Unlike the many American teens who first encountered the work of Edgar Allan Poe in English class, James McTeigue, director of the upcoming thriller The Raven, discovered the Gothic writer in the lyrics of 1970s punk rock.
“I came to Poe in a really odd way,” admits McTeigue. “[It was] through my brothers, who were really in love with this band called Radio Birdman. They had this song called ‘Descent Into the Maelstrom’—named for a Poe story published in 1841—and my brothers went about finding the derivation of that. Through that they bought Poe books, and then they showed me. That was my young introduction to Poe.”
McTeigue, who was the first assistant director on all three Matrix films before making his directorial debut with V for Vendetta, says he was never a Poe fanatic. But when producer Aaron Ryder (Donnie Darko, Memento) suggested that they work together on a fictionalized account of the legendary writer’s life, McTeigue couldn’t say no: “He pitched me the script and I really responded to the material. It took off from there.”
The Raven, based on a script by Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston, introduces Poe (John Cusack) as a struggling writer whose concerns escalate from convincing Baltimore’s major newspaper to publish one of his essays to convincing lawman Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) that he isn’t involved in a series of murders that curiously mirrors the author’s lurid stories. Drawing upon his writing skills, Poe must try to uncover the identity of the serial killer who is channeling his stories as inspiration for grisly deeds.
The film has distinctive visual qualities, blending the muted hues of 19th-century photography with the palpable moodiness of a neo-noir. McTeigue, who knew from the start how he wanted The Raven to look, communicated his vision by way of a visual library of clips from classic and contemporary movies, which he shared with his cast and crew “to give them an idea of the space and the aesthetic I was going for,” notes the 44-year-old. “Ultimately, it’s never any one thing. It’s the approach where you take key scenes that… speak to parts of the film you’re trying to create.”
It’s a method McTeigue has successfully employed before; for The Raven, he showed his team everything from Russian sci-fi to Stanley Kubrick. “One of the films was Stalker, a Tarkovsky film. One was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. One was The City of Lost Children,” he says. “One was Cronos, the Guillermo del Toro movie. Dark City, the Alex Proyas movie. Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. Eyes Wide Shut. The Night of the Hunter. And Shadows and Fog, the Woody Allen movie, was another.
“There are also bits of Gregg Toland, who shot Citizen Kane,” McTeigue adds, noting how he admires the late cinematographer’s facility for “using negative space and shadows; it’s about working around the edges of the frame.”
McTeigue, a native of Australia, first saw some of these movies as a kid. He grew up in a household where movies of every kind were constantly playing on television, and his coming of age coincided with a seminal period in the development of Australia’s film industry.
“When I was growing up in the ’70s, there was a complete renaissance in the Australian film industry,” McTeigue recalls. “It never really existed before, [then] they set up a film school, [the Australian Film Television and Radio School, established in 1973], and out of that film school came quite a lot of good directors, like Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence) and Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career).
“I was conscious of those films,” McTeigue continues, “but most of my cultural upbringing was this crazy cross between American film and TV shows and British film and TV shows. We looked to the empire for some sort of cultural significance, and we got crazy amounts of films and TV shows. Probably more than you guys were getting in the U.S. and more than people were getting in the U.K., because Australia was a dumping ground.
“My dad was a great movie buff—he loved the Marx Brothers—but he was also steeped in film noir,” McTeigue adds. “And anything that he liked, if it had a re-run on the TV, he’d say, ‘You’ve got to come and watch this.’ Sometimes we’d like it and sometimes we’d hate it. There were only three TV stations, and one TV station ran films from midnight to dawn. My brothers and I used to stay up and watch. I got a pretty good education in English and American films.”
After graduating from the University of Sydney and working on a series of international productions throughout the 1990s, McTeigue was tapped to be the first assistant director on Andy and Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix.
“It was probably one of the hardest films I’ve ever had to do,” he says. “For directors that had only done one film before, [their] vision for what that film would be was completely unique and completely singular. They knew what they needed to do to achieve that, and there was a little bit of a dichotomy between what the studio was willing to give them and what they needed. We shot for a long time—nearly 120 days—and nearly every single one of those days was hard, because at that point it was completely unproven. They were responsible for a really large-budgeted film coming off the back of a really small-budgeted film, [1996’s Bound]. It wasn’t that there was studio interference, it was just that to get everything on the screen that they needed—and to get everything in the amount of time that we had—was really difficult.”
The Matrix elevated McTeigue’s career to new heights. George Lucas chose him as his first assistant director for 2002’s Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, and after serving as assistant director for the last two Matrix films, McTeigue took on his first film as a director with 2005’s cult classic V for Vendetta.
“There’s ultimately a difference because the buck stops with you,” McTeigue says of the jump from first AD to director. “I think as an assistant director, I was always very creative. I was much more interested in the creative side of assistant directing than the nuts-and-bolts production side. So as much as I could, I always wanted to help the directors get what they needed on the screen.
“But when you become the director, there’s an added pressure. You’re constantly thinking about the whole film, whereas the actors might be thinking about what’s immediately in front of them and various departments are thinking about their different jobs and what that means on a day-to-day basis. As a director, you’re trying to keep a handle on all those things, whether it’s the cinematography, the production design, the music or the sound design. After the end of the first week on V for Vendetta, I remember waking up and going, ‘Wow, that was tough.’”
Based on Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel of the same name, V for Vendetta features a Guy Fawkes mask-wearing avenging revolutionary named V, who fights against the totalitarian government of a dystopian future Britain. Interestingly, the Fawkes masks have been seen on protestors from Occupy Wall Street to Athens, Greece. McTeigue has viewed the phenomenon with a sense of pride.
“It’s so hard to make any sort of cultural impact these days, because everyone’s attention span is less than five seconds. Once you see people take up something like that, it’s nice to see the cultural impact it has,” he says. “It’s ultimately what you hope to do when you make a film.”
McTeigue will soon know whether or not his new movie has a similar effect on the film-going public. But the director can already say for certain that The Raven is similar to his previous efforts in at least one way: To get the movie made, he had to be ready for anything when he arrived for a day of shooting.
“There are always unforeseen problems,” he says, recalling the evening he and his crew spent filming exteriors that were built for the film in Budapest, Hungary. “We were shooting outside the Poe house while it’s burning to the ground. Ultimately on that night it started with freezing rain, then it started to snow and then it started to rain again. You’re wet within two minutes, and you’re standing there going, ‘How are we going to possibly achieve all this?’ Things were shorting out all over the place. If I was shooting that scene in downtown L.A. it probably wouldn’t have been as difficult, but you adapt. You see the potential in the places that you go to and you learn to deal with the problems as they’re presented to you.” MM
Relativity Media will release The Raven on April 27, 2012.
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