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Today is the 162nd anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan
Poe—the man who invented the detective story, and whose dark imagination
sparked a literary and cinematic legacy that continues to this day. One of its
highest-profile modern expressions will be THE RAVEN, coming from Relativity Media March 9, 2012, in which Poe (played by John Cusack) must help
track down a serial murderer who takes inspiration from his horrifying tales.
Fango took part in a roundtable discussion with director James McTeigue and
co-star Luke Evans (pictured left) about the film and how it brings Poe’s classic fiction to
Q: How much of the film is based on historical and literary
fact, and how much is fantastical?
JAMES McTEIGUE: There’s a portion of it that’s fantastical,
because Poe is in the middle of a murder mystery—a serial killer is loose in
1849 Baltimore, so obviously that’s fiction. The nice thing about the film was
taking facts of Poe’s life, and some of his stories, and melding them together
in this fictional tale.
Q: Luke, how do you factor into this?
LUKE EVANS: I play a detective called Emmett Fields who
works on the Baltimore police force. You’re introduced to him when he comes to
the scene of the first murder, which he finds out is the first of a string of
murders by this serial killer who’s inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
When my character looks around the crime scene, it reminds him of a story he’s
read, and he goes and searches it out and realizes it was written by this
writer named Edgar Allan Poe—who he brings in, primarily as a suspect, to the
police station, and realizes soon that he isn’t a suspect, but the writer of
this crime. The story unfolds as the killer leaves clues, and my character has
to use Poe and Poe has to work with me—two people who would likely never speak
in real life. There’s nothing very similar that goes on in their lives; one’s
very methodical, he’s a detective, and the other one is a poet, an alcoholic, a
drug-taker—not very similar in personality, and they’re forced to work together
to second-guess this serial killer before he kills again.
Q: What is it that seems to draw both of you time and again
to genre fare or fantasy or period material, and what sort of challenges are
there in making it relatable to a modern audience, or to yourselves?
McTEIGUE: I think Poe’s stories, in themselves, are
timeless. That’s why he’s still so iconic; he was the precursor to a lot of
detective fiction and science fiction, and influenced authors like Lovecraft;
there are myriad people who have been influenced by him. What particularly
attracted me to this was the opportunity to make a film that’s partially about
Poe’s life—there are elements of his life woven in and out of the movie—but
also the chance to touch on Poe’s fiction, because the motif in the script is a
murderer taking Poe’s stories and adding a little twist to them. The killer
constructs this environment in which Poe kind of finds himself in the middle of
one of his own tales. The fantasy element is always great in period, because we
know of the period but obviously we’re not there, so we can take elements and
bend the facts a little bit, if you like.
EVANS: Yeah, I’ve dabbled in period films in my career, and
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each one, but they’ve all been very different.
Basically, it’s not been sort of, I have to do period films; I look at the
script, and then if I like the story, that’s really what draws me in to do
them. But I have to say, it’s a big challenge taking on period, because you have
to discover a time that’s long gone; the dress is different, the speech is
different, and what’s interesting is when it’s about a factual character like
this one is—even though my character is fictional and we do fictionalize the
last five days of Poe’s life, when he sort of disappeared and then appeared
again in the final days before he died—you can do an incredible amount of
research. I used all the information I found on Poe, and on Baltimore in the
period of 1849, to inform my character, and that’s one of the great gifts of
doing period, especially when it’s backed up with such a great script, as this
Q: You mentioned that Poe was an alcoholic and a drug
user—is that something that informs the character in a greater way, or plays a
larger role in the plot?
McTEIGUE: It’s in the film; I don’t shy away from it. That
was a reality of Poe’s life; part of his troubles was being an alcoholic and
drinking opiate tinctures, so that’s all in the film. It would be hard to do a
movie that has Edgar Allan Poe as a character and shy away from that stuff,
because that’s what sort of maketh the man and informed his stories.
EVANS: This film also doesn’t shy away from how gory and how
detailed the murder stories that Poe wrote 160-something years ago were, and how
topical and shocking they are even today. James, I think, wanted to make a
movie that didn’t shy away from any of that; it’s a proper Gothic
mystery/suspense thriller which has all of those murder and crime scenes in it,
which definitely gives it a sort of scary edge.
Q: You’re not shying away from an R rating, then?
McTEIGUE: No, uh-uh.
Q: How did you work with John Cusack to develop this
particular interpretation of Poe, and what did John bring of himself to the
McTEIGUE: John, from the first time I met him, knew a lot
about Poe, and we talked about, if he was to play Poe, it would be great for
him to get in that space and get in that skin, and he went a long way toward
doing that. He lost weight to give himself the drawn sort of Poe look, he grew
a goatee and died his hair a little blacker than it usually is, to really get
into Poe’s physical space. And then, John always talked about how he was
friendly with Hunter S. Thompson, and he could see parallels between Hunter and
Poe, and I think that helped inform the character for John. So he came to the
set sort of fully formed, which was nice.
Q: Do you have any favorite moments from Poe’s stories that
you got to recreate or bring to life on the big screen, and how do you match
that against some of the horror films we’ve seen lately, like the SAW movies?
McTEIGUE: We don’t try to live in the same space as SAW. The
construct of our film is the killer taking Poe’s stories and putting a new
twist on them. It was fun to do the aftermath of “Murders in the Rue Morgue,”
and it was great to recreate our version of “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and to
do part of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I definitely had fun creating those, because
Poe obviously had a macabre sense of humor as well as a macabre sensibility.
I’m not trying to compete with SAW; SAW is very particular, and we’re more in
the psychological suspense-thriller mode rather than a straight-out horror
Q: In terms of the action and the kills, did you lean
heavily on practical FX, or are you doing a lot of that with CGI in post?
EVANS: There were a lot of real effects, and plenty of
prosthetics and lots of blood.
McTEIGUE: I always find that special effects are better if
they’re based on something, whether it’s prosthetics or model-making or
whatever. There’s a good mixture in there; it’s probably like 60 percent
practical and 40 percent digital, or thereabouts.
Q: Are either of you fans of the Vincent Price Poe films of
the past, and if so, which one is your favorite?
McTEIGUE: [Laughs] You know, I like those films, but they’re
incredibly dated. I guess my favorite is FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER; I thought
that was a pretty fun one. It has some of the worst camerawork I’ve seen in my
entire life, though; it felt like, when they do a dolly move, that someone’s
purposely shaking the camera from side to side. But having said that, Roger
Corman obviously influenced so many people, and Vincent Price was such a good
person to have in those films. They’re so melodramatic; that’s probably the
best word for them.
Q: How difficult is it to juggle the expectations that come
with adapting or interpreting Poe’s work, and yet playing against that in a
McTEIGUE: I think, as I was saying before, part of the fun
was having the basis of Poe’s stories, but then adding a twist to them. With
Edgar Allan Poe, who’s so well-known, and his stories are so well-known—they’re
in the curricula at schools, whether it’s “The Raven” or any of the
others—there will always be people who call you out on inaccuracies. But in any
adaptation you try to do, you try to get the essence of the character, and
that’s what I was going for here: the essence of Poe, and parts of his life. If
you nail those, as long as people feel you’re true to the stories, and true to
whatever fictional element you’ve added, people will enjoy it for
Q: Is this film along the lines of something like SLEEPY
HOLLOW, where there’s a sense of fun to it, or does it have a more
straightforward, horrific tone?
McTEIGUE: I would say the tone is more like a film like
SE7EN; that’s where it sort of falls. SE7EN uses the Seven Deadly Sins as its
motif, and it’s about two people trying to work out what the killer’s next move
is, what the next deadly sin is that he’ll go after. And this is two disparate
characters trying to come together to get inside the mind of the killer, to see
what story he’ll do next and whether they can break down these complex clues he
leaves to try and get a jump on the killer and catch him.
EVANS: There is horror in it, and a very strong narrative,
and some quite complex relationships going on with the main characters as well,
which I think is important. It’s not just about the gory murders, even though
they are in there, and they are quite dramatically vivid. There is a very strong
narrative that’s important to the characters’ journeys.
Q: Aside from it being darker, what else did you do to
differentiate this film from the dynamic seen in the recent SHERLOCK HOLMES?
McTEIGUE: For me personally—and no dis to SHERLOCK
HOLMES—that film is watching Robert Downey Jr. be comedic for two hours, and it
kind of gets lost in what Downey is doing. It’s like sometimes, if Jude Law
wasn’t calling him Sherlock, I’d kind of forget I was in a Sherlock Holmes
movie [laughs]. We’re a much different beast; it’s not as comedic as SHERLOCK
HOLMES. Of course, there are parallels to be drawn—we’re period, they’re
period—but we’re about as close to SHERLOCK HOLMES as TRANSFORMERS is.
EVANS: Also, the relationship between the two characters,
even though you might think it’s like Watson and Sherlock Holmes…in our movie
they spend a lot of time fighting against each other because one doesn’t
respect the other, and they’re forced to work together. So the journey is
completely different, really. They have to find a common ground where they can
speak civilly to each other, so even though it might look like the
Holmes-and-Watson relationship, it’s very, very different.
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