James McTeigue's The Raven focuses on the eccentricities of famed Gothic poet and author Edgar Allan Poe, and a fictional murder mystery that revolves around his work. (Read Buzzine's preview here.) John Cusack brought witt and a wealth of knowledge to the character of Poe, and his leading lady, Alice Eve, held her own amidst pits, pendulums, and suffocating stunts. Ricky Mora sat down with the three key people involved in The Raven to delve into the making of the literary thriller.
Ricky Mora: How did you prepare to get into the mind and character of Edgar Allan Poe?
John Cusack: I think the script was terrific, and I think James and I went through it with the writers and some people and try to pull as much Poe's own dialogue as we could from his letters and probably his novels. So we put that cadence and idiom into the kind of structure of this genre story which is basically a Poe story where Poe becomes a character in one of his own story. It's Poe deconstructing Poe. So even though it is fantasy we, I was probably a little more obsessed and drove James crazy, "Yeah Poe said this and he said that." I was always trying to use his own vernacular and his own words as much as I could in the fictional setting. So we were trying to square that circle along the way, and there's volumes and volumes of his own thoughts on his writings. He wasn't shy about his product, but thank you glad you liked it.
RM: What drew you to this role?
JC: I think working with James was a big deal for me, because I think he's a really talented filmmaker, and he's got a really big mind, and a big capacity, and a really great filmmaker, and I thought I really wanted to work with him. And I started actually playing Poe, I tried to get under to skin of this very very complex genius. I think any actor would want to play him. It would be a great challenge and opportunity. So, I was just up for it one hundred percent, and what did I take away from him?
RM: What did you take away from the experience of playing Poe?
JC: I think his feelings of an abandonment and loneliness from losing his mother, and his step-mother, and then his wife, I think he felt like a perpetual orphan of the world. He was a genius, and he was kind of a bastard, and he was a rouge, and he was all of the things you would think of him naturally. He was inward looking, melancholy, soulful, all those things, but I think he was just this blasted soul. He was a kind of wonderer, and I think everybody can relate to that. He's become sort of an archetype, like a shadow archetype of the culture. He was a pioneer to the underworld. He was a fascinating figure. So I just thought if I can immerse myself in that, if I can feel that it would be a great challenge.
RM: What did you do to release all the darkness of stepping into this character?
JC: I don't know. We were in Hungary and in Serbia and it was the winter. So, it sort of felt like we were as far away from the world that we could be in. We were on these cobblestone streets, and we were shooting a lot at night. I just sort of felt like I became a vampire, and I clung to that, and I'm sure, I don't know if I was disagreeable. I don't know how. I might have been.
Alice Eve: You were.
JC: I'm sure the producers... but it was sort of like a bender, you know, but in a good way, a kind of cool bender. I know when we finished we were there in London, and James was like, you need to go home man. I went back home and I did scare my family. They were like, what the f*ck? I was pretty strung out. But it was the kind of thing where you need to go all out. Otherwise, I think people, whether you like the movie or not I think we all went all in. So, doing this movie, this type of a story on Poe, we went all in. It seemed like the only way to go.
RM: Eve, which was more confining: late century Baltimore fashion or a three-sided vault grave?
AE: Well it wasn't always three-sided. Sometimes I was completely blocked in, but that was the most confining thing. I was actually having a conversation yesterday, because there seems to be a fascination with corsets and I don't think they're any worse than high heels. I think they are just as painful and just as beneficial, but corsets are actually better, they help your posture. But definitely being buried alive was genuinely horrific for one moment, because when they first did it, the coffin lid went down, and I took a breathe and the oxygen went from the coffin, and I panicked then. Didn't I? I cried.
James McTeigue: You did, but I think she was very brave also. There's not too many actresses that you can say, hey I'm going to put a lid, and I'm going to put dirt on you, and just hold your breathe, and then I want you to come out and looked like you panicked. I was a mixture of acting and real life.
AE: And you liked feeding me dirt as well.
RM: Did you test the coffin beforehand for safety's sake?
JM: It's hard for me to answer that question truthfully with Alice next to me, but I did crawl into the three sided one. It wasn't exactly made for me, but yeah I did try it.
RM: What was it like delving into the brink of death so often in the film?
AE: I think that we actually, I think that I only came out of that dark sense that we dove into about six months ago, and we filmed it, when did we film it?
JC: About a year ago.
AE: Yeah, I think it took about nine months to leave. It was in winter, the streets were bleak and misty, and we were making a story about an insane genius, and I think that we definitely went there. Didn't we? Yeah, it was really intense actually.
JC: Yeah, I think it was, I think there's something in Poe's work like going into the underworld. You now, they said mythologically the bird, the raven, the Odin's bird goes down to the underworld and gets all the secret knowledge and it comes back up and is disfigured, and it has one eye, but it know all these secrets of the universe, right? That's the myth. So, I think Poe I think was a guy who took all of his suffering and all of his faults, but he was genuinely interested in going into the underworld and exploring areas that most people are afraid to explore. There's something courageous about that. And he's completely flawed and f*cked up, and all those things, but I think he mixed his feeling of religion. He was so vain, he said, I could never believe in a superior being, because I could never believe in God because I couldn't believe in anyone superior to myself, but yet he was always looking for that space between life and death. He was always looking for that other world, and I think that since he was abandoned by his mother, since he was an orphan, he put all that religious fervor into this eternal love he had for women. I think he really did love women. So, he was always sort of searching for that. I think for him death and beauty were always interplay, and sort of why he's the godfather of Goth. He sort of created all these genres and...
AE: And women were redemptive.
JC: Yeah, and I think he was a rouge and he was a gambler. He did go to West Point. All those things are true. He was a drunk, and he wanted to fight any man who was any completion to him. He was disagreeable and even shy, but I don't think he was a playboy. I think he was a one women man. Yeah, I think that's where he put his spiritual fervor, you know? Because there is always a woman with big eyes, who's frail, and dying that he's trying to save. There's always that Emily, that female that he's trying to get and save. So, I think that feeling of death was just always with him. Remember every women he loved died of tuberculosis in his arms. He claimed consumption as a family disease, because that's a family disease, you know?
JC: The way I relate to him is that space, that metaphysical space, the dream within the dream element where waking ends and dreams begin, life and death, that spaces he writes is the most interesting to me, but he was also such a genius that a lot of his writing was burlesque, and satirical, and he was making satires of other people's forms and styles, and he was also, so he was not only a high esoteric poet, but he was writing pulp for Saturday afternoons. He was writing thrillers. I think he would have looked at "Saw" and said, yep that was mine.
JM: I think he would have admired the fictional construct that we put him in to one of his stories, like a dream. He enjoyed pulp, and popular fiction, and critique, and I think he spread himself all over. He wasn't just myopic about one thing in particular.
JC: Yeah, and he would do satires, and he would do a story about a balloon hoax, a balloon going into space. He was doing science fiction stuff. He was doing satires. He was doing burlesque.
JM: And he did criticism too.
JC: And he was brutal at it. One of the biographers said that it was not known that any good thing about any other living writer, living or dead ever. So I think he was very theatrical. He felt like he was at war with the world, and his parents were actors, and so he sort of said, the world is my stage I must either conquer or vanquish. He was very dramatic.
JM: I think it goes back to sort of haunt him after his death too. His obit was written by one of his arch rivals.
JC: Who James decided to chop in half.
JM: So that was the fun part about doing this film, you can blend all this fact and fiction, some of its true, some of its not. It was like a Poe-ish story I guess.
JC: And the French actually were the ones, Baudelaire, who thought he was some aristocrat in some southern manner. He thought he was some wealthy gentry. He died in a hobble. The French brought him back into prominence, but he was pretty much lost in America.
RM: What was the difficulty dealing with a famous person like Poe and the expectations around him?
JM: No, I think everybody was on board with what he concept was. I mean I think we all had a lot of the script, this fantastical blend of fact and fiction, and positioning Poe in like one of his own stories. I think we all got on board with that, and then tell you the truth it was about making the best film we could. I mean I didn't really feel any external pressure to you know make it like a bio pic, or make it some kind of fiction. It was always about the dovetailing of the reality and the fiction. It was pretty great actually.
JC: Also there's a range of the film that doesn't get made much in Hollywood anymore. Usually they want you to make a movie for five or six million dollars, or they want to make it for two hundred million and they put on the tights and capes and stuff, but there's a middle range film where this kind of film is which I think is important for movies, because I think James has enough clout as a filmmaker or David's numbers work where we felt like we went to Serbia together and it was ours to win or lose, like we didn't feel like anyone else was screwing with it. So for Jim at least say, we went there, we were all in on the concept, and we had us like a maniac going through Poe's writings, tell James well do this, and that stuff, but we all felt like it was our movie to make it win, succeed, or fail. I'd love to see this space be a little easier.
RM: Which Poe stories or poems inspired you guys?
AE: I like the one where the man doesn't have his spectacles on and falls in love with the old woman.
JC: The one he falls in love with his grandmother?
AE: Yeah, what that one called?
JC: I forgot.
AE: I love that one.
JC: I like his more absurdist stuff, "King Pest" or "Hop-Frog." Then of course you have the great classic allegories, "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Masque of the Red Death."
JM: In fact that you would sum up with a story that was about an orangutan sneaking into a room coming at the end a couple of people escaping through a spring loaded window, and they can't tell whether the orangutan is like the people's voices from the whole apartment. The imagination is credible. "The Tell Tale Heart" like hearing this guy breathing over and over again, so much that I feels like he needs to sneak into the room under the cover of darkness, and turn him into a millions bits and then like he put him into the floor. I mean he was out there.
RM: Why did you insist to wear black for your character Poe?
JC: That's how he dressed. I sort of feel like I'd go, it's either go Goth or go home. If you're not going to wear black as Edgar Allan Poe you're never going to wear the color.
RM: Did you try any alternative colors?
JM: We tried. We had these costume meetings were I would go to John, hey look you know textually we want this to show on screen. How about you try some dark black green navy or something like that? And he'd go, yeah, yeah. He'd try it on, and he'd just throw it to the side, and then the black would come back. I mean, I think it totally suited what he did.
JC: There was one thing James did where in this construction that I thought was really funny which was, when he reads "The Raven," Poe used to do these things where he'd would like go to these sort of salons with these wealthy sort of patrons, usually wealthy women who he loved to be adored by, and he would put the light down low and give these very supernatural intense readings of "The Raven." So, James set it up where he had to do it like Monday, like he had to do it for his food, like an autograph signing thing. He was kind of hung over and it was brightly lit, and we did have him in some sort of purple. So I thought that was pretty funny.
JM: Yeah, it was like a day job. He was doing a day job. You immediately have seen the scene in the bar. He has been patrolling the water pub, and the next thing you see him is in this brightly lit room with all these ladies overly dress. That was the one sort of concession for a bit of color for Poe.
RM: How do you think Poe's fame would compare to that of today's celebrity?
JC: Well, we all James and I really loved this book by Peter Ackroyd the guy who wrote the book on London. I think that was because maybe that compared to some other biographies showed he was more aware of his impact on other people. He was more aware of this fame. He was more on the circuit, competitive in that way. It showed more of a 3-D portrait of him in that way, and I think he was very very aware of his image and his impact on people, and very aware of fame, and courted it in a very clever and manipulative way. I think the thing that is so interesting about him hear is even if you look at some of his writings and some of the things he said are so provocative, and he was so sort of ballsy, like writing "The Imp of the Perverse" which I guess is about his addiction, but it's also about the need to do the exact wrong thing, and what he's saying about baboons cutting out women, you may say it's in bad taste, but he just did it. There's something punk rock about him. You know, John Waters was probably inspired by Poe. He was sort of like the first guy who put himself going mad, in bad taste, like whatever his imagination did he put it out there, and I think he was so sort of provocative that way that I think he was very aware he was getting attention. I know he was famous he went to the White House drunk. He got invited to the White House, but he showed up drunk. So he was sort of infamous that way.
JM: It's hard to be famous now, because of the twenty four hour news cycle. The media, the way you're followed, the cameras it's like impossible if you're in the public eye or you want to be in the public eye. That fame now it seems like it's an impossible task, where then I guess you could remain a little bit anonymous.
RM: Would Poe court that kind of fame today?
JM: Absolutely. I think he'd be the guy you'd go like wow, look at that guy. He got dragged out of the bar again.
JC: Hunter S. Thompson-esque. You can see Hunter's voice and you can see all the literature the first person narratives people put themselves into their own journalistic and interpretation from Meyler to Capote to Hunter you see origins in Poe, also just admit of who you are,there's some kind of great courage to that.
RM: Can you talk about the tagline to this movie, "The only one who can stop a serial killer is the one who inspired him?"
JM: Yeah, I think what we are alluding to then was Poe has the unique ability to be completely ahead of his time, but have his finger firmly jammed on his eyesight too. Like what I was trying to say for Poe at that point was that look nobody understands the last year of his life. Nobody understands that yet, but in the years to come they will. Which was also a commentary on the actual brief discovery on Poe as well talking about Griswold, the guy wrote his obit, and being rediscovered by the French is all true. And to feel like this icon of literature like at the end of his life was like he didn't have anyone around him, and also in the second part it was a comment on the writing that he did, which was basically he was the first to write science fiction but also detective fiction. That's why there's a line about George Verne, but he was also predating Conan Doyle. Stylistically he went all over the places, but some of those styles that seem so common now were not even invented then. I just wanted to pay homage to Poe and say here's the guy who did it. Here the root of it all.
JC: And he was also, I think made comment on the fact Poe was talking about the neurosis of the day, the fears of it, and they're saying where's it comes from. Does it come from Germany? No it comes from your soul. So it's also cities being overcrowded so his stories are about the neurosis of the plagues, and people dying not having the right medicine. There's something exploitable and of course sensational.
JM: Yeah, because of the disease of the time and the huge influx and penetration into America, and people being buried alive all the time. He was just playing into all those like themes and genres just mentioned.
JC: And so he was a kind of an artist doing it, and Ivan of course is a psychotic. Where's that line I guess?
RM: Was it ever an issue to pull down the punches or gore by request of the studio?
JM: I guess I was really interested if you're going to make movie about Poe you have to speak to what he did. It would seem girlish not to have those scenes with the pit and the pendulum, or the severed tongue, or the apartment building slaughtering, and I know there's some people are a little repelled by some of the gore, but I think that was like Poe would do it. He did do it. He was so much more graphic than the film is. So there wasn't any sort of like pulling down, everybody was on board with what we were all trying to do.
JC: I think you can always go back to the source material.
RM: Was there anything surprising about working with each other?
JC: No, nothing surprised me about Alice. When I met her and saw her I sort of assumed she would be as good as she was, but I don't know, you just always hope you have a certain kind of chemistry when you work with someone, and with Alice it was easy and effortless. So her talent is pretty obvious I think.
AE: I really enjoyed learning from John. I think you do it a lot in theatre but not so much in film. We had a little bit of time on this in Hungary to sit and talk, and I really learned about the benefit of covering ground and inventing stuff, and then throwing it away, and working through the history of the relationship, and what had happened between them, and how had it happened between them, and that allows you to be very confident when you arrive on set, and you know exactly where you stand as a couple and what you've experienced, and so that for me was very important.
RM: Where you a fan of John before you got the role?
JC: She's not a fan of the truth. She's going to say yes.
AE: No, of course I was.
JC: No, I remember we had a long debate as to how much they slept together, the characters.
AE: I don't think we ever decided.
JC: Because she, the character was living with her father and she was rich, and Poe in a hobble.
AE: And she is meant to be chaste.
JC: Yeah, and so we were deciding, have they slept together?
AE: I think they've kissed, which was just as scandalous.
RM: James, what did you see in Alice and John that they could pull off their roles?
JC: I know the answer to that one.
JM: I think for the very first meeting I had with John, John sort of came fully loaded to the meeting. Obviously he is very bright. He knew a lot about Poe, and I think he just immediately saw the place I wanted to go with the character if I got the actor in place I wanted to go. So, I think he just intrinsically got it. We talked about Hunter S. Thompson, which I knew a little bit. So I think there was that parallel a little bit. John could see Hunter there was Poe there was obviously other famous literary characters you can delve into, but I think John got into the head space of Poe and really like pulled out a good performance. It is fictional too, right? It's not like in all the research that we did you had to hit every note of Poe that you would have to in a biopic for example. So I thought that was a hard thing.
JM: And for you know for Alice I think I had like one meeting, and then we talked, and she's very bright, and erudite, and forthright all the -dites. I remember this funny little pest in front of the theatre in Soho in London, and we sort of went through the machination, you know you have this sort of bed you do, when you do these tests, because they're really weird you know. Sort of a room like this, okay now pretend your buried in a box, and you've been there for like five days, and she's like alright yeah sure, and I remember I was standing over on top of her with this camera, this is a really weird situation to be in, but Alice is completely there, and I could just see she would be fantastic in the role. So it was great to work with both of them. I think their chemistry between each other was also great. So every time they came to set they came with something fresh. What about this? What about that? So I think once we actually got into filming we got into a roll where we'd do something and have them hold up their hand which meant go again, and you'd always get something different. So ultimately you had this unique selection when you go into editorial, where you could nuance with the character. Yeah, so I enjoyed it.
JC: It's also I think when you work with somebody for the first time you get a language with them, where you're trying to figure out alright, let me understand that, and then after a while you start to finish each other's sentences, and you're all on the same page, and that's what you really want. And something that is great about Alice is she's got the capacity where she sort of admits a kind of intelligence about her, and you think she could really understand Poe's literature and work in a deep way. So she sort of reeks of intelligence I think on screen and as a person, and also I remember I talked to James he goes, "I want Alice Eve," and I go, "Why her? Tell me why?" He said, "I shouldn't say that. Should I say that?"
AE: What are you going to do not say it?
JC: And he goes, "She's got a secret." And I thought that was a really smart thing to say. I thought that was a really interesting thing to say, really provocative, and true. She's very intelligent. She's got secrets, and that's what makes somebody really interesting to watch, I think.
RM: Was there anything that caught your eye about Poe, anything bizarre?
AE: I think the fact that he married his thirteen year old cousin was bizarre.
RM: What was the most challenging aspect bringing Poe to the screen, whether in pre- or post- production?
JC: To me you just want to feel like you go there and you know who you're working with and you don't have to make choices by committee, trying to make people happy that are not even on the set, who actually don't do the scenes and stuff. I really thought when we went to Serbia together it was ours to win or lose, and then as an actor or filmmaker that is all you can ask for really. Is to get together with the people you want to get together with and say, how do we do this the best we can. We can all pitch in. it was incredible produced. James is technically as good a director as I have ever worked with as far as mastery complex shots, and all the technical aspect, and then he can he has all that sort of handled, and he sits there right there with you, and if you want to talk just go over a moment and he's right there. So he can do both sides of it the acting, and the scope and the scale it, and the way it looks kind of effortless, but it's not effortless, it's very difficult, and he's really really good. So the production team was top notch all around.
Relativity Media's 'The Raven' is slated for release on April 27th, 2012.