V FOR VENDETTA: Talking With Director James McTiegue

Thu, February 16th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

TV/Film
Jonah Weiland, Executive Producer/Publisher

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    On June 1st, 2005, CBR News took part in a round-table interview with "V for Vendetta" director James McTiegue Despite the fact he was filming until after 4:00 in the morning, McTiegue did well under the pressure of a hungry press, even when one question was posed rather indelicately by one member of our panel. "V for Vendetta" marks McTiegue's directorial debut, but he's amassed a rather impressive resume as First Assistant Director on "The Matrix" films, "Star Wars: Episode II" and many others. McTiegue adressed a number of issues in the interview, including Alan Moore's reaction to the production of the film, the challenges of working on the streets of London and much more.

    So, how was last night? You doing OK?

    Yeah, yeah (laughs), I'm doing good, actually. I guess you guys saw a bit for a while?

    Yeah. We were waiting for the V's to swarm the streets, but it never quite happened so we went home.

    [laughs] Yeah, sorry about that. Unfortunately that was about to happen as the sun was coming up. We got it done, but sort of in that golden hour between three and four, watching Big Ben going (clong, clong).

    The Unit Publicist told us how big a deal it was to film in front of Parliament. Did that ad to your pressure? Did it make you nervous at all?

    Uhm, no, I mean I guess you've got it there in the back of your mind, but by the time you get there and you film and you've been there on survey's and you've thought about it in your head so many times before that when you get there, on the day, you're just trying to focus on what you've got to do. I guess, in some ways, having done other films as an Assistant Director I just know that a bunch of stuff is going to be taken care of and I can concentrate on what I need to do that's in front of me. I guess it's like filming in front of the White House or filming on the White House lawn because it's right there, whereas you're a bit away from the White House. I think it shows what a democracy it is here that they've managed to all come together and go, "Yeah, OK sure. Do whatever you want. Put a tank outside!" [laughs]

    How did you get hooked up with the Wachowski's to direct this film?

    Well, I guess out of the last ten years of my life I've spent eight with them starting with the first "Matrix." I guess during post production of the second and third films we started talking about the graphic novel and how even though it was written in the '80s and projected into the late '90s how pressing it still was. The politics were still prescient. So there was a script there and we thought it might be good to drag out of the cupboard.

    Can you tell us which parts of the graphic novel have been kept out? Obviously you can't fit the entire thing into the movie.

    Well, the graphic novel is very labyrinthine and I think like with any great adaptation there are always things you'll have to leave out. What you hope to do in the end is to get the essence of the graphic novel and the themes of the graphic novel and distill them into a film whilst always remembering it is a film. It's kind of hard to tell you what parts we left out without sitting here, getting the graphic novel out and going through it. We left in all the good parts! (laughs) The graphic novel is great. Alan Moore is an incredible writer and David Lloyd is an incredible illustrator.

    How are you doing with this being your first little film?

    Good, I guess. I guess I'm lucky that I have been in the film industry for a long time. I think the nice thing about working with the Wachowski's is, by their nature, they're very collaborative. They're always very inclusive. So, it wasn't such a great leap [from Assistant Director to Director]. I know that sounds kind of trite to say that as this is obviously a big film and there's a lot to do. There's a part of my background that knows how all the mechanics work, so that part of it's easy and the creative part I've really enjoyed. It's good in some ways to leave all that other stuff behind.

    Have there been any surprises?

    Not really, actually, to tell you the truth. I guess it must be really hard if you're a writer and it's your first film and you're just thrown on set into the mix. That must be kind of hard. But I sort of know how all that operates and that if you trust everyone and you know that everyone's there to do a job, it makes your job easier because you can hone in and really concentrate on what you want to do. So, no huge surprises … yet! I haven't finished yet and I have five months of post production to come, so there could be some lurking around the corner.

    You did send an actor home. [Actor Hugo Weaving replaced James Purefoy in the role of V at the beginning of production.] How was that as a first time director?

    Well, you know, James is a great actor. I hope that we can work together at some time in the future. At this point it wasn't right and Hugo's a great actor.

    Was it the massive challenge of the mask that makes it such a hard role to do?

    McTiegue talks with Weaving on the set of "V for Vendetta."
    The mask is incredibly difficult and not incredibly difficult. If you trace the lineage of the mask back to early theater, it's always been around. The mask also does certain things [to an actor]. It's tricky. I think it'll work out great, actually. It's a beautiful mask that's very true to the graphic novel.

    Is it harder to find the kind of actor who could make something like the mask work?

    Yeah. Take "Vanilla Sky." You see Tom Cruise in a mask in that. It's hard. It's hard putting anyone in a mask. It's a difficult thing to do, but I think it can also be liberating, too. It hasn't been done in a big film really where you don't see the person underneath the mask. It was a challenge and still is. I guess once we get into post production it'll be interesting to see how the mask plays, whether you play a lot off the mask or whether you play a lot off the other characters. At the moment I'm filming as though it's just another person. The mask is very engaging, too.

    Did you actually do screen tests with different actors wearing the mask?

    Yeah, we went through the usual screen testing process. It's interesting working with the mask. The great thing about the screen testing process was you got to see at a very early stage what works, what doesn't work, how much movement there is in the mask, how you have to almost bring the gesture of the mask before you have the words, which is completely different from how you usually operate. You don't have any facial ticks with the mask, so you kind of have to move the mask and bring the words with it.

    The concentration camp scenes in the graphic novel are some of the most emotionally challenging portions of the graphic novel. How was it filming those moments?

    They were emotionally challenging. Alan Moore called them resettlement camps and I think it's not very hard to draw a parallel about what's going on now. There's stuff like that still happening around the world.

    As a fan of the graphic novel, how does it feel after what Alan Moore said about the film and how he'd rather it not be made?

    I don't know whether he really doesn't want it made. I mean, obviously, the rights are out there for the film to be made so at some point he wants the film to be made. The graphic novel is great, I think we've done a great adaptation of it, but this is a film and at some point you can't make a word-for-word adaptation of the graphic novel, you have to always remember that you're making a film. I hope in the end he's happy with it.

    Are you a graphic novel fan yourself? Have you read much else?

    Yeah, you can't be around the Wachowski family there and not get involved in the graphic novel world. I guess at the moment the graphic novel is the western of our time because obviously there used to be a lot of graphic novels being made into film and now there's a lot of graphic novels being made. It's being made because like all those things where something's in the sub-culture, then it builds and builds and finally you get to the point where people become aware of how large the graphic novel world is.

    The character of V is more of an ideal, a symbol, than a character. Are you preserving that in the movie or are you sort of humanizing him more?

    We're doing both. I think in the graphic novel he is kind of human while he still does represent an idea. The trick is to not get the humanism of the person behind the mask lost in the idea. I think it's nice to have both of them. And you know, he's a very complex character. On one hand he has this vendetta against this world that's created him and how he hopes to eventually find justice in that world. On the other hand he has this very altruistic notion of how government can be or how people can be with government. So, we've tried to bring those two things together and make sure that the fine line you walk melds together.

    In terms of visual effects, are you pushing the envelope at all here?

    There is some interesting visual effects here. Is it as visual effects heavy as the "Matrix?" No. I'd describe the story as a political thriller with action in it. There's no kind of like massive set end piece like in the "Matrix" where there were huge visual effects, but there's some stuff up our sleeve.

    What's the look of this thing? How's it coming together?

    I'd call it gritty/urban/political drama. That's kind of the general kind of thing. If you're making a graphic novel, and these guys made a great graphic novel, I guess it was one of the first ones to use a very cinematic style. It's nice to have some touchstone moments like in the graphic novel.

    Is this being eyed as a franchise?

    Ahhh, no, it sort of doesn't leave itself open to be a franchise.

    McTiegue talks with Portman on the set of "V for Vendetta."
    Maybe a different mask each time?

    [laughs] Yeah, that's right! Nahhhh.

    Having worked with the Wachowskis, are you very aware of not emulating their style and making a mark for yourself as a director?

    Yeah, always, but there's some homogenization of other people, too. Of course you want to make the film your own, you don't want to ape someone else's style and have it come off looking like another "Matrix" film. [The Wachowski's] are great filmmakers and you can't not be around them and learn things from them.

    Do you have an urge to do a small movie now? As a director, is that going to be your next thing in the future, or are you now the "big film" guy and will continue to do big films?

    I think any filmmaker who'd tell you that he's not going to do big films is kinda stupid.

    Is that your style to just do big films?

    You know, I'd like to think I have the skills to do pretty much anything. In terms of Hollywood, sure, yeah it would be great to do some big films, some small films. I think the great thing about this film is because of the themes of the film, in some ways, it is a very personal film. It is about politics and personal politics.

    Last night Owen Patterson was telling us how he was trying to capture London and trying to get a unique image of London. After filming in Berlin, was it liberating to come to London and use it more actively?

    Yeah. All of the graphic novel is set in London. The thing about Berlin… by the way, Berlin was a fantastic experience. This film got off and going really quickly and the studio down there was fantastic. But at some point you need to let the film breath a bit and London… London is London! It has a very distinct kind of flavor in the same way that New York is New York or LA is LA. You know, you can emulate them, but there are certain things that are here that you can't mock-up. To be outside Parliament last night, can you do that with a plate shot? Maybe you can do it with a plate shot, but it'll always look like a plate shot the way you have to photograph it. We were standing there last night, to be down Whitehall, looking at Nelson's column in Trafalgar's Square and the lions and all those guys coming from around Trafalgar Square, you know, I think it was great. It was very liberating to be here, actually.

    How does this film reflect your own politics?

    I think at the moment it's good to have a voice that isn't the general voice that's out there at the moment. So, am I a super leftist leaning person? No. The politics of the film are very interesting and it's varied, too. I don't think it says this is exactly right or that is exactly right. The character of V has a dichotomy that's very interesting, which is like all humans. I know there are people who have extreme leftists politics and extreme rightists politics, but I think the character in the movie and the movie itself is an interesting mixture of all those politics.

    The politics of the movie seem ambigious enough for both sides to find something in this.

    The interesting thing about films and novels is that everybody brings their own interpretation to them. The same two people can watch the film at exactly the same time and have completely polar experiences. I think that will happen with this film, too. I think that's good. I think in a lot of ways it's great to let people decide what they think the film is saying. As long as they're having a good cinematic experience.

    I have a question about last night. It seems that Parliament figures in that scene. Is that one of the changes, that it's not destroyed in the beginning?

    Ahhhhh … yes! (laughs)

    Do you expect this to be a very tight cut?

    I think, as always, you'd like to keep it as tight as possible. It'll be tight and hopefully it'll move along at a clip. It has a very distinct and steady through line. It all does happen over the course of a year. It'll be great to take that arc and keep it going. It'll be tight.

     
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