Constantine On Screen....
From page to screen: Constantine is this year's comic adaptation. An interview with Mark Wheaton
He's played Cluedo with the Grim Reaper, been a Devil's Advocate and was the 'Chosen One' who saved Humanity from agents in a hidden world. Now Keanu Reeves faces his latest hellish challenge as John Constantine, anti-hero of the cult comic book Hellblazer, an agent who walks a permanent line between Reality and the Occult.
After disastrous Catwoman and the similarly pitched Hellboy, both in 2004, how will the next comic book name brought to life on the big screen really fare?
Producer Lauren Shuler Donner takes Starburst through the path to production and her hope for the film; Keanu Reeves tells us why his character of John Constantine is faithful to the English original and how Hell is given a fresh new look: and co-star Djimon Hounsou, a former model and Oscar-nominee, gives us the low-down on suave withch doction Papa Midnite.
Lauren Shuler Donner
What was your first exposure to the Hellblazer comic book?
I've had this property for about six years. It was actually somebody at CAA. An agent called me up, and it was Michael Uslan who had the property and they brought it over. It's the same thing that attracted me to X-Men. It's all about the characters for me. [Constantine] walks both sides. He's good and he's bad. Then this wonderful writer, Kevin Brodbin, had this whole take on how to do it - how to bring Dangerous Habits, which is the comic we focused on, to life.
We went through another writer and then Frank Cappello came on and did a really good draft and the studio said, 'Okay, you can make the movie'. Akiva [Goldsman] came on and did a polish too.
And the decision to make him an American?
The decision to make him American was the studio's decision, I have to say. If we had done the English version, I would've wanted Paul Bettany... I think because they knew the budget was going to be somewhat significant, they wanted a box office return. So, what we're saying is that he works all over. He's from London, but he does work all over. He does go to India - he's done episodes in different countries, so we're saying this is an episode in LA. The next one we hope to do in either New York or London.
Why did you choose director Francis Lawrence?
Because he's been a music video and commercial director, he's very visual. When he came in to talk about the script, he talked about character and story, which most of the video directors we met with didn't. He focused on content and we were very impressed with what he said. Then during pre-production, when he was casting, he was wonderful wiht the actors. He was giving them all kinds of stuff. Right away I was thinking 'Oh, good - we've got the real deal here.' He's really good.
How did Keanu get involved? Nic Cage was at one time attached to the project.
Warner Brothers gave it to him and he responded and said he wanted to do it. So, were like, 'Great!' Nic Cage was attached way back when Tarsem was the director. You know that thing about creative differences? We literally had creative differences and the budget grew too big. So, that whole incarnation ended and then Keanu came on.
The character of Angela is new for the film?
Yes. I've read so many drafts of this, I'm not sure. Actually, she was in the comic, but she was a different incernation. She evolved into who she is now.
Is this anything of a Horror film?
Yes, it is really a Horror film. It's film noir and somewhat Omen-esque I would say. In fact, we just put some footage together a few weeks ago and Francis showed it to us. Each of us producers saw it individually because we all wanted to sit and watch the other person see it, because you literally watch everyone go. 'Oh!' It really scares you.
Hellboy came out last year. Why do you think there are so many 'hell films' currently?
I think once we knew comic book movies would be successful, which was with X-Men, it's another genre. It's anothe way to do an action movies. What I like about this versus the Marvel characters is it's not superpowers. It's something different and that's probably what Hellboy is about. It's not superpowers.
It makes it different enough from what's already out there so audiences don't feel like they've seen it before.
Are you worried about being typecast as a comic book producer?
You know what? I've done so many different kinds of movies. My next movie will be an action film called Sixteen Blocks and then I'm also going to do this little book called The Secret Life of Bees, which is basically a girls' movie. But I can't wait to get back to X3.
Do you have any details for X-Men 3 yet?
We're going to use [writers] Harris and Dougherty. Then we're also going to develop a Wolverine movie as well, but it won't come out until after X3. I can't imagine doing it without Bryan [Singer] or Patrick [Stewart] or any other of the main cast. We have to make sure that [Halle Berry] is used well and we have a great, great storyline for her. Or maybe we do a Storm movie.
Did you approach this movie as the start of a potential franchise?
You want to think about it as a franchise. It doesn't affect what you're doing really, but it just makes you want to make a better movie because you can only do a franchise if it succeeds. Because there are so many stories from the comics, it has that potential. So in our dreams we'd like it to be.
Your character was British and blond in the comic. Did you have any desire to play it British?
We spoke about it, but...Los Angeles seemed to be attractive and make sense. We're kind of doing a hard-boiled kind of take on the piece, so we went this way - a more Gothic aspect.
Constantine is known for having a devilish sense of humour. Is that reflected in the dialogue?
It's serious and hopefully funny at the same time. Again, go back to that hard-boiled motif. Constantine in this film is in a hospital and he finds out he's dying of lung cancer, and he lights a cigarette up inside the doctor's office. He gets into an elevator and this character comes by and the elevator doors [are] closing and the person say 'Going down?' and he says, 'Not if I can help it.' The next scene he's in bed with a half-breed demon drinking whiskey with scratches on his back! So hopefully we have the spirit of the Constantinian factor. I'm always asking, 'Is that Constantinian enough?
Is the story at all film noir, like something Bogart would be in?
Well, there is that kind of aspect to it, but I'd say more kind of Californian noir from a literature standpoint. So there's light and shadow. There's a couple of shots of Constantine just smoking in the doorway. You see the smoke rising behind him. It's bright outside, but it's dark in the hall and there's a [set of] stairs going up before he does his first exorcism, so there's that kind of cinematic motif.
Is it nice to do a movie with Horror elements where you don't yell and scream but get to play it cool?
Well, Constantine gets his ass whupped a lot in this movie, but he keeps coming. We've got some Ceplavites, some kind of demon aspects and they fight.
Demons are coming up onto our plane, which isn't supposed to be happening. So there's elements where he does play it cool, but he also gets thrown on this back and choked and thrown against walls and all sorts of fun stuff like that.
So is it physical?
Yeah, there's certain elements that are physical, but I think it's part of the hero journey that you gotta go through. You run and jump and get hit and kind of pull yourself back together again, and shake it off and keep going.
You've mentioned that the character has an ambiguous morality that you found attractive.
Yeah. He's not the nicest guy all the time. I don't know if he's immoral, but it's something that he's negotiating with.
Can you describe the scene you're shooting today?
Right now I've asked the character Midnite to use the chair, which turns out to be the electric chair from Sing Sing. Right now this is his reliquary where he's collected all of these objects, religious icons and things like that. So now we're walking toward the chair where John is going to get electrocuted.
Why is John using the chair?
Supposedly the dark side has the Spear of Destiny and so I'm trying to find out who has it, so he uses the chair. What's going to happen is they're playing with an aspect of Time. You're seen this kind of scavenger character who's found the Spear at the beginning of the movie, and every time you see this character [he's looking] over his should like he's being watched... We play with Time often and it turns out that John was a guy who saw this the whole time. It's in the Future. John crosses over into Hell a couple of times and we play with Time so that when he does do that, Time in the real world slows down or almost stops. We can go off to these other places and then come back and almost nothing has happened.
Had you read Hellblazer before you got the part?
I was not familiar with the material before reading the script. I was looking for a good script and this came my way and I really liked the writing and the character itself and what happened in the piece, and ultimately there's a line in it 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.'
What is Francis Lawrence like as a director?
He's great. He's really inventive. He's got a real fresh feel to his cinema. He's a great collaborator and yet has a strong voice. He's got good taste. With actors, he knows what he's looking at and he know what to ask to make it better or to help you kind of discover the scene. It's great.
Is Constantine more vulnerable than Neo [from The Matrix]? He ended up flying in the last film!
I don't know. I thought Neo was a very vulnerable character...full of doubts. He doesn't win. He has to lose his life. That's not invulnerable. With Constantine, there's an element... the great Constantine is kind of faded. He's in a vulnerable state and this character Djimon is playing, Midnite, has a line where I'm asking him for help and he goes, 'You were John Constantine, The John Constantine once. Times change. Balances shift and I have always been a business, John. You know that.'
What does Hell look like?
This one is orangey, there's a charcoal kind of dust in the air. One of the things that we came up with, and you'll see this a couple of time, is that when someone dies and they go to Hell, part of Hell is just at the moment when they die and I guess you're seeking release. These scavenger demons come in and they just eat you. Part of these empty skull folks is that they have these huge maws with teeth, and instead of getting release, you get consumed and then instantly you're back to just about where you were going to die again, and they come in and get you again.
There's an element where I walk out onto a Hell freeway, coming out of this character's apartment where it transforms from a real world to a Hell apartment that is just basically rubble and decay. Everything's broken down. Cars on the freeway have almost melted and there's demons with these people screaming, being consumed, and then they're back and consumed [again].
Are you in make-up in the movie?
No, but there's some cool elaborate make-ups in this film. They're really going a nice mixture of having in-camera effects or make-up and then having CGI support. I always find that works best instead of just pure CGI because it becomes kind of flat, tough it's getting much better.
What about Rachel Weisz?
She's been great. She's adding a real strength and sensitivity at the same time to her role. It's enjoyable working with her.
Will you talk a bit about your gun?
The holy shotgun? Yeah, there's a half-breed that kills a couple of characters who are my friends so I'm seeking revenge. I put together this 'holy shotgun', which again I think is kind of fun. 'Killing with God.'
What's it made out of?
It's made out of different elements. There's a character in the piece called Beeman who is kind of Constantine's 'Q'. In one of the opening sequences, I'm reloading and I've got this coat and he's handing me dragon's breath and a part of a shroud from Moses which is highly flammable, and these little balls of holy water that I can throw.
That character gets into jeopardy and I go into his workshop and out of a cane, a clock and this hand sword, I pull together these pieces that go back together to create the holy shotgun.
Who is Midnite?
Midnite is a witch doctor. He's obviously a great friend to John Constantine and at one point he used to do pretty much what Constantine's doing now. They used to do that together before he took a different direction. [He took] more of a business direction where he is not taking sides and he's not necessarily plotting with the humans. So, that's interesting.
How does Midnite play into this world of good versus evil?
Midnite at this point has a much more of a business approached to Constantine, his long-time friend and partner. He's completely distanced himself from that world and became completely neutral in society, where everything is about business for him and he takes no sides in the fight against evil. He's just there to accomodate there good and the evil.
Is he also half demon?
Midnite is not half-demon, no. He definately is human and has a great sensibility towards the spiritual world.
Is this character in the comics?
Yes, he is, I think. But I'm going to have to double-check on that because I didn't read the comic book. Obviously the story for the film is quite different from the comic book to make it somewhat more interesting...
In the comic, Constantine just kind of uses his friends and they tend to die off. Is that the case here?
Pretty much. You do have the essence of the comic book, most definately. You do have a sense of desperation on the part of John Constantine as he keeps losing so many friends.
Where did Midnite get all these relics?
Through the years, and he used to do a lot of running around with Constantine. I think he got a lot of them from Constantine as well - past adventures and also present adventures. A lot of people bring things to me as I'm in that kind of business.
What has working with Keanu been like?
Well, it's been, I wouldn't say 'blessing'. I would say it's been an exciting experience because obviously, he's done so much and 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 good and bad, but working with him I have a great affinity for the kind of generosity that he has for the work. He is definitely a simple man and maybe a little misunderstood. He's just reclusive and very private.
What's the biggest surprise about him?
Just to see his dedication to the craft. He works had at making it work and supports other actors who come to partake in his films. The generosity of the guy at work...
I was floored by it.
Are you involved in a lot of action in the movie?
The one action is the only time Constantine comes into my office at gunpoint, so I had to deal with that.
Do you have any interest in the occult in real life?
Personally, I think it's far from being ridiculous. Even though it's a fictional story we're telling here, quite a bit of these sort of strange things we have going on in this film happen in real life as well. People just have to find a bit of peace in this crazy world.
I also come from a country that is the source of voodoo. I come from the Republic of Benin where voodoo all started. So, I'm drawing some ideas from that.
How much background were you given on your character?
Obviously, when you read the storoy, you can tell that they had a bit of history - they had been through this before. They'd been team-mates. You can definitely tell that there's been a relationship there before... [With] the writer and the director, we sat down and were rehearsing and set down the history.