15 Years Later, 'Constantine' Director Francis Lawrence Is Enjoying The Film's Cult Following [Interview]

Although only 15 years old, Constantine is already aging well. The adaptation of the Hellblazer comic continues to find more fans and doesn't date in the special effects department like so many early and mid-2000s movies already have. There's no hard rock, pop culture references, or even outdated tech that could age the movie. Director Francis Lawrence created a world of his own in his noir-ish, sometimes hellish vision of Los Angeles.

When Constantine was released in 2005, it wasn't as well-regard as it is today. Perhaps after years of watching frequently interchangeable comic book movies, Lawrence's idiosyncratic addition to the genre plays better today. Whatever the reason, Lawrence is pleased Constantine continues to entertain, especially after a slightly disappointing box-office performance and lukewarm reception from critics.

Before directing Constantine, Lawrence was an in-demand music video director. He helmed music videos for Jay-Z, Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and even his I Am Legend star, Will Smith. The list is long. Initially, Keanu Reeves wasn't interested in a music video director making Constantine, which is one of the many stories Lawrence told us when looking back at his directorial debut (now celebrating its 15th anniversary).

When was the last time you watched the movie?

Quite a while ago. Actually, I think I showed the movie to my youngest, who's 14. I'd say three or four months ago, and it was the first time in a long time. He really enjoyed it. It's always strange to watch things after the fact. You go through a different range of emotions. When you're making it, you watch it so many times editing it and piecing it together by doing the sound, the color, the mix, and the music. Seeing it at a premiere is usually an awful experience because you're so used to it and see all the things you wish you could change. Seeing it a month later is always a little different, and years later, it's very different. Obviously, there are certain things I'd change, primarily story-wise.

When it came out it wasn't all that well-received, especially critically. That's not really surprising for being a comic book movie before being a comic book movie was a really big thing, plus it was kind of weird and kind of dark. I wasn't surprised by it, but I didn't expect it to connect the way that it has.

Reviews aside, were you happy with how audiences received the movie at the time or any disappointment? 

I was definitely a little disappointed. Again, I wasn't surprised by the reviews, but I was disappointed. You hope, especially with your first movie, you get great reviews, but that didn't happen. I will say, everyone was fairly pleased with the opening weekend. We did fairly well, especially for an R-rated movie, and an R-rated movie that was meant to be a PG-13 movie. Even though we did well that first weekend, everyone knew there was money left on the table, because we had designed it to be PG-13. The MPAA gave us the R-rating, and it hurt.

It's not a bloody or gory movie. What could the MPAA not get past?

We followed all the rules. If you look at the list of rules for a PG-13 movie – language, blood, gore, violence, sexuality, and things like that – we followed the rules. What killed us with the rating was the tone. The note we got back was that within the first five minutes, the MPAA felt there was an impending feeling of doom throughout the movie that made it too intense. It's a tricky thing you can't really edit around. They basically said they stopped taking notes after five-ten minutes.

There was really nothing we could do, but we tried to argue. Lord of the Rings had far more violence in those movies than we had in ours. What we discovered was when you have orcs and elves people think of that as fantasy. When you're dealing with religion, angels, and demons, people think of that as real, so that changes the feeling of tone. It was quite a learning experience. Anyway, that ended up affecting box-office, but we did fairly well considering it was the era people still sold DVDs.

What did you do opening weekend? Go to theaters?

Because it was my first movie I definitely went around. I think I went to the Grove in Los Angeles, the Mann's Chinese one night, and Westwood on a Sunday afternoon. I saw it a few times in different theaters with different kinds of crowds. Certainly, I was tracking the numbers and everything. It was good. Everyone was excited. The second weekend, I want to say, a Tyler Perry movie or something came out and took the slot, we took a hit, and there was a drop.

What were the scenes you wanted to see what reaction they got out of the audience?

There were two big ones. The first one is opening with the guy finding the spear of destiny and getting hit by the car and the car crumbles. It's a shock early on in the film, so I enjoyed that reaction. Then when Peter Stormare shows up towards the end. I really enjoyed the casting of him and that performance. I thought people would get a kick out of it.

He brings a lot of fun to the movie. How did you two shape that performance together? 

He was the last person to be cast. We were already shooting and weren't going to shoot that sequence until the far end of the schedule. My initial concept for Satan was the Anti-Christ, so I wanted him to look like Christ, like the dark, evil version of Christ. I think everybody was a little freaked out about that [Laughs]. When you're trying to come up with a concept for Satan, I mean, it's been done so much with the evil child, seductive woman, the beast with horns, or, you know, De Niro in that great movie, Angel Heart, with the nails. You've seen so many great versions, so how can we do it differently? I've always been a fan of Peter Stormare, and I came up with the idea of him in the white suit and doing something completely different. The dialogue was mostly written by Akiva, but the style of the performance, that was all Peter.

You also got in a nod to What Lies Beneath in that scene when Satan is dragging Constantine's body and the camera dollies down into the floor to look up. A tricky shot to pull off? 

It was. There's a ton of technically challenging scenes in Constantine, but I really enjoyed that Zemeckis film. It's the shot when Michelle Pfeiffer is on the ground and about to be put in the tub, but the camera goes down and basically dips enough into what feels like a wood floor to get a cool angle. Having seen that, I thought, "This would be a good opportunity to do something like when Constantine is being lifted up."

What's interesting about that is, my AD on Constantine, Josh [McLaglen], was the AD on What Lies Beneath and Cast Away. They did all the stuff with Hanks at his normal weight, and then took a break between the skinny stuff, and in that break, Zemeckis went and shot What Lies Beneath and then finished Cast Away. I always thought that was cool.

Before Stormare shows up, you have that hyper-cool action scene with Constantine with the sprinklers going off. What do you remember about directing that sequence? 

We had a great stunt team on that. You know, Keanu's double was Chad Stahelski, who's now the John Wick director. It was a fantastic stunt team, but it was the first shoot 'em up action scene I've done, so the tricky thing there... you know, a lot of people have to come up to you during an action scene, especially when you have one against many, right? You have to figure out how to shoot it and block it in a way where it doesn't look like all the bad guys are waiting and taking time attacking your hero. It was my first go at something like that, so it was pretty tricky, especially because I wanted a lot of it to play in wide shots. Because of the trickiness, I ended up having to cut more than I wanted to. I wanted to let it flow and playout in a wide, but I had to shoot more coverage to mask the demons waiting to attack Constantine as opposed to all ganging up and swarming him at once.

As cool as that action scene is, it's not an action-packed comic book movie. 

For sure. For me, the appeal was the noir side of it, the detective story. I thought that in terms of the tone, pace, and the look, especially the camera angles. I mean, going back to The Third Man and things like that was an inspiration. That's what drove me. Honestly, I don't have much interest in comic book movies, so grabbing on to other genres, that was fun. I like horror, so mashing up noir with horror, that was fun to me.

When you were promoting Constantine, you often said you weren't sure the studio totally got what you were making. Why is that? 

Well, they certainly didn't originally. I had to go through quite a process to get the job. I had to pass the creative exec at the studio to get his blessing, then I had to meet with the producers, and there were eight or nine producers on it. Keanu was in Australia doing the Matrix sequels, and when he came back, he didn't want a music video guy. I had to pass that test. My last meeting was supposed to be with the president of the studio, which at the time, was Lorenzo di Bonaventura. The week I was supposed to meet him he left, and then Jeff Robinov took over the position.

Weirdly, I became the de facto director on this movie. It was a movie Jeff inherited, and Lorenzo became one of our producers. Because of that, I don't think Jeff was very invested. I don't think he quite got it. We were exactly at the budget we were supposed to be at, so we were kind of off the radar, but I don't think anyone at the studio really got it. Throughout production, we were cutting a sizzle reel, which we showed the studio and things changed. Then the studio got it, they got excited, and we were finally on the radar. For a while, they didn't really think that much.

What was it like working with eight or nine producers?

It was a little daunting at first because there were a lot of them. Plus, Lorenzo was the president of the studio, Akiva had an Academy Award and a big writing career, and Erwin Stoff, who was Keanu's manager at the time and is now my manager. Plus, you got Lauren Schuler Donner and a lot of the DC people. It was a lot. What I discovered, though, was that because Akiva's a writer and did a fair amount of writing on the project, I sort of partnered with him. He and I basically said, "This is the movie," and everyone politely stepped back and didn't try to jockey or petition for power. Everyone took on different roles, like, Lauren helped with music and Lorenzo was great at looking at the cuts and giving thoughts. It ended up working out.

Obviously, there are some movie stars that have a lot of say over the bigger picture of a movie, not just their part. How is Keanu Reeves in that regard? Is he more focused on his role or is he focused on the bigger picture as well?

He likes to have a say, but it comes from a great place. Luckily, I haven't had this issue yet, but you hear horror stories about people wanting a big say out of a place of vanity. That's certainly not the case with Keanu, who wants a say because he feels passionate about it. When he said yes, he's just not looking for a paycheck. He loved the character, the world, the story, and the possibilities for the movie. We definitely collaborated with him, although not as much as I'd say Akiva and I did with Will [Smith] on I Am Legend. Akiva, Will, and I basically came up with that movie. Keanu has a say, but he wasn't sitting in rooms with us for hundreds of hours working on the story. It was definitely a strong collaboration.

You two had about nine months together before filming, right? When it came to the story and how to play John, what conversations were you having?

The nine months were really reading the script and getting the job, showing them I'm responsible and I can do it. During that time, there were a lot of meetings with Akiva and other producers. Keanu was quite late in the game because he was in Australia. I think my initial meetings with him were right after we got back. I think it was, like, four hours of our first meeting. By then I had already had so many meetings, so I had built this huge presentation. I had all these poster boards, cast ideas, location ideas, all these ideas, and even frames I had hired illustrators to do for the movie. We had two four-hour meetings getting creative together and collaborating, but it was all a part of the process of him saying yes to the movie.

constantine movieHe's so brooding yet charismatic in the movie, which a lot of movie stars cannot do. What do you think it is about him that makes him that innately watchable?

You know, what makes somebody watchable, that's the tough thing. There are people that are watchable, and there are people that aren't watchable. Some more than others. Obviously, any actor with a decent to a great career is watchable, and Keanu is one of those people. It's a bit of that X-factor thing. You can't always figure that out. There are actors when you look in their eyes in a close-up you feel like you can't really penetrate even though they are watchable, but with somebody like Jennifer Lawrence, you can see a lot going on behind the eyes. I think Keanu is one of those people. It's really, really hard to explain why.

I do think, and I think I said this back then, there is something kind of tortured about Keanu and something lonely about Keanu. I think there are elements of him that lent themself to Constantine. I think it's something he didn't have to push. He's a great guy, works really hard, and is fun to be around — but there is that element to him that comes across on screen. I think that's why he can be there, be quiet and silent and act, and you can still feel those things.

What a great shot of him sitting on the bed, that sense of isolation with his back to the camera. 

Exactly. He's great at that. Also, he works really hard and really understands film and the language of film. He's a great guy to work with. Actually, we just did an interview together a couple of weeks ago, which was also for the anniversary. It was fun because I hadn't spoken to him in a while.

He's also one of those actors who happens to look really cool smoking a cigarette. Was that a problem at the time? Were studios already railing against smoking in movies?

It was definitely a discussion. It was right at the time when it became a big deal. I think we were in post-production when they said people smoking in movies would lead to an R-rating. I think what we had going for us was that we were not portraying smoking as a good thing. I mean, it's a character dying of lung cancer and smoking too much [Laughs]. It wasn't a positivie message for smoking in our movie.

[Laughs] I really like the intimacy between Constantine and Angela (Rachel Weisz) and only hints of romance. Did you ever get a note about making the kiss happen or making their relationship more conventionally romantic? 

It was better left unsaid, yeah. Nobody ever tried to make me have them kissed, but I loved having the expectation of it and just the chemistry and closeness between them, like when he puts her in the bathtub or at the end on the rooftop. Actually, near the end when he pulls the spear of destiny out of the ground [and they almost kiss], I liked subverting that idea. I think everyone expects it to happen, and not giving them that is fun.

Keanu Reeves is more popular than ever, so it's a little surprising there haven't been discussions about a hard-R Constantine sequel these last few years. Have you had any discussions about it? 

I think we all wanted to do it. It was successful enough. We wanted to make a responsible, more R-rated movie. By responsible, I mean we'd make a movie that wouldn't cost quite as much as the original, which we thought was going to be PG-13. We worked on the sequel for a while. It was tricky to come up with where to take it. What I really liked about the first one was it was a really personal story, so I thought it'd be a mistake to get caught up in the supernatural gobblygook. The idea of a personal story was really interesting, and that was the hard thing to come across. We have been talking about it recently. It's always stuck with all of us because we all love the movie, and especially realizing there's a real cult following for this movie, it'd be fun to make. Keanu, Akiva, and I have actually talked about it.

Unfortunately, I don't even remember who has it, but with all these shared universes that exist now, with Constantine being a part of Vertigo, which is a part of DC, people have plans for these shared universes. You know, possibly different Constantines and things like that. Right now, we don't have that character available to us for TV or movies, which is a bummer. We all investigated it, but I think it's kind of crazy when you have Keanu, who would love to do another Constantine, and us wanting to do another Constantine, and people are like, "Uh, no, we got other plans." We'll see what happens."

I hope it happens, and I think it'd be moronic if it didn't. It's a no-brainer to me.

I know. I agree. I'm with you, man [Laughs]. It's not for a lack of trying, believe me.