Interview with Constantine director, Francis Lawrence

Interview with Constantine director, Francis Lawrence
Director talks about going from music videos to big-budget A-lister
Updated: 02-08-2005

Q: Back when we last spoke with you, you mentioned that you felt that you were really getting away with something with this movie, and that the studio had no idea what you were coming up with. What was their reaction when you first showed it to them?


FL: They really embraced it. From the beginning, I think they never really understood the tone of this movie. I think they originally thought this movie should be like Ghostbusters or Men in Black or something like that, that kind of tongue-in-cheek kind of movie.  And we always fought against that. But I have to say, to their credit, we showed them…we put together this 25 minute little package of clips that we showed to get them excited about it, and they got excited about it and they completely supported the movie, which is great. We got our R rating and they wanted a PG-13 and they didn’t make us change it. And so they were really, really supportive. I have to give them credit.


Q: What about the pushback in release?  Was that your decision?


FL: No, actually. It was their decision because they’d thought this was a small film that they were gonna release in September. What they realized is that they wanted to make this one of their tent pole movies. And they had too many because they had Troy and Ocean’s 12 and Phantom of the Opera and this and that and so they made this their first tent pole of ’05. It’s their first big movie of the year in the first quarter. So they really could focus their attention and their marketing and all this kind of stuff on it. It was because of the excitement of showing them the footage that made them do it.


Q: This felt like a real summer movie…


FL: Yeah, I mean I don’t know. It’s interesting. I was obviously worried when they first told me, but I’m not an expert in release times. They show you these charts on how much money people spend on weekends and this and that, and people spend money, man. Movies have like $50+ million openings (in February). It’s crazy. So it could be a really good thing. I’m glad it’s not a Summer release, because Summer movies come out and then they’re gone in a week.


Q: Coming from a music video background, do you ever wish you’d done a smaller film as your first?


FL: The only time I think about that is when I think about how much money this movie has to make to like break even. Then I think maybe I should have made a smaller one. But I mean, in trying to tackle it?  No. On a day-to-day basis, it was kinda the same. It’s like the same amount of equipment and the crew, and I felt like I had the same amount of time I have on videos and things. If it’s a small indie film or a big movie like this, it’s the same sort of story and characters you have to deal with, so that wasn’t the issue. It’s just sort of the pressure of how much money it cost.


Q: It seems like kind of a bold movie to not have your two main characters kissing. That’s what audiences will expect, don’t you think?


Yeah, that was…our idea was that, sure, there might be something that’s there between them, some kind of a sexual energy, but we didn’t want them to get together. It’s not what the movie’s about. I think it would have been kind of predictable and kind of cheesy if they’d gotten together, especially if they would have kissed at the end. That’s not what this movie is about.


Q: What is the movie about? 


FL: Sure. There’s a few things that I’ll talk about. On the surface, to me it’s this really simple story about this guy who’s dying of cancer and he knows he’s going to Hell and he’s trying to prevent it. He’s this great antihero; he doesn’t want to be doing what he’s doing, but he has to. He’s doing what he’s doing for selfish reasons. I mean, I love that story simply on its own. Beneath that there’s some really interesting ideas with this movie, I think. And it’s really this of idea of sort of blurring the lines between good and evil and people’s perceptions of good and evil. One of the best instances I can talk about is a scene at the end – which might give things away – but there’s a certain character who could be portrayed as evil but thinks they’re really good. And I think it’s kind of fitting for these times when we’re sort of in a world where we’re being told what is evil when it might not really be evil. And I just think it’s really important for people to really sort of sit down and think about what is evil. What I like about the movie, that it’s not just black and white, those lines are blurred.


Q: When you first pitched the movie, you had a number of ideas that caught them off guard. What were some of them?


FL: One of them was the casting choice of Tilda as Gabriel. She was my only choice from the very beginning. So I think that was one of the casting choices. I think another thing was this idea of Hell. In the script originally, it was just kind of this void. This black void. And I just thought, whatever version I come up with is always going to be a void, and I’ve seen that before. So I came up with this idea that I thought could sort of in a weird way work logically with some of the other ideas in the movie, and that was that wherever you exist in any given time, there’s sort of the Hell version of where you are and Heaven version of where you are. It worked nicely, because it just gave us a geography. It sort of grounded it a little bit; it made it more tangible. It let us play with time in an interesting way. So when you cross over in sort of present time in the real world, starts where time stops because Hell is eternal. It was just kind of a fun thing to play with and it was kind of interesting.


Q: So you had an idea of what Hell was going to look like?


FL: Yeah, because of that idea, Hell would sort of be based on the geography of what’s around us now.


Q: Who came up with the wind-storm idea?


FL: That was actually a combination of me and the visual effects supervisor and the production designer sitting down and sort of coming up with the biological growth that’s growing all over the cars and what that looks like and the color palette. And we started to look at the nuclear test films from the 1940s of the nuclear blasts and just decided that it would be great if the landscape was not only violent with these creatures, but also the atmosphere. So we decided that it was kind of an eternal nuclear blast except nothing ever really gets obliterated because it’s eternal and it’s constantly going.


Q: Was there ever a scene that you shot where Constantine has sex with a demon?


FL: We didn’t actually shoot a scene where he had sex with a demon, but we did have a character in the film that will hopefully be in the deleted scenes on the DVD. This great actress we had, Michelle Monahan, who played this character Ellie who is this half-breed demon. And there was a scene right after he found out his cancer was terminal where we cut to him and he’s like sitting on the edge of the bed having just had sex with her and he’s smoking a cigarette and she’s giving him shit and laughing at the fact that he’s dying cancer. And he’s asking her for information – if she knows what’s going on – because something weird’s been happening. And she was sort of brought in throughout. She was there at Club Midnite’s and she’s there in the end at the hospital, and she comes back. Because we cut her hotel room scene out, which was mainly for reasons because one of the key elements of this movie is Constantine’s loneliness. If you’re a guy who can go and sleep with a pretty hot girl – demon or not – you’re not that lonely. And so it just didn’t work as well with the scenes in. And it’s sad because it was one of my favorite scenes that we’d shot in the movie. I just really liked it, the feel of that scene. And so we ended up cutting her out from most of the movie.


Q: Did you and Keanu work together in developing this character?


FL: Yeah, we worked really closely for a while. Once I came on board, we were probably working on the film for I don’t know, nine months or a year before. We worked with Akiva Goldsman, who was one of the producers of the movie. He did the last draft. And the three of us worked really hard together, working on the script, working on the character, and just sort of creating a language we could talk about Constantine with. He’s a very dedicated actor.


Q: And you’re pleased with his performance?


FL: I am, yes. Very pleased.  


Q: How much of the effects were done in-camera? How many of things that you wanted to do were you unable to do?


FL: It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time during pre-production where we were budgeting and it was like we were over-budget. And the studios do these great things called scene/cost analysis, which is like they break things down by scenes and how much this scene costs and how much that scene costs. And certain scenes had to be changed because of that. One of the positives that came out of that was: we used to have a big car chase sequence that was really expensive and timely, that was in place of Angela getting ripped through the walls. Because we had to come up with something else for that because it was too expensive, we came up with something which I think was really, really cool and I don’t think I’ve seen something like that before. And we were able to do that. But there were other scenes where things got kind of whittled down. The scene with Hennessey where he sort of drinks and drowns himself in alcohol was something else. I think this actually fits the story better. The other one might have been a bit more spectacular in terms of effects. In terms of not being able to do certain things, it was really for budgetary reasons from the beginning. I tried to do as much as we could in-camera as possible. Even when we were in Hell, we built a huge stretch of freeway and a soundstage. Some of the creatures are prosthetic, some of them are CG. So we did mostly sort of set extensions of the atmosphere and things like that. A lot of Angela getting ripped through the walls were real things, sort of put together as opposed to just CG. We had a plate of her on this hydraulic rig and then a plate of our real set getting ripped apart by cables and sort of mixed the two together as much as possible.


Q: Do you believe in Hell?


FL: Do I believe in Hell?  Look, I’m a skeptic; I don’t know. I’m not gonna say there is a Hell, I’m not gonna say there isn’t a Hell. I don’t know. For all I know, you die, you rot in a box and that’s it. Who knows?


Q: In this film, evil is really evil, but we don’t see a lot of the other side. We don’t see a lot of angels doing stuff.


FL: First of all, it’s part of the story. It’s an interesting question. First of all, let me go back to an earlier part of your question. I don’t necessarily think that the demons are really bad. Certain ones – Balthazar – yes. Some of those demons though, if you’ve noticed, they have no brains. And it actually came from an idea that I had, trying to find a new way to portray demons, because they’re usually like these big fangs and they’re all muscular, they’ll have horns and they’re really evil. And I wanted to do something else and think that these demons were once people. So they’re a little more tortured. They’re skinny; their stomachs are bloated. They’re all twisted up. But they have no brains. And I remember…I’m a scuba diver and I went cage-diving with sharks once. And I remember they were feeding these sharks and there’s these blue sharks swimming around – and they’re man-eaters – and I remember looking at these things, thinking, “These things aren’t evil creatures. It’s just all they know how to do.”  And you just look at them and they’re kind of dumb. And that’s what I thought of these guys. These guys are just like…they’re just programmed to eat and feed. They just sniff the stuff out and go and eat it, you know?  And so it’s not this sort of…they don’t have this hatred or this sort of evil propulsion to go and attack. It’s just what they do. And Satan I think is actually kind of fun, in a weird way.


Q: The angels don’t have white wings…


FL: No, I was trying to do that. Why not white wings?  White wings are kind of cheesy, if you ask me. But also it’s like…if you look back at Caravaggio’s paintings and things, all of his angels have wings like hawks. And I just thought that that was much more interesting than Victoria’s Secret, sort of bouncy little white wings, or Michael – John Travolta – you know, with the white wings behind his…but it makes it a little more interesting. It’s just not the stereotype.


Q: No studio exec looking over your shoulder?


FL: No, for the most part they didn’t do that to me at all.


Q: Did the studio want a whole “rock” soundtrack?


FL: No. I was sort of prepared for that in the beginning. And I thought they were really gonna want that, that they were gonna want a lot of songs in the movie and things. From the beginning, I was always sort of pitching not to and they never went that way. I don’t think they ever really saw the movie in that way.


Q: What about sequels?  Are you signed on for any?


FL: If people like the movie and embrace the movie, I think there’s always a possibility for that because you could tell tons of stories with Constantine.


Q: But you’re not developing anything or talking about what you’d like to see?


FL: No. I’ve thought about it, but I don’t think anything’s solid yet until we see what happens.


Q: Are you and the cast obligated to sequels?


FL: No, I’m not obligated. But I would do one in second. I don’t know if the cast is or not; I don’t know what their deals are.


Q: Do you have any other features in development?


FL: No. I have some possibilities, but nothing locked in yet.


Q: Do you still think you’ll do music videos?


FL: Oh, yes. Definitely. I did some while I was finishing the movie, because we had a fair amount of time in post and so I had some wiggle room. I did a Gwen Stefani video and a Black Eyed Peas video.


Q: Which Gwen Stefani song?


FL: What You Waiting For?


Q: Were there any scenes that were homages?


FL: I think it just developed through the story process. Yeah, those weren’t homages to anything. I’m trying to think if I did any homages to anything. No, I don’t think I did. Not that I could think of.


Q: Did you intentionally avoid any Matrix references?


FL: Yeah, we didn’t want to go anywhere near anything Matrix-like.





by Staci Layne Wilson

Latest User Comments: