A 'Vendetta' for our times?

Posted: March 12, 2006

NEW YORK — Hollywood press junkets don't come much stranger.

The star and makers of the eagerly anticipated V for Vendetta are ensconced in a honeycomb of hotel suites high above Central Park. They're engaged in a concerted campaign to say only the most neutral and innocuous things about the film.

But when you're promoting an incendiary political movie, there isn't any need to throw fuel on the fire. You just try to control the blaze.

Based on a cultishly popular graphic novel, V for Vendetta, which opens Friday, is about a bomb-planting, masked vigilante fighting a totalitarian regime in a futuristic England.

Yet the parallels to the Bush administration seem inescapable. The movie is about a government that wiretaps its own citizens, that twists the meaning of words in Orwellian fashion, that accuses its enemies of "godlessness" while menacing them with truncheons, that uses its all-news channel to whip the populace into line by keeping them in a state of near panic.

On this frigid day, the makers of V for Vendetta have assembled to insist that the film is anything but a timely indictment.

"The graphic novel was written in the '80s and the first draft of the film script in the mid-'90s," says Natalie Portman, who plays the budding revolutionary Evey.

Portman sits, curled up in a chair, tightly hugging herself. Her hair, which was shaved off for the film, is styled into a riot of short spikes. In profile, her delicate, angular features suggest Nefertiti.

"Yes, it seems relevant now," the 24-year-old actress says. "But people are also finding echoes of World War II and Stalinist Russia. The beauty of setting it in an imaginary world is that it has this timeless quality."

The director, James McTeigue, an Aussie who lives in New York, contends that the themes of V for Vendetta are universal.

"I wouldn't say it's particularly about America," he says. "I'd say it's about society. It could as easily be about Blair's U.K., or where I come from, John Howard's Australia.

"It's always dangerous to be different. At times, it can get you persecuted. In different societies, there is always some sort of fear-based politics. I think the film respects the right of the individual to stand up to these things."

V for Vendetta marks the directorial debut for McTeigue, the longtime first assistant director for the Wachowski brothers, those mysterious auteurs of the Matrix trilogy who wrote and produced V, as well as serving as second-unit directors.

The involvement of Larry and Andy Wachowski makes V for Vendetta, which otherwise might be a tough sell, a viable box-office heavyweight.

"I think it's really entertaining," Portman says. "Obviously, a lot of people love The Matrix movies. There's a lot of people who love the graphic novel. So all those people are excited about seeing this movie."

Debating the film's politics, it turns out, is easier for the filmmakers than dodging questions about the elephants who aren't in the hotel for this event, starting with Alan Moore.

The online press is out in force, in large part because of V's comic-book roots. The dotcom boys ask repeatedly about Moore, the celebrated British writer of V for Vendetta, who has denounced the film.

"Alan disapproves of things," says his illustrator, David Lloyd. "He's perfectly entitled to distance himself. He wouldn't have been satisfied unless it was a note-for-note reproduction. I personally think it's a great re-creation."

The studio is boisterously promoting V as the latest from the makers of The Matrix. Yet the Wachowskis have recused themselves from the promotional event. They were press-averse even before Larry's kinky sexual proclivities became tabloid fodder. In recent years, the older sibling's appearance and wardrobe have become increasingly feminine. In 2003, he was linked with a noted Hollywood S&M dominatrix, Karin Winslow.

Still, it was the brothers' involvement that drew Portman, a Harvard alumna, to the project. "The Matrix movies revolutionized filmmaking," she says.

Portman was doing a semester of graduate school in her native Israel when she was called to audition. "I was brushing up on my Hebrew," she says, while studying courses on the history of Islam, the history of Israel, and the anthropology of violence.

"They made me fly to San Francisco from Israel during school, so I went in, like, 'Grrrr,' " she says, growling. After performing two scenes in a hotel room for McTeigue and Larry Wachowski, "they asked me if I was willing to shave my head. They asked me to pull my hair back to see what I would look like without any hair." The Evey character is severely shorn when thrown in prison.

Although she had worked with McTeigue before - he was first assistant director on Star Wars: Episode II - Portman wanted to make sure the Wachowskis were part of the package before committing to the part.

"The chance to work with them, and spend time and learn from them was definitely a draw for me," Portman says. "I said to Larry, 'You're hanging out with me, right? The whole movie, you're going to be there?' He said, 'Yes.' "

The Matrix influence is evident in V for Vendetta's dark, almost subterranean look and its brief but electrifying fight scenes.

"I remember we had one discussion about the action beats," McTeigue says. "I was choreographing the scene where V fights his way out of the television station. I wanted to show his speed and power, and I wanted to make it really short. I was filming it and the [Wachowski] boys said, 'How long do you think this is going to be?' and I said, 'It's going to be quick. There's not going to be any of that slo-motion Matrix stuff.' We had a laugh about it."

Another connection to the mother franchise is that the man behind the mask in V for Vendetta is Australian actor Hugo Weaving, who played the sinister Agent Smith in the Matrix films.

James Purefoy (HBO's Rome) was originally cast as V, who patterns himself on Guy Fawkes, the 17th century insurrectionist who tried to blow up Parliament. But Purefoy was frustrated by trying to act behind a frozen porcelain smile.

So Weaving was drafted. "He's a trouper," says McTeigue, "but he's a sweater, too, Hugo. We'd do a take and we'd be like 'Cut, cut!' because he was dripping" sweat from his faux chin.

The director thinks there is a more subtle link between V and The Matrix.

"Both films dare to be idea-heavy," he says. "Both say, 'OK, you can come and enjoy this on a purely visceral cinematic level or you can walk out of here and think about it a little more.' "

Joel Silver, who produced V along with the Wachowskis, agrees. "This is a smart film," he says, "masquerading as an action film."

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com.

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