John Cusack on The Raven and the 'Rarified Pop-Pulp' of Edgar Allen Poe

John Cusack (Getty Images)

In this week's The Raven, John Cusack brings 19th century author Edgar Allan Poe to life in a mystery-thriller that envisions Poe locked in a battle of wills against his biggest fan: a serial killer murdering in the style of Poe's most twisted stories. The piece is a paradox in itself, literary-minded meta-meditation masquerading as a pulpy mainstream entertainment; between genre beats and moments of Sherlock Holmesian heroism, Cusack and director James McTeigue leave provocations to be found or ignored, depending on your inclination. Whether or not audiences choose to dive in, Cusack just hopes they take the film on its own merits: "If you want a very different, quiet, Masterpiece Theater version of this, someone will go make that movie. But this is what we made. We made a dream about Poe."

To play the enigmatic and complex author, poet, and critic — who died of still-unknown causes at age 40, days after being found delirious on a park bench in Baltimore in 1849 — Cusack went deep into his life and work, attempting to understand the psyche of the man who loved (and tragically lost) the women in his life, bitterly fought his foes, yearned for recognition and celebrity, and yet carried such deep melancholy. "He was definitely an artist who was famous and wanted fame and wanted recognition," Cusack mused. "He wanted to destroy the other poets of the day. He really was crazy, in an interesting way. He was such a lunatic!"

And yet much of The Raven plays on the audience's expectation, or perceived demand, for sensational storytelling — R-rated kills, gruesome murders, suspense. As Cusack explains, that is entirely the point. "[Poe] was satiric and fucked-up and pop-pulp, and he was also totally rarefied. So the movie is both of those things."

[Movieline's chat begins with a round of My Favorite Scene in which Cusack picks Sidney Lumet's The Verdict. More on that here.]
I think when you watch [films] you just get affected by them and you let them wash over you. When you’re watching something good, you’re not thinking about anything, the story is taking you over. But then as you try to think back about the technique behind why it works, then you can dissect it a little bit. As I watched it I thought, you can’t do that anywhere but on a big screen. A novelist can’t do that because it’s an actor and [Paul] Newman’s whole life — all of the actor’s life and the character’s life, the character and the actor blur — a mature man at 65 with all the regrets, this conscience, these ethics. All into a moment, a cinematic moment. And in those three words you have everything. It’s just what washes over his face, what the camera sees. It’s beautiful.

Have you always watched and read films so closely, so analytically?
That’s what I do, and I’m a filmmaker too. I make films and, you know — the stuff that I’ve done that’s worked, I think it’s done by feel but then you look back on it… I don’t believe too much in technique, I think technique can sort of get in the way. I think there’s a way technique can liberate you by simplifying things.

How conscious are you of the mechanics of a scene when you’re giving a performance, and how a director is going to bring the performance and the camera and the script together?
It’s a collaboration and a conversation that you have with the director and the cameraman. It’s a conversation you have.

Does that collaboration factor heavily into your decision to do a project or not?
Yeah — I’ll say, too, if I’m working with James and we’re working on this and I see the shots he’s set up, and if I see something or a way to do something, I tell him. It’s very collaborative. If I say, "Are you going to be in here for this?" We’ll have a shorthand and he’ll go, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." So you start to tell the same story together. James is a very sophisticated guy and a great filmmaker so by the end of the movie we were finishing each other’s sentences. But of course you have ideas. I saw the set, we were on a huge set, and I was talking with James — it was this opera hall and I said, "Wouldn’t it be cool if we had Poe standing up top, kind of like a raven looking down?" And James was like, "And maybe we’ll put him over here…" So you come up with these things that have that language. I think it’s still in the movie, the scene where he’s watching the ball.

Yes, it is. In that shot he’s perched above watching his lady from afar and there’s such a sadness in his face.
That was a shot we came up with on that day, me and James.

What drew you to Poe to begin with, and then to this project? The film is obviously being sold to audiences as a thriller and a mystery but it’s also got a lot of interesting ideas about what it means to be an artist, to be be an artist who needs and wants an audience…
I’m so happy you see all of that! It’s nice that you are picking up on that.

Were those themes always there when the project first came to you, or did you help develop them along the way?
James had the structure and the script was terrific, but I worked when I came onboard to try to elevate the language and texture of Poe’s vernacular and his idiom, because I thought it was so specific, and so textured and rich, that it has to really be at the very highest level. So there are some times in the script — because Poe was a mixture of esoteric, intellectual, rarefied air and pulp – Saturday afternoon thrillers, ‘I’m going to scare the audience and play on their fears, I’m going to give you a cliffhanger, I’m going to have a forensics detective thing where the killer is an orangutan with a razor – he was satiric and fucked-up and pop-pulp, and he was also totally rarefied. So the movie is both of those things, and creates that genre.

It absolutely is. How do you think that will be received?
So if you’re looking for The King’s Speech or some very serious, ultra-important movie, maybe you can make that movie. But that’s not really Poe! If you know Poe, that’s not really Poe; he was both. And so I thought the convention of Poe becoming a character in one of his own stories — the circular thing, the dream within the dream, very Poe-like — and within that we had the responsibility to make him as real as possible.

Having now played him, what’s your take on Poe himself?
He was famous, he was vain, he was at war with the world, he was theatrical. He went to West Point, he did all those things. He was an alcoholic, he loved his women, but I think he loved the women almost religiously, I don’t think it was sexual. He said, "I could not love except where death mingled his with beauty’s breath." Just because of his past, with his mother and stepmother and his wife all dying in his arms, he was like an alchemist in that he was taking all of his misery and turning it into this great new art form. But he was totally fucked up by the deaths of all these women, and he revered them. I don’t think he played around. He wasn’t a playboy. But he loved the company of women and he loved to be revered by women. He hated men. I think he was only friends with a couple of men, and they were brief friendships. So he was definitely an artist who was famous and wanted fame and wanted recognition, he was competitive with other artists, he put them down — he said, "I don’t intend to put up with anything I can put down." He wanted to destroy the other poets of the day. He really was crazy, in an interesting way. He was such a lunatic!

A man of contradictions and extremes.
A total paradox. And that, I think, is where you have to understand that about Poe to understand at least the premise of this movie. So if you want The King’s Speech, this isn’t that. This isn’t sort of measured and reverential.

You’ve clearly done a lot of research into Poe’s life and work and complications, but do you feel like you related to him as well, personally, in any of those ways?
Yes. I think Jung said that there’s a shadow archetype and in movies, or in art, we have these characters that become archetypical and I think it’s because they represent a part of our collective consciousness. So Poe, I think, was this pioneer into the underworld and into the subconscious and he housed all of our collective shame and fear and sorrow and expressed it so deeply that the image of him became sort of an archetype. So I think he was like a shadow figure, a figure now of your subconscious and your dreams. He’s like the raven – the raven was a harbinger to another world. Now Poe, for us, is sort of like the raven, sitting at the door of us, trying to say "You know, in your imagination and your subconscious is stuff that can frighten you and make you more in awe of anything you can imagine." He was straddling both worlds artistically. So I think if you have a character like that, it allows you to tap into that in you. I can go use the Poe character to tap into my crazy stuff, you know — good and bad. So I don’t know if you feel you relate to Poe personally as much as you can find him in you.

The Raven makes a number of amusing jabs at critics — Poe’s literary critics and rivals and enemies, at least one of whom meets a poetic end. Is the intent behind that to send a message to film critics reviewing this film about the film itself or how it might be perceived?
My attitude is around what we’ve just been talking about, which is if you don’t like the conceit of the movie… review the movie that we shot. If you want a different version of a Poe movie, if you want a very different, quiet, Masterpiece Theater version of this, someone will go make that movie. But this is what we made. We made a dream about Poe. Our dream about Poe. Lou Reed made his album, and it was his dream about Poe. So this is me and McTeigue. But I think if they really know his writing, they’re going to really respect that we’ve done our homework.

The Raven is in theaters Friday.
John Cusack is on Twitter! Check him out here.

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