On Friday, October 7th, at Westminster Hall in Baltimore, a commemorative wreath laying ceremony took place at the grave site of Edgar Allan Poe, honoring the enigmatic author on the 162nd anniversary of his death. Participating in the event were James McTeigue and actor Luke Evans, director and star respectively of the upcoming period thriller The Raven, a fictionalized account of Poe’s final days in 1849 Baltimore. The film incorporates the life of the author, played by John Cusack, into a story about a serial killer whose murderous spree is inspired by Poe’s own writing. Mr. McTeigue and Mr. Evans met with us in the catacombs of the historic gothic church to discuss the legendary poet of the macabre and satisfy our morbid curiosity about the production of The Raven, which opens nationwide on April 27th, 2012.
“It’s a great story,” said Evans, who plays Emmett Fields, the detective investigating the grisly murders. “I could see how cleverly the writers had married the life of Poe with the story and fictionalized his final days, which none of us really know about. He disappeared for five days and was found in a park hallucinating in someone else’s clothing. It’s intriguing now, even a hundred sixty-two years later, which really says something about the man, his legacy and his talent.”
McTeigue, best known for directing V for Vendetta, Ninja Assassin and his assistant direction on The Matrix sequels, worked with the screenplay by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare.
“The killer [in The Raven] is putting a twist on all of Poe’s stories,” explained the Australian director. “So we had to drop Luke’s character into all those moments. There is some pretty gruesome stuff that Detective Fields comes up against, whereas Poe is writing about everything that Fields is confronted with on a daily basis.”
“Fields is sort of repulsed by Poe,” interjected Evans, who agrees that his character is a bit ‘buttoned up’. “Because this man is making entertainment out of what he has to do for a living. So he almost blames Poe, because if he hadn’t written these dark, vulgar, gory stories, maybe this person wouldn’t have been going around Baltimore killing people. And it’s a very interesting dynamic, how these two minds from the opposite sides of the social spectrum come together. It’s got a great temper, this film, and it never stops.”
The director talked about recreating areas of Baltimore in the 19th Century, which he set purposefully by the harbor. “We didn’t film it here, because 1849 Baltimore obviously doesn’t exist anymore,” McTeigue told us. “The [Great Fire] in 1904 destroyed most of what would have been left of that time. So we actually filmed in Budapest. In some ways it was kind of liberating, because there’s a lot of architecture that’s very similar. Through some art direction and visual effects we were able to make it feel like Baltimore.”
Evans talked about visiting the cobblestone streets of Fells Point earlier that day, imagining the history of the area that was recreated for the film during many bitter cold night shoots in Eastern Europe. “This is where it all happened,” marveled the Welsh actor. “If you were a big drinker, you did opium and all those things… this is where you’d hang out, by the docks. This was the stomping ground of people like Poe, people of the night, hanging out in these bars where all the dark souls of Baltimore would have been.”
“I was able to layer Emmett Fields based on Poe and his life, the people he knew and the places he frequented,” elaborated Evans. “I was able to use all that to inform my character, even though he is fictional. It was a really interesting job, and that’s why I relish doing period films, especially if they’re factual. (Laughing) I can say I know much more about Poe now than I did a year ago….” And about working with Cusack: ”John comes at every role with such ease and style. He puts his stamp on it, and he definitely does that with Poe. You actually forget it’s John Cusack, I felt like I was playing against Poe himself.”
I asked McTeigue about his brand of filmmaking and if he had altered his style or incorporated any new technologies into developing a period piece.
“Obviously a lot of people are starting to shoot in digital, but I felt like The Raven lent itself to film. Ultimately I’m trying to make a piece of entertainment and yeah, I want to put my own stamp on it. I tried to make it in a fashion that was accessible but that also spoke to Poe and his stories the way that people would imagine them. There’s a certain darkness to it, but it’s not too heavy – hopefully, at some point you’ll feel like you’re in the middle of one of his stories.”
I was curious about how much of Poe’s actual life was incorporated into the fictional side of the character played by John Cusack.
“A decent amount actually,” responded McTeigue. “It is a piece of fiction; I don’t pretend that this is a biopic of his life. But if you know anything about Poe, there are facts woven throughout the film that mirror his life. The film ostensibly becomes about Poe in the middle of one of his own stories.”
I asked Evans if a particularly daunting moment came to mind while filming The Raven.
“We dealt with a lot of very bloody, gory murder scenes. And then [Fields] gets shot in the shoulder in one scene, obviously I’ve never been shot in the shoulder, so you have to imagine how that would feel. You shoot ten or twenty times from different angles and that is always very hard because you have to be consistent. If you start off at one level, that’s the level you have to maintain for the rest of the day. My character at the time doesn’t really want to stop because he’s so close to catching this killer, so he’s sort of carrying on with this bullet in his shoulder. (Laughing) Probably the hardest scene of all was having it extracted!”
Luke Evans, who spent nine years performing musical theatre, began making feature films in 2010. His burgeoning career includes Tamara Drewe, Clash of the Titans and this years Immortals. He plays Aramis in The Three Musketeers, Paul W.S. Anderson’s contemporary spin on the classic tale which hits theaters in 3D on October 21st. Currently filming Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit in New Zealand, Evans said it would be nice to one day combine the two careers.
“Musical films seem like they’re here to stay,” he said before admitting that he had coerced the cast and crew of The Raven to have karaoke at their halfway party. “With the right timing and the right project, I’d definitely do it.”
“He’s just trying to break out of the karaoke bars,” ribbed McTeigue.
The Raven is distributed by Relativity Media and opens nationwide on April 27th, 2012.
TRR Intervue and Commentary by Michael Parsons
Photographs by Alissa Parsons