To Hell and Back
John Constantine's journey from comic book page to the big screen is as Byzantine as any occult conundrum the character ever unraveled. Originally drawn by artists Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch as a background character in the 1985 Alan Moore run of DC's "Swamp Thing", blonde bad boy Constantine emerged as a pivotal, albeit shadowy figure in a revised "Swamp Thing" mythos. Constantine's special knowledge of the metaphysical and intimate acquaintance with the geography and populations of both Heaven and Hell made him a spiritual mentor to the mossy title hero of "Swamp Thing", and within a couple of years his profile had risen far enough that DC elected to give the character his own series.
Hollywood, however, didn't exactly beat a path to Constantine's door. Assigned to DC's edgy spin-off imprint Vertigo, Constantine's comic was called "Hellblazer" (changed from "Hellraiser" to avoid confusion with Clive Barker's novel) and written by English writer Jamie Delano and later, Irish scribe Garth Ennis--but the Liverpool-set series attracted a primarily British fan base. Despite the fact that the Marvel Spider-Man and X-Men film successes had created a run on comic-based film projects, "Hellblazer" never attained the kind of name recognition in America that could earn it interest from a major studio.
That didn't dissuade screenwriter Kevin Brodbin, who had been a "Hellblazer" fan since the comic's inception. "I actually brought it to the studio," Brodbin says. "I picked up "Hellblazer" from the first issue (in 1988) and was very intrigued; I liked the idea that Constantine wasn't your regular type of hero."
It's easy to assume that Brodbin pitched the character immediately to Warner Bros., which owns DC Comics -- but the mossy trail of the Swamp Thing made that connection much less obvious. "(Producers) Michael Uslan and Ben Melniker owned the rights to the Constantine character because they had done the Swamp Thing film, and when they got the rights to that, John Constantine was just a minor character Alan Moore had put into the "Swamp Thing" comic (in 1985). But because they had those rights, they had the rights to John Constantine. The way I pitched it was that Constantine was sort of a rock star of the occult; he doesn't fight evil for religious reasons, but sort of as an extreme sport to bedevil the devil, and that he doesn't want to care about what he was doing but he couldn't help himself--what I liked about him was that he was one of the most reluctant heroes I'd come across. He thinks nothing of sleeping with demons and he walks between Heaven and Hell but he doesn't treat it with absolute morality. Somebody once said that Constantine was like if the little boy in "The Sixth Sense" had grown up to become a mouthy, smoking, hard-drinking rock star."
One of Brodbin's primary inspirations for his Constantine story was the Garth Ennis storyline "Dangerous Habits" which depicts the chain-smoking sorcerer dying of lung cancer. "I had Constantine discovering that he's dying, originally. He was more of a con man than he is in this film and he had stopped doing exorcisms because he'd lost the soul of a little girl -- it was called the 'Newcastle Incident' in the comics, and he'd stopped doing exorcisms by this point and he was kind of dragged back into it. When he discovers he's going to die, he knows he's going to hell and the story turned into this thing where he realizes that this whole discussion about a relic that has been touched by Christ which turns out to be about one of the nine inch nails -- which is where Nine Inch Nails got their name from. For this story, they had another writer come in between myself and Frank and he changed the relic to the 'Sphere of Destiny'. Now it's kind of in between -- the Sphere of Destiny but it's literally a nine-inch-blade or something like that. You can credit Jim Delano and Garth Ennis as well because Jim created the "Hellblazer" comic based on Alan Moore's character and Garth was the one who came up with the idea that Constantine would face death, so I loosely raided their ideas for my screenplay."
Over the course of the film's long development Constantine's character underwent one inevitable -- and controversial -- metamorphosis. The hard-bitten Liverpool native's nationality changed, and Constantine became an American -- first a New Yorker, then a resident of Los Angeles. "We did want to leave it as an English character," Brodbin says. "He's got a very English argot and was very English in the hard-drinking, hard-smoking vein. We brought it around to a few studios and people did respond to the story I came up with, but they actually didn't want some British character that nobody had ever heard of. 'Hellblazer' was a pretty small title and nobody here knew what it was. We saw that the handwriting was on the wall and that we were going to have to make the character American, and I thought that as long as I could keep his voice the same John Constantine voice, the accent wouldn't necessarily matter. The best I could do was to make the character compelling enough that they would see it as a stand-alone story. My version of Constantine was set in New York; in terms of a movie, I thought making him American wasn't a huge problem."
Several other writers took passes at Brodbin's story as the Constantine project passed through a number of different director-star combinations. One of the last writers on the project was Frank Cappello, a writer-director whose credits include No Way Back and American Yakuza. By the time Cappello got involved, the venue had been changed from New York to LA, but Cappello didn't see the relocation as destructive to the Constantine character. "Constantine is multi-national--he has houses all over and stays all over the world, so the original character in the screen play could have been British. LA is not actually a bunch of people in Beverly Hills drinking lattes all day--it's a huge multicultural, multiclass place that can ignite over the littlest thing. There's a lot of anger, resentment and envy, which are things Constantine deals with in London and Liverpool. A lot of people who reject an American version of him say that England is his character--he grew up in England, he hates the Queen and the society of class structures, but I say, "How is that any different from LA?" I've been to premieres where you see homeless people standing next to the limos pulling up and letting out the stars--you have people with no money next to people who have millions and millions."
Constantine's stomping grounds weren't the only changes being wrought on the character, though, particularly during an ill-fated attempt to mount the production with Nicolas Cage in the title role and The Cell director Tarsem Singh. Reportedly Cage saw Constantine as more of an action character while Tarsem wanted to bring some of the bizarre imagery he'd developed for the Cell to the project. "In my version, there were no guns, and John Constantine was never a big fan of guns, be they holy or not, so there was gunplay with other people but Constantine never had a gun," Brodbin says.
Eventually both Cage and Tarsem left the project. "It was a legal issue, but I can say that for once it wasn't the studio's fault," Cappello says. "The script was starting to turn into The Cell 2--it was going places nobody wanted it to go to and there were scenes with Jesus on a surfboard with blood coming out of his eyes. That can sound pretty provocative, but in the context of the film it didn't make any sense, and we were throwing out all these great character moments for just some weird thing. I thought that it should be a very serious tone, it should be a guy who hates both Heaven and Hell and his only allegiance is to himself. Screw anybody else. He has friends he will sacrifice to complete a job, he has ghosts that follow him around--he's a tortured soul but he's always got this dry wit, kind of like Denis Leary in the American version."
When Constantine went into turnaround, writer Akiva Goldsman, who was a producer on the project, instructed Cappello to return to the darker roots that the screenwriter had originally wanted to bring to the character. With Constantine looking like an $80 or $90 million production, Warners needed a star capable of carrying that kind of investment and they found one in-house: Keanu Reeves was in Australia working on the third Matrix film, had read the Constantine script and liked it. Reeves soon signed on for the film which left one problem: finding a director. "Keanu and I had talked in Australia and we agreed: No music video directors," Cappello recalls. "We were looking for a Francis Coppola--a guy that really understands character and doesn't worry so much about where the camera was going to be as he does about what the guy was feeling. We didn't want a 'shooter' but someone that really believes in the characters because Constantine is a pretty complex character."
The man who stepped up to the plate was a shooter, however -- Francis Lawrence had directed numerous high profile TV commercials as well as music videos for the likes of pop divas Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears. While Lawrence was eager to exchange the new-job-every-month world of commercials and video shoots for a more long-term assignment like a feature film, he also had strong ideas about what he did not want to do on Constantine, "I was trying to not make a comic book movie," Lawrence says. "Even though it's based on a series of comics, I didn't want to set this in a city that we've seen before--a lot of comic book movies create these Gotham like cities and I didn't want to deal with that. The script took place in Los Angeles and I wanted to show the city in a very realistic way. There's definitely a hard-boiled film-noir side to Constantine and LA is perfect for that--it's a classic noir city. I was trying to base it in reality and sell the environment as a real place in which these strange things happen."
Lawrence favored the same character-based approach that his screenwriters and indeed Reeves did--a slant that played against the mentality of most Hollywood blockbusters. "I didn't want to make a movie about a guy trying to save the world from the Apocolypse. The plot is so in the background in this movie because it is so character driven. What was happening in the supernatural world and what Constantine was trying to prevent is not really the issue; the real issue is what he's doing and his journey as the hero. I think when people see the movie they get that."
Adding to the original adaptation of the comic's "Dangerous Habits" plotline, Cappello had developed another throughline for the film that had initially been toned down in the production's more action-based early development. "I had a female cop whose twin sister commits suicide and the sister thinks she was murdered, and John Constantine--who can actually go to hell and back--goes to hell to see if she's there." Cappello says. "And if she's there, then why is she there? It was two people coming closer and closer. The editing structure was that I'd go to John and then I'd go to this woman lying in the subway and you'd have no idea why she was there. You'd keep going back and forth as the characters got closer and closer. I'm most proud of the female character, Angela, in this movie -- what she did to her sister, this whole loop around coming in and who she is at the end. Constantine should not change, really -- you chould not make a soft Constantine at the end of the movie or you fail. You have to have him basically be Bond--he stays the same and you have to have him affect other people, so I really built up the Angela story so she's the one that changes. Keanu totally understood that and he gave her and the character the range to be the real interesting one in it -- some people have said she's more interesting than Keanu is in it and a lot of that is actually his doing. He's still the lead and he has a world we don't understand that he's able to tap into, but he doesn't have to have all the best scenes. He's like that in real life too -- he's a very calm, Zen kind of guy who's a little hard to figure out."
Lawrence cast Rachel Weisz, who had had a less-successful teaming with Reeves in 1996's Chain Reaction, as Angela. "In the movie, she plays a cop and she also plays someone who's psychically repressed, someone who's psychic but who has repressed it since childhood. So I had to cast someone who could be believable as a cop and also as a psychic. Rachel is physical enough and can handle a gun and fight, but she also has this supernatural quality that makes her believable in the role of a psychic."
Other casting decisions were far less conventional. Lawrence cast actress Tilda Swinton as the archangel Gabriel, trading on the androgyny Swinton had brought to the title character in the 1992 art film Orlando. "Tilda was the first person I ever wanted to play that and I was sort of shocked and surprised that she wanted to do that and that the studio let me go that route," Lawrence says. "There were certain things in this movie like Hell and Gabriel and Satan where you had to try to find unique ways of presenting them so that it's not something we've seen before, and I thought she has this kind of grace that no one else has and she also has such an interesting take on everything she does. Angels to me are the highest levels of priesthood in a weird way in being asexual and I thought that was interesting."
Cappello cites the film's depiction of Hell as one of it's most interesting aspects. "Hell is really well depicted in this movie, different than I've ever seen it. In the comics, Constantine just sits on the floor and puts some candles down and suddenly he's in Hell. I came up with this idea that water is actually the medium between two planes, so he has this baptism for Angela during which he puts her in this bathtub and actually drowns her to the point where she's almost dead so she'll see the other side and go in that realm she wants to see so badly -- it scares the hell out of her but it's like she is being born agian."
Director Lawrence then fleshed out the concept, "I came up with this idea which goes along with some of the philosophies in the movie, which is that wherever you are there's a Heaven version of the place and a Hell version of the place, so if you're in some person's apartment, when you go to Hell you're in that person's apartment in Hell. It gave Hell a geography that people could relate to but it was just a different version of that place. Then working with the visual effects supervisor and production designer we came up with what the environment looked like -- that there was a strange biological growth on everything and that Hell was kind of like an eternal nuclear blast, and so we referenced those old test films from the 1940s where they're testing nuclear bombs, watching what happens to the buildings right before they get pulverized -- you have this intense impact and this heat and smoke whipping off them in this high wind and things being eaten away and eroding except they never completely get eaten away because Hell is eternal."
Hell is a concept familiar to any filmmaker who's had to deal with the MPAA, of course, and down to it's final cut, Constantine wavered between the goal of a broader skewering PG13 and the R -- or even NC17 -- rating that some of the content might dictate. And in an environment in which heads can be blown off in a PG13 movie, it's Constantine's ideas rather than it's violence that may tip the balance one way or another. "When I left the project (Warner's) wanted to make it more of a PG13 film and wanted it to be a character that everybody could get into," original writer Brodbin recalls. "To be honest, I don't know how you could do that with this character. My version was a hard R, close to NC17, and they progressively made it a little lighter but Francis' version is very true to the character and Frank Cappello honored that very well also."
"We went in with the script we had and we haven't done anything to tone anything down," Lawrence says. "We hoped, for financial reasons, that the movie would be PG13 and we followed guidelines, which was fine by me--there's not a lot of violence or gore in the movie and there's no sexuality, so the issue we're having now is intensity."
Ironically, Cappello points out that changing the character from British to American actually made it tougher to fit the Constantine character into the PG13 mold. "One of my big arguments was that they were probably going to want to shoot for PG13 -- I thought it should be an R -- but if you're going to shoot for PG13 than a British character can say so much more colorful language, cussing really, than we could get away with otherwise -- 'bloody' and 'wanker' are not cuss words in our (US) vocabulary, so we can get away with their cuss words. At least that way he sounds like a real guy."