Director James McTeigue dropped by the CBR TV studios in Hollywood to discuss his latest film, the John Cusack-helmed “The Raven,” which places writer Edgar Allan Poe in the midst of his own story, attempting to solve the mystery of who was using his writing as the basis for real-world murders. McTiegue and Cusack worked long and hard on creating a “composite Poe” based on biographical information from numerous sources, resulting in a character who retained the essence of the actual writer.
McTiegue spoke about his experiences while filming “V For Vendetta,” the movie adapted from Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s classic comic, reminiscing about filming his first major motion picture while security was situated on the rooftops surrounding their shooting. The director also spoke to the co-opting of the “V” mask by the Occupy movement, saying he likes seeing it because “what they’re saying speaks to what the film was speaking about,” revealing that the mask actually presented a large challenge in shooting the movie due to it completely obscuring the face of Hugo Weaving.
Check out the interview and complete transcript below.
CBR TV: Now, as I mentioned earlier when you walked in, we’ve met before on the set of “V for Vendetta” in London. It was a very interesting night. You were filming between 11:00 and 3:00 AM because the nights were very short at that time and you were filming outside the Houses of Parliament — and that was your first movie. Not your first movie, you’d worked on many — but the first as the big dog. And here you are after six or seven years now, you’ve got some other films under your belt. Do you feel like you’ve finally gotten very comfortable as a director these days?
James McTeigue: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’ve had such a long experience as an assistant director that by the time I actually got around to doing my own film, which was “V,” I sort of felt ready for it then and then I think you just keep honing the experience as you go along. Mind you, that was a big film to start off on. I’d had like quite a large budget, as you just mentioned, quite complex locations and logistics. We had to shoot in front of Trafalgar Square, the Houses of Parliament — that took 21 different government bodies to organize, to close it down and yeah we were on the short nights, but the short nights, it wasn’t mainly because the sun was coming up, it was because they wanted to start running the buses again. I don’t know if you were there right at the end, but as soon as we called “Cut,” all the cars, all the buses would start coming through. That was pretty cool, it was a great thing to do and I think it looked pretty good in the movie.
It absolutely did, but as a first time director, the man everybody’s looking to for guidance and leadership, it’s got to be really weird conducting a shoot where you’ve got sharpshooters on buildings all around there looking to make sure nothing bad happens.
Yeah, it was. I remember they came up and they gave us these orange vests. I said, “Oh, really? Do I have to wear this?” Everyone else had them on and they said, “Yeah, we don’t want the sharpshooters taking out the wrong person.” [Laughs] “Oh, sure, sure! Do you have a spare one of those?”
[Laughs] Interesting, me as a member of the press was there, I didn’t have an orange vest.
Oh, well you had those ones with the target on your back. [Laughs]
Let’s switch to “The Raven” and I’m really fascinated by this because here you have John Cusack playing a historical figure and you’re playing obviously with his story quite a bit. You’re borrowing aspects from his life, all that kind of stuff, but how much of a concern was it to be accurate to who Edgar Allan Poe actually was?
The conceit of the film, as you just pointed out, is take aspects from Edgar Allan Poe’s life, take aspects from his stories and then try and put Edgar Allan Poe into the middle of one of these stories. That’s sort of the conceit of the film. But what I wanted to do, I didn’t want to shy away from the person that Poe was. He was a serial monogamist, an alcoholic, the drug taker, the critic, the guy who was writing many different genres. It was important to get all those facets into the character. If you’re going to do Edgar Allan Poe, no point in making the character just like someone else. There’s enough biographical information that you can get this conglomerate or composite of Edgar Allan Poe and that’s what John and I talked about a lot: Let’s try and get the guy and make him as close to what we think he might be. John talked a lot about Damien Hurst, who was a friend of his, or Hunter S. Thompson, who was a friend of his — those guys who constantly mingled beauty and horror together, let’s try and get that across onto the screen. So I did a lot of research and then I thought it was important to get his essence, ultimately.
What makes Edgar Allan Poe compelling to you? Were you a fan of his writing growing up, anything like that?
Yeah, I think I probably came at Poe first of all through the [Roger] Corman movies, staying up late in Australia watching the midnight to dawn shift with my brothers. It’d be like “Fall of the House of Asher” or “The Raven” that had Vincent Price and Jack Nicholson. Probably through that then you wonder what those stories are, you read a smattering usually by the time I started doing the movie, after Aaron gave me the script, I’d probably read all the famous ones — “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “Tell Tale Heart,” “Premature Burial” — you know, a bunch of those. Then, as you start to research, you start to read all of them, the more eclectic, obscure ones, the more genre ones. Biography-wise, I read a few of them, but the one I liked the most was Peter Ackroyd’s “A Life Cut Short.” I thought that was pretty cool.
The movie, I’ve only seen the trailer, I haven’t had a chance to see the movie yet, but based on the trailer, it looks like it gets pretty gruesome.
A couple of pictures just flashed through your mind, I guess.
Well, you know, it’s not over-the-top gruesome. It’s not like “Saw” or something like that but I thought if you were going to pay homage to Poe and his stories and his life, you had to have a sense of the macabre running through the movie. So yes, there is some blood in there but if you pick up a Poe story, he goes to extremes. “Tell Tale Heart” is about a guy who the narrator thinks he’s being watched and ultimately, he dismembers him and puts him under the floor and the police come because the neighbors have heard screaming. You know, he confesses to the police. I don’t have anything in there like that. But yeah, “The Pit and the Pendulum’s” in there. I sort of make a big deal out of that.
As a director and obviously you have to be very technical when you’re filming stuff like that but does any of that gruesome stuff ever get to you while you’re on set, like “Oh, I really don’t want to have to look at this stuff.”
No, not me. Not really. There will be members of the crew who will be a bit like that but some of that stuff — like, at the end of the day, it’s still a film. It’s still a piece of fiction, it’s a piece of entertainment, it’s a popcorn movie. I’m not making “Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer” here where I’m trying to say this is really how it happened. I’m saying, here’s this construct of a movie, hopefully you enjoy it and get into the aspects of Poe’s writing and his existence.
If you look at your history in Hollywood, you are a guy who has lived and breathed genre films your entire career. Your work on “The Matrix” films, “V for Vendetta” is a comic book movie, “Ninja Assassin,” one of comics’ great writers J. Michael Straczynski he did a pass on that script and here you are with “The Raven,” another genre type film. Is this just what you naturally gravitate to or is this what’s just somehow organically happened in your own career?
I think it’s organically happened but for the most part, I’d say nearly everything’s a genre movie, right? In one form or another, even when I’m making westerns, that’s a genre film. Noir, that’s a genre. So, not to discount what you’re saying, I’m just saying that probably do my films slant a little towards the darker genre-y side? Yes.
Comic book-y, fantasy type stuff, yeah.
Yeah, because that’s the thing that interests me. I was saying as we were walking up the hall, I have a few mates who are comic book guys, Joe being one, Geoff Darrow being another guy, this guy who does most of my concept stuff Steve Cross, he’s a comic book guy and a lot of those connections came through “The Matrix” because the Wachowskis were big comic book people. Lana had written for comics and I think Andy had done some too. So, I guess it’s always been sort of around. Even “Dark City” was sort of — you know.
Did you ever do a comic yourself? Any interest in writing one?
Yeah, always. There’s never enough of a canvas to get out what’s going on in your head. Yeah, comic books would be great, actually.
I want to finish up by asking you a little bit of an odd question. I think it’s fascinating that here you are as a director, you directed “V for Vendetta” and the movie you directed has imagery that became the faces of the Occupy movement and Anonymous. I’m curious, right there, your name is attached to a larger part of cultural history at this point because you were part of that project. I’m curious how you feel about that. Are you conflicted, are you impressed, are you just kind of mesmerized by the entire thing?
No, you know, I like it. Obviously, what they’re saying speaks to what the film was speaking about. You know, you hope when you make a movie or you make a piece of art whether it’s a book or a painting, whatever it is, that you have some sort of cultural impact at that point. That’s the upside of it. To see that mask be appropriated by those people was great. The comic itself, Alan Moore, that comic was much more about the individual, how the individual can rise up. We made a very conscious decision when we were making the film to make it about the collective, to make it about people. It could be anyone behind the mask. The Anonymous guys, that’s what they’re doing. The Occupy Wall Street guys, that’s what they’re doing. Even the Scientology protesters. I think that’s what they’re doing. They’re basically saying, “We want to be politicized,” and if the mask gives them a voice to be politicized, that’s great. I think we just had a couple of generations that weren’t politicized at all and I think that’s how you end up with an Iraq war, that’s how you end up with an Afghanistan war, that’s the sort of Jedi mind trick that the government plays on you sometimes, right? I think — yeah, people feel like Wall Street stinks but they can’t get out there as an individual but they can get out there as a collective and they can wear the mask and go, “You know what? I’m putting my hand up when I think this is right and the government’s not right.” I like it. I’m into what they’re saying.
I remember sitting there that night on the shoot and you had that final crowd shot where you’ve got all the extras with the masks on and I remember thinking, “Wow, this is such a bizarre little thing. I’ll never see that again.” Sure enough, I ended up seeing it many, many years later!
Yeah, it was a gamble with the mask. In retrospect, I can’t believe I didn’t have more self-doubt about whether the mask would work because ultimately, acting is about your face. But I totally believed, probably stupidly [Laughs] that the mask would absolutely work, that you would get the emotion behind the mask, you would understand the person behind the mask. I think partially that was Hugo Weaving who was the guy behind the mask and his acting ability.
It’s funny, you talk about how naÃ¯vely you thought it would work and you were challenged for that as it was. You changed actors, Hugo came in second but he did make it work quite beautifully.
He did. I have a relationship with Hugo, knowing him from Australia, I knew him through the “Matrix” movies and then it was just the moment that he put the mask on. I remember the phone conversation when I rang him up and said, “Hey, I’m having a little trouble here. Do you want to come over and do it” and he went, “Yeah.” I’d sent him the script previous to that and he said, “Yeah, I do” and I said, “Look, if you’ve got any doubt about whether you’ll be able to convey the message through the mask, don’t come because look, it’s what I did in acting school. You do mask work all the time, it’s like no theater in some ways.” So he came over and he completely nailed it. He was completely comfortable in it — except for when he was sweating under the mask. He was not comfortable.
You went to acting school, I did not know that.
Yeah, kind of. Did that come from Wikipedia or something like that?
No, you just told me. I had no idea!
No, I’m sorry, that was Hugo saying that. It was Hugo saying, “Look, that’s the work that you do. It goes back to Greek theater, it goes back forever.” And so, Hugo had done it. Obviously, he went to NIDA in Australia.
So did I uncover something, did you do a little bit of acting?
Well, yeah, I did a film and TV course, so you do sort of a drama bit in that so you do all the trust games and all of that. I was a terrible actor. I’m glad I ended up on the other side of that thing.