DIRECTOR JAMES MCTEIGUE - Political warfare in V for Vendetta
This and Joe Dante’s Homecoming are the two most aggressively political films I have seen recently and they’re both couched in fantastical terms. Why do you think these genres work so well for this kind of message?
“Yeah, you know, I think it’s a combination of things. I don’t thing anyone really wants to go to the cinema and be preached at. What we tried to do with V for Vendetta, through the script and through the execution of it, is give people a piece of entertainment that you can go and purely treat as a Saturday night popcorn entertainment kind of film and then on the other hand, if you want to, if you see it in there, walk away from the film and think abut the questions that it asks. No one wants to be browbeaten about those kinds of things. So I think you have a chance, once you abstract something like that, to make even a larger comment if you like, rather than a straight sort of point.”
For you is this also a way of slipping into the mainstream questions which have been taboo? I don’t think, for example, that a lot of Americans have felt that they have had permission to talk about the reasons for terrorism or the reasons for, say, 9/11. It hasn’t really been part of the mainstream discourse.
“Yes, years after 9/11 there was a feeling, rightly or wrongly, that the press were kind of complicit, that they didn’t ask hard enough questions or they didn’t look beneath things, which is what you hope will happen. Now I think what’s happening is people are starting to ask questions again, and quite rightly. In some ways I don’t even think it was their fault. If you put your head up before, it got knocked off pretty much. I think films like Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck, and even Munich to a certain extent, are from filmmakers and artists who want to debate these issues. It eventually bleeds into the arts and they want to start asking those questions.”
Is the humanising of a terrorist -- which is what the film does -- still heretical to some degree in America? Could that potentially cause problems?
“You know, it remains to be seen to tell you the truth. They are human beings. Part of the film deals with the question of, ‘Why does someone become a terrorist?’ He has a very, very complex morality, V. It’s very ambiguous if you like. He’s a mixed up human being. On the one hand he has this murderous vendetta against all the people that have done him wrong and have created the part of him that is the monster, and on the other hand he is advocating huge social change. Hopefully you ask the question, ‘How do those two mix? What is the line that he walks?’ Absolutely there’s controversial ideas in there.”
And it’s anti the kind of demonising that has gone on since 9/11. Once you do that, you don’t have to look at someone’s motives or reasons, and in a sense you then don’t have to look at yourself and why someone might have a problem with you.
“Yeah, that’s right. I think rather than just come out and call him a terrorist, I think you have to look behind the veil and see what creates people like that. Then if you take that line, is it right to call Nelson Mandela a terrorist? Is it right to call Che Guevara a terrorist? There’s been a lot of historical figures that, at the time, depending on what regime they’re fighting against, are called a lot of different things. I think V falls in that milieu of lots of different people.”
It’s interesting when they take their masks off at the end because it’s like we’ve had the excitement of the explosion and the question now is, ‘Where do we go from here?’
“Yeah, there is a bit of that. Because essentially the notion of government is a body of people that represent a body of people or represent the populace and at the point that a government topples, you’re uncertain about what’s going to happen. What I wanted the end of the film to feel like is there is a sense of hope. Evey’s voiceover dialogue towards the end of the film gives that sense of hope. And then when they take the mask off, I thought it was important for the idea to flower in some way. V, for the whole film, because you never get to see his face, he embodies the idea, he is the Everyman person, and then at the end of the film, by people taking the mask off, it humanises it. It is about everybody, it’s not just about this one character. It is about all the people in society, all the people that the government did wrong to.”
V has a great sense of theatre and spectacle which is also what the 9/11 bombers had. That atrocity was committed not just to terrorise America, but also to inspire people. This film, in a way, puts us in the role of those potential Jihadists. That’s an interesting and extremely risky twist.
“Yeah, you know, that’s kind of like dangerous ground. I don’t think you can ever condone something like that but I guess there are reasons why people do those things. But I think it’s important to remember that V is a work of fiction. It really is. I want to get that across. We did a lot of work in Trafalgar Square and near Whitehall and Number 10, the Houses of Parliament, and much to the government’s credit, who gave us permission to film there, they understood that the film was a work of fiction and it happens in a society that’s not real. You know, I think it’s there and there are parallels that you can draw to what’s going on, and I think that’s good. But it was also done from source material that was done quite a long time ago and I think London has always dealt with the issue of terrorism. It’s always been there. I think in a lot of ways America has hijacked the debate about it, just because it has happened there.”
Was all your filming done in London prior to the July 7 bombings?
“Yeah. All our filming was completed before the horrible incident on 7/7. I was cutting the film, in London, in Soho, when that happened. It was shocking. It is always shocking wherever it happens in the world. There is a terrorist attack in Iraq every single day, if that’s what you want to call it. Like an insurgency or a terrorist attack, it happens every single day, and it’s in the lexicon of how we live now. Like the discussion about terrorism is in the newspaper and in the news media every day, and I think it can’t help but like bleed into the arts at some point.”
Do you think you’d be able to get permission to make a film like this in London now, especially in the locations you used?
“It would be very hard. I don’t think you can have shocking events like happened on July 7 and then for there not to be a security crackdown. I think that will be present for a long time but eventually that will free up again. It will be difficult. I must admit I was very surprised that we got to film where we did. It took sixteen different bodies within the government to coalesce and let us film there. But they did. It was incredible.”
Some people have been wondering what people in England will say when they see the film but I think most people will be thinking about America.
“Well, I think there’s two things: hopefully the film is like a great allegory. Do I see it as particularly about America? Not really. I think it’s about any society or any democracy that can go wrong through fear-based politics. You know what? The source material is very London or UK-centric, and I think it would have been a disservice to put it anywhere else. Even though I didn’t shoot a lot of the film in London, I did a few weeks location shooting there and shot in Berlin, at Babelsberg, I did try not to show like clichéd iconography in London. I tried to give it a feeling like I know London. I’ve lived there a few times and I just wanted to permeate the film as much as I can with its Londonness.”
How has the feel of London changed over the years? The pres notes say the filmmakers wanted to capture the soullessness of the city. Is that how it feels?
“Ah, no. I love London to tell you the truth. I live in New York now but I’ve lived in London a lot, to start with when I was 18, then I was 26, then when I was in my mid 30s, then I just spent the last seven months there cutting the film and shooting the film. London’s changed a lot, you know? I think it’s very vibrant but I think probably what it did was a cinematic trick. You play into partially how people think of and know London, then I think I went about showing parts of London that are interesting. It’s an amazing city. There’s an amazing diversity of people that live there and things that go on. All the time it’s cut through with that great English sense of humour. I love the fact that it’s set there.”
Is the word ‘bollocks’ used as often as it is in the movie in the graphic novel?
“[Laughs] Well, you know, it’s like with Creedy, the character. It does crop up in the graphic novel, probably not as liberally as I sprinkled it in there, but it sort of seemed to suit the character’s conceitedness. ‘Can this happen to me? Absolutely not. Bollocks.’ It’s kind of a good English word to throw in there, you know? I think you get it. You get the intent of what he’s saying, I think, even if you don’t know how it’s used in the English slanguage. If you’re watching it in America I think you get the intent.”
When the Wachowskis presented you with the script, did you take it without hesitation or did you have any apprehension about the subject matter?
“You know, probably foolishly I didn’t actually. I was familiar with the graphic novel and all the things it touched on in the graphic novel. You know, I think our politics has changed. I think it’s become more insidious instead of being so like in your face, and I think we just talked about bringing the film up to date, because it was written on the back of that Thatcherite period around the miners strike, the Wapping thing, Clause 28 – it was good to take all those elements and bring it into the 21st Century. No, I didn’t have any hesitation. I love the material. They did a really good adaptation.”
What about actors? Were there any you approached who were scared off by the material?
“No. That’s an interesting question because I absolutely thought there would be people. But I was pretty specific about who I wanted in the film. I guess growing up in Australia I had this great hybrid of English and American culture so I always had like watched a lot of English films. I guess my first exposure was to like all the kitchen sink dramas of the 60s. You know, Tony Richardson, Ken Loach. I think it was always about finding that medium in there.”
There’s that line in the film about artists telling lies to tell the truth while politicians use lies to hide it. Is that kind of your challenge to politicians at the moment to be more transparent?
“You know, I think everyone hopes that politicians could be a little more honest. I think when you have like a two party system, whether it’s the Westminster system in the UK or the system in the United States, you just wish all the time that it wasn’t along party lines. You always wish there was more honesty in government. I think that statement’s really true. You hope that at some point the truth will get out but more often than not it’s always retrospectively when you find things out.”
And does the film give us the happy ending that only celluloid can deliver as V says about The Count of Monte Cristo?
“[Laughs] Well, you know, I probably wouldn’t call it a happy ending. I would call it a hopeful ending. Yeah, I hope you can go and see the film and walk away from it and feel like there’s a sense of hope in humanity, that all is not lost.”
It feels more galvanising than, say, the Clooney films, perhaps because of its energy. Also, you’ve touched on so many zeitgeisty, hot-button issues.
“Yeah, the George Clooney, I really like them, but they’re just about different things. I guess we went about making this film like in a different style and couching it in a different genre. It is first and foremost a thriller, a thriller with politics, and then there’s a bit of film noir, there’s an element that’s like classic gumshoe to it. So I think there’s a good melting pot and hopefully it makes a good entertaining cinematic experience, and you get to take something away with you.”
V For Vendetta is released Friday 17 March