James McTeigue interview: The Raven, Poe, V For Vendetta, Altered Carbon, PG-13 and more

With The Raven heading to cinemas, we met its director, James McTeigue, to talk films, R-ratings, V For Vendetta Masks, pet raccoons, and much more…

Director James McTeigue was responsible for adapting the shadowy world of Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta in 2006, and painted the big screen crimson in the violent Ninja Assassin three years later. Now, McTeigue has brought shadows and gore together for the period serial killer thriller The Raven, which sees Edgar Allan Poe on the trail of a murderer whose crimes are inspired by the author’s tales of the macabre.

Ahead of The Raven’s UK release this Friday, it was a pleasure to sit with McTeigue and talk about Poe, the iconic status of V For Vendetta’s Fawkes mask, R-rated movies, and best of all, pet raccoons…

I wanted to start off, if I may, by talking about raccoons. Was the idea of giving Poe a pet raccoon in the script from the very beginning?

It was. When they got to writing the script, there were all these theories about how Poe died. And one of these theories is that he died of rabies, amongst many other theories. So we thought it might be fun to show him with a pet raccoon, and suggest that maybe that was how he got the rabies that killed him. It’s a bit obscure, but it was just fun to have the raccoon in there, and see John [Cusack] trying to perform with the raccoon was also pretty fun.

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Was it an attempt as well, I wondered, to make Poe seem more sympathetic to audiences? If you read about his life, he had a pretty squalid existence.

Yeah, to humanise him. There’s actually a deleted scene that I never put in, where Poe turns up at Fields’ house looking for somewhere to stay, and he asks whether Carl the raccoon can come in. And Fields stops him at the door. People hated Fields for it, because they loved the raccoon so much [laughs]. So I had to take that little bit out, as well as Poe looking at Fields askance, as if to say, “How could you not let the raccoon in?”

To answer your question more directly, it was to humanise him a little bit. Because, at some point, Poe’s put to task about his stories. Can you put works of art out there in the world that have elements of horror and the macabre, and not influence people at some point?

So how did you get involved with The Raven, because I understand the script was around for quite some time before you came aboard?

Yeah, the script was around for a while, actually. Aaron Ryder, our producer, I liked what he’d produced in the past – he’d done Memento, Donnie Darko, The Prestige, and had a very good pedigree. And I thought the script was really good – I must admit, I couldn’t understand how it hadn’t been made, so I became very proactive about doing it. Because finding a script, at least in Hollywood, that is able to blend literature and a popcorn element successfully is rare, so I jumped at the chance to do it.

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There are links, I thought, between The Raven and V For Vendetta, visually. Was that something that attracted you to it?

A lot about the film and the way the murders work, is what’s lurking in the shadows? What’s in the periphery, there? And I remember talking to Danny Ruhlmann the director of photography, and the production designer, about how, for me, it was about a lot of negative space, which you find in graphic novels like V For Vendetta. Also, there are contrasts between foreground and background, deep focusing in various places, and then I showed them a whole raft of stuff that I thought was influential. Night Of The Hunter. City Of Lost Children. And Kubrick stuff, actually – Eyes Wide Shut for its ballroom scene, Barry Lyndon, that burnished kind of look. Stuff from all over the place that spoke to the aesthetic.

It reminded me of Phantom Of The Opera as well.

Yeah. I really enjoyed it – my father was a big film buff. But our second unit director, he had shot a recent Phantom Of The Opera. So we talked about that, and how he achieved it.

How did you go about casting John Cusack? There aren’t very many actors who could really play Poe.

I think the great thing about John is the great empathy he brings to his characters. And Poe’s tricky – he’s kind of multi-faceted, very polarising. Some regard him as just an alcoholic, drug user, womaniser, married his 13-year-old cousin. We needed to show that, at some point, he was broke, destitute. In the bar scene, you get to see the microcosm of the macrocosm of Poe. He’s very charming, but when he doesn’t get what he wants, he becomes cajoling, and then when that doesn’t work, he’s belligerent.

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To have a character that’s like that, and still have the audience find him sympathetic, you need to hang him on someone like John. I think that his physicality was very like Poe – even though he’s not got that iconic look that you will know of Poe, but with the hair and the goatee, and he lost a bunch of weight.

He’s kind of a confidence trickster, isn’t he? Which is like his stories, which were hoaxes, in some cases.

Yeah. I mean, he’s the precursor to so many genres, whether it’s detective fiction or science fiction. Then there’s the Gold Bug, this crazy mathematical story – it just ran the gamut, this great oeuvre of work. So many styles and concerns.

The other thing I was wondering about The Raven was, you can’t shy away from gore in a film about Poe stories. Was that something you had to fight for?

I was pretty adamant that you can’t have a movie about Poe without some gore. In his stories, like Murders In The Rue Morgue, that’s an Orangutan with a scalpel, cutting a victim’s head off and stuffing the body up a chimney. Or The Pit And The Pendulum, occurs entirely in the dark with this huge mechanism. Or The Telltale Heart, which is about a murderer hiding a body under the floorboards, and when the police come round, he thinks he can hear their heart beating from under the floor.

So there’s all those horror aspects in Poe, and at some point, you have to name check them. I was happy to do it. It was fun to do.

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Obviously, you’re no stranger to action sequences – you made Ninja Assassin, which is all action. How did it compare as a technical challenge?

It’s funny, you know. Ninja Assassin was a straight-up homage to films and TV shows that I grew up with, and people go to me, “V For Vendetta, that’s a cool action movie.” But that movie is two hours of talking heads, with about ten minutes of action in it. So I think you pick your set-pieces, and you try to make them work thematically.

Action is always about planning. I think, for me, I storyboard it out, then I’ll get together with the stunt coordinator. And then I’ll tape it. I’ll digitally put it down, refine it, so that by the time you get to the set, you know exactly what you’re going to do, and how you’re going to do it. But I like the planning part of it.

So which film has been the most technically challenging overall?

I’d say V For Vendetta. I’ve done a lot of large films before that, but that was my first directing film. Before that I’d worked on the Matrix trilogy, Star Wars, Moulin Rouge, Dark City, a bunch of stuff. But [V For Vendetta] was a big piece to bite off. I really enjoyed blowing up the Houses of Parliament, which was quite tricky – lots of large scale models, and some of the fighting sequences, the underground end sequence, that was all pretty complicated. But I really enjoyed it – it was a great experience.

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How do you feel about V’s mask being everywhere, worn by Anonymous protesters, for example?

I like it. You always hope that when you make something, it’ll have some sort of cultural impact. But it’s hard to get any sort of bandwidth, you know, there’s so much…

It’s getting more difficult to do that, isn’t it?

It is getting more difficult. And to see it be taken by Occupy Wall Street, or Anonymous – I like it, because it speaks to the spirit of the film, that anarchic tone. What’s a freedom fighter? When you don’t have a voice, I think the mask is a good way for people to feel free to do things they might not normally do. I think when Alan Moore and Dave Lloyd chose Guy Fawkes, it was because he was the first agitator. I thought they did that very deliberately, and it’s great to see it become such an icon.

How would you say working as first assistant director on The Matrix and Star Wars affected your development as a director?

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I think assistant directing falls on two sides. You align yourself with the director or you align yourself with the producer. Not that they’re two mutual exclusives, but I always thought you were there to get what the director wants on the screen. So I was proactive in the creative department. It depends on the people you work with – the Wachowskis were super generous. We spent several years working on those Matrix movies, and they said, “Look, we’re beat. But what about V? What do you think about directing it? We’ll produce.”

So I think that in itself was a great experienced, but the other people you mentioned, you take little bits from them, you know? Little bits that become a part of what you create – whether it’s George Lucas or Baz Luhrmann, or any of those people I’ve worked with. They all do things differently, so when you make your own movie, you think, “I’ll take a little bit of that, and a little bit of this”, and that comes out in your creative output.

Having worked with the Wachowskis, have you ever heard them mention a fourth Matrix? Possibly? Ever?

Never. [Laughs] Never a vague mention. I think, for them, even when we were making the first Matrix, the second and third one were formed. It wasn’t like they had the success of the first one, and then rush out and think of something. It was all already there. I think the cycle, for them, was complete, and I know the way they are creatively, I can’t imagine in what world they’d try to plan out a fourth one. It’s not like Die Hard or whatever.

I think, also, people have sequel fatigue at the moment, too. It’s a bit of bad luck with [The Raven] going into the summer, but I think that’s hopefully why people will respond to it – it’s fresh, new, not based on anything that’s gone before at all.

It’s different, tonally as well isn’t it?

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I think if you do something different, people are receptive to it in the UK – The Woman In Black has done well. But in the United States, you have to find a way into it, or give [audiences] the impression that they’re going to be entertained. That’s really important.

I thought it was quite brave to make an R-rated action film like Ninja Assassin for the same reason. Would you be interested in doing more pure action films like that?

I liked doing it. The only thing I should have done is, if you’re talking about making things accessible, I probably shouldn’t have called it Ninja Assassin. I know we bandied around a lot of names – Army Of Shadows, a whole bunch of stuff. The film did pretty well, but my take away from it is that, I think, some people were put off by it being called Ninja Assassin, in the same way that some people might be put off by going to see a ninja movie. Ninja movies are about violence and blood, so I went, “Right. If I’m going to do it, I’m really going to do it.”

And making R-rated action movies? I like it. I must say, it feels like my milieu is R, you know. So far I don’t think I’ve ever been drawn to a PG-13 movie.

So many films are being forced down that path, aren’t they? The Die Hard franchise, perhaps even Prometheus.

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It’s a funny thing. And I don’t know about here, but in the States and the MPAA, there are some directors who get a get out of jail free card. Like Spielberg – there’s a bunch of his movies that should never have been PG-13. If they’d been made by anyone but Spielberg, they’d have been rated R. And Ridley Scott’s one of those guys too. And good luck to them, if you can do the film you want to do, because ultimately, making an R film, you cut out a lot of your audience.

Like Ninja Assassin, for example, it’s not that I wanted to make a PG-13, but the biggest core of its audience is boys that are 14 to 17 years old, and it’s much more difficult for them to get in to see those movies.

So making R movies, you cut back on your audience. I can’t believe that Prometheus is going to be PG-13.

It doesn’t seem right to me either. I’ve heard people say that Alien might be a PG-13 today, but it’s still an extremely intense, dark film.

It’d get an R for that chestburster sequence, it’s pretty graphic. It’s cool though, when you think about it – John Hurt, with something bustin’ out of him [laughs].

On the subject of potentially violent popcorn movies, I have to ask you about Altered Carbon. Is that adaptation something you’re still involved with?

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I was involved with it, actually. Joel Silver had the option on it. There was a rewrite done by this guy called Joshua Marston, who’s a director also. He’s just done an Albanian film called The Forgiveness Of Blood. But then, ultimately, Warner went a little soft on it. Because it’s a big, expensive thing to make – it’s sci-fi.

And extremely violent. Or at least the book was.

Yeah. It’s funny you should say that, because there was an R-rated version and a PG-13 version. And the PG-13 script was nowhere near as good as the R-rated one. It just wasn’t, nor could it be. I would have liked to have done that, but I see that the option’s been picked up by someone else now. So it’s kind of been in my periphery for about three or four years, I guess, but I’d like to make that movie. It could be a really good, smart movie. Maybe if I’d said if it’s a sequel to something, I’ll get to make it! [Laughs] I should have called it Altered Carbon 2 – they would have green lit it immediately.

So what are you working on next? I read about a film called Message From The King.

Yes, I’ve got that. Which is an LA-based movie, about a guy who comes in from South Africa looking for his sister, who’s dropped off the radar. In pretty short order, he finds out she’s dead, finds her in the morgue. And it becomes his quest to find out why she was killed and by who, and about all these disparate communities all over LA who she knew – Armenian gangsters, Hollywood producers, a Beverly Hills dentist. So he goes through the town to ultimately find out why she was killed. It’s written by two English guys, actually, Stephen Cornwell and Oliver Butcher.

And another thing I’m working on is a retelling of the Elliott Ness and Al Capone story for Relativity. That’s pretty close too – it’s having script revisions going on at the moment.

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Is it anything like The Untouchables?

It’s probably a 180 degree opposite to The Untouchables. De Palma is, whatever you want to say about his movies… The Untouchables was from a very particular era, and not very real. Ultimately, Al Capone was 30 and Elliott Ness was 26 when their rivalry was going on, so this is a much more grounded, realistic look at what was going on in Prohibition-era Chicago, so it’s a more muscled-up version than The Untouchables was. Less humour based than The Untouchables – Sean Connery and all that.

Have you got any names attached yet for either of those films?

You know, I’d tell you, but I’m right in the middle of it. And if I tell you, I know I’ll curse it. [Laughs]

James McTeigue, thank you very much.

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