On Set with Constantine!
by Smilin' Jack Ruby
"The holy shotgun? Yeah, there's a half-breed that kills a couple of the characters who are my friends so I'm seeking revenge. So, I put together this 'holy shotgun,' which again I think is kind of fun - 'killing with God.'" - Keanu Reeves on his brass, cross-shaped and Latin-inscribed weapon in Constantine
"The decision to make [John Constantine] American was the studio's decision, I have to say. If we had done the English version, I would've wanted Paul Bettany." - producer Lauren Shuler Donner proving that she kicks ass at casting.
Dateline: Compton, California
Hellblazer is simply one of the best comics out there and has been for quite some time. While yes, at present the current storyline (ah, the return of Swamp Thing!) has been a departure from the gritty murder and crime stories that have marked recent months, in particular the first few rounds with 100 Bullets maestro Brian Azzarello which were some of the best in the run. Like another Vertigo title, Preacher, a Hellblazer movie has been in the cards for some time (where's my Transmetropolitan Showtime series?!?!), but finally came together with a script from Frank Capello and Akiva Goldsman, the addition of first-time director Francis Lawrence and, of course, its star - Keanu Reeves as the titular John Constantine.
Last December, I and a whole bevy of my fellow genre press, including CHUD comrade Garth Franklin from Dark Horizons who was in town at the time, took a trip down to Compton to Los Angeles Abbey Memorial Park, a sprawling cemetery from the twenties that has a Persian-style mausoleum in the center of it that's old style made for a perfect shooting location for Constantine.
The mausoleum is the hang-out of a new character created for the movie named Midnite, played by Djimon Hounsou. Midnite at one time had many an adventure with John Constantine, but of late, their relationship has been strained (what's known in the genre fan community as Han-Lando Syndrome). However, Midnite is still in possession of an electric chair (the actual electric chair from Sing Sing apparently) that Constantine wants to use to "cross over" into the "Hell" version of the world where he can check out what's going on over there in his neverending quest to kick demon-ass.
After zipping down the 101 from Warner Brothers in Burbank to the Compton set, we wandered the grounds of the large cemetery - many of the graves dating back to the start of the cemetery - and into the mausoleum where the shooting was going on. A scene showing Constantine entering the building with Midnite for the first time en route to the electric chair was being shot that day and as we walked into the upper floor of the building, we could look down over the center hallway where Lawrence and his D.P. Philippe Rousselot were chatting with Reeves and Hounsou as they got ready for the next set-up. That said, this set was dressed.
It seems that Midnite is a "collector" of artifacts relating to pretty much everything at first glance, but then you start to notice that it divides down mostly into weapons and religious iconography ranging from statuary to machine guns to Samurai armor to spears (the movie focuses on the Spear of Longinus being found in the New Mexican desert - more on that later) to Nazi flags to coffins to barrels of toxic waste to an iron maiden to a number of "sexual" statues with large phalluses. It's a pretty wild collection of objects, some artistic, some just downright creepy ("[I got them] through the years as he used to do a lot of running around with Constantine," says Midnite actor Djimon Hounsou. "I think he got a lot of them from Constantine as well. A lot of people bring things to me as I'm in that kind of business.").
Now, a bit on the plot. Constantine begins when a character called "the Scavenger" played by Jesse Ramirez stumbles across the Spear of Longinus (called the "Spear of Destiny" in the movie). If you didn't watch the season two opener of Witchblade or aren't caught up on your religious history, Longinus is the Roman soldier who allegedly stabbed Jesus of Nazareth on the cross with his spear and thereby got the Christ's blood on said spear. Now, the spear held magical powers and like the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders, he who wields the spear has lots of power. If you really go into supernatural history, you'll find out that, in fact, there are those who believe Hitler used the spear to conquer Europe with during World War II and when he found out it had fallen into the hands of the Allies, he immediately killed himself. But regardless, it is this spear which is at the heart of Constantine.
So anyway, the Scavenger makes his way to L.A. with the spear and it gets into the hands of the big, bad demons that Constantine must then battle at the end of the movie. Until this "spear" got in the way, Constantine has been just going along, "fighting these demons, dealing with the half-breeds and scoring his points and earning his way into Heaven" according to Ramirez. Once the spear shows up, it takes it to a different level as Constatine now has to go up against his arch-rival, Balthazar (played by Bush's Gavin Rossdale) and then Mamon - the son of Satan which really gives Constantine hell (despite being a CG-created character [according to producer Lauren Shuler Donner, the voice of this character hasn't been cast yet]. On a side note: there are characters who become possessed and have some CG added to them, but this guy is fully CG apparently).
But back to Constantine himself - a character that's always been known to have a fucked up sense of humor, pitch black and full of irony.
"It's serious and hopefully funny at the same time," suggests the man himself, Keanu Reeves. "Constantine in this film is in a hospital and he finds out he's dying of lung cancer, lights a cigarette up inside the doctor's office. She says, 'That's a good idea.' He gets into an elevator and this character comes by and the elevator doors closing and the person says, 'Going down?' and he says, 'Not if I can help it.' The next scene is he's in bed with a half breed demon drinking whiskey with scratches on his back and the scene ends with her tail swishing underneath the sheets laughing going, 'Lung cancer? Ha! That's funny, John!' So, hopefully we have the spirit of the Constantinian factor. I'm always asking, 'Is that Constantinian enough? I think I need more Constantine in my Constantine.'"
After watching him walk through the set, we got to hang with Keanu for awhile and talk about the movie. To hear Reeves tell it, Constantine is going to be a damn dark movie with tons of CGI as throughout the film, John Constantine continually "crosses over" into the 'Hell world' - a hellish version of our own world (created by visual effects supervisor Mike Fink who did X-Men and X2 with Constantine producer Lauren Shuler Donner). Where a car in real Los Angeles will be parked at a curb, in "Hell L.A." that car will be a twisted, burning hunk of metal ("There's dust in the air, a charcoal kind of dust and there's a real strong soundscape," Reeves says).
While there are some big demon makeups in the movie ("They're really cool actually," enthuses Reeves of the Stan Winston Studios-created designs), Keanu himself never had to hit the chair, though he is occasionally "CGI supported" as he says. Despite teaming up again with Rachel Weisz, his Chain Reaction co-star, Keanu's Constantine spends much of the movie alone and vulnerable due to his lung cancer. Describing the way he's being shot for the movie as "California noir," this character for Reeves will be as far from "Neo" as you can imagine - dark, brooding, solitary bastard ("[Director] Francis [Lawrence] likens him to Sid Vicious or Johnny Rotten," says Donner) with more inner demons than most comic book heroes, something that made Donner really want to take on the property, something she's been trying to make into a movie for quite awhile.
"I've had this property for about six years," Donner admits. "It was actually somebody at CAA. An agent called me up and it was Michael Uslan who had the property and they brought it over. And he's the coolest character, obviously. It's the same thing that attracted me to X-Men. It's all about the characters for me. He walks both sides. He's good and he's bad. Then this wonderful writer Kevin Brodbin had this whole take on how to do it - how to bring 'Dangerous Habits,' which is the comic we focused on, how to bring that to life. It was literally about six years ago. We went through another writer and then Frank Capello came on and did a really good draft and the studio said, 'Okay, you can make the movie' and then Akiva [Goldsman] came on and he did a polish, too."
The issue of another "Hell"-titled comic book movie hitting in 2004 came up - that of Hellboy - a movie that Donner sees more in line with what she's trying to do than other comic books films.
"I think once we knew comic book movies would be successful, which was with X-Men, it's another genre," Donner suggests. "It's another way to do an action movie. What I like about this versus the Marvel characters is it's not superpowers. It's something different and that's probably what Hellboy is about. It's not superpowers. It makes it different enough from what's already out there so audiences don't feel like they've seen it before."
Constantine director Francis Lawrence is slightly more dismissive of Hellboy comparisons, however.
"I just recently saw a trailer for Hellboy and I don't think it's going to be similar at all - in terms of tone, in terms of look," Lawrence suggests. "Having a character that sort of runs around with all the prosthetics and stuff is one thing - this is going to feel so completely different."
For Lawrence, he feels Constantine is a lot more than your standard comic book movie because of just how hardcore some of the issues are that get tackled in the movie.
"I don't really think that the studio understands this movie completely and to be honest, I sort of feel like we're getting away with something because there's a lot of strange things in this," Lawrence admits. "There are some issues in this that are not [in] your typical studio film. There's John and his lung cancer - not brain cancer which all the fans think. There's a bunch of suicides that we deal with. There's some sort of religious themes, religious philosophies on how the world works. There are a lot of layers to this movie that I don't really think the studio understands, which is actually fine by me. But what there is, is some comedy. There is horror, there are scares, there's some violence."
So far, Constantine is still functionally underwraps - no trailer or footage has been shown quite yet - so there's no telling what the look and feel of the movie will be beyond the various publicity stills that have hit, showing it to have something of a gritty, Scorsese-looking (Bringing Out the Dead Scorsese) style. From the looks of everything on the set and from everything we heard, the movie is going to be as no-holds-barred when it comes to, yes-we're-talking-about-THE-Satan as Reeves' under-appreciated-for-its-daring The Devil's Advocate and will actually share a lot of the characterization of its title character with the fantastic comic book that spawned the film.
Look for Constantine to hit this September from Warner Bros. Check back here on CHUD for TONS more Constantine coverage as the movie gets closer (what, you thought this 2,000 word preview was the end of it??? Pah-shaw!).