John Cusack becomes Edgar Allan Poe in 'The Raven'
In the new film "The Raven" (out Friday), John Cusack plays the famous American
short story writer, poet and critic Edgar Allan Poe during a fictional account
of the last few days of his life. In the film, an unknown killer is slaughtering
his victims in ways patterned after deaths in some of Poe's greatest horror
tales. Although Baltimore detective Emmett Fields (Luke Evans) suspects Poe
himself at first, he ultimately enlists the dissolute writer's help to solve the
crimes and identify the killer. Then someone close to Poe becomes the killer's
next target ...
Numerous films have featured some incarnation of Poe, one of American
literature's most influential writers, dating back to 1915. But "The Raven"
takes a mysterious void in every account of his life -- what happened to Poe
during his last days, before he was found dying on a Baltimore park bench -- and
attempts to fill it in with a macabre, blood-drenched story that wouldn't be too
much of a stretch for the author himself.
Working with director James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta"), Cusack said at a recent press
conference for the film that getting into the mind of Poe was irresistible to
him. "I just thought that as an actor, playing Poe and trying to get under the
skin of this very, very complex genius would be great," said the star of 2010's
apocalyptic epic "2012." "I think any actor would want to play him. It would be
a great challenge and opportunity, so I was just up for it 100 percent."
Filming commenced for "The Raven" in November 2010, with the production going
to Belgrade, Serbia, and Budapest, Hungary, in order to recreate Baltimore circa
1849. "It's so hard to make a period piece movie like this, especially in
America because everything's so gentrified now," said producer Aaron Ryder. "So
to be able to recreate Baltimore in 1849 did require us to go to Eastern Europe
and to do so under some pretty harsh circumstances."
Cusack said that the location shooting contributed to his own immersion into
the role of Poe, with unsettling side effects. "We were in Hungary and Serbia
and it was the winter, so it kind of felt like we were as far away from the
world as we could be," recalled the actor. "We were on these cobblestone streets
and shooting a lot at night, so I sort of felt like I became a vampire. I don't
know if I was disagreeable, but I'm sure I was. It felt like being on a bender,
but in a cool way. I know that when we finished, we were at the airport in
London and James looked at me and said, 'You ought to go home, man.' [Laughs] I
did go home and scared the hell out of my family. But it was the kind of thing
where you have to go all in, doing this type of story."
"I only came out of that darkness that we dove into about six months ago, and
we filmed it a year ago," said British actress Alice Eve, who plays Emily
Hamilton, Poe's fictionalized fiancée. "It was, as John said, dark and winter,
and the streets were bleak and misty, and we were making a story about an insane
genius. So we really went there -- it was very intense."
Also intense are some of the film's set pieces, including a murder staged to
resemble the climax of Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" and other bits involving
a human tongue and other bloody methods of terminating human life. All of that
was enough to earn "The Raven" an R rating, and McTeigue said he had no interest
in toning anything down to get a PG-13. "If you're going to make a movie about
Poe, you have to speak to what he (wrote)," said the director. "It would seem
churlish to not have scenes like we have, with the pendulum and a severed
tongue. I know some people are a little repelled by the gore and all that, but
Poe would do it. He did do it. He was so much more graphic than the film is. So
there was no question of toning down the violence. Everyone was on board with
what we were doing."
Learning the true identity of the killer leads Poe and Fields on a trail of
mayhem and more death, while also providing some commentary on Poe's own fame
and fitting the story's events neatly around what little is known about his own
final days. "They've written books about how he died, because nobody actually
knows," explained Ryder. "He was found on a park bench dressed in someone else's
clothes on an election day, and it was theorized that people had drugged him and
kept taking him around town and making him vote at several different places. We
tried to weave some of those theories in there without putting too much weight
on any single idea."
Even if "The Raven" is nothing more than a thriller that happens to
fictionalize the last days of a legendary writer, the film is perhaps the first
in a long time to focus on the darker aspects of Poe's soul. "I think he was a
perpetual orphan of the world, and I think his feelings of loneliness and
abandonment from losing his mother and then his stepmother and then his wife all
contributed to that," said Cusack about what he took away from playing the role.
"He was a genius and a kind of bastard and a rogue -- he was all the things we
think of him, inward-looking and melancholy and soulful and all those things,
but he was also just this blasted soul."