March 29, 2006
Return of people power
James McTeigue says his politically driven debut feature was primarily intended as a piece of entertainment. Sandy George reports
IN V for Vendetta, an anarchist in a smiling mask rails against a totalitarian British government. Through fair means and foul, including killing off the worst of those in control and reversing the media's compliance, he motivates the masses to resume power through revolution. That, in a nutshell, is the story of the film.
Films laden with political content are more often found in art-house cinemas than multiplexes serving mainstream tastes. V for Vendetta seriously upholds civil liberties, but the tone is pop politics and the look is comic book. "People should not be afraid of governments, governments should be afraid of the people" is just one of many lines of dialogue that sound like graffiti slogans. It is being liberally used in the advertising.
The film also has the pace, the thriller elements, the star power, the explosions and firearms – and the humour – that suits multiplex audiences. It is being released tomorrow across Australia.
"What I wanted to do, first and foremost, was make a piece of entertainment," says director James McTeigue, an Australian, about his feature film debut. It was always intended to capture a broad audience. "I don't think anyone wants to go to the cinema and get preached at. You have to evolve the ideas – some of them political, some of them personal – into a film.
"Then the film becomes like a Trojan Horse. You push it into the village as one thing and it comes out another thing. Hopefully it is something people think about afterwards, have discussions about, even vehemently disagree on. I like the idea you can have the entertainment and the political idea in there."
V is played by Hugo Weaving, and Natalie Portman, who has her head shaved on screen, plays his protege. Among the terrific British actors are Stephen Rea, John Hurt and Stephen Fry.
Viewers without an ear for voices or an eye on film reviews may not realise Weaving is the apparently disfigured V. His mask is omnipresent. V was inspired by Guy Fawkes's failed attempt to blow up Britain's Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605. Despite the mask, Weaving displays a striking range of emotions and great charisma: it is easy to forget that his immorality would make him a terrorist in today's language.
V for Vendetta was adapted from a graphic novel – the burgeoning genre of serious cartoon narratives – created 25 years ago by Alan Moore and David Lloyd.
"Those guys wrote it on the back of Thatcherism," says McTeigue, who loved the way the material held his interest every day during production. "That very reactionary government saw the miners' strike, Wapping and Clause 28." (There were violent clashes with unions at Wapping in the 1980s when The Australian's sister newspapers in Britain opened a printing plant there, receiving considerable police protection. The now repealed Clause 28 prohibited authorities from promoting homosexuality or teaching its acceptability in schools.)
"They tailored it for the period but I was impressed it was still prescient and still relevant now," McTeigue says. "For every few steps forward we make as a society and a democracy, we make a couple to the side or back. I look around me now and it is not as in your face as [Margaret] Thatcher, it is much more subtle. In the US it is the Patriot Act; in Australia, workplace reform. Things are slipped under the wire more now and I wanted to comment on that. The film speaks to the past, to the present and, if I know anything, it will speak to the future."
McTeigue has quickly learned that interpretations depend on the baggage the viewer brings. Some swear it is about Nazi Germany, for example.
When Weaving was approached, he was involved with another project, believed to be Eucalyptus, which subsequently fell through. Another actor, James Purefoy, was cast in the title role but was replaced three weeks into the shoot.
"It became apparent very quickly that he was never going to be comfortable in or make peace with the mask," McTeigue says. He is quick to add that replacing an actor is never something he would do lightly, but he had to do what was best for the film. "You spend a long time as an actor learning what to do with your face. It is the big tool that you have, and so are your eyes. When you take that away, it's difficult."
Although the media comes out squeaky clean in V for Vendetta compared to the government, it would not win any awards from McTeigue.
The film was made very quickly, and he liked that immediacy, but not quickly enough to properly promote it before its planned Guy Fawkes Day opening last November. It was delayed and one journalist jumped to the incorrect conclusion that it was because of the London bombings: constant repetition elsewhere turned it into the accepted wisdom.
Then the liberal American magazine Vanity Fair this year ran an article by Michael Wolff implying that McTeigue may not have really directed the film, and perhaps didn't exist at all.
The film was written by the brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski, who also produced it alongside veteran Joel Silver and Australian Grant Hill. The Wachowskis made the acclaimed Matrix trilogy but don't play the publicity game, which is unusual in a celebrity culture.
"It was a journalist doing something stupid," McTeigue says of the Vanity Fair story. The irony that the film is about freedom is not lost on him. "He was playing into his angle on the story, which was the whole myth of the Wachowskis, and I became part of that myth-making exercise. I've been glad to defend [the rumour that I don't exist] in every interview I have done."
McTeigue arrived in Sydney on Monday after a two-year absence and will stay for about 10 days before going to Tokyo for the Japanese premiere. He grew up on Sydney's north shore and had various assistant directing roles on Australian films before moving on to big US-financed films shot in Australia, including the Matrix films, in which Weaving plays a delightfully evil Agent Smith, and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, which features Portman.
He also regularly directed commercials.
"[The Wachowski Brothers] are good friends and were tired of directing films. If you use the adage that every day you spend on set takes five days off your life, they were very old by the end of the Matrix pictures," he says.
Working in an established team (that included Australian production designer Owen Paterson) delivers a high level of comfort, he says, leaving more time for creativity.
"Without sounding conceited about it, it was hard but it did not seem like such a huge leap, because I had done a lot of big films and been around enough talented directors to know what to do if I was in their position," McTeigue says.
Most of V for Vendetta, a German-British co-production, was shot over 12 weeks from March 2005 in or near Berlin. Two weeks were spent on location in London, where the film was also edited.
Silver bought the rights to the material in the late '80s and the first draft was written in the mid-'90s under a three-picture writing deal between the Wachowskis and Warner Bros. This was before The Matrix was produced.
McTeigue sees the studio as the present-day leader of politically driven cinema and was pleased at its hands-off approach. The poster is right to say it is an uncompromising vision, he adds. Given that V for Vendetta grossed $US26 million ($37 million) during its first weekend in US cinemas this month, which is just short of The Matrix, it seems to be paying off.