V For Vendetta: Anarchy In the UK
The Matrix team has realigned for this politically charged comic-book fantasy starring Natalie Portman.
A cool June night in London, hundreds of masked and ebony-cloaked figures mass behind concrete roadblocks in front of that enduring symbol of Western democracy and tourism, the Houses of Parliament. Dressed in the 17th-century getup of their leader, a mysterious and charismatic vigilante named V who ignites revolution in a near-future totalitarian society, they face off against government militia in a barnstorming climax that will involve the obliteration of Britain’s seat of power.
Tonight, though, the revolution is stuttering, as Big Ben mocks the logistical urgency facing the crew of V for Vendetta. “Clang, clang, clang!” says first-time director James McTeigue later, simultaneously chuckling and grimacing at the clocktower’s gonging. “It was counting down the minutes for me! Such a short amount of time to get everything done . . . ”
This explosive set piece—for which the production was granted unique permission to shut down all of Whitehall, between Trafalgar and Parliament squares, for three nights—will symbolize fascist tyranny being vanquished. “It’s the most important thing in the story,” says producer Joel Silver (the Lethal Weapon and Matrix movies), who optioned the source material, an acclaimed graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, when it was published back in 1990. But front-page news soon thrust V for Vendetta into an uncomfortable position the filmmakers say it doesn’t deserve. Five weeks after this scene was shot, the July 7 terrorist attacks in London shifted the focus to some undeniably eerie parallels in the movie’s plot, including a key sequence featuring a subway train crammed with explosives.
“There is the subject of terrorism in the movie, but it’s a different kind of terrorism,” says Silver. “This is a comic-book story, like Batman or Superman. I mean, War of the Worlds, those big tripods—they blew up everything! Yes, there was one shot in Spider-Man where they took out the Twin Towers [from a teaser trailer and poster], but, you know, that was just being human. This is not a story about what’s occurring now. It’s fictional.”
Long before concerns about current events arose, V for Vendetta was attracting an unusual amount of interest because of its screenwriters and second-unit directors, Matrix creators Andy and Larry Wachowski. Last night on the set, the famously private brothers (who are also producing) orchestrated the street action alongside McTeigue, who was their first AD on the Matrix films. Today, says Silver, “they weren’t on set every minute, but they were around.”
Hired by Silver before The Matrix’s 1999 release to write a Vendetta screenplay, the Wachowskis revived the project toward the end of shooting on Reloaded and Revolutions. Asked if they ever considered directing it themselves, Silver says, “It may have been a little close for them to The Matrix in some ways.” (McTeigue says the brothers did keep final cut, however: “I’m a first-time director. It’s not unusual.”)
The Wachowskis’ first script was very faithful to the graphic novel, says Lloyd; the rewrite infused the story with some distinctively Wachowskian action and fiddled with the novel’s structure, incendiary plot, and key characters—axing some and altering others, in particular Evey Hammond, who has changed from the malleable street waif of the original into a plucky TV station employee with a tragic past, whom V rescues from assault-minded members of the fascist government’s secret police and converts to his rebel cause. “She’s a stronger counterpart to him in the film,” says Natalie Portman, who, as Evey, has her head shaved onscreen in a pivotal torture sequence, a coiffure makeover that caused a global sensation at last year’s Cannes film festival. “You get to see her develop a political consciousness,” Portman adds, “which is amazing.” Filling out the cast are such stellar U.K. actors as Stephen Fry, Stephen Rea, Sinéad Cusack, and John Hurt, who plays the head of the totalitarian government (a neat inversion of his casting long ago as the beleaguered Winston Smith in 1984).
Vendetta started shooting in March 2005 in Berlin’s Babelsberg studios. One thing the Wachowskis kept intact was V himself, a kind of superhero (played by Hugo Weaving) with admittedly psychopathic tendencies, ferocious combat skills, and a Grand Guignol approach to blowing up London landmarks. “He’s a fascinating man,” muses Weaving (Agent Smith in the Matrix films). “He’s someone who’s been tortured and profoundly damaged by the state, this dark avenging angel who’s out to take revenge on the perpetrators of the torture. And the other side is this more heroic figure, who is attempting to get people to take responsibility for their lives rather than leave it up to the government.”
It’s precisely this blend of flamboyance and dementia that has given Vendetta its devoted following in the comic-book fraternity. Those fans can also be notoriously critical, however. Moore distanced himself from the movie early on (and his name is not in the movie’s credits), but Lloyd appeared at the Comic-Con convention in July in an apparent effort to forestall sniping. “They put their own stamp on it,” says Lloyd of the Wachowskis’ screenplay, “but it keeps the key scenes, it keeps the spirit, and it’s got integrity. A lot of people were concerned that it might be turned into a simple vengeance story of some crazed vigilante against bad guys. But it’s much deeper than that.”