With exciting and visually stunning films like ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘Ninja Assassin’ already under his belt, director James McTeigue is ready to unleash his latest bit of movie magic upon the masses! In ‘The Raven’, the macabre and lurid tales of Edgar Allan Poe are vividly brought to life – and death – in this stylish, gothic thriller starring John Cusack as the infamous author. When a madman begins committing horrific murders inspired by Poe’s darkest works, a young Baltimore detective (Luke Evans) joins forces with Poe in a quest to get inside the killer’s mind in order to stop him from making every one of Poe’s brutal stories a blood chilling reality. A deadly game of cat and mouse ensues, which escalates when Poe’s love, played by Alice Eve (She’s Out of My League), becomes the next target. Intrepid Pictures’ The Raven also stars Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges) and Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Faster). Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon sat down with James McTeigue to discuss his career in cinema, the making of ‘The Raven’, the challenges involved and what the future holds for him!
Hey there, James! Thanks for taking time out to talk with us today.
No problem, Jason!
I wanted to give our readers a little background on you. What originally intrigued you about the world of filmmaking and made you pursue it as a career?
I guess I get a lot of film from my dad. He grew up in a time of classic filmmaking. He really instilled that in me and my brothers. Quite often we would sit down and watch Marx Brothers movies or he would try to shoehorn us into watching “Wuthering Heights” or something like that. I think, ultimately, it was his love of a whole range of movies that made me want to start making movies when I got a little older.
Who would you cite as your biggest professional influence?
I would say The Wachowskis. You know, I got to work on the “Matrix” films with them and then they produced a couple movies for me. That was pretty influential. Also, I had a lecturer at University, a guy named Tony Wellington who really, really knew film and knew mainstream but also a lot of eclectic movies. I think he was definitely a big influence on me.
Your latest project is “The Raven.” What intrigued you most about this film?
It was Edgar Allan Poe mostly. Aaron Ryder was the producer who had done some great films like “Momento,” “Donnie Darko” and “The Prestige,” so I knew the material would be very good. I really like the conceit of the movie which was “Let’s take elements of Poe’s life and aspects of his stories and meld them together where he becomes a character in one of his own stories.” It seemed much more interesting than just doing a straight biopic of Poe’s life.
I am sitting in downtown Baltimore as we speak, Poe’s hometown. “The Raven” takes place here and is seen through Edgar Allan Poe’s eyes. Because the world changed so much, you had to shoot outside of Baltimore to achieve the right look. How did that impact you stylistically?
Ultimately, I would have loved to shoot in the Baltimore area, if the version of 1849 Baltimore still existed but, as you know, much of the city got burnt to the ground in the early 1900s. From there, you start researching and looking at how Baltimore used to be and you start researching and discovering the places that could fill in for the city in that time period. That led us to Budapest and then I knew that I could make a version of 1849 with some art direction, along with some digital map painting. It becomes a tapestry that you begin weaving together, you know? You take a bit from here and a bit from there and make sure all of the components feel like you have created a world that feels real and that Edgar Allan Poe could have existed in.
I am sure another big part of bringing this film to life was also the actors involved. There is no shortage of talent with this film but was it difficult to find the right mix of actors to bring this film from script to screen?
When John [Cusack] came in, I knew he had a really good handle metered on the Poe character for this story. I just knew from the moment we had our first meeting that he was going to be right to play Poe. Luke Evans came in and read for the role of Detective Fields and Alice Eve came in and read for Emily Hamilton. Just sitting with those two, just talking with them and then putting them on paper, I knew they would be right. Then it became about populating the other roles and I thought Brendan Gleeson did an amazing job as the father, Captain Hamilton. I knew him from a lot of other movies, so it was kind of a joy to cast him.
I know you opted to shoot “The Raven” on film as opposed to shooting it digitally. What was your thought process there and what did it bring to the film?
I think this film required richer, deeper blacks. I wanted to make it feel like there might be the element of someone sort of lurking on the edge of the frame. I thought the film was good for that. I wanted to have rich facial tones, whereas when I shoot digital, and I know digital, I think it still doesn’t deal with the face as well as film does at the moment, not that it is far away. I just think the aesthetic of this film lent itself to being shot on film a little more.
Did you find yourself doing anything differently on this film than you have done on previous outings?
I think every film is different and every film reveals something to you which you need to learn and this film was no different. What I ultimately tried to do was make a studio looking movie for not a studio price. That required a whole different sort of skill set with the places I had to go to film it and some of the things I would normally get to work with on a studio movie weren’t apparent this time around. I think I achieved the goal I set out to achieve. I think I got pretty close.
What was the biggest challenge on this project as a director?
It is always hard to say, ya know? Each day is a series of little challenges. Serbia is still feeling the hangover of the war they had there but they are really coming along. The people who work in that country are really great and really resourceful. They may not be as skilled as some crews you have worked with in the past but what they lack in their skill set, they make up for in their enthusiasm, so it makes you think of different ways to do things! Just changing my traditional way of thinking from the way I normally make a movie was one of the biggest challenges.
Looking back on your career and what you learned along the way, how do you feel you evolved as a director through the years?
I started off as an assistant director. As an assistant director, you can always fall down on the production side or you can fall down on the directorial side. I always thought that being an assistant director was about helping a director find their vision when we are on the set or working together. When I started directing films myself, I was always glad that I had that background in assistant directing because I just knew intuitively what was happening on the set. I think ultimately in the development of my career, I have come to concentrate more on working with the actors because you know the set will kind of run itself or you are confident enough that the set will run itself in a lot of ways as long as you are shaping and guiding what everyone is doing. I guess, overall, the confidence level is probably getting a little better!
Being a seasoned vet of the film industry, what is the best piece of advice you would give to young filmmakers looking to blaze a trail like you have done?
Blaze a trail, huh? [laughs] I don’t know! I guess, just keep doing what you love. I don’t mean to sound trite like that but it is great fun making movies and I think if you just keep at it, you will eventually get to the place you want to get to. I started off as runner and then a third assistant and then a second assistant and on and on. I think sometimes now, there is a propensity now to come right out and go, “I am a director now! That is all I ever wanted to do and that is all I am ever going to do.” However, I really think there is something to be learned from learning the business from the ground up. I think it is something which has always helped me whether I was an assistant director or a director. So, just keep going at it!
What other projects are on the horizon for you that you are excited about?
I have this movie called “Message From The King” which I am in the middle of casting up at the moment. I am in the middle of that process. It is sort of a film noir-ish film set in Los Angeles which shines a light on the underbelly and the fabric of the city. “Ness/Capone” is another movie for Relativity Media. It is re-telling of the Eliot Ness and Al Capone myth. Those guys were very young when they were chasing each other in Chicago during prohibition. Eliot Ness was 26 and Al Capone was 30, so it is sort of a muscled up version of that story. Those are the two films that are front and center at the moment.
That sounds like exciting stuff! We look forward to seeing even more of your work in the future! Thanks for your time today, sir!
Thank you, Jason! It was nice to talk to you!