Highway to Hell
Neo may be dead, but Keanu Reeves is very much alive. And with no rest for the wicked, he's been a devilishly busy boy. First stop, dark comic book adaptation Constantine, a journey along the Highway to Hell.
by Adam Smith
One morning, a couple or so years ago, Keanu Reeves says he found himself staring into the face of pure evil. It happened like this: he was taking one of his vintage Norton motorcycles out for a spin when he pulled up to a stop-light near the beach at Santa Monica. Like most people idling at an intersection he innocently glanced across towards the guy in the next lane and, being a movie star, he was probably prepared for at most the usual surprised flicker of recognition. What he actually saw was, he says, very, very different.
"I looked over at this guy and he looked over at me and I was like: oh my fucking God," he remembers. "I am looking at the darkest thing... I was looking at darkness, I didn't know where he was coming from, I didn't know what the hell it was, but I did not look back, I felt like I had looked at a wraith, like I'd looked at the devil." To illustrate his point, Reeves does a typically Keanuesque thing. He jumps up out of his chair and wanders around it agitatedly a couple of times, the memory of the sheer evilness having discombobulated him mildly. He aims odd, inconclusive gestures in Empire's direction in an attempt to communicate the essential, apparently incommunicable darkness of the incident. And then, apparently baffled as to why he is standing up, he sits back down again and smiles. It's eccentric, charming and weirdly sincere: pure Keanu.
But, Empire offers, he works in Hollywood. Surely he stares into the dead-eyed harbingers of the human abyss on a pretty much daily basis? "Yeah," agrees Keanu. "Ha ha," he adds.
But if his dudeness has had his brushes with the forces of darkness in real life, he's also been pursuing them on screen throughout his career. There was his turn as The Devil's Advocate in, well, The Devil's Advocate; he played Battleships with Death in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey and, of course, fought Count Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, armed only with an English accent that finally had Dick Van Dyke heaving a sigh of relief.
This time he's rucking with eternal badness as John Constantine, a character who, in a radical departure for modern Hollywood, has his genesis in a cult comic book. The culprit in this case is Hellblazer, which has charted the misadventures of said Constantine; a man cursed with the ability to 'see' demons and angels on Earth and who, having attempted suicide, is also aware he is on his way to hell. It has the usual piquant blend of doom-laden supernatural Gothicism and overcooked melodrama that attracts lonesome teenage boys, the inter-personally disadvantaged and Hollywood studio execs in roughly equal numbers.
"I just really related to this man," enthuses Reeves. "I thought the writing was great, I thought it was fun, I thought the ideas of it were compelling, you know? He's a man who doesn't like the rules of the world, someone who has a great cynicism and yet a great hope, a man fighting for his life. And there's this great dialogue which is really hard-boiled." Thus, after Nicolas Cage apparently dropped out of the running, Keanu Reeves lobbied for the job.
Hellblazer devotees, meanwhile, were less enervated by the whole idea. On word percolating out that their beloved British and blond eschatological enforcer was to be played by -- horrors -- an unbleached Keanu; that London was to be replaced by LA; and that Chas, Constantine's trusty sidekick, was to have a few years shaved off his age and be played by Disney sit-com cutie Shia LaBeouf, they lifted their sebum-pocked faces up to their computer screens and begun to perform the universal ritual of the nerd in distress: they started bellyaching about it on the internet. And the whole cyber-cacophony came as something of a surprise to debut director and fan-culture neophyte Francis Lawrence.
"Comics were relatively new to me," says Lawrence, who has joined us amid the tarty splendour of the Los Angeles Four Seasons' Presidential Suite. "So that meant the internet fanboy scene was relatively new to me as well," he continues. "Seeing how hardcore these things were was something that happened a while into me being involved in the process."
It seemingly didn't faze him much. To add insult to the fans' much-broadcast injury he also cast Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale (in his first major role) as half-breed Balthazar and -- by this time he was surely just trying to get a rise out of them -- ditched Constantine's olive trenchcoat in favour of a natty jacket and tie combo. With even the less apoplectic fans now referring to him as 'Francis "Britney Spears" Lawrence' (he helmed one of her promos), surely he was making it increasingly difficult for them to give his movie even the slightest break?
He shrugs: "Look, you know what? In a perfect world I would be delighted for the hardcore fans to love this, but I honestly don't think many of them wanted this movie to be made. I think they liked the fact that they had their own twisted little secret that the public didn't know about. I think they're going to be upset that people will now know this character and think of him in a different way than in the comic. I understand that, but it's an adaptation."
And he's not too impressed by their specific objections. He points out that Constantine has featured in stories set in locations as diverse as Newcastle, New York and Africa, and that the heart of the character is not his choice of outerwear. "They're pissed off because he's not blond, he's not British and he's not in the olive-coloured trenchcoat," he says. "But to me, that's surface. What I've really fought for, and Keanu really fought for, was to keep the heart of the character intact. His sarcasm and cynicism."
Reeves is more conciliatory, "Hopefully they'll respond to the tonality: we've kept the mood, we hope," he says. "But also in a way because it is different, because it's an interpretation, they get to keep their original Constantine for themselves."
Regardless of whatever critical beastings the fanboys will wish to mete out, what's certain is that for his first feature, Lawrence has chosen anything but a safe bet. Not only has there been a slew of below-par comic book adaptations of late, there's also the fact that religion-themed supernatural chillers have, since their heyday in the '70s, recently been less than, well, scary. Okay, he's got Keanu Reeves hot off The Matrix, but what's to stop Constantine being just another anaemic adaptation from a craven studio desperate to cash in on a proven property?
"I know it's adapted from a comic book, but I don't see it as a 'comic book movie'," argues Lawrence. "I've seen that style over and over again. That 'Gotham City' look with crazy Dutched angles. I mean, I love The Crow and Alex Proyas is great, but I just didn't want to go there." Instead, what Lawrence says he has tried to do is set his film in a realistic Los Angeles, and a recognisably real world in which the decidedly odd is accepted as normal. "The world has to be as believable and accessible as possible, and the characters have to be as human as possible," he explains. "I just thought the scares and the emotions would have more power if it wasn't so stylised that it just got sanitised."
Thus the films that Reeves and Lawrence looked at as references are, to say the least, an eclectic bunch. Reeves quotes The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown, Last Tango in Paris, Jacob's Ladder and Seven as vague inspirations. Lawrence is even more contemporary. "It may sound odd butt I was looking at Training Day," he says. "It really captured a true Los Angeles. Obviously that was a little more urban and gang-related and this is a little more noir, but it was a real Los Angeles. Urban and gritty..."
And dark. It's a matter of honour these days for every nascent blockbuster to wear its 'dark and edgy' credentials on its sleeve, but even after the slight character bleaching, Constantine is still welcome breath of nihilistic, fetid air. "This is a guy who when he is told he has terminal lung cancer lights up a cigarette in a hospital!" Keanu grins, "And then stubs his last one out in his own blood. That's hardcore..."
Before shooting on Constantine commenced, and immediately after meeting to discuss the screenplay with Acadamy Award-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, Keanu Reeves hurried to see a priest and then an exorcist. This was not, we hasten to add, because he had just met Academy Award-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. "I wanted to figure out whaddya got to do when you're performing an exorcism," he explains. "I didn't need to know everything, but we talked about how you have to direct your will, how you have to keep contact, how you have to be forceful, how you have to protect yourself, that kind of thing."
Which leads to a discussion of Reeves' own view of the hereafter. Is he, ahem, a 'believer'?
"In the supernatural?" he queries. "Yeah, I've seen ghosts, and I've walked into rooms that feel really bad, where there's a temperature change, and there are places that you really don't want to go. I mean, we had that on the sound stage..."
"Yeah," Francis Lawrence interrupts. "It was strange. Everybody had heard the stories of working on The Exorcist and Poltergeist, but there was one set that we worked on that got weird. We were on Warner Bros. sound stage 16, and we'd built these two rooms, the physiotherapy and hydrotherapy rooms -- they're a huge part of the ending of the movie. And half of it, the physiotherapy side, just got weird. We were there for six weeks in this room, and people were getting sick, or didn't feel good or got angry. There was just something about that room..."
Now it has to be said that there's nothing a studio publicist likes more on a supernatural shocker than the odd 'curse' story floating round to fuzz up the press release. But Reeves and Lawrence are adamant there was something uniquely ominous and discomfiting about Warner's sound stage 16 (beyond The Perfect Storm having been filmed there).
"It wasn't just us," Keanu insists. "I brought a kid to the set to visit, and we were walking into the front room -- he refused to go to the back of the physio room. He just wouldn't go there. He couldn't say why." (You may at this point, if you wish, hum the theme from The Twilight Zone.)
Haunted sound stages or not, it's unlikely that Reeves would be put off reprising the role of John Constantine should the movie be a hit. He is, post-Matrix, a kind of movie ronin -- a star bereft of a franchise. There may as yet be no firm plans for a sequel, but then again, neither were there for The Matrix. He's suitably coy on the subject. "Well, I don't know, we haven't talked about it. I mean yeah, hopefully, and if Francis wants to direct. But we've not made a pitch for that movie yet." Not yet perhaps, but with Keanu at a loose end after shooting Il Mare (with old Speed honcho Sandra Bullock), we shouldn't be surprised if Constantine makes a reappearance. The devil, after all, is notoriously happy to find employment for idle hands.
Rachel Weisz: Constantine's angelic upstart...
by James Swanwick
Well, it was funny actually. Around the time I was sent the script I really wanted to do a comedy; there is very little humour in this. There was something about it I couldn't get out of my head - the fantasy, the supernatural, heaven and hell.
Constantine is chocler with corpses. Did these images stay with you or were you able to let go?
As part of my research for my character I went to LA County Morque. That was intense. I had never seen a dead person before and I saw hundreds that night. That definitely stayed with me.
Has Keanu changed much since you made Chain Reaction together in 1996?
He's pretty much the same guy. We're both a little bit older and wiser. It was nice because we didn't have to go through that getting to know you thing.
Do you enjoy doing all the physical action stuff?
Yeah, I do. I guess it's my version of doing extreme sports. The stunt coordinator who did The Matrix movies was on this movie. He had these eyes which said, "I would like you to jump off this building." It calms you down. I would do anything he said.