James McTiegue has a lot of darkness in him. He’s worked on projects from The Matrix to Dark City, and his latest is The Raven, a macabre thriller with a literary twist. Here he talks about what draws him to the dark side, how much fake blood he used, and why he think Edgar Allen Poe is “repulsive and wacky,” in an endearing way.
The film was a mixture of fact and fiction. How much did you know or research about that period, and how much did you want the film to hew to historical accuracy in character, ambience, and feeling?
I wanted it to be somewhat historically correct, and I did do a lot of research. When we went looking for somewhere to shoot the movie, I wanted somewhere that would be a good standing for 1849 Baltimore. So that was like Budapest where we shot. With some sort of digital augmentation and art direction from the production designer Roger Ford
I wanted to speak to the period that Poe lived in, so I was careful. The research is always the fun part, looking at drawings and early daguerreotypes.
Were involved in the set design at all, was that fun?
Yeah, it is. It’s always a discussion, you always come – or, I guess I always do – come with firm opinions about what I want, but then I think, the film being so collaborative, the reason you have a production designer is because they go off and do their own research, and it’s like a melding of the two ideas.
I got a little bit of From Hell, Saw, Sherlock Holmes all mixed together in this movie. Were there other films that left an impression on you, and inspired the look and feel of The Raven?
Yeah, they weren’t those films, unfortunately. [Laughs] I always make up a reel of films that speak to what we’re trying to do that I can show to the creative team, kind of like a moodboard.
So I showed them Coppola’s Dracula, Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog, there’s some films that cinematographer Greg Tollen (who shot Citizen Kane) but also shot this other great film called Mad Love; City of Lost Children was one of them; a little bit of Moulin Rouge for all the theater stuff, and because I wasn’t try to make a complete period piece, I sort of liked what Moulin Rouge did to update a period. Obviously [The Raven] wasn’t as arch as Moulin was, but I think there’s some good things that that does.
There’s a whole bunch, Stalker, from Tchikovsky was one; a whole sort of mélange of things, Nosferatu.
I can see why you said it’s like some of those things. I would say it’s like a little less than Saw probably. What I was trying to do with what you see is speak to what Poe did in his stories, which are actually quite macabre and actually quite graphic at come points.
You shot the Raven on film, giving it a richer feel and deeper blacks, which worked well for this genre. Where do you land on the film vs. digital argument?
I think I land in the Chris Nolan camp. Digital is obviously what is coming; or what has arrived, I should say. I think it would be a shame if you couldn’t shoot film anymore, cause it’s always with the advent of one technology to discount older technology. I think there’s room for both. Digital is 99 percent of the way there, at the moment, still doesn’t deal with facial tones very well. But I’d hate to see film go away forever, cause I love shooting on it. I shoot on both, cause I shoot commercials sometimes, but I thought this film leant itself to shooting on film. Cause you’re right when you say, the blacks are richer. I wanted to make you feel like there are person unknown lurking in the shadows, and I think film help you do that. Cause it’s a chemical process rather than an electronic practice, so it just feels a little different to your eye.
A lot of the films you’ve worked on have a darkness to them, (V for Vendetta, The Matrix, Dark City). What about this sort of shadowy storytelling captures your imagination?
I think you need to speak to my therapist, right? [Laughs] I guess I like the revenge story. If I look at the films, there’s a certain aspect of revenge that runs through everything that I’ve done. But also, I think visually that’s the sort of film that I’m attracted to, as well. I think I’m probably drawn more to the those films, so when I set out to shoot them, that’s what they end up looking like. It’s just a visual preference, I guess.
Were you a fan of Poe?
I was a fan of Poe before I started, but a peripheral fan, I guess. I knew who he was, I’d read some of his stories, but obviously now I know a LOT more about his life, I know LOT more about his stories. It’s great, when you set out to make a movie, you want to select something that’s going to keep you going back to the well every day, you know the period of the movie becomes two years, three years, whatever it is. With someone like Poe, you keep finding things inside of his stories, and he wrote in so many different styles and genres that it’s fun to take on a character like Poe.
And his life was crazy and interesting.
Extra crazy. Did you find he had to tone down some of the crazy? I think he married his prepubescent cousin…?
Yes, I know, yes, it’s hard now to show him married to his thirteen year old cousin, that’s not gonna fly, right?
But I mean that sort of speaks to the film, I tried to make it a sort of conglomerate of Poe experiences, like Emily’s father is meant to represent Poe’s adopted father, and Emily herself was meant to represent a few of the women in his life, rather than just Virginia.
Was it hard to tone John Cusack down far enough to a socially-phobic recluse?
The great thing about John, and why he’s had such a long and storied career in the film industry is that he has great empathy, or audiences find great empathy in him, and if you’re going to make a story about such a troubled and in some way, kind of repulsive character (he’s a little wacky, Poe) that John would be a good person to do that with, cause I think audiences would get kind of keyed in to his troubles rather than turned off by them.
I think John has a little dark space that he liked to go, and was willing to exploit. I think he saw some parallels in Poe to some of his artist friends.
So, it was a good experience, he’s very smart and erudite, and a really good actor, and can give you a lot. It’s nice to work with someone who’s so confidant in their craft that they can explore a little bit, too.
Did you have a favorite scene to shoot?
I really liked shooting the ballroom, I thought that was a big, good canvas to shoot on. Sort of the summing up of all the characters and where they are in the movie before everything goes haywire.
I also really liked shooting in the tunnels. You don’t get to see a location like that very often.
Was that on location, or was that a set?
It was a mixture, actually, there’s place outside of Belgrade called Nova sad which has this amazing series of tunnels buried into this hillside, which made up this fort, I think 16 miles of tunnels. So we shot partially in there and then Roger Ford, production designer, made this great set with varying angles and you could move walls to make the tunnels seem longer and force perspective.
Did Ford also create the room with the hanging pendulum? That set looked a little Piranesi-like, with the stairs going up and down.
Yeah, that was actually an attic that we found on top of a school. It was a real room that we augmented with a blade and the cogs and the machinery that made it work.
It was a creepy space to begin with.
The pendulum wasn’t real, but it was close to one. We had the requisite prop blade, and everything worked, the pendulum swinging back and forth, that was all done with the effects department and with Roger.
How much CG would you say the film involved, with all the gore and swinging pendulums?
I would say less than 50% CG, to tell you the truth. There’s one or two shots in the pit and the pendulum scene that is almost all CG. I think the best CG always works from a place with a practical basis, so I always like to, you know, if you’re doing blood, do it for real, then add to it digitally if you have to.
If you’re doing sort of matte paintings and streets to extend the street, then start with something, start with the street looking good with some art direction, and then add on to it.
People’s eyes have become so sophisticated now, they can tell the difference between CG blood and “real” fake blood.
Yeah, I think they can, and I think there’s a sort of standard held up, too, you know, a Transformers movie, for example. 60% of the movie is CG, but people totally buy into that.
Too much CG, for me, personally.
I kind of miss the Indiana Jones melting skull days.
Laughs. Right. And you have to be careful, cause people are sophisticated now, and very cinema literate, so it makes you work harder and makes you think harder. I think that’s great.