by Craig Fitzsimons
The Devil's Advocate is the first major film release of the new year, an impressive courtroom thriller with a moral imperative at its heart. CRAIG FITZSIMONS talks to its director TAYLOR HACKFORD and its stars KEANU REEVES and CHARLIZE THERON.
THE DEVIL has all the best tunes, but for whatever reason, poor old Beelzebub has been strangely under-represented in movies down the years, the glowing exception of Angel Heart notwithstanding. Now, thankfully, the subject has been resurrected for The Devil's Advocate, a wholly unsubtle but enormously enjoyable courtroom drama-cum-spinechiller with an appropriately offensive, malevolent plot and a suitably apocalyptic ending. By Taylor Hackford, best known previously for his work on the excellent but little-noticed Dolores Claiborne, it showcases a gleefully over-the-top performance from the greatest of them all (that's Al Pacino, stoopid) as the head of a New York law firm.
The script doesn't pack to many surprises, and Pacino might as well have "I am Satan" stencilled onto his forehead, but he plunges into the role with such hammy relish that one can only sit back and marvel. It's his contributions that make the film so oddly riveting, but he is provided with sterling support from, of all people, Keanu Reeves (whose terminal blankness of facial expression qualifies him ideally for the role of unwitting Satanic stooge) and hot young property Charlize Theron, a strikingly attractive 21-year-old South African who will certainly have caught the attention of anyone who saw Two Days In The Valley.
One thing this line of work never fails to provide is surprises. I have seen more of Keanu Reeves' films than it pleases me to remember, and eventually I formed the conclusion that the guy couldn't possibly be as blank and bimbo-like as he appears on screen. I was right. In person, or at least in an interview situation, he is even more - how can I put this? - dull and inarticulate than his screen (un)persona, to the point where you feel like asking him if there's anything you can do to help.
I ask what attracted Keanu to the project, having turned down more obviously lucrative roles such as Speed 2?
"Well, first of all, they'd have me. Which is always a help," he explains. "But from my point of view... it was the part, the script. I read the script, and I really liked the writing. It really struck me as different, and the storytelling... it's not your average Hollywood picture in terms of being so obviously plot-driven, it's storytelling in a less obvious way, there's lots of different themes there, it's dramatic, it's melodramatic, it's a horror, there's some farce there, and satire... (very long pause)... and uh, so for me it was just, yeah, an artistic choice."
Mmm, indeed. How did it feel working alongside Al Pacino?
"Right. Yeah, to work with At Pacino is... uh... is incredible, he's an incredible actor. I love his films."
Was it at all intimidating?
"I would say when I first met him, of course, definitely so. I think the only time I really felt self-conscious was the first rehearsal, I wasn't feeling too comfortable and I wasn't feeling quite secure in my part yet, I was still figuring some things out... and he's got such a presence, my head was just spinning round and it was like 'I'm not doing too well here in front of Al Pacino'... but after a while, you just go right to work. (pause) It actually drives you."
Hackford sheds more light on the subject. "Keanu and Al work in different ways, but the relationship was fantastic from the very beginning. It is Keanu's movie in the sense that the narrative flow of the film is (his character's) from beginning to end, it's his journey. And Al absolutely understood that; he does come in with these tour de force moments, which are wonderful, but he said from the start 'it's the kids' movie', because it's their evolution. And what Al gives to everyone that he works with, but particularly to other actors, is respect. It's not looking down and saying 'Charlize, you're 21, you're a baby, you're lucky to be here with me'. He just kinda sits down and takes a look and it's 'right, let's go to work, we're equals, we're in the middle of this scene and that's it'. And I don't know what these two (Reeves and Theron) came to the table with, because I know that in general, actors worship Pacino. They worship him because he's a risk-taker, he constantly goes out there and risks suicide... but the great thing is, they all wonder what he's like, who's the man they're going to meet... and he's generous, and classy, and totally adult, and basically works on a total equal par. And you can't ask for anything more as a director."
Keanu, how did you find Hackford's direction helpful?
"With Taylor, I guess just... uh... you learn how it ... Taylor's very present, and he searches as well. He's also in the moment. I know there were a couple of times in the film when he saw something I didn't, and he was 'wow, let's put that in', so it was a nice co-mingling of ideas," he explains.
Charlize, what did you learn from him?
"Nothing. (Laughs) I actually learned a lot about myself through Taylor - I remember before we started shooting, having meetings with Taylor - and as a woman, especially playing the part that I did that really deals with a lot of female things, it's generally hard sitting with a man in the room, you're thinking 'well, he doesn't understand'... and we had many talks about what Marianne goes through. I was really surprised at how much Taylor was able to delve into his feminine side in understanding the experiences this character has to go through as a woman: that loss of power, and what it means to have somebody tell you that you can't have children... I always had that from the start, that Taylor was totally understanding, he provided me with everything that I needed. It's the first time I've ever been really encouraged to do what was inside of me and what was in my heart."
Was it an enjoyable set?
Keanu: "Sure. Yeah. It was for me."
Charlize: "Yeah. (with hesitation) I look on it as the greatest time in my life so far. Sure, I remember going home some days feeling as if I was carrying a ton of bricks, but overall the experience was very positive and absolutely great, when I think of it."
Taylor Hackford Is considerably more forthright in his recollections of the making of The Devil's Advocate, which differ sharply from those of his young leads.
It was a very difficult shoot," he intones forcefully, "because I didn't really have a lot of support from the studio, so making the film was a constant struggle, and on that basis, it was torture." He stares into the distance like a war veteran in the middle of a battle flashback, before pointedly stating: "On the other hand, what was really truly great was that I had the total commitment and support of the cast and crew. So that in a funny way... every day you get to the set, you feel as if you're up against this incredible stone that you've got to move a thousand miles, and you need a vision. So that's a torturous time, but it's also one of the most alive times you could ever have. In this particular instance, the set became a kind of haven, and it was so fantastic working with the actors and crew and accomplishing it, and the whole thing became so enjoyable, because it was so much hell off the set. Because we were focused on a common good."
What were the fights with the studio about, then?
"Oh, I think it just comes down to a classic filmmaker-studio clash. They've got the money, you've got the vision, they resent it... they hate you, 'cause you're spending their money, and they don't think you're going to be able to come out with anything. And I think a lot of it had to do with the stuff at the beginning. This script had been knocking around for ages, Warner Brothers had it for a long time, it was meant to be a special effects movie with a lot of monsters in it - and it didn't have an idea in its head, you know? It didn't. Pacino turned it down. Keanu turned it down, y' know, that's what happened.
"So Thomas Gilroy (scriptwriter) and I said to Warner Brothers, 'Listen, you've nothing to lose, no-one's going to do this movie, so why don't you let us rework it, and put some ideas in it, and make it something I can feel passionate about, and maybe we'll snag some people that'll please you' - 'cause they only go for movies with stars - and it happened! But I think from the very beginning, they had a sense that I'd kinda pulled rank, I'd tried to turn the tables on them. In spite of the fact that I think this is an excellent movie, they felt that there was some chicanery here. And I don't know why it gets like that - you're trying to give them the best film possible - but when it gets like that, there is that sense that this is one of those products they don't really trust or believe in. That sense was there. And... I shouldn't really be saying this, 'cause everything should be happy... but it isn't. (pause) Film-making is bad enough without that kind of resistance. At the same time, I think it worked well. Sometimes they believe in something whole-heartedly, and give the money freely, and it ends up not working out. Whereas this was one of those instances where they resented giving the money, resented the whole project, and it worked out well."
Do you believe in the Devil?
"I don't believe in the Devil," Hackford smiles, "but I do believe in the Nietzschean concept of human nature having within it the potential for good and evil. And if you notice, my Devil (Pacino) is never really forcing anybody to do anything, as he so articulately points out at the end of the film: Keanu is saying 'you made me do this, you made me do that' and Al is able to list chapter and verse what has happened over the course of the film, and at every step of the way Keanu made his own choices, in spite of advice from his mentor not to do that. But this Devil is so confident and skilled in giving human beings the opportunity to fuck up. Especially in pursuing their professional goals. And Keanu's sworn oath as a lawyer, to represent his clients to the nth degree... that allows a certain abdication of responsibility to personal moral codes. That's what the film is about.
"One of the things I consciously intended... I coulda gone... we could have had Pacino as a corporate lawyer, a repellent, amoral, manipulative Devil... you could have that sort of personification of evil. But I thought, as we moved towards the surreal and theatrical section, I WANT YOU TO CONFRONT THE DEVIL. And he's funny, and he's smart, and he's charming, and he's all these things, but he is truly evil. And he truly delights in people's fall from grace, because he fell. And so you use the iconography of the fact that the Devil is a religious creation... so I did utilise that, but I truied to stay as far away from the religious context as possible, and make it human. That sort of celebrating our own talents and hypocrisies."
In the world of movie-making - particularly in Hollywood - is every movie a Faustian pact?
"There's a definite correlation to Hollywood. Ego and vanity. As a director, you're constantly dancing with that devil, because you're in this fantastic position of working with an incredible amount of talented people, and having a lot of money all at your discretion, and satisfying your vision. That's avery heady experience, and one that's very difficult to come down from. But in the sense of wanting something so bad that you're willing to sacrifice anything to get it... I haven't yet had to do that. I've been offered lots of movies that would have paid a lot of money and potentially be very successful, but I just didn't want to do them, and I refused. There are people that end up doing that, and hating themselves. And it's not worth it. It's too much work, and it's so time-consuming, that I just don't feel I could work on a film I wasn't passionate about.
"I have to feel that there's something to be said in the films that I do. And that's one of the sad things about Hollywood today; if you wanna work on a large canvas, the opportunities for using a large canvas with any ideas in it are getting smaller and smaller, it's action and violence, action and violence, and they'll give you a lot of money to paint on that canvas. And I think there are people who have to deal with that kind of Faustian bargain all the time. It hasn't happened to me yet, but I know it happens all the time."
How about you, Keanu? Have you ever felt as if you were selling your soul?
"Oh... you face that in everyday life. (long pause) But it is. You are surrounded by ego and money, and it really just... to me it's very simple. I know at the end of the day I'm gonna have to be the one that makes the decisions."