Director James McTeigue got his start as a second unit and assistant director on some high profile releases in the early '90s like Street Fighter and No Escape. He then moved on to work on films such as Dark City, Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones and The Matrix trilogy. He has worked as a second unit director on most of The Waschowski Brothers' films and they helped him out by producing his directorial debut; the critically acclaimed adaptation of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. McTeigue followed this up with the ill-fated Ninja Assassin in 2009.
McTeigue’s latest film is The Raven and stars John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe. The film theorises what happened in Poe’s final days and links to actual documented events surrounding his death using a serial killer plot where the killer mimics events in Poe’s most famous and gruesome stories. I got to meet with this laid back Australian director when he was in London recently to promote the film.
*** Warning – Minor Spoilers for The Raven follow ***
Starburst: What drew you to The Raven?
James McTeigue: The script (laughs) which is always a good starting point. Finding a good script is like panning for gold a little bit, you don’t come across them that often. Aaron Ryder who is the producer brought it to me and I immediately responded to it. I thought it was a great blending of Poe’s life and Poe’s stories and ultimately how Poe became a character in his own story in the movie. Aaron had made a lot of good movies like Donnie Darko, The Prestige, and Memento and is a really great creative partner so I was happy to get the good creative producer and the good script; and Poe works obviously, that was a big part of it.
SB: You have assembled quite an eclectic cast. You have John Cusack and Brendan Gleeson who are the seasoned pros and then you have relative newcomers like Luke Evans and Alice Eve. Was the intention to vary it up like this?
JM: It was intentional. John is round about the age Poe was when he died. I think John is a smart empathetic actor which it was important to have with a guy like Poe who is very difficult and a lot of his traits were difficult and polarising as he was an alcoholic and drug abuser or shyster or serial lady killer I guess, and then getting on to Luke Evans’ Detective Fields, I wanted someone who was a little younger and whose physicality rubbed Poe the wrong way. I think it was important at the start of the movie that those two are antagonistic towards each other. Poe doesn’t really understand who Fields is at all and Fields doesn’t understand Poe and they need each other so they come together. With Alice who plays Emily I wanted someone who the audience would find fresh in the way that Poe felt fresh but she had to be sort of feisty as well and a match for Poe’s character. So I thought Alice did a great job with that and Brendan is just a great actor. I needed a guy who was meant to be ex-military who had great love for his daughter he didn’t understand or like Poe to start with but he ultimately also understood that he loved his daughter above everything and comes to that understanding. So even though the cast was eclectic it was for a reason rather than happenstance I guess.
SB: Edgar Allan Poe’s last days were shrouded in mystery and the film does a nice job of tying in to documented events. Did you feel any responsibility towards his legacy and how he was portrayed?
JM: Yeah you always do, I mean ultimately with any adaptation you are doing like a book adaptation into a film, you want to get the essence of the book and that’s what I wanted to try and achieve with Poe. It wasn’t going to be historically correct like a biopic of Poe but I thought if I could get the essence of Poe and the various parts of his life and if it made people more interested in Poe then that was a good thing because I know if I made the biopic of his life then it would be terribly boring and, y’know, depressing and everything that Poe’s life was. So there is a little bit of responsibility and people who just want to see the biography of Poe won’t like it and I’m totally prepared for that but I think you can also come to this movie and just enjoy Poe in this strange construct within Poe’s life and his stories.
SB: What led you to cast John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe?
JM: Well I thought that there was a chamber of darkness that existed in John Cusack that hadn’t really been exploited in any of his films. You get a little hint of it in The Grifters for example and because Poe was such a complicated character I thought you needed an actor who was very empathetic and I thought John was that guy. Whenever you see him in a movie you like the character he is playing and you always connect to him and John has the unique ability to be able to do that. He brought a lot of other things to the role, he changed his physicality to resemble Poe, lost a lot of weight, grew the beard. He knew a lot about Poe, he was very well researched and came to embody Poe and I thought he did a pretty good job actually.
SB: What directions did you give Cusack in terms of how to portray the character?
JM: We talked a lot about that and sometimes a lot of that is inherent in the script writing but then we also spoke about how he should modulate the character. Poe was very literate so we would try and tune that into it. We spoke a lot about the trajectory of the character and how he is this sort of cad cavalier person who has never had a commitment in his life until Emily gets taken and then he somewhat becomes more responsible for himself and his stories. He comes to realise the reason Emily has been taken is because of what he has written and so with John it was a constant adjustment of where he was in the story. But John has been making films for such a long time that he really brings a lot of that stuff to you. We got into a nice groove of just leaving the camera running and I would just go like “Do it again” and then he would do something different, or I would yell out one word for him to adjust it and I think towards the middle of the film we really hit our stride and we had this symbiotic thing going where I could just say something and he would go “ah got it” and then give you something.
SB: Poe is very much underappreciated in his own lifetime and makes sure everyone knows it. I’m just wondering if you felt any kind of kinship with him or if you could see parallels between this and maybe John Cusack who still, despite being in the business for 30 years nearly, feels underrated.
JM: I think John is smart as he flies under the radar a little bit. He will do press when he needs to do press, but he’s not about being out there and being photographed by the paparazzi. He isn’t always at some function where he becomes very high profile and I think that helps you believe the characters he plays as he isn’t always in front of you. He totally is underrated, he really is. He was in 2012 for example and that movie made 850 million dollars. I don’t care what you say about special effects, if you haven’t got someone to hang that movie on it doesn’t work and John was that guy. I think that he approaches his career in a different way and to me it makes it more interesting. It speaks to what he is like as a person. He's very interested in literature, art and film and makes interesting choices, not always huge studio movie choices, so I was happy to have him. But yeah he is underrated, totally.
SB: Poe is a very dark and tragic character. My favourite line in the film is where he says “I have often thought I could distinctly hear the sound of the darkness as it stole over the horizon”. It’s a role that could easily go from character to caricature. How did you approach his great internal melancholy without letting the character become a depressing bore that the audience can’t identify with?
JM: That’s probably partially me and partially John, It’s about keeping those things in check. I think once I get into editorial and I start showing the film and testing it I look for patterns and what people like and what they don’t like and if enough people are not liking things and Poe is becoming too verbose in certain sections then I know to pull back on that. I think I did that a little bit in the film but the script was pretty tight I have to say, but it is about keeping it in check like you said; slipping into caricature could be very easily done or him becoming a bore could be done so yeah I made sure it was tight (clicks fingers) and keeps moving and spoke to its genre and spoke to the psychological thriller horror genre to keep things moving rather than getting bogged down in some sort of literary classic or something.
SB: Alice Eve’s character could have quite easily slipped into typical damsel in distress but never does and she has some really great moments that are not what you would expect from the woman in peril role. How much of this was in the script and did you have any input at all?
JM: It was partially in the script and partially me too. I wanted to make sure that she was a match for Poe and then when she got taken she was a match for the killer. If you ever read anything about someone who is held captive like Patty Hearst there is different stages people go through, like first there is anger, then self-pity and then you get into the Stockholm Syndrome aspect of it and you start having a weak connection with your kidnapper. I wanted to make sure that she fought back a little bit and the feistiness she showed with Poe carried over into the casket and I think Alice did a good job of relaying that and there is a bit of that in her personality anyway (laughs), so she brought that to the role.
SB: How did you and the cast prepare for the shoot?
JM: There is a really great book by an English writer called Peter Ackroyd called Poe: A Life Cut Short, so they all read that and enjoyed it. It’s very concise and it’s a good book and then to varying degrees, John did a lot of his own research and Alice and Luke I gave a compendium of Poe’s stories to with some letters in the back of it. So everyone knew a decent amount about Poe and it wasn’t like we sat around and spoke about him all the time but there was times when we were rehearsing and me, Alice and John would talk about stories we would like and what aspects bled into the script.
SB: You filmed in Serbia and Hungary, how did this compare with the locations you have shot in before and do you feel this added to the overall feel of the film?
JM: It was cold! (laughs). Budapest I used because it was the closest approximation I found and there was a decent tax reason to do it there as opposed to Baltimore. Through production design and digital enhancement I could make it feel like 1849 Baltimore. Belgrade we mainly used for the stage work but there was one exterior location there where Poe’s house is burning to the ground. That was in Belgrade as well as the exterior of the Hamilton house and the horse rider going to the ball that was all Belgrade. Hollywood is a bit like a virus it goes to the next cheap place and films there and exhausts it and moves on to somewhere else. At the moment Belgrade is a great place to shoot it’s outside the EU and is very cheap, they have limited crew but the crew they have is very good and they will get better and better. Budapest is the new Prague or Sydney in terms of currently having its moment due to a mixture of the exchange rate and tax breaks you can get shooting there and they have more experienced crew there as well as more studios.
SB: Were there any films that you looked at or that influenced the look and feel of the film? At times the atmosphere is very reminiscent of an old Hammer horror.
JM: Yeah I wouldn’t cite any of the hammer horror films but I really liked Gregg Toland who shot Citizen Kane and Mad Love which definitely has Hammer aspects to it. He also shot the Long Voyage Home. Shadows and Fog by Woody Allen I showed to the crew as well as Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter. Stuff with high contrast, good use of negative space and interesting framing. Then there was also a bunch of other things like City of Lost Children, Stalker, some Kubrick films like Eyes Wide Shut for the ballroom scene, Barry Lyndon for the burnish kind of lamplight look and some of Gordon Willis’ Coppola movies like The Godfather for the same kind of burnish tone and Dracula. What I usually try and do is put together a 10 or 12 minute piece so that everyone can see where my headspace is going with things.
SB: The film is quite disturbing and graphic without ever going into meaty detail during the murders. Was there any consideration given as to how far to go and did you face any battles with the studio or ratings board?
JM: I thought it was important that if you have a movie about Edgar Allan Poe it has to feel like a movie about Poe. Some of his stories are very horrific and violent so I didn’t want it to be excessive and turn people off but I wasn’t afraid to show Poe’s stories as they really are. The Pit and the Pendulum is very gruesome if you ever read it and the orangutan loose with the scalpel in Murders in the Rue Morgue is pretty gruesome too. In The Tell Tale Heart a guy carves someone up and puts their pieces under the floor and you can hear their heart beating etc. Poe unto himself had all of those elements in his stories so I wanted to make sure they made it on to the screen but were not repulsive, as I'd like as many people to see it as possible.
SB: This is the first film you have directed without The Waschowski Brothers being involved in some way. How did it feel going it alone as it were?
JM: It didn’t feel that much different really. I had a great creative producer in Aaron Ryder and with Marc Evans & Trevor Macey the other producers. I kind of missed them because they are mates and we have fun whenever they are around, but they pretty much leave you alone as well to make the film you want to make. With this Aaron, Marc and Trevor were there if I needed them in the same way that Andy and Lana are there if I need them. I guess the only difference with the Waschowski’s is that sometimes they shoot some second unit for me and sometimes I shoot some second unit for them. Shaun O’Dell was my second unit guy this time and he was great but I missed Andy and Lana because we have this thing that has built up over ten or twelve years or however long it has been now.
SB: Revisionist history and literature mixed with horror seem very much in vogue right now with the likes of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies coming soon. Did you feel any pressure essentially being the first film of this type out of the gate?
JM: I think I’m a little bit different in that the key thing you said was Pride and Prejudice and ZOMBIES! And Abe Lincoln is a Vampire hunter. They are taking tried and true genre elements and putting them in there to exploit vampires or zombies. I think this is a little different. I don’t really feel any pressure because I don’t feel that I live in that universe but I totally get what you are saying, is there a period revival coming down the pipe? Yeah, I mean The Woman in Black is crazy popular here at the moment and I think it’s good. I think anything that isn’t a sequel at the moment that feels new and inventive is good. I think there is a definite amount of sequel fatigue at the moment and so it’s a pity because the summer is just about to kick off and that will be a bunch of sequels. So no I don’t feel the pressure I’m just glad there is new and inventive stuff coming out.
SB: The film deals with a man who makes real the fantasies of someone he admires and Poe then feels responsible. Recently the ‘V’ mask from V for Vendetta has been appearing at protests worldwide. I’m just wondering if you see any correlation between the story and the fact that you brought V into the public consciousness.
JM: (laughs) No, but I totally like that it has seeped into the cultural vernacular. You hope when you make something that it has some kind of cultural impact and to see it appropriated by Occupy Wall Street or the Scientology protestors is good I think. It speaks to the revolutionary spirit that was inherent in the movie and the questions that the movie asks like ultimately ‘What’s the morality of terrorism?’ and how one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Anytime people can get to protest and they feel like being anonymous behind a mask and feel unified like the film said. I think that’s pretty cool actually. I like that it has given people a voice to feel political again. We went through this really sort of fallow period when no one was political and it seems like almost a whole generation didn’t protest anymore. They have a good right to protest at the moment so yeah I think it’s cool, I’m happy about it actually.
The Raven opens in UK cinemas March 9th. To read our review, click HERE.
John Cusack will be doing a Q&A this Thursday (8th March) at 12pm – simply follow @JohnCusack on Twitter, send him your questions and tune in at 12pm on Thursday.