Actor John Cusack, fourth from left, is seen on the set of the… (Bea Kallos, Associated…)
Just in time for Edgar Allan Poe's birthday on Wednesday, Hollywood filmmakers in Belgrade have wrapped an extravagant present.
Last week, director James McTeigue, who guided Natalie Portman through "V for Vendetta," completed principal photography on "The Raven," a thriller starring John Cusack as Baltimore's classic yet still controversial man of letters. In this ambitious pastiche, set in the last five days of his life, Poe is more than a poet, critic and fiction writer. He becomes a detective seeking a serial killer who has designed his crimes to echo Poe's stories.
Movie ads used to proclaim, "Years in the making!"
For two screenwriters, "The Raven" has been years in the dreaming.
It began in 1999, when Ben Livingston, a TV and movie actor, was seeking imaginative work in Los Angeles between parts. (He now lives in New York City.) Livingston explained over the phone last week, "I had always been a big Poe fan; I had always loved his stories. Still, I knew nothing about his life until I had a conversation with a friend who said, 'No one knows what happened in the five days before he died.' It just struck me — God, that has to be a movie somehow." But Livingston had never written a script.
So he immediately set a lunch date with another friend, Hannah Shakespeare. She had gone from developing film projects for Goldie Hawn to becoming part of screenwriter Ron ("Rain Man") Bass' creative team, "The Ronettes," a half-dozen women who researched, brainstormed and spitballed ideas for their boss. She was also writing screenplays herself.
"When I told her my idea and asked where to start, Hannah said: 'Why don't we do it together?' "
During a conference call Wednesday, Shakespeare said she sparked to the idea of setting a fictional serial-killer mystery inside the real-life mystery of Poe's death. "The concept was so high-concept, the plot would be what it had to be. And it never changed that much through all these years."
Shakespeare knew that a legend like Poe would attract top actors. But the writers crafted their script without any star in mind (though Cusack has delighted them). They zeroed in on the daguerreotype images of Poe staring at photographers with eyes at once sad and blazing.
Poe excited Livingston because "I grew up in the Midwest — it was pretty boring, there was lots of time to look at cornfields. Anything that was sensational attracted me, and hardly anyone is more sensational than Poe. When he's presented to you as classic literature, and then you find his stories are really cool and scary, it's easy from an early age to become fascinated with them."
Shakespeare said she loved Poe's work because she "grew up in Pennsylvania, in a farmhouse that was built in 1740, in this very historical part of the country, near Valley Forge. My parents taught me history and got my imagination going by telling me ghost stories about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. When you're surrounded by farmland and woods, it's easy to think of spirits wandering the earth."
While co-writing "The Raven" she kept several Poe poems close to hand, including "Annabel Lee," with its tale of "a love that was more than love," and "The Bells," which uses words to echo sounds like "the tintinnabulation that so musically wells/From the bells, bells, bells, bells/Bells, bells, bells —/From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells."
The screenwriters exploited Poe's seductive rhythms, if not his ornate language, throughout the script. They also paid tribute, in Livingston's phrase, "to his 'Greatest Hits.'" In homage to "The Bells," Livingston said, they even drafted (and then discarded) a suspense sequence that hinged on "all the church bells in Baltimore chiming a certain number of times."
Shakespeare drew Poe as a man with "a sensitive, kind heart" because she found "such sweetness and such love in so much of the poetry." But she also wanted to stay true to the eeriness and the mingling of anxiety and fear in his writing. For her, Poe's most important poem was "A Dream Within a Dream." Two key lines unlocked the script for her: "All that we see or seem/Is but a dream within a dream." These verses made Shakespeare think of Poe stumbling through a chilly Baltimore as twilight smeared illusion and reality.
Livingston, who did more biographical research, said they rejected the cliched image "of this really dark, morose and morbid writer. He was an extraordinary person. We tried to build a character who had tremendous passion."
He was startled to learn that Poe's parents were actors and that his mother died when the boy was 3. "As an actor myself — and sometimes an itinerant actor — that was just so heartbreaking to me. I'm sure it stuck with him his entire life. I had tremendous sympathy for him from the get-go."