Constantine: To Hell and Back
Keanu Reeves (Hell-)Blazes his way through the latest supernatural comics adaptation.
by Mark Wheaton
Keanu Reeves, dressed like a last-minute pallbearer in a black suit, white shirt and pencil-thin black tie, and Djimon Hounsou, outdoing him in every department has pimped out in a purple velvet coat, porkpie hat, alligator shoes and a sliver scorpion bolo tie, stride through a mausoleum. They're surrounded by a junkman's wet dream of child-sized coffins, phallic statuary, samurai armor, Nazi flags, dusty machine guns, toxic waste barrels, an iron maiden, a jukebox and pretty much everything else that never showed up in your grandmother's garage sales.
Their destination? An electric chair. Not just any electric chair, mind you, but the electric chair from New York's Sing Sing prison. Why? Well, Reeves is going to use the chair to transport himself from our world to hell, a nebulous, wind-blasted and burning hot version of our own dimension. What do they talk about on their way to this dire mission?
Semiretired witch doctor/current "businessman" Papa Midnite's (Hounsou) inability to complete a rare "pin-up girl" highball glass set that he has amongst his vast collection of junk and obscurata. He's only missing one month, and he's "tried eBay and everything." Not the most typical of conversations you would imagine coming from two former partners-in-demon-hunting, particularly a few moments after Midnite manifested his own dark powers to attack Reeves' John Constantine, leaving the fingertip-sized burn marks visible across Constantine's shirt.
Confused? Don't be. Constantine, the years-in-development feature adaptation of the long-running Alan (From Hell) Moore-created comic-books series Hellblazer, posits a dark world where demons, humans and half-breeds share the same planet, but are constantly warring against one another. John Constantine, a self-serving loner-cum-bastard, is trying to get out of the hell that is his life by knocking off demons, one at a time, trying to eventually gain access to heaven. Living in a world where supernatural monsters and gruesome death visit at regular intervals, it has been Constantine's rakish sense of humor that has kept Hellblazer from being a truly dark, ponderous comic - a mixture of tones that the filmmakers hope to bring to the screen.
"It's serious, but hopefully funny at the same time," says Reeves. "In this film, Constantine is in a hospital and finds out that he's dying of lung cancer, but then lights up a cigarette inside the doctor's office. The next scene, he's in bed with a half-breed demon drinking whiskey with scratches on his back, and her tail is swishing underneath the sheets. She's laughing, going, 'Lung cancer? That's funny, John!' So hopefully we have the spirit of the Constantinian factor. I'm always asking, 'Is that Constantinian enough?'"
Lung cancer? Yep. Following the Hellblazer minseries "Dangerous Habits," in which Constantine did indeed get afflicted by the disease - no surprise, as his Stinglike visage is almost always drawn with a cigarette near his mouth - Constantine's plot also revolved around the so-called "Spear of Destiny," a.k.a. the Biblical "Spear of Longinus" that a Roman soldier used to stab Christ at the crucifixion. (The script is credited to Kevin [Mindhunters] Brodbin and Frank Cappello, from a story by Brodbin; Godsend's Mark Bomback also reportedly worked on the writing.) With Jesus' blood on it's tip, the spear legendarily became an artifact of healing for the Catholic Church, and in this film it's an Ark of the Covenant-ish treasure that makes its holder invincible. Though it sounds like the plot of a high-adventure pic, Constantine's style is rooted more in traditional film noir.
"Los Angeles is considered a classic city for noir," says director Francis Lawrence of the West Coast setting. "We're establishing it in the real world, but leaning towards the noir sides of Los Angeles - parts of downtown, parts of Hollywood, Echo Park. We're filming scenes in places where they shot movies like Chinatown. What I'm trying to avoid is going down the cliche route of comic-book films - doing things at dutched angles and with bright colors. We're sticking to darker, muted tones. I don't know if it's classic noir in the look, though, considering that most noir films are black-and-white anyway."
Lawrence is a longtime music video and commercials director making his feature debut on Constantine (after The Cell director Tarsem, along with original star Nicolas Cage, dropped out of the project), a resume that sends up alarm bells for many film fans. But Lauren Shuler Donner, one of the movies five credited producers and one who knows a little bit about making good comic-book feature (having produced the X-Men franchise), felt Lawrence fit the bill.
"Because he has that background, he's very visual," says Donner, whose hsuband Richard directed the granddaddy of modern comic-book movies, Superman. "But when he came in to discuss the script, which most of the video directors we met with didn't. He's very smart, and that's his thing. He focused on content, and we were very impressed with what he said. Then during preproduction when he was casting, he was wonderful with the actors. He was giving them all kinds of stuff. Right away, I was thinking, 'Oh, good - we've got the real deal here.'" The ensemble also includes Rachel (The Mummy) Weisz, Shia (Holes) LaBeouf, Pruitt Taylor (Identity) Vince, Max Baker and former Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale.
Character work aside, at its base Constantine is a horror film with real scares in it. "We put some footage together a few weeks ago and each of us producers saw it individually, because we wanted to sit and watch the other person go, 'Ahhh!!' laughs Donner. "It really scares you." Many of the frights involve the earthbound demons - which appear in semihuman form - and then the horrors that heaven itself has in store for John Constantine.
"One of the things we came up with, and that you'll see a couple of times, occurs when someone dies and goes to hell," Reeves reveals. "Just at that moment when they die and I guess they're seeking release, these soldier demons - scavenger demons - come in and eat them. These empty-skull folks have huge maws with teeth, so instead of getting release, you get consumed, and then you're instantly back to just about where you were going to die again. There's one scene where I walk out of this character's apartment, and it transforms from a real-world to a hell apartment and there's rubble and decay all over. Everything's broken down and there are these demons there with people screaming, being consumed and then they're back - screaming and consumed, screaming and consumed."
Gruesome, eh? The mastermind behind Constantine's nasty visual FX previously worked with Donner on the X-Men films. Though a couple of the demons were built practically by John Rosengrant and Shane Mahan from Stan Winston Studio, the large majority of the creatures will be CGI. "There are a couple of close ups that use the puppets," Fink explains. "We use them as lighting reference for the CGI guys and when they can, we try to throw them into shots. So they're in a couple of scenes, but most of the stuff is digital."
In creating hell, the creatures and then the demons' human forms, Fink turned to the horrors of the real world for inspiration. "The concept of hell is based on footage that Francis and I have seen of nuclear blasts in the '40s," notes Fink. "There's a moment just before the shockwave knocks down a building where the heat wave passes over and strips all the paint off the building, erodes the surface and melts tires, and does that kind of stuff to cars and vehicles. So we decided that hell is in a constatnt state of being in that heat wave. Rather than having flames and people chipping rocks, we have this violent wind, ash blowing through, the tops of palm trees charred and snapping off. It's like being in the worst dust storm you can imagine, but it's all ash, flying debris and flaming stuff. It's hot and windy - not good for your skin!"
Though demons have been seen in endless movies, few have ever been conceived the same way - something that holds true for Constantine. "[Production designer] Naomi [Shohan] had found an artist named Joel-Peter Witkin, who did photographs of cadavers," Fink says. "We loved those images, so we modeled the demons - not directy, obviously, but with that inspiration in mind. We're keeping them really skinny. Our creatures look a little pathetic and emaciated. They have pot bellies, but not from eating too much, as they're starving to death. They're scary, but not mean - just singleminded. They have one purpose, and that's to eat people who go to hell."
Before Hellblazer was brought to Hollywood's attention and was barely more than a Swamp Thing spinoff, fans had speculated about who would make a perfect screen Constantine. Being a Britisher, Tim Roth's name was thrown around most often, though Sting and a few others were mentioned ("If we had done the English version, I would've wanted Paul Bettany," Donner admits). Following Cage's departure, the casting of Reeves - taking on another iconic dark-hero role so soon after Matrix films - seemed a little surprising. The actor himself rejects the comparison, saying that Neo "is full of doubts. He doesn't win. He has to lose his life. Neo was a very vulnerable character. With Constantine, there's an element of greatness, although [in this movie] the great Constantine is kind of faded."
However, for everyone involved in Constantine, Reeves has proven himself more than up to the task. "It has been an exciting experience, because obviously he's done so much," Hounsou says. "On this picture, working with him first-hand, it's a nice surprise because I realize he's a very talented man. He's so anal about his work. The guy has received some criticism, but working with him, I have a great affinity for the kind of generosity he has. He is definately a very simple man, and maybe a little misunderstood. He's just reclusive and very private."
The director, in fact, thought that this exact type of personality was a perfect fit for the character. "It's interesting, because I feel Keanu actually has a lot of John Constantine in him personally," Lawrence says. "I don't believe he has really portrayed anyone like John Constantine before, but just the way he is in his everyday normal life and the sort of experiences he's had and his view on the world and on people, is very similar. Keanu is kind of a haunted guy, and sort of elusive and mysterious. He's had some rather tragic things happen to him, and lives that life a little. He's also, I would say, a bit self-destructive which is how Constantine is, you know?"
For Reeves, following up the three Matrix movies was going to be tough no matter how he did it. Taking the opportunity to get away from the mordant worlds of sci-fi and the supernatural, the actor's first post-Neo role was the young doctor smitten with Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give. When that film wrapped, however, he turned right back to genre fare.
"I was looking for a good script, and this one came my way," Reeves admits. "I really liked the writing and the character and what happened in the piece, but ultimately, [it was] a line where Constantine says, 'God has a plan for all of us. I had to die twice just to figure that out. Some people like it, some people don't."
Though a few recent comic-book adaptations have "reinterpreted" their subject matter to varying degrees of success - think Catwoman, Hulk and The Punisher - a case could be made that more faithful adaptations such as Spider-Man, X-Men and Hellboy have been more successful in finding happy audiences. Constantine has already altered a good share of the Hellblazer basics (switching Constantine from being British to American, for example - something that bugged many buffs from day one), but producer Donner has suggested that fans will recognize much from the comic - although, as there have been many incarnations of the book itself, it may come down to recognizing a particular version.
"We used the comic as our jumping-off place," Donner says. "It's interesting - for example, the comics have many different looks for Satan. So we couldn't look to those, because there were some that made him look like Jesus Christ, which you can't do, and some that look like a monster and some like a man. But we tried to pull as many images from that as we could. Then Stan Winston's guys and conceptualist sat with Francis."
As for the design of Constantine''s world, Fink believes that that is where fans will find the easiest back-and-forth comparisons. "It's amazing to me, because I wasn't that familiar with the Hellblazer comic before I started the film," he notes. "But as Naomi was developing the movie's design and showed pictures to Francis and me, I would say, 'Wow, I've seen that before,'" Fink says. "there are images in the film that are almost direct lifts from different frames in the comic book. Not necessarily all from the same story - they brought a lot of them together. Having done a lot of comic-book features before, like X-Men, we try to be real faithful to the fan base. Whatever made the comic book successful is going to help the movie."
That's a pretty bold statement for a comic that has taken on a wide-ranging number of topics, from racism to madness to their hierarchies of prisons to murder to drugs and so on. Lawrence believes that his film, in being faithful to the comics, won't stray from this and will, infact, embrace it - whether or not his higher-ups realize just how controversial that may end up being.
"I don't really think the studio completely understands his movie," he says. "To be honest, I sort of feel like we're getting away with something, beause there are a lot of strange things in this. There are issues that are not [explored in] your typical studio film. There's John and his lung cancer. There are a bunch of suicides. There are religious themes and philosophies on how the world works. There are many 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," Lawrence continues. "There is horror, there are scares, there's some violence. There are adult themes, and that's what's sort of interesting about this whole process - the studio is trying for a PG-13, but we're not taking these things out. They haven't asked us to, and the story depends on those elements. We've always had the intention of going into this movie and sort of treating it as...I'll use Jacob's Ladder as a reference, in the sense that it's about what you don't see and things that are hidden in the shadows. The tough part is, this movie contains a lot that you can't delete. There are multiple suicides in this film - multiple. You can't take that out."
Having been involved with developing the script from day one - even when the project was being overseen by Tarsem - the question has to be raised as to whether Lawrence thinks the studio itself knows what it is getting into, if indeed Constantine turns out to be controversial. "I don't know," he says. "The studio has been watching the dailies, so they see what we've been doing and there have been no complaints so far. There's a part of me that just believes the studio doesn't understand it, which i guess - for now - has been a good thing!"
Of course, the possiblity of creating a classic horror film aside, what Warner Bros. really wants is a movie series built on Hellblazer and starring Reeves. From its inception, and with so many stories already written in the comics, to think of it only as a stand-alone project would be to ignore almost every trend and indicator to come out of Hollywood for years now. "You want to consider it as a franchise," admits Donner. "It doesn't affect what you're doing, really, but it just makes you want to create a better movie, because you can only do a franchise if it suceeds. But since there are so many stories from the comics, it has that potential. So in our dreams we'd like to be [a series]."