Constantine is a great movie, and it's good to see the critical consensus finally swinging back around to appreciate this underrated gem. At a Comic-Con @Home panel, Keanu Reeves, director Francis Lawrence, and producer Akiva Goldsman reunited for the first time since the premiere to discuss the film and its legacy.
In Constantine, Reeves played the eponymous John Constantine, based (somewhat loosely) on the Hellblazer comics from Vertigo/DC. How loosely? Well, as Reeves so pithily explained, "I'm not English, and I'm not blonde." During production, they experimented with wigs and accents but finally decided to just make this a different take on the character, based firmly in Los Angeles rather than London.
Lawrence, for whom this was his first feature film and previously had directed some of the previous decade's most iconic music videos, noted the challenges of the film and navigating the genre expectations, "At the time the comic book movie genre was not what it is today." He pointed to Bryan Singer's X-Men and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies, but also noted this was prior to (and parallel to) the development of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Warner Bro. was willing to look for something tonally different. So rather than looking to comic book movies for inspiration, "in all honesty, I was looking at noir films. I would look at something like Blade Runner over any other kind of comic book movies or you know The Third Man or Maltese Falcon, and you know things like that. Because there was just a huge noir tone and influence in the story and the characters, and I wanted it to influence the aesthetic of the film itself."
Unfortunately, that tone ended up biting the filmmakers in the ass, as they had set out to make a PG-13 movie in terms of blood, nudity, sex, and language but got hit with an R rating instead. Producer Goldman explained, "We screened it for the MPAA, and I mean I remember hearing that they got about 5 minutes in and put their notepads down and said that we got an R for our tone." For tone? Warner Brothers had previously given them a list of things to look for to get to a PG-13, but this was not there. "And so this is not something that's on the list, but basically there's this sort of I think it was an "overwhelming sense of dread" was what I heard that they had from the opening scene onward and they didn't think there was anything that we could do about it basically."
Setting aside how stupid it is to rate something R for "tone," it is quite possibly the most subjective thing you could think of. (I've, of course, previously written about how stupid the MPAA is and how they censor good films with backward ideas like this)
Goldman continued, "What we had was a PG-13 movie that got an R rating which just killed me. Because it's like if we were gonna get an R rating, I would have made an R-rated movie. We could have like really gone for it in terms of intensity and violence and language and all those kinds of things, but we got a bit screwed on that on that front." I would have liked to have seen that film, sir.
Director Lawrence added this for context, "There's a kind of weird subset of religious horror, and that seems to get an R much more quickly. What you learn is that despite the fact that there are guidelines, it's a purely subjective interpretation and that this subjectivity has sort of like ebb and flows based on the group that is designating the rating." That's a good opinion, especially from someone who has successfully directed a series of movies about children murdering each other (the Hunger Games series) that all got PG-13 ratings and were huge box office successes.
Lawrence thinks there might be a secret trigger for the MPAA: "But we have a lot of demons. Demons seem for some reason to trigger an R rating. There you have it: I've now given every prospective filmmaker the key to getting an R rating."
The three spent the rest of the hour talking about other aspects of the film, its successes as a cult classic and why it's now getting a second look from so many people, in the full Comic-Con @Home panel, which you can watch here.