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Masks of Guy Fawkes, the 17th-century English conspirator who has become a symbol of resistance, have been worn in England since the 18th century. But it’s only within the past 15 years that they’ve become internationally recognized protest symbols. So what changed circa 2006? The release of V for Vendetta, the movie version of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s ’80s-era graphic novel.
Directed by Australian filmmaker James McTeigue and produced by Lana and Lily Wachowski, the movie was both the first, and last, of its kind: a politically charged, mega-budgeted comic-book movie with a major star — Natalie Portman — that actively advocated for resistance, regime change and rising up. The film’s title character spends the entire 132-minute runtime behind a Guy Fawkes mask that has since been adopted by groups on all sides of the political spectrum, from the Occupy movement to the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
“We were making a comment on the George W. Bush era,” McTeigue tells Yahoo Entertainment ahead of the movie’s March 17 anniversary. “The smock Natalie is in is a direct rip from Abu Ghraib at the time. Us talking about renditioning characters just came out of reading The New York Times and going, 'They’re putting people in planes with black hoods on and taking them to Egypt and torturing them.' You don’t have to scratch much beneath the surface.” (Watch our video interview above.)
Written against the backdrop of Thatcher-era England, Moore and Lloyd’s graphic novel paints a portrait of a dystopia that’s more in the vein of 1984 crossed with Nazi Germany. Adapting the comic to the screen two decades later required McTeigue and the Wachowskis to rethink what a fascist state might look like in the 21st century. Set in 2020, V for Vendetta imagines an eerily prescient reality where England has closed its borders to a war-torn, plague-stricken world, and control of the country has been seized by a white supremacist party led by John Hurt’s High Chancellor. (Hurt, of course, starred in a popular film version of 1984, making his casting all-too-appropriate.) The only person willing to challenge the regime is titular vigilante, V (Hugo Weaving), who keeps his identity hidden from the world — and his reluctant accomplice, Evie (Portman) — with the help of a Guy Fawkes mask.
History students will remember that Fawkes was an English insurrectionist who participated in the Gunpowder Plot: an attempt to blow up England’s House of Lords on Nov. 5, 1605. But the group was caught in the act, and Fawkes was later hanged and quartered alongside his co-conspirators. In the ensuing years, Nov. 5 became known as Guy Fawkes Night, with citizens celebrating the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot, and even wearing Fawkes masks as they burned the long-dead revolutionary in effigy.
In V for Vendetta that mask is reclaimed by a figure that the state defines as a terrorist and the public regards as a freedom fighter. Dedicating himself to overthrowing England’s reigning regime, V single-handedly organizes and executes a series of daring attacks and assassinations aimed at undermining the authority of those in charge. As the party’s hold wavers, the citizens join the cause, building to a climax where almost all of London descends on the seat of power while wearing V’s grinning white mask.
Released against the backdrop of Bush’s ongoing War on Terror, some critics took V for Vendetta to task for seemingly turning a “terrorist” into a hero. Wall Street Journal reviewer Joe Morgenstern, for example, described the film as “a sententious piece of pop pap that celebrates terrorism as a necessary evil, and peddles anarchy in a user-friendly package.” But moviegoers flocked to the film anyway, propelling it towards a $130 million worldwide gross. The real impact was felt outside the multiplex, though: V’s mask quickly became an internet meme, and was adopted as the symbol of the hacker group, Anonymous, three years after the movie’s release. In 2011, it was a staple at Occupy Wall Street rallies and was also seen at the Arab Spring protests in 2013. The Guy Fawkes mask popularized by V for Vendetta has become such a widely recognized symbol that territories including Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong and Canada all have passed laws restricting mask-wearing at protests.
McTeigue says that he realized early on how the mask had taken on a life beyond the movie. "When you make any piece of art, you hope that it'll have some cultural impact, and V for Vendetta has had cultural impact beyond my control and beyond my wildest dreams," he says. "The mask gives people a voice, right? That's ultimately what it does. If you go to a protest and you know that you're going to get beaten or victimized, you can put a mask on and it can make you anonymous — like Anonymous. I think that's amazing, to tell you the truth. That’s why at the end of the movie, all of those people in masks descend on Whitehall and Trafalgar Square. It’s a metaphor: Behind those masks could be anyone, but they know there’s power in it. There’s power in the voice of the mask.”
And McTeigue believes that power comes from popular cinema’s ability to influence popular — and political — culture. “I don’t think people would have found their way to the mask without the movie,” he says. “It’s incredible the amount of people you can reach with film and television. V for Vendetta was number one at the box office when it came out, and its tentacles reached out because people could access it in a very real way. If it had just been the graphic novel, it would never have been appropriated in the way it has been. Alan Moore would probably beg to differ!” (Moore — who famously dislikes seeing his work adapted for the screen — called the Wachowskis’ script “rubbish” and asked to have his name removed from the credits.)
In a wide-ranging conversation, McTeigue discusses how he made his directorial debut with V for Vendetta, the movie's impact on global politics and giving Portman an extreme makeover.
Yahoo Entertainment: Lily and Lana Wachowski had been attached to the film for years. When did they hand it off to you?
James McTeigue: I had been the assistant director on all three Matrix movies, and over the years we got to talking about the kinds of films I was interested in making. They had a three-picture deal with Warner Bros. before they made The Matrix — one of them was for V for Vendetta and the other was for Plastic Man. They were pretty tired at the end of doing the trilogy, and decided they didn’t want to direct anymore for awhile. So they told me, "We have this deal with Warner Bros. to make V for Vendetta. Why don’t we dust it off, and you’ll direct and we’ll produce. That was a nice thing for them to do, because it’s a movie with a very political nature and we got it through the studio on the backs of The Matrix films. They just said, "We’re sure you will make money, because The Matrix made a billion dollars. Just go off and make it.” There was literally no studio interference, which was great.
James Purefoy originally played V, but dropped out midway through filming and was replaced by Hugo Weaving. That must have been a difficult experience as a first-time director.
You never lose the lead actor, right? [Laughs] But I’ll say in my defense that you never have the lead actor in a kind of inanimate mask the whole time. With James, once we got into it, he found it a struggle. Basically, I’d taken away his acting instrument, which is his face. That’s what you learn to use: It’s your most expressive way of communicating emotion to the audience. He didn’t feel comfortable with that and it started to affect the performance. So I made the decision that it would be best if we parted ways. Fortunately, I already had a relationship with Hugo from the Matrix movies, so when I rang him up, I said: “This is what’s happening. Don’t come over here unless you’re happy to do the role with the mask. He’d done Greek theater, so he was like 'No problem.’"
His first scene was one of the most difficult scenes in the movie, where Natalie Portman is in V’s fake prison and then he lets her go, and she walks into the Shadow Gallery where Hugo-as-V is waiting for her. As soon as he opened his mouth and started moving, I was like “I’m saved!” He loved every single moment of being in the mask. And because it was hard to mic the mask, he had to do the performance all over again in a recording booth during post-production. It was amazing to see him in front of a microphone doing it again. So Hugo was a great replacement, but James is a really good guy and I’m obviously sad all these years later about what happened.
Does any of James’s footage remain in the movie?
Oh yeah, he’s in the movie. There are also a couple of stunt people in the movie! The great thing about the mask is that it’s the perfect disguise. And that also feeds into what the movie’s about: The mask is a way people can come together and feel like they have a voice.
This was Natalie Portman’s first adult role — was that part of her attraction to the movie?
Yeah, it was one of her first adult roles, but I never had any doubt in my mind that she’d be perfect for it. In addition to doing The Matrix, I was an assistant director on Attack of the Clones, so we had a relationship from that movie. You only need to be in a room with Natalie for two minutes to realize she’s super-bright and is like Jodie Foster in terms of being a child actor who took the time to go to university to broaden her education. She intuitively understood the material, and we had really great discussions about the subtext of the story. From the very first screen test for the movie, I knew she was going to be great.
One of the big stories at the time was that she shaved her head for the film.
We got some of the best publicity we ever had by the mere fact that she shaved her head. [Laughs] We shaved her head on a Wednesday, and that weekend she went to the Cannes Film Festival for the last Star Wars movie. All of a sudden she had a shaved head, and everyone asked her why. She said, “I’m working on this movie called V for Vendetta," and that just ricocheted around the world. All of a sudden everyone knew what V for Vendetta was, so that was pretty great.
And you actually shaved her head on camera, right?
Yeah, I just rolled three cameras on it. And Jeremy [Woodhead], who was our hairdresser, is the mean guy doing it. I didn’t want another actor trying to shave her head and getting the clippers stuck halfway through! So I did it pretty much in one take: Jeremy did the whole thing and I shot a bunch of different angles. It was great.
Speaking to the mask, it’s a Guy Fawkes mask that dates back centuries, but I think a lot of people remember it with V for Vendetta. What were some of the discussions behind the scenes about making the film version of the mask?
I got with Owen Paterson, who was the production designer, and I started updating the mask. I had pretty definite ideas about what I wanted to do, and I didn't change it that much. Most of the changes I've made were textural, like adding some texture to the mustache, or bringing the cheekbones out a little bit and making them a little higher. Because I knew depending on how I wanted him to be, I knew I was going to have to light to him in a particular way — if I wanted to make him sinister or if I wanted to make him friendly. So that started the discussion, and then the costume designer, Sammy Sheldon, did a really good job with the final version.
But you're right: People recognize the mask with the film, because film is like the true 20th-century art form. It’s a populist art form. Sure, people will read the graphic novel, but I can guarantee you that millions and millions of more people will see the film. So when they drag it out again to put it into the lexicon or the vernacular of how we live our lives, it's the mask from the film. And that's why it was appropriated by the people from the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street — or, because you have no control over what your art is, sometimes by the people who raided the Capitol.
For the most part, though, people have really understood the politics of the mask and how it can empower you. That’s unusual that people get what you’re trying to say in a film — more often it goes south somewhere. But for the most part it’s been pretty great. I don’t have any ownership over the mask anymore: It’s just out there.
In the graphic novel, Evie ultimately inherits the mask, but the film reframes it as a case where anyone can become V. Why did you decide to change the ending?
That came very late, actually. Maybe even less than a week before we shot the scene, I was drawing storyboards for it, and Lily was sitting in the office one day and we started having a discussion about how the mask represents everyone — all the characters who have populated the film. So why not make the ending about everyone? Why does Evie have to be the only one carrying the torch? It was really powerful when we shot it, and really powerful when we put it together.
Central to the movie is the question about whether V is a terrorist or a freedom fighter. When you see the mask being used today and people describing those people using it as terrorist, does that bother you?
No, it doesn't bother me. What bothers me more is we never dig underneath what the morality of terrorism is. I think that's one of the things I tried to get into in the film. People do not don a suicide vest if they really don’t feel a reason to do it. At some point, they get into a situation where they feel like they don’t have any power. The discussion about whether he's a terrorist or whether he's a freedom fighter is an age-old discussion that'll depend on what side of the political fence you sit on. Because that can change, obviously.
What I was trying to get into in the film was what drove V to do that? He wasn’t driven to do that through nothing. His scheme to blow up Parliament had a root cause in something. Was it right? Was it wrong? That is an absolute point of view depending on who you believe. I’m sure that as many people who believe he’s right believe that he’s wrong, and what we did with the film was bring that discussion to the fore, because it’s usually pushed to the ground. To use a very contemporary example, I’m sure as many people who thought the raid on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., wasn’t right, there’s 50 percent of the people who believe it was OK. And so what you want to do is have a discussion about that, not just “They’re wrong and I’m right.” There’s a root cause for everything, rightly or wrongly.
The newscaster played by Roger Allam seems heavily inspired by Sean Hannity, even though Fox News wasn’t a powerhouse at the time — did you still model the part after such broadcasters?
If you think back before Fox News, it was all shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh, or Alan Jones in Australia. I modeled Roger’s character, Lewis Prothero, on those guys: arch-conservatives who don’t speak the truth a lot of the time.
Stephen Colbert used to call it, “truthiness”! I have to say, those scenes were great fun to shoot, because he couldn’t go far enough. Fifteen years ago, people said, “You can’t put that kind of stuff in the script — it will never be that ridiculous.” But I felt the ground shift beneath my feet after Trump’s inauguration and I saw Kellyanne Conway say, “It’s alternative facts.” At that point, I thought: “We are totally in V territory. There’s no truth anymore.”
If you were making V for Vendetta today, what would it look like?
The landscape in which I would set it now would be a little different, just because in the last 10 years we've moved in a direction that I couldn't imagine, politically. I don't think anyone could have imagined where we'd end up. Trump did some things that you thought no one would ever get away with. It was kind of entertaining to watch, but also terrible to see for the country and for its standing in the world. I’ve been making a film in Berlin for the last year, and I was looking back at the States in aghast. I couldn’t have put some of that stuff in the movie 15 years ago because no one would believe it.
Given V for Vendetta’s success and longevity, are you disappointed that more comic book movies haven’t tried to venture where you did politically?
I think that's cyclical, in a way: We haven't had a really great spate of political movies since the 1970s. More and more corporations own film companies, so the propensity for that to happen is negligible. You have to get through so many firewalls to make a movie now. Now, having said that, we are going through complete political upheaval, and on the backend of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement and the patriarchy slowly dying, I think we will get more political movies. We’re just starting to see the start of it.
After we made V for Vendetta, it feels like everyone went into this fugue for awhile. But I think we’re coming out of that. I’d be happy to see the return of the kinds of political movies that were made in the ’70s, which had really great critiques on what was happening and what would happen in the future. The unfortunate thing is that generation completely sold out the next generation. All those Baby Boomers! [Laughs]
V for Vendetta is currently streaming on HBO Max.
— Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Jason Fitzpatrick
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