A Taste Of Hell
by Zack Yusof
A group of international journos gathered to meet director Francis Lawrence and Hollywood hunk Keanu Reeves in the plush presidential suite of the ultra-swanky Beverly Hills Wiltshire Hotel last November in order to get the lowdown on the soon-to-be released FX-laden action/horror thriller Constantine.
At the time of the interviews, Constantine was still a work in progress with parts of the editing, music and special effect still to be completed, so the be able to catch an exclusive 20-minute sneak preview of the finished parts of the film and have a 40-minute chat with its leading actor and director was exciting stuff indeed.
Based on the DC/Vertigo Comic book Hellblazer and written by Kevin Brodbin, Mark Bomback and Frank Capello, Constantine tells the dark and brooding story of irreverent supernatural detective John Constantine [Keanu Reeves], who has literally been to hell and back, wrestling with his demons and those seemingly on sabbatical from the gates of hell. Doomy, dark and more adult-orientated than the usual Keanu Reeves film, Constantine finds the star of The Matrix getting his hands grubby with some distinctively un-Hollywood-like material and some of the sheen taken off his glossy movie star veneer.
Created by comics legend Alan Moore in 1985, the character of John Constantine is described as "a working-class mage, a thief, a con-artist, former punk, and saviour of the known universe from the forces of dark and light. Constantine is ... a drunk, a trickster, an adrenaline junkie, a womaniser, and sometimes, when no one is looking, a nice guy. He has no superpowers, only a sharp wit..."
The plot of the film finds the hard-drinking, chainsmoking Constantine teaming up with sceptical police-woman Angela Dodson [Rachel Weisz] to solve the mysterious suicide of her twin sister [also played by Weisz]. Their investigation takes them through the supernatural world of demons and angels that exists just beneath the landscape of contemporary Los Angeles. Constantine also features Tilda Swinton, Djimon Hounsou, Bush singer Gavin Rossdale, Peter Stormare and Shia LaBeouf.
Come interview time, the friendly and youthful-looking Lawrence was the chattier and more accommodating of the interviewees. Reeves, who sported a scruffy, patchy beard and tousled hair that was in direct contrast to the sober brown suit that he was wearing, remained guarded, intense and somewhat wary of the whole foreign press junket routine throughout the interview. Taller and bulkier than his many screen personas would suggest, Reeves, who had the rather distracting habit of further messing up his already dishevelled hair with his hands while talking in a slow, deliberate drawl, only really became animated when talking about his craft and the processes involved in making Constantine, which is his first follow-up project since spending two years making the two Matrix sequels with the Wachowski brothers.
Keanu, were you worried that Constantine might just be another big special-effects movie? After all, you have done your fair share of them...
Well, even in the effects movie that I did, I always felt that they were story-driven and that with the director and all the people involved in the projects - even in The Matrix and now with Francis - it was always about the story and the characters. The idea of a special effect is to be able to create something that can't be done without it. It's used primarily to bring another element to the storytelling and the impact that Francis wanted in terms of these fantastic elements are always connect to the character and the story. It's not just spectacle for spectacle's sake. There's a spectacle to the film, of course - the visuals are a big part of the entertainment - but at the same time, the storytelling event that's going on means that the audience also knows and has a feeling for what the character is talking about and going through. The marriage of the special effects and the story creates a visceral and emotive connection to the movie.
After The Matrix, did you have to be convinced to do another Hollywood movie? One would have thought that you'd want to get away from commercial blockbusters as such.
None spoke about that going into the movie. We just went out there to make the best movie that we can, you know? Recently, I worked with Richard Linklater on the Phillip K. Dick adaptation of A Scanner Darkly. I also did an independent movie called Thumbsucker so it's something that I have been doing. To me, it's all about resources. Making movies is making movies. Whether or not the budget of the movie is big or small is irrelevant. When I'm making a big-budget movie, the last thing I want to do is to sell out, whatever that is. I'm not doing anything different on a big movie than I usually do. It's all about the story. I always used to talk about The Matrix being the lowest big-budget movie ever made.
What appealed to you about the character and the story?
With Constantine, when I read the script, I just really related to this man. I thought the writing was great, I thought it was fun. I thought the idea of a man who doesn't quite like the rules of the world, someone who has great cynicism, a kind of hope, a man fighting for his life was very great. The dialogue is hardboiled and the story for me was very entertaining.
What kind of research and preparation did you do in order to nail the character of Constantine?
I worked with Francis, the script and Akiva Goldsman, the writer and producer on the project. I also got the comic and had a look at that. Francis and I also met with an exorcist and priest as well as an oncologist because my character has got terminal lung cancer. With the exorcist, I just wanted to figure out what he had to do. He talked about how you had to direct your will, how you had to keep contact, how you had to be forceful and protect yourself.
Are you the sort of guy who believes in the supernatural?
Yeah, I've seen ghosts and I've walked into rooms that felt really bad. You know how some places can have weird temperature changes and the vibe that you really don't want to go there? Well, we had that in the studio, on the soundstage to be precise.
How do you think the hardcore fans of the comic will take to the film and the changes that have been made to the central character and his environment? [In Hellblazer, Constantine is an Englishman based in London while the film has an American based in Los Angeles as the lead character.]
By us doing this adaptation, hopefully they will respond to what we did with the tonality and the character. Also, the hardcore fan gets to keep his version so hopefully everyone will be happy.
In the movie, your character is dying from cancer and dealing with a lot of elements from the supernatural world. How did you approach playing such a role?
For Constantine and me playing the role, it was practical, it was real, you know what I mean? The whole aspect of the comic book presents the fantastical as the normal. That's what is so effective about it. My character has been to hell. In the movie, the character says, "I could see things when I was young, things I weren't supposed to see, the things humans shouldn't see." So, my character committed suicide when he was young. He's been to hell already and come back. So for him, there is no religiosity. For him, it's just the rules of the world - heaven and hell. It's there they are playing and how that impacts whether you are a better or worse person depends on your actions. If you have a love of self and for others, that gets you to heaven and so on. There is a part of that in the story. There is a sacrifice of self but at the same time, John Constantine is out for himself. I hope that answers your question! [Laughs]
So how much fun did you have playing a tortured soul like John Constantine?
Oh yeah, it was a lot of fun, very enjoyable. For an actor and a thespian, that's always good fun to play. Those contradictions, those sufferings, those questions, the search, being trapped - he doesn't want to go to hell and he knows he's going there when he dies - all that is fun to play. Constantine has to do things that he doesn't want to do. He knows things he doesn't want to know. His gallows humour, his cynicism... in a way, he's playing a character who's in control, totally out of control. For a performer, that's gold.
Constantine is scheduled for release in Malaysia on 9 February 2005.