In the newest film from Ninja Assassin and V for Vendetta director James McTeigue, actor John Cusack plays the famous American author Edgar Allan Poe in a horror story that mixes biographical fact with Poe’s own fiction. The end result is something like your great-great grandfather’s version of the Saw saga, with people using fancier language and the power of newspaper criticism still being a thing.
I sat down with John Cusack in a roundtable interview to discuss the author, what it was like embodying the literary figure, and why fanboy culture is now more effective than the New York Times.
The Raven opens Friday in theaters.
You have your own screenplay writing experience, and you’ve co-written some special movies (High Fidelity, Grosse Pointe Blank) in your career. How would you describe your own relationship with writing?
The writing I do, I never have to finish it. I’m always writing for screen, and for acting. But when you cut a film, that’s the final draft. [As a writer] you’re always just getting it pregnant enough to perform. But in essence that’s not totally true, because I have written monologues for Ben Kingsley, and comedy for Dan Aykroyd. But I can always tweak it a little bit on the last day. It’s a little bit different than the forms of writing where you have to set it in stone.
Even with my writing partner Mark Leyner (War, Inc.), he’s got this crazy book called “The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack,” it’s the craziest book you’ve ever read – he did a polish on The Raven with us. We wanted to make sure the set-up was really good, and that the device that Poe gets caught up in was meta-Poe, that there was historical accuracy, that we used as much of his language as we could, and that his vernacular and idiom was up to the level of a master of the English language. Mark even wrote a new Poe poem, which he writes [in the movie] when the house is burning down. You’ve got to be a real writer to do that. [Mark and I] are always fleshing out ideas, and working on scripts. And then I like to write my own films sometimes.
Tell us a bit about how you embodied the character of Edgar Allan Poe.
We felt for sure we didn’t want to do his little mustache, because we wanted to stay away from the Charlie Chaplin postage stamp thing. As much as I love that, I thought it would be limiting. And because he was dirt poor and an alcoholic, I got as gaunt as I could, I got down to about a 190 pounds, which is below what I was in high school. Then you just immerse yourself into the material, all of his letters and writings, and get into that spook house vibe.
Poe is very ingrained in pop culture. Everyone knows a little bit of his story. Did you feel pressure to bring him to life theatrically?
Yeah. It wasn’t so much as a pressure, but an opportunity. You have so much of his stuff there, and if you read about him, you know that he has done so many different genres, like science fiction and Gothic horror, to mystical stuff and great poetry. Once he gets caught up in his own genre, you can go back to his letters and pull the language. It just felt like a great thing to do.
And you’re never going to have a definitive version of Poe. If you can feel the underworld in the movie, and out of my performance, then that’s great, and that’s what you’ve got to do. [In Amadeus], Salieri and Mozart, there was none. But you get insight into Mozart, and you understand classical music in a way that you wouldn’t if it was a classical biopic. [The Raven] is a weird blend of fantasy, fiction, and legend. Some of the legends about Poe are played with. This seemed like a good pop pulp version. I gave everything I had in it, because that’s the best I can do.
Was partaking in the gorier moments of this movie something you were looking forward to?
I was more interested in the mystical parts of Poe, such as the waking and dreaming, life and death. The supernatural otherworldly element of Poe. The slasher part of him is out there, but I was more interested in the feeling of when he woke.
What’s your favorite poem written by Poe?
I don’t know … “The Raven” is pretty much a perfect and incredible poem. “Ulalume” is a really great one.
Watching The Raven, I was reminded of the obsessive nature of fanboy culture. How do you feel fan culture has changed from when you first started making films?
I think it’s kind of cool. I like Twitter, even though I don’t know that much about social media. I like that people can share information and curate with each other. Ideas spreading is great. And when I started, it was like I had to knock on the palace doors and say, ‘Can I do this movie?’ And then talk to all of the traditional press. Now, you guys matter more than the New York Times. I think that’s great, because I don’t have to worry about that [laughs]. You can have direct access to people who like and don’t like things, without having to go through authority figures. As an Irishman, I like that.
I really enjoyed what you did for ‘1408.’ What from that experience made you want to re-team with Mikael Håfström for ‘Shanghai’?
I think when you just got locked in a room, and it’s a bit of a high-wire act, you have to trust each other. You have each other’s back, and we made this really weird and berserk film. It was just him and me and the camera. I [also] had a good experience with James McTeigue for Raven. It was just me and him in Serbia, and the money was raised independently, raised on his name and the thriller aspect, and me. So, there was nobody telling us what to do. I felt the same kind of vibe with this movie as I did with 1408.
You’ve said that ‘The Raven’ is like a “pop pulp” film.
It’s kind of a mix … it’s pop, and it’s smart. [Poe was] a highbrow guy doing the most esoteric in the world, and then he wrote pulp Saturday thriller stuff. He knew he was doing both, and just mashing genres and f**king with people all of the time.
How do you personally believe that Poe died?
The most realistic thing is that they used to take drunks and have them vote, and then bring them back to their place, but keep them drunk and put them in new clothes, and then have them go vote again. I don’t know if it was for a union or some local representative thing, but it was some voting sham they used to do. That might be why Poe was in other people’s clothes, muttering something about ‘Reynolds.’ You just can’t live that way and survive. You just die.
You mentioned that this isn’t a straight biography of Poe. There are some specific nods to autobiographical details of Poe, but what did you take to heart to put into your personification of Poe, to get into his mindset?
I read him all day and all night when I was making the movie. You could sort of take proxy characters, and use things that he said, in other contexts. You have a lot of historically accurate Poe details in there, but this movie is a fictional setting. But there’s always stuff to pull. Since they all talked in letters, they’re all there. It’s amazing how much has been salvaged.
How did you stay in the dark mindset of Poe?
It helped that it was winter, in Serbia and Hungary. I felt like I was a vampire anyway. I didn’t sleep much, and I felt like I was on a bender for eight weeks. I stayed in the head space of it. But when I came back to my family on Christmas, they were like, ‘What happened?’ It took a while to shake it off.
Are there any other writers who fascinate you with how their personal lives and their work seem to intermingle?
Nick Tosches does something like that in his book “The Hands of Dante,” where he plays Nick Tosches. He tries to get this manuscript by Dante from the mob, and he kills people, all while being Nick Tosches. He also goes back and tells Dante’s story, and interweaves it. It’s a really wild book.
You’ve said that you think that your films have a political concept in each of them. Do you see that with The Raven?
I think all films are about ideas. I think this one is more about a journey into the subconscious, where he was like “Orpheus Descending,” and the raven is like this creature from the underworld that he is sort of opening up that portal to both worlds, and exploring them. He’s using all the sorrow in his life and being an alchemist. I think there’s probably a little bit about the idea of paparazzi culture, and the chickens coming home to roost in his sensationalistic roots, and the artist holding the mirror up to society too. Poe is very good at knowing the zeitgeist of people, knowing the fine line. He’s just more pure artist substance. I think even when you’re doing a movie where characters are flawed and f**ked up, that’s just a good a political thing. I like characters that are human. I’d rather watch Poe than one of the characters of Top Gun.