Keanu Reeves: Eternal Valentine for the spotless mind
Hollywood loves comic-book-based fantasies but Warner Bros.' latest addition to this genre, Constantine, stands out, says director Francis Lawrence, because it is not "hyper-real and super-stylized." Instead it is "rooted in a gritty reality."
That approach was on display at one of the movie's "realistic" sets when a group of journalists visited it during filming in April last year. The crew and a dozen or so cast members were working in a room that was built to look like a gym. This was part of a larger set called the Hydrotherapy Room with an institutional-looking tile pool inside a hospital.
On the set, the journalists talked to Keanu Reeves, who stars in the movie as irreverent supernatural detective John Constantine. In the scene being filmed, Constantine sets a trap for demonic characters disguised as humans by putting holy water in a sprinkler in order to destroy them. The demons move between exercise machines, dangling from cables and wires in one of the movie's climactic fight sequences while water sprays on them. In each take, Reeves's stunt double stands in for him during the action as Reeves watches from behind the camera.
Fans of the classic DC Comics/Vertigo Hellblazer graphic novel series, which is set in London, may be surprised that the movie is set in Los Angeles, but Lawrence says he is confident that they've captured the tone of the original comics.
"I feel that the heart of the character is in this movie and I think that's important," Lawrence says.
Lawrence says LA is "a classically noir city" and a good match for a story with elements from various Hellblazer stories. He feels that Constantine is a universal story that's not tied to one place. "It's not just a story that takes place in London," the director says, which is why he played up the movie's gritty realism by avoiding famous LA landmarks in favor of more ethnic, realistic settings.
Like the comics, the movie is set between the world and the afterlife. Constantine, who has literally been to hell and back, is dying of cancer and tries to buy his way into heaven.
In the story, Constantine teams up with policewoman Angela Dodson, played by Rachel Weisz, to solve the unexplained suicide of her twin sister. They go to the hospital where Dodson's sister was being treated because she saw ghosts. Eventually their investigation leads them into a supernatural world of demons and angels that exists beyond the setting of contemporary LA, bringing together elements of horror, film noir, fantasy and action.
"The character has a history that I'm interested in," Reeves says about his desire to be faithful to the original concept. But the actor says he stopped short of taking on an accent and dying his hair like the original Constantine. "I'm not English and I'm not blonde, but hopefully the internal sensibility will remain intact," says Reeves.
At the time of the shoot Reeves was starring in the US alongside Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton in the romantic comedy Something's Gotta Give after coming off his long involvement in the blockbuster trilogy The Matrix.
"I've always hoped to be able to work in different kinds of genres and do different kinds of roles," says Reeves, who revealed that he was especially attracted to his character's unconventional qualities.
"I like the journey of the character -- of trying to find himself, of trying to find his way in the world," Reeves says. "In one of the lines in the movie, [Constantine] says, 'God has a plan for all of us.... Some people like it, some people don't.' I like that idea of just trying to come to terms with your life."
But Reeves did undergo a visible transformation by losing weight to bring to life the sickly antihero. He also took on some other of the character's distinguishing traits by wearing a black raincoat and tie. This look, Reeves says, helped him capture some of the original character's irreverence and wryness.
At a press conference at the annual comic-book convention Comic-Con, Reeves told the audience that he was a fan of comics like X-Men and Spider-Man. However, for the part of Constantine, he did additional research into the Hellblazer series, paying attention to the visual style and tone. But, ultimately, it was the script written by Kevin Brodbin, Mark Bomback and Frank Capello that informed him about how he should play the character, Reeves says.
Reeves also notes that it was important for him to be working with a director like Francis Lawrence, who has won awards for directing music videos for Aerosmith, Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears, among others. Lawrence is "really story-oriented, as well as having a really keen visual style," says Reeves. According to Reeves, Lawrence, who is directing his first feature but has been making music videos for more than 15 years, is also very assured and confident.
Lawrence told convention audience that his approach to Constantine, "from the beginning, was never to shoot it like a comic-book movie."
Lawrence says, "I think that's been done before. It was done very, very well with Tim Burton's original Batman and from then, I don't think anybody's really topped that.... What I wanted to do, and what I've always loved about [Hellblazer], was to keep it rooted in a reality and in real places."
During the 85-day shoot, the filmmakers moved around several locations in the city. These included an old art-deco building downtown, which was converted into Midnite's Club. Played by actor Djimon Hounsou, Midnite is a mysterious witch doctor who collects sacred relics and antiquities such as crosses and Virgin Mary relics, adding to the movie's occult aesthetic.
Other settings included an old diner in Hollywood and Angela's Abbey, a 1920s church in the Compton area east of the city. Also downtown, the filmmakers created Constantine's apartment above a bowling alley called Shatto 39. Exteriors for the hydrotherapy set at Warner Bros. were shot at Saint Mary's Hospital in Long Beach, a coastal town south of the city.
Like all good comic-book adaptations, Constantine is also full of visual effects, with around 420 effects shots that have a wide range of sophistication.
"It goes from the simplest rig and dot removals, to complete environments that we built," Lawrence says. There are various demonic creatures, including the dozen half-demon, half-human characters that Constantine confronts at the hydrotherapy set. When the holy water touches them, their skin melts off, revealing the demons underneath. The action sequences with cables and wires were carefully choreographed as the demons attack Constantine and then fall back. In the scene, Constantine also brandishes an improvised shotgun that has a cross attached to it, which he uses to finish off the demons.
Reeves describes most of the action as being thrown against walls and throwing punches. Unlike the elaborate martial-arts training Reeves undertook for The Matrix, the actor says he did not have to do any prior physical preparation for this role, although it did demand a considerable amount of physicality.
"He's getting thrown, choked, stomped on, punched and hit," Reeves says. "He brushes himself off and keeps going, which is great." The actor adds the effects are "very dynamic" because of the way Lawrence filmed them. In the gym sequence, Reeves points out the wires that allow the actors to fly in and out of the shot. "The way [the filmmakers] are using light and moving the camera is good stuff," he adds.
At the end of a day on set, the visitors got a feel for the various elements that have gone into the making of Constantine with its film noir and occult aesthetic and its mix of realism and comic-book action.
"We're trying to make a film here that is mixing genres and telling a real story so that, hopefully, people can come away with something," says Reeves.
"What's interesting about this movie -- and something I'm really proud of, too -- is that it's not really genre specific," Lawrence agrees. "It's not a - supernatural thriller.' It's not just a - horror film.' It's not four kids in a van getting chopped up by an ax murderer. It's not just - fantasy.' It's this weird blend of all these things and I think it really works."
Ultimately, these diverse elements, Reeves says, are what attracted him to the role. And the filmmakers hope that's what will appeal to audiences and maybe also win over fans of the original graphic novels.