ENEMIES OF THE STATE
A Joel Silver action picture whose nominal anarchic hero goes around murdering and blowing up buildings? Hotdog talks to Silver and star Natalie Portman to see what’s got them in a V For Vendetta kind of mood.
Story: Leigh Singer
As numerous movie pundits will proudly tell you, this past twelve months has seen Hollywood – belatedly – get political. Our turbulent times, sparked by Shock and Awe offensives from all sides, rapidly inflamed by divisive ‘With-Us-Or-Against-Us’ foreign (and domestic) policies, have begun to be challenged by mainstream cinema, the likes of Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck and Munich all seeking to offer alternatives to the fatuous status quo.
Accordingly, for such a self-congratulatory industry, said films are being showered with awards. But what reception awaits a film that doesn’t just confront a nightmarish totalitarian regime but does so with, effectively, a terrorist as its hero? And one whose methods includes media manipulation, revenge executions and the spectacular annihilation of world famous buildings? Talk about shock and awe. Welcome to V For Vendetta.
Formerly an acclaimed graphic novel from legendary writer Alan Moore (Watchmen, From Hell) and artist David Lloyd, V is now a Warner Brothers blockbuster from the team behind The Matrix, producer Joel Silver and brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski. Moore and Lloyd’s original, started some twenty-five years ago, fixed its coruscating vision of the future firmly on Britain in the late 1990s, where a fascist dictatorship has seized control of the country. Against them stands a masked vigilante known only as “V”, who models himself on Guy Fawkes, the most infamous member of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 which planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament in protest at the monarchy’s treatment of Catholics.
Given its historical background and that the rhyme “Remember, remember, the fifth of November” is unlikely to mean much beyond these shores, V For Vendetta isn’t perhaps,the most obvious material for a US action extravaganza. Nor, frankly, is any film that openly brands America the world’s “largest leper colony”, explicitly blaming it for the imagined Nuclear War that has decimated the planet. Not that this stopped Silver or the Wachowskis homing in on V long before any of them became such Hollywood heavyweights.
“We bought the material in the late ‘80s as a black-and-white comic book,” Silver relates, “it hadn’t even come to America yet. We bought V and Watchmen but were not able to hold on to Watchmen. The [Wachowski] boys wrote the script in the mid-90s before The Matrix and at the conclusion of the third [Matrix] movie they said to me that they were thinking of going back and rewriting it.”
Rewrite it they did, updating the timeframe to later in the 21st century and incorporating references to other present-day fears like Avian Flu. Any thoughts that they might soften the comic’s more cutting edges ideas are literally exploded from the start, with V detonating London law court The Old Bailey (forwarding the event from its position midway through the book) as an overture to his campaign. Without giving too much away, further well-known public properties end up as designer rubble.
Though the likes of Independence Day or The Day After Tomorrow have already delivered epic onscreen obliteration of prominent landmarks, having aliens or freak weather as the agents of mass destruction isn’t nearly as chilling as a lone extremist ruthlessly carrying out a carefully planned strategy. The film shows that the mysterious V was formerly a prisoner at a state concentration camp, medically experimented upon and quite possibly insane. But this is never used as an excuse for his ruthless revenge on those responsible.
In V’s world, Britain’s Orwellian state, led by bellicose leader Sutler (John Hurt) and his cronies, has been given licence to take control by an ever-pliant populus. As V seethes, “people should not be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of their people.” Hence his plan of attack.
Of course, one man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist, but the modern comparisons are too pointed to ignore. A climactic development involving bombs on the London Underground is hugely disturbing given the fatal events of July 7th last year, a time when V was in post-production in the capital, having recently wrapped part of the shoot there. Surely such parallels require, at the very least, pause for thought?
“Look, it was a scary thing to live through, very troubling, “ allows Silver, “but we didn’t really feel that there was a direct correlation. We read [that] the media had us with two subway bombings in our movie - I mean, there is a subway and there are bombs on it, but it’s a whole different aesthetic. Look, yeah, terrorism is a very real part of our lives and a reality we have to live with.”
Silver takes a few seconds to compose the right words. “There is a strong terrorist aspect to this picture,” he continues, “but the ideas and the concepts that David Lloyd and Alan Moore experimented with and dealt with, we’ve put on the big screen. I think that whatever occurs has resonance to it. But I don’t think that it deflects us – we didn’t change or alter our path.”
Beside him, star Natalie Portman sits demurely, listening, ensconced on a plush Beverly Hills hotel sofa between Silver and director James McTeigue. Portman plays Evey Hammond, a young woman rescued from secret police or “Fingermen” by V, who inadvertently becomes a part – or is that a pawn? – in his gameplan. Bright-eyed and petite, she’s been a lively part of the discussion thus far, but remains silent as Silver and McTeigue offer their explanations. When Hotdog ventures whether working on the film inspired any re-examination of personal views on terrorism, Portman, herself born in Jerusalem and a fluent Hebrew speaker, is quick to speak up.
“It definitely did,” she asserts. “Being from Israel, it’s something I’ve dealt with my whole life. I’ve sort of always thought about it so much and that was one of the reasons I was interested in making [V], because it does make you think about so many different aspects of violence in general and how we categorise it. What the differences are between state-sanctioned violence or individual politically-motivated violence? I don’t think I have any answers but it’s definitely made my understanding much more complex and deep, I think, by being able to deal with all the issues on this film.”
James McTeigue nods enthusiastically at his worldly-wise 24-year old star. “As Joel once said, ‘it’s a controversial movie for controversial times’” he agrees. “I think one of the great things about the movie is that things need to be put out there and people need to draw their own conclusions.”
McTeigue, a Wachowski protégé and their 1st Assistant Director on The Matrix trilogy, was hand-picked by the Brothers to helm V. But such is the Brothers’ mystique that inevitably their absence today raises as many questions as McTeigue’s presence.
“They’re very clear,” attests Silver, “the only part of the process they do not want to engage in is this [publicity] part. That’s the only part they don’t feel comfortable in. but in every other area they are immersed. All these great bold images and the trailer and the design of the movies, we do it all together. They are our creative inspirations.”
Still, it makes one wonder about a “too many cooks” scenario and Portman is honest enough to relay her own concerns prior to shooting. “I was nervous about the dynamics of having the Wachowskis so involved and James directing for the first time,” she admits. “But they’re such good friends and backed each other so much and are so smart and have such great ideas that no one was stepping on each other’s toes. I was so pleasantly surprised.”
McTeigue, whose prior experience also includes Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, has nothing but praise for the Wachowskis or George Lucas, though finds it hard to pinpoint specific instances of using what he learned from them. “I think it becomes like osmosis to work with directors like that,” he considers. “It seeps into you. I don’t think I could give you any one example except for ‘try and be brilliant’ – and that’s what those guys are – incredible filmmakers.” So is he now competing with his former employers? “I don’t know if competing is the right word…”
Don’t get the idea, however, that the entire production was one big love-in. Originally cast as V, British actor James Purefoy was replaced early on by the mellifluous tones of Matrix / Lord of the Rings star Hugo Weaving. And graphic novel writer Alan Moore, understandably dismayed by the big-screen adaptations of his work – From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – demanded his name be removed from the film (see below).
“We were very happy to oblige,” sighs Silver, referring to a screen credit that now somewhat bafflingly reads “based on the graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd”. “I mean, David has been very much a part of the process, he’s been very effective and has talked about it a lot, he loves the picture. What can I say? Alan sees the material in some way and he doesn’t feel that any of his material has made any kind of transition into any other medium, so if he doesn’t want it we’re happy to go along with that.”
The transition to Purefoy to Weaving seems to have been far easier. For Portman, playing opposite an impassive masked figure was made easier by the fact that, “Hugo is such an amazing actor physically and vocally, he’s really trained with the mask, he knows how to portray a complicated character,” she enthuses. “Also, everything that I was going through with the mask, Evey was going through as an character – you’re always wondering ‘are they smiling behind there, are they crying, are they OK?’”
Tabloid photos have long revealed the shaved head Portman sports for the scenes following Evey’s capture and torture. What looks brutal onscreen, Portman is quick to reassure, was far from an ordeal. “I know it looks horrible but that’s the magic of movies,” she smiles. “It was actually really fun. I had to really try and get upset about it for the scene because I find it exciting.” Not that she’d consider a repeat buzzcut off-screen. “You know, my hair grows really slowly – it’s something I’ve learned,” she laughs, “so probably not.”
V For Vendetta itself lops off much of the excess, the bar-raising special effects and posturing that have become de rigueur for modern action thrillers. Without stinting on explosive set-pieces and hard-hitting fight scenes - V’s nifty knife-wielding prowess is showcased several times – the film puts them at the service of its steely, provocative subject matter. “I think there’s a great capacity in movies to be smart and entertaining,” avows Portman. “I really wanted to prove that a big studio movie could still be compelling and interesting. I’m not a movie snob.” Nor is she, or her film, politically correct, either. But in the current climate, presumably the right gesture to those in power sometimes mean a V sign.
LESS IS MOORE
Comic legend Alan Moore’s own vendetta against Hollywood.
From Hell, Constantine, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – hardly a list of cinematic masterpieces (and in “LXG”, one unmitigated disaster), all taken from the prodigious output of arguably the greatest-ever comic book writer, Britain’s own Alan Moore. In the past, the somewhat reclusive Moore was content to allow cinematic adaptations his work and cash a healthy cheque secure in the knowledge that his book and their film were two separate – often wildly divergent – entities. Then came a lawsuit against LXG producers 20th Century Fox, accusing them – and by implication, Moore himself – of ripping off a rival film script by Larry Phone Booth Cohen. This was Moore’s last straw.
“I felt, if I'm going to react I might as well overreact,” he told Radio 4 last year. “So, I said, right, that's it, no more Hollywood films. And if they do make films of my work, then I want my name taken off them and I want all the money given to the artists. I thought, God, that sounds principled and almost heroic!” Hence his omission on V For Vendetta and any movie version of his all-time masterpiece Watchmen, a project itself once again on hold. Welcome affirmation that heroes aren’t confined to comics.