From MTV to wrestling with Satan

Special to The Times

Director Francis Lawrence's provocative storytelling impulse has played a large part in the image overhauls for a number of top-10 pop stars.

Take his 2002 video for Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River." Lawrence re-imagined the sugary-sweet 'N Sync man-child as a creepy stalker who breaks into his ex-girlfriend's house. Such imagery helped recast Timberlake as an adult star with crossover appeal. Likewise, for Britney Spears' 2001 "I'm a Slave 4 U" video, Lawrence transformed America's girl next door into something more overtly sexual, writhing about in a chastity belt as people lick her face.

"At the time, that was really different," Lawrence said. "She never surprised anybody again after that." (At least, not on MTV.)

The knack for upending built-in character expectations came in handy on Lawrence's filmmaking debut -- the big-budget thriller "Constantine," which opened Friday. Adapted from the graphic novel series "Hellblazer," the movie stars Keanu Reeves as a world-weary antihero who polices the divide between heaven and the fiery below, battling Satan's foot soldiers on Earth -- and descending into hell at will.

Despite "Constantine's" sky-high commercial expectation, the film was nearly a no-go for Lawrence, 34, who has also directed music videos for platinum-selling recording artists Janet Jackson and Gwen Stefani.

During pre-production in 2002, Reeves voiced strong opinions about hiring -- or more precisely, not hiring -- someone with an MTV pedigree.

"He said, 'Here's the only thing I want to be clear about: No video directors!' " recalled Erwin Stoff, a producer on "Constantine" who is also Reeves' manager.

Reeves' concern was not without basis.

To be sure, MTV has served as a Harvard-like finishing school for feature directors as diverse as David Fincher ("Panic Room"), Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") and Tim Story ("Barbershop"). But video hotshots also carry plenty of baggage: MTV graduates like Michael Bay ("Armageddon") and McG ("Charlie's Angels") have been criticized for employing a quick-cut directorial style that puts eye candy before character development and storytelling.

"I know our reputation," said Lawrence, declining to name names. "There are people who just want to go out there and make stuff that looks cool. They don't care about substance; they just care about style."

The video ace stigma also affected his job prospects in other ways. "Our reputation isn't just about visuals," he pointed out. "The reputation a lot of people have given us is for not showing up on time, not being around for meetings or returning phone calls -- for fiscal irresponsibility."

But by all accounts, Lawrence's laborious preparation and ability to "talk story" won over the film's producers as well as studio executives at Warner Bros., the film's distributor.

"I showed up with poster boards and production design illustrations, some creatures and some loose storyboards on an easel," Lawrence recalled of his various pitch meetings.

He also proposed signing Tilda Swinton and Djimon Hounsou -- serious actors who wouldn't typically be associated with comic-book adaptations. Ultimately, they were cast in the movie that cost in the neighborhood of $90 million.

"Contrary to what you might expect about Francis' background, he's a very story-oriented and very character-oriented fellow," said Akiva Goldsman, an Oscar-winning screenwriter and one of the producers of the film.

Reeves' blessing

Although it would appear favoritism played a factor in the director's selection -- Stoff not only manages Reeves but also co-owns 3 Arts Entertainment, the company that oversees Lawrence's career -- the producer said he had never met Lawrence until his video oeuvre put him into consideration for "Constantine."

Moreover, Stoff was apprehensive about running afoul of his 20-year relationship with Reeves: "I had been asked by Keanu not to hire a video guy. And now on top of it, I want to hire a video guy that my company happens to represent?"

The decision was ultimately left to Reeves, who, after all, had hand-picked the film to follow up the blockbuster success of his "Matrix" trilogy. He said he was drawn to the hard-drinking title character -- who was born with the ability to see half-angels and half-demons on Earth and who battles the forces of evil in an attempt to save his soul from eternal damnation because it was such a departure from any role he had played.

Lawrence made clear that he also wanted Reeves' character to stay true to that rough-hewn portrayal: Reeves is "a very sincere person, very earnest. It works perfectly in 'The Matrix' or 'Something's Got to Give.' I wanted there to be absolutely none of that in this movie."

One long meeting led to another, then another, said the laid-back Lawrence, who calls to mind a young, hipster version of Kirk Douglas.

"We spoke for hours, him explaining his point of view," Reeves remembered. "I asked him about his process with actors and about rehearsals and performance."

The upshot? "I responded," Reeves said. "I wanted to work with him. I felt he had a classical narrative impulse in his work."

As production progressed, departing from the accepted norms of the genre's material also became a concern. "We were treading over things that we had seen in other movies," Lawrence said. "I had to try to show new approaches to things like angels, demons.... Satan was one that I struggled with."

In the end, Lawrence's take on He Who Must Not Be Named, as played by brooding character actor Peter Stormare, resulted in what is surely the most homoerotic Satan in mainstream movie history.

MTV generation

Lawrence was born in Vienna, Austria, where his father, a physicist, taught at a university, and he moved to L.A. at age 3. His music video career started almost accidentally. After graduating from film school at Loyola Marymount, he shot low-budget videos in the mid-1990s for a friend's indie record label.

Within five years, Lawrence had risen to the top of his field, working consistently through what he refers to as the "golden age" of MTV -- not coincidentally, a time when directors such as Antoine Fuqua, Simon West and Spike Jonze began to make the jump to directing features.

"At the time, music videos were viewed more as short films and less as marketing tools," Lawrence said. "Somewhere in the late '90s it began to shift from this creative medium into something very homogenous. Suddenly, you found yourself surrounded by publicists and project managers."

The video industry began to peter out largely because of record-industry cutbacks, around the time the "Constantine" script arrived.

Some reviews of "Constantine" criticized Lawrence for not leaving more of his music video background at the door. But Goldsman and Stoff have already agreed to produce the director's next four projects, including "Eddie Dickens and the Awful End," an animated movie Lawrence calls a "Gothic Victorian fairy tale," and "I Am Legend," a remake of the 1971 sci-fi thriller "Omega Man."

That doesn't mean MTV has seen the last of Lawrence. "If the song's cool and the artist is cool, I'm not done with music videos in any way," he said.

And despite his initial reluctance, Reeves has more than gotten over his aversion to music video directors.

"Francis was -- is -- an accomplished video director," the actor said. "Now he's an accomplished filmmaker."

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