are the goods.
Question: So what did the sketches of hell that you brought into your pitch meeting actually look like?
Francis Lawrence: They pretty much look exactly like hell in looks now in the movie. It’s pretty surprising because that is one of the first illustrations I ever did, and it was a wide shot of Constantine walking down the center of the freeway with the city in the background. It looked almost exactly like that big wide shoot in the sequence.
Q: Why do critics give Keanu a bad rap when audiences keep coming?
FL: I don’t know. I’ve been trying to figure out that myself since starting to work with him. I think a lot of actors carry the baggage of past roles with them but because he was so strong in a sense in Bill and Ted’s, he just carries that with him. And he became that guy; he became Neo. They are nothing alike but you carry that with you and I think that’s part of it. But I have no idea why that happens. The reaction to him is so sort of polarized it’s pretty amazing.
Q: Why did you choose to base the look of hell on Los Angeles?
FL: Originally in the script, it was written as this black void with an oily ground and a path of bones sort of stuff. I just thought, no matter what kind of abstract void I come up with, it’s always going to be an abstract void. So I wanted to give it, in a weird way, some kind of logic and ground it, so I came up with the idea that wherever you exist in any given moment, there is sort of the heaven version of where you are and the hell version of where you are. If you cross over in this room, you’d be in the hell version of this room so that instantly gave us the geography. Beyond that coming up with the look of what happens there, we started looking at the nuclear test films from the 40s, out in the desert when things are getting blasted and came up with the idea that hell is this eternal nuclear blast. It’s all super-directional and really super-violent and the atmosphere is really hot and horrible, except it never completely goes away because it’s eternal.
Q: Coming from the music video world how do you distinguish your film style from other artists that have come from the music video world into film?
FL: It’s a hard thing to say cause I don’t necessarily know what my style is. It’s hard to peg your own style. I really tried as much as possible to focus on story and character in this film and let the visual language of the last eight or nine years doing videos be more sort of second nature and instinct. Rather than trying to focus on visuals alone and I tried to be a little more restrained. I tried to let things play out and work on pacing and tone, and I tired to use the static camera more than the moving camera. I think there definitely was sort of a conscious choice to go in and be
“that music video guy” going in and making a movie because so many people have gone and done that and floundered in putting style over story.
Q: There have been some major changes from the Hellblazer comic book to the film Constantine. What do you have to say to the fans of the comic who may not appreciate these changes?
FL: This project has been around for six or seven years, so he was already an American before I came on board. To me what was important, from a person who didn’t know the comic book going in until I had read the screenplay and was interested in the project, what was important to me was the heart of who this guy was. It wasn’t the color of his hair; it wasn’t his accent; it wasn’t that it wasn’t set in London or England because Constantine’s stories in the comic are set all over the world. To me, it was his attitude; it was who he is. Being a con man and a magician; the way he puts himself in peril, his friends in peril. His attitude toward the way the world works; the way we don’t know, but the way he knows. The way he deals with the rules of the universe and the way that affects him and his attitude toward that. His cynicism and sarcasm. That’s what makes Constantine Constantine to me. I understand because devoted fans have their love for this character and there is a lot of love of the olive trench coat and the blond hair, but to me that stuff is superficial and the heart of what makes him who he is because if he wasn’t who he is underneath that, those fans would think he’s shit. He’d be a lot less interesting if he was just blond and had an English accent. That’s what I really tried to keep strong in this film.
Q: The mythology of the film is very Catholic. Was there any discussion about changing that in any way? Because the film does actually say that if you don’t have faith you are going to hell.
FL: There was no discussion about that. By the way, that’s the Angel Gabriel saying that, so of course the Angel Gabriel is going to think that.
Q: But Constantine is acting as if the Angel Gabriel is correct.
FL: Yeah, that’s true. He knows that he’s going to hell, but he doesn’t know that he has been damned to hell for a long time. He committed suicide and he’s been there, so he thinks he knows a little bit about the rules as well. I think what was always amazing to me is that when people would read the script, they felt that there was a lot of people and a lot of actors that came in and read this thing and they aren’t Catholic. I’m not Catholic. They could respond and relate to a lot of the ways the world works. There is a lot of Catholic theology in it, but it also sort of appeals to people who aren’t Catholic or Christian. There’s this idea of the balance; if it’s actually angels or demons or just negative energy or positive energy or maybe just being influenced one side or the other. Just the polarity of the way the world works. I think people have always responded to that.
Q: Coming from music videos had you previously worked with Gavin Rossdale and how did he become involved?
FL: I never worked with him; I knew who he was. I knew his band Bush. I had never met him. Literally, he was suggested by my casting director and I said “Oh that’s an interesting idea. He looks like he could play the part. But can he act?” She said he’s done a few films; he should come in here and read. He had a really great audition and he was great.
Q: Were you ever involved with the project at the same time as Nicolas Cage?
FL: No. That was a couple years before I came on the project. Keanu was attached; he was the only one.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about what Rachel Weisz brought to her character?
FL: I was looking for two things with her character: that she could be believable as the detective, as well as somebody who had that “if you believe in psychics,” sort of quality about her that you could believe she was psychic, which I thought she had. The other thing that I thought was really important was when you have to deal with a character like her, she’s a repressed psyched who is finding out new abilities and your dealing with twin sisters and all this, it tends to gets sort of fantastical and a little intangible. I think she was able to make that character more human.
Q: In the scene where she is looking face to face with here twin sister how was that done?
FL: It’s a dummy; it’s a real lifelike dummy. We had Stan Winston’s company make a dummy. It’s a Rachel dummy.
Q: How was Tilda Swinton cast as the Angel Gabriel?
FL: I obviously knew her from Orlando. When I’m thinking about the Angel Gabriel, there are certain times in a movie like this that you have to make decisions about things so you approach them from a new direction. How you portray an angel, how you portray hell, how you portray Satan, just because you’ve seen them so many times in movies. I was thinking of an angel as the next extension of a priest and a servant to god and sort of asexual. I thought she Tilda was perfect for that. Even more so, she’s such a great actress and has such a unique take on things that she would just make that role much more interesting and the angle on that role much more interesting.
Q: Was there any difference on coming from music videos to feature film as far as dealing with some many big stunts and effects?
FL: On a day-to-day basis, the stuff was pretty much the same. The crew, the equipment, the effects, the stunts are pretty much the same. Obviously getting used to the long haul of the film is quite an undertaking but I actually quite enjoyed it because music videos are in and out so quickly. I enjoyed living with something for a long time; sitting with it, thinking about it. Learning about the project with everybody else involved.
Q: How much of the shooting was done on the streets of LA?
FL: About 50%. 50% was on location and it was all in LA except for the stuff that supposed to be in Mexico, which we shot 80 miles east of Palm Springs. But the rest is all really Los Angeles or in soundstages.
Q: What were you trying to communicate with the extra scene added on after the credits?
FL: I actually think there was something kind of messed up about the fact that when you die, you don’t really rest in peace. You get sent back in some kind of a mission; your soul is wrapped up in skin and you are sent back to do work. I thought that it was an interesting idea to do that with Chaz.
Q: What did you learn about Keanu from working with him?
FL: I learned that he is a really hard worker, really professional, really devoted to the project and the story in a really unselfish way and just really into making the movie the best it can be without sort of it being about him. It’s really just about the story.
Q: Were there any grand gestures of generosity on the set?
FL: No, not really that I know of. He’s a really generous guy, but nothing outlandish that I know of.
Q: What about his personality made him right for the part?
FL: I’ve heard him say that he has nothing in common with John Constantine, but I would disagree. He has some similar qualities. There’s kind of a weight, this sad weight he carries around with him and he’s kind of haunted in way and he has a sort of dark depth to him. Obviously not as cynical or sarcastic as Constantine, but he is able to use that side of him to portray Constantine.
Thanks so much to Francis Lawrence for taking the time to chat with us, and especially to Warner Bros. for allowing us to take part in the junket. Constantine opens nationwide on February 18th!
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