(US), March 2, 2004

On the Set of 'Constantine'

by Vanessa Sibbald

The line between fantasy and reality blurs a bit when group of journalists are invited to visit the set of Keanu Reeves' latest action film, "Constantine," based on the DC/Vertigo comic book "Hellblazer." Arriving at Los Angeles Abbey Memorial Park, located in the heart of Compton, one feels transported to the days when Los Angeles liked to splurge on its buildings, making them as beautiful and intricate as old medieval Europe. Looking less like a cemetery than an Islamic church, the tiled building, with Spanish-style iron works inside, carved limestone and colorful stained glass windows has been converted for the film into a cramped Reliquary housing religious relics from all over the world -- including a Nazi swastika, a Buddha, and an Egyptian statue that stands about 20-feet tall.

The set is the lair of Papa Midnite, a crime lord and voodoo king, played by Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou ("In America"), who helps Constantine find an electric chair that doubles as a portal to hell.

But let's backtrack a bit. The character of Constantine was created by Alan Moore in 1985 in an issue of "The Swamp Thing" series before "Hellblazer" became a series in its own right two years later with British writer Jamie Delano at the helm. Since then it has become the longest, continuous title of DC's edgy Vertigo imprint. The comic books tells the story of John Constantine, a cynical, irreverent, British mage, con artist or thief (take your pick) with a close physical resemblance to Sting (who the character was physically modeled on, much like Anne Rice's vampire Lestat). Despite the fact that he's a drunk, a womanizer and a total bastard, Constantine sees himself as humanity's knight in shining amour -- one of the few who stand between humankind and the horrors of the supernatural world.

On this particular day, Hounsou and star Keanu Reeves are shooting the scene where Constantine enters Midnite's home for the first time. Hounsou is Mack Daddy'd out in a red crushed velvet trench coat over a brown corduroy suit complete with a '70s-patterned shirt, snakeskin books and a straw hat dyed red. Reeves, meanwhile, is more pared down, wearing a simple black suit with a white shirt (hmmm ... how Agent Smith), holding Constantine's gold "Holy Shotgun" -- an invention of the screen, not the comic book

The adaptation, directed by first-time feature film director Francis Lawrence, takes away Constantine's British accent and blond hair, but leaves his sharp wit and dark world view, giving the film a film noir feel perhaps tailor made for "Matrix" star Reeves, who might just be turning into our generation's king of gloom. But Lawrence sees Constantine as a different role than Reeves has ever played onscreen, and one a lot closer to his real personality.

"I think Keanu actually has a lot of John Constantine in him," mulls Lawrence. "Keanu is kind of a haunted guy and he's sort of elusive and mysterious. He's had some sort of tragic things happen to him and I think he sort of lives that life a little bit. He's also, I would say, a little self-destructive, which I think Constantine is."

One of the challenges for the film is keeping it PG-13, despite it's dark theme, but producer Lauren Shuler Donner doesn't think that's going to be too much of a problem, although she does admit that his swearing had to be cleaned up a bit.

"We're keeping his attitude, he has a really lousy attitude," she smiles. "So, we're trying to keep as true to the comic as possible, but without the swearing. The violence is there, but it won't be gratuitous. There's a restriction in terms of blood, red blood really, so if there's any blood, it's very dark [and] he still gives the Devil the finger."

Lawrence adds that nothing was cut out of the script yet by the studio in order to get the rating: "I'll use the movie 'Jacob's Ladder' as a reference in that way that it's what you don't see, and things that are hidden in the shadows," he says.

The script teams our dark hero with skeptical policewoman Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) to solve the mysterious suicide of her twin sister (also played by Weisz). Their investigation takes them through the world of demons and angels that exists just beneath the landscape of contemporary Los Angeles, where they get caught in a catastrophic series of otherworldly events that leads them straight to hell. Running parallel to Constantine's story, is the story of a young boy called the Scavenger, who inadvertently finds a relic, the Spear of Destiny, which possesses him and sends him on a mission that will eventually collide with Constantine's.

"[The Scavenger] sets the premise of what's to come -- up until that point, everything been pretty kind of scoring points, earning his way up to Heaven. Once I find the Spear of Destiny, it's kind of the piece of the puzzle that gets everything going and sends it to another level," actor Jesse Ramirez hints about the nature of his character.

Wearing a haircut that looks like it was done by a very upset, blind hairdresser using extra sharp scissors, Ramirez wears yellow and red contact lenses, fake teeth and a fair about of makeup to play his character -- and that's before he becomes possessed or "demonized."

"It kind of looks like I have hepatitis, maybe," he laughs. "I don't look very demonized; it's very subtle I think."

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Constantine , Matrix, The

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