Seeing the Supernatural Through the Eyes of Hollywood
by Craig Detweller
Imagine the spiritual warfare of "This Present Darkness" done in the gritty style of "Fight Club". Warner Bros. upcoming film "Constantine" crosses the thrills of The Matrix with the chills of The Exorcist. It is a harrowing rollercoaster ride through the living hell of demon possession. Constantine represents the latest example of a burgeoning trend - Hollywood's fascination with the spiritual and the supernatural. From mystery stories like "The Sixth Sense", to comic book films like "X-Men", movies are wrestling with ultimate questions of life and death, reincarnation and resurrection.
As John Constantine, Keanu Reeves plays a world-weary private eye with a knack for seeing things from a frighteningly spiritual point of view. A skeptical policewoman, Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz), hires him to solve the mysterious suicide of her twin sister. While she declares, "I don't believe in the devil," Constantine insists, "Well, you should - he believes in you." Their investigation takes them through an intense encounter with angels and demons lurking just beneath the streets of Los Angeles. RELEVANT talked to director Francis Lawrence about Constantine, music videos with Justin and Britney and hell on earth.
After directing memorable music videos like "Alive" for P.O.D., "Sk8er Boi" for Avril Lavigne, "Rock Your Body" for Justin Timberlake and "Let's Get It Started" by the Black Eyed Peas, Francis Lawrence was searching for his first feature project. When his agent introduced him to the story of John Constantine, Lawrence finally found a complex character worth following through three years of meticulous planning and grueling production. "I was drawn to this unique anti-hero, who goes to strange and scary places," he said. Lawrence invites audiences to join Constantine's jarring journey to hell and back.
British graphic novelist Alan Moore has provided the source material for three feature films: "From Hell", "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and now, Constantine. The jaded John Constantine first appeared in "Swamp Thing". He attracted such a devoted fan base that in 1987, DC Comics launched Constantine's own comic book on their Vertigo label. They wanted to title the series, "Hellraiser," but fellow Brit Clive Barker got there faster. So, John Constantine became the smart, sarcastic "Hellblazer" instead. Moore modeled Constantine after the distinctive style of global rock star Sting punk rocker as private eye.
Constantine is a tortured soul, gifted and cursed by his ability to see demons - "half breeds". He knows about a higher power, but still struggles with having faith. "I think it's about him trying to find his life a better life and his struggle with his own nature," Reeves said, "because he's not the nicest guy all the time, which is fun."
Constantine smokes, drinks and cusses, serving as anything but an evangelical role model. And yet, he has sharp spiritual antennae, an ability to see the divine dimension behind our everyday life. (Perhaps his efforts to work out his faith with fear and trembling can inspire us in the darker moments of our journey.) Constantine provides an inspiring example of how to send the most determined demons back to hell.
Private investigators often go underground, searching for clues amidst dark alleys. They ask tough questions, revealing the shadowy side of human existence. Constantine discovers demons lurking amidst skid row, literally raising hell. He is an urban magician, trained in the use of fire and mirrors to battle the forces of evil. He serves as a sneak preview of what a Hogwart's Academy dropout might become - Harry Potter in a permanent mid-life crisis. Yet, the skills he brings to exorcism send even the most determined demons running back to the familiar comfort of hell. But why does Constantine have this ability? And why is he so committed to fighting Satan and his minions? "Constantine can see things and has knowledge about the way the world works that is distressing to him, and he tried to get a way out," Reeves said. "He committed suicide, and now he's trying to find his way into heaven, into the Lord's grace." And with that, filmgoers are invited to solve the mystery of John Constantine.
The spiritual battle raging around and within Constantine echoes classic literature like Dante's "Inferno" and Milton's "Paradise Lost". Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis wrote most of the Hellblazer comics and the Constantine screenplay. They didn't approach the material with any particular Christian intentions or sympathy. In fact, both writers have made their disdain for organized religion quite clear. So why do questions of faith and doubt, blessings and curses, angels and demons rage throughout Constantine? Comic books and horror films seem particularly rooted in spiritual battles and the presence (or absence) of the divine. "Spiderman" wrestles with questions of responsibility. "Hellboy" battles forces of substantial darkness against the backdrop of Nazism. Films like "Seven" and "Frailty" take the power and allure of evil seriously. While some may be tempted to dismiss these as "mere" entertainment, Constantine demonstrates how profound spiritual questions continue to pop up in pop culture.
Is this a new phenomenon? Or simply an ongoing process that the Christian community has only recently noticed? "The Exorcist" broke box office records well before Frank Peretti's "This Present Darkness" became a bestseller at Christian bookstores. Films like "The Seventh Sign" and "The Rapture" dealt with the Book of Revelation prior to the "Left Behind" series. How can Hollywood scoop people of faith on our own issues? The supernatural elements of Constantine confirm the theological concept of common grace. As God spoke through burning bushes, donkeys and Persian kings in the Old Testament, perhaps He continues to communicate (or at least ask questions) through equally unexpected sources today. God's generosity toward the unrighteous infuriated Habakkuk in the Bible and Salieri in "Amadeus". But from "Bruce Almighty" to Keanu Reeves, God can speak whenever, however and through whomever God chooses.
After becoming the "Devil's Advocate" way back in 1997, Keanu Reeves once again takes on the temptations of Lucifer in Constantine. But this time Keanu feels older, wiser and jaded rather than innocent. It is as if in the battles raging through "The Matrix" trilogy prepared Reeves to tackle this more substantive and aggressive role. While Neo struggled with his calling, Constantine almost actively resists it as he says in the film, "God has a plan for all of us... some people like it, some people don't." John Constantine wrestles with his Creator, working out his salvation, while giving demons plenty of their own reasons for fear and trembling. He'll use any trick at his disposal, from holy water to howitzers. (Viewers note the shape of Constantine's most effective weapon - a gun shaped like a cross.) In one particularly visceral scene, Reeves literally runs through walls in an effort to rescue a soul being dragged toward hell.
Francis Lawrence welcomed the chance to work with dedicated actors like Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz. "On music videos, the pop stars often don't want to be there. They want to record, they want to tour, to perform, anything but act," he said. "But with Constantine, I had the privilege of working with professional actors who wanted to practice their craft every single day." He was granted his dream cast, securing actors he suggested in his initial visualization of the script. The supporting cast ranges from the quirky brilliance of Pruitt Taylor Vince as a priest to the piercing intensity of Djimon Hounsou as Papa Midnite, a voodoo practitioner. Tilda Swinton makes an incredibly compelling archangel, and Gavin Rossdale, lead singer of Bush, brings a smoldering charm to his role as Balthazar, a corporate big wig.
Justin battling Britney in the "Cry Me A River" video may not seem like training ground for Keanu versus the Prince of Darkness in Constantine, but Lawrence sees his feature film debut as a natural extension of his music videos. "Some music videos tell stories, some do not," he said. "It's a way to practice your craft. I tried to master tone, character and story arcs. But narrative was always of utmost importance to me, going all the way back to film school." He had been warned that making a feature could be miserable, a grueling test of stamina and a political minefield. Even under post production pressure, Lawrence declared, "I really enjoyed the entire process; I was supported by the cast, the crew, the studio." He also welcomed the creative freedom to tell such a complex, extended story. "In music video, you're often limited by the song, the tempo, the pace, the lyrics. You learn to work within those guidelines." Constantine offered a cosmic scale, with nothing less than heaven and hell as a backdrop.
Fans of the Hellblazer comics questioned the film's shift in the setting from England to America. But Lawrence reveled in the chance to explore forgotten sides of the Los Angeles he grew up in. The cinematic Constantine makes a harrowing visit to hell by walking down the Hollywood Freeway. After one too many rush hours, Lawrence enjoyed including this vision of the L.A. 101 freeway as a living hell on wheels. While Hollywood is often labeled the devil's playground, the City of Angels has profoundly spiritual roots. From its founding by Catholic missionaries, to its connection to major church movements, Los Angeles has always been a religious hot spot. The modern Pentecostal movement started in downtown L.A., with the Assemblies of God Church, the Church of God in Christ and the Foursquare Gospel in 1906. California hippies met Jesus on the beach and started Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard. Even fundamentalism began in Southern California (not the South!) when an oil millionaire funded a series of pamphlets called "The Fundamentals of the Faith". Such fervent spiritual soil has also given rise to cults like Scientology and E.S.T. But emerging churches in Los Angeles like Mosaic and New Song are figuring out what biblical faith looks like in today's postmodern context. The spiritual search running through Hollywood (and Constantine) is a (super)natural extension of a work God began years ago.
But the question remains, how should filmmakers portray the miraculous? In depicting the supernatural, Hollywood vacillates between the subtle and the spectacular. M. Night Shyamalan sustained the mystery in "Signs" until he revealed the aliens. Cecil B. DeMille used electrified gelatin to part the Red Sea in "The Ten Commandments." In his seminal study, "Transcendental Style in Film", Paul Schrader suggested that when it comes to special effects in movies, less is sometimes more. Films that consciously attempt to inspire devotion or awe are often disappointing. And yet, films that traffic in the gritty or the realistic (like "Magnolia") often carry more spiritual power. Countless people who witnessed Jesus' miracles chose not to follow Him. A disciple like Thomas needed to put his hand in the resurrected Jesus' side. Maybe "not seeing" actually leads to believing.
In tackling a supernatural story like Constantine, Francis Lawrence pondered how to make demons scary rather than silly. He combined live action, miniatures and computer graphics into a dazzling, seamless visual stew. Such a technologically demanding production cannot be left to chance: "Everything had to be really planned out, frame by frame, from green screen shots to computer generated demons." Still, Lawrence went to great lengths to give the film a very "real" feel. "I didn't want to make a comic book movie," he said. "I tried to base it in reality, Los Angeles, today. Real people in real places make it much scarier. It is easier to believe in the supernatural when it appears common and everyday." Lawrence consciously tried to avoid classic notions of hell or the devil that audiences have already experienced. "I was trying to find something new as to what hell is. The script described it as a black void. I've seen that before. No matter where you are on earth, I wanted there to be a heaven and hell version of it. So, the film has a geography."
He brought the same originality to his take on the devil. "We've seen so many versions of Satan, from a small child to a well-dressed man. I wanted to create a new version we hadn't seen before. Not necessarily angry, more insouciant, like Fagan in Dickens' "Oliver Twist". In Constantine, the devil is a normal guy you could pass on the street, "any one of us." But Lawrence sees him as "a creepy guy who gives you the shivers." And the movie offers even more than shivers. "It is fun to plot and plan, but it's hard to tell while you're making it if you're actually scaring people," Lawrence said. He was delighted by an early preview screening. "At the opening of the film, before the credits start, the audience jumps three feet out of their chair. It was great to see them laugh, high five each other, have such a visceral reaction."
And what about the overtly spiritual content of the film? Does the auteur have any particular hopes or expectations? "When I first read the screenplay, I thought the story was strange," Lawrence said. "But it attracted me. I wondered, 'Will anybody get it?'" Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" exploded at the box office while they were filming Constantine in downtown L.A. Lawrence is eager to see whether the residual effects of that unexpected success will spill over to Constantine. Few could have predicted that Christian filmgoers would attend an R-rated film in such substantial and surprising numbers. Constantine may appeal more to video gamers than grandmas. But people of faith weren't scared off by the violence in The Passion. Constantine deals with the devil in aggressive, equally bloody ways. The spiritual battle that Jesus won on the cross continues to rage here on earth. While John Constantine fights to free others from spiritual bondage, he neglects his own physical and spiritual health. Will he escape his personal purgatory? Francis Lawrence did not speculate on the future of the character, the film or even his own career. "It's all up in the air. We'll see how the audience reacts."
Rest assured, whatever the box office tallies for Constantine, the spiritual search will continue on the big screen. Ron Howard is directing a cinematic adaptation of "The DaVinci Code". Scott Derrickson is currently filming "Annelise Michel", based upon a historic, real life exorcism. Ghost stories, tarot cards, premonitions and prophecies will continue to fuel all kinds of films. In an earlier era, audiences may have questioned whether there were spirits. Director Francis Lawrence acknowledged, "Now, everybody wants to believe in magic good or bad." With all the supernatural stories flowing out of Hollywood, perhaps Paul's admonition to "test the spirits" sounds more relevant than ever.