Director James McTeigue describes V for Vendetta as a political thriller first and foremost with a very dark and multifaceted character at its center. “On one hand, V is altruistic, believing he can bring about great social change, but on the other hand he has a murderous vendetta towards anyone who’s done him wrong.”
While preparing for V for Vendetta,McTeigue was influenced by a host of films, principal among them 1965’s The Battle of Algiers, a highly realistic account of the Algerian revolution against the French, fought from 1954 to 1962. Like Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Lindsay Anderson’s If...., V For Vendetta cautions against the dangers of corruption, control, manipulation and repression, while exploring the perils of extremism – whether it be a government abusing its power or an individual taking the law into his own hands.
“V For Vendetta is a multi-layered film,” says producer Joel Silver, whose long and impressive film career includes the groundbreaking Matrix trilogy and seminal action films such as the Lethal Weapon series, Die Hard and Predator. “It can be enjoyed as a dynamic action picture, or audiences can go deeper into the complex issues and ideas it explores, about the individual’s responsibility for the power they entrust to their government, and what means are necessary or acceptable to bringing an end to tyranny. It raises a lot of fascinating questions, but doesn’t provide any easy answers.”
The filmis based on the graphic novel of the same name – V for Vendetta first appeared in Warrior, an independent monthly comic magazine published in 1981, quickly capturing a cult following. Co-created by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, it ran in 26 issues before the magazine folded, leaving fans hanging mid-plot. After a five-year hiatus, Moore and Lloyd completed V for Vendetta in 1989 under the DC banner when it was released in its entirety as a graphic novel.
V For Vendetta is set slightly in the future, where modern day London is still very recognizable. Creators Moore and Lloyd were influenced by the times in which they lived. “Our attitude towards Margaret Thatcher’s ultra-conservative government was one of the driving forces behind the fascist British police state we created in Vendetta,” Lloyd explains. “The destruction of this system was V’s primary reason for existence.”
Thematically, Moore and Lloyd’s series explores many political and ethical notions of continuing relevance in today’s world. “The principal message of the original is that every individual has the right to be an individual, and the right – and duty – to resist being forced into conformism,” comments Lloyd. “V resists by directly attacking government installations and murdering the regime’s supporters. So it’s not just a story about a battle against an evil tyranny, but a story about terrorism and whether terrorism can ever be justified – and that’s something we have to try to understand if we’re ever to solve the problem of it in the real world.”
Acclaimed writer/directors Andy and Larry Wachowski, the inspired minds behind the revolutionary Matrix trilogy, were fans of Moore and Lloyd’s original work, and first wrote a screen adaptation of the graphic novel in the mid-1990s, before embarking on the Herculean task of filming the Matrix trilogy. During post-production on the second and third installments of The Matrix, the Wachowskis revisited the Vendetta script and brought it to the attention of their first assistant director, James McTeigue, with whom they had worked on all three Matrix films. McTeigue had been directing commercials at the time and was looking to transition to feature films.
“We were in post-production on Revolutions when Andy and Larry first gave me a copy of V for Vendetta,” remembers McTeigue. Intrigued and excited about the themes of the graphic novel, he shared the Wachowskis’ view of its relevance in the current political landscape. “We felt the novel was very prescient to how the political climate is at the moment. It really showed what can happen when society is ruled by government, rather than the government being run as a voice of the people. I don’t think it’s such a big leap to say that things like that can happen when leaders stop listening to the people.”
At the time, the Wachowskis had just reached the end of a 10-year odyssey with the Matrix films and were not prepared to immediately jump back into directing. As McTeigue explains, “Ten years is a long time to spend on anything, and making films takes a lot out of you. I think Andy and Larry wanted the film to be made now, but wanted to take a back seat for awhile.”
So the Wachowskis and producer Joel Silver offered their longtime colleague the opportunity to direct V For Vendetta, surrounded by many of the Wachowskis’ other key collaborators, such as producer Grant Hill, production designer Owen Paterson, visual effects supervisor Dan Glass and stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski, with the brothers collaborating as producers and writers.
In returning to the script, the Wachowskis went back to their original draft and set about making revisions. As McTeigue recalls, “Their original version was a really good adaptation, but it was almost a blow-for-blow retelling of the graphic novel. We thought it would be good to move the story forward in time, setting the flashback portion in the 1990s and projecting the present-day timeline into the future around 2020.”
Other key revisions included streamlining Moore and Lloyd’s storyline, altering Evey’s background and making her older than in the original material. “The graphic novel is quite sprawling and has a lot of characters,” McTeigue points out. “Some of those characters had to be amalgamated or taken out, but all the while we made sure we were adhering to the themes and integrity of the graphic novel.”
The adaptation process was made easier by the cinematic way in which Lloyd and Moore constructed the original novel, with traditional ‘thought balloons’ replaced with captions, and rectangular panels substituted for splashy layouts. Lloyd feels the Wachowski screenplay adaptation was a good representation of the original. “I never had a purist concept of Vendetta as just a comic,” he remembers. “It always felt like an idea that could be transposed to other forms of media. In any of my work, the only expectation and desire is that the spirit and key elements are retained and the same essential message is captured.”
The filmmakers were adamant that V’s enduring mystery remain intact, and in reverence to Moore and Lloyd’s novel and richly drawn character, in the film V’s horribly burned and disfigured face remains hidden behind a mask that carries the visage of Guy Fawkes, another legendary saboteur who came to a violent end over four hundred years ago…
On November 5th, 1605, Fawkes was captured beneath the House of Lords with 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden beneath pieces of iron and firewood. While tortured, Fawkes revealed an audacious conspiracy to blow up the English Parliament and King James I on a day when the King was due to open the parliamentary session.
Fawkes was one of 13 disaffected Catholics who hoped to end James’ persecution of English Catholics. The intent was to create chaos and disorder in the country from which, it was hoped, a new monarch and political regime sympathetic to the Catholic cause would emerge. A veteran soldier, Fawkes was highly proficient with gunpowder and so became an integral part of the group’s scheme.
A cellar underneath the House of Lords was acquired by the conspirators where they stored explosives and awaited the opening of Parliament. However, as more accomplices were drawn into the plot, secrecy was endangered and an anonymous letter to Lord Monteagle, a Catholic, warning him to stay away from the opening of Parliament, brought about the plan’s demise. On the night of November 4th, Fawkes was caught in the cellar, arrested and brought before the King. Succumbing to grueling torture, his silence was broken and the ambitious plan disclosed. Fawkes and the other members of the group were publicly hanged, drawn and quartered, as was customary for traitors at that time.
Every year across England on November 5th, bonfires blaze and fireworks light the sky in celebration of the foiling of Fawkes’ plot to overturn King and government. Fawkes masks are sold throughout the country and effigies of the conspirator, or “Guys,” are burned.
When Alan Moore and David Lloyd were originally conceiving the character of V for their graphic novel V for Vendetta, Guy Fawkes provided inspiration for the comic’s political context. Like Fawkes, V hopes to create chaos from which the country’s insidious regime will fall. “Guy Fawkes was a kind of early anarchist,” says Lloyd. “He seemed to be the perfect inspiration for V.”
There is a dramatically disturbing aspect to V’s use of the Guy Fawkes mask as well. “Guy Fawkes masks have a kind of eerie look because of their smile,” Lloyd notes. “It makes the character look bizarre and threatening at the same time – the last thing you expect from someone coming to kill you is a smile on their face.”
In V For Vendetta,the man behind that eerily grinning mask is multifaceted actor Hugo Weaving, whose impressive and varied career includes starring roles as the deadly Agent Smith in the Matrix trilogy and as Elrond in all three installments of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as memorable turns in the indie sensations The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Proof.
“V wants to continue what Guy Fawkes and the plotters of November 5th weren’t able to do,” says Weaving. “He wants to blow up the Houses of Parliament because he believes, as they believed, that they have become a symbol of tyranny.”
V sees himself as fated to disrupt a system that he views as cruel and unjust. “His deep desire to serve the greater good is inextricably tied to his obsessive quest for personal vengeance,” says Silver.
In the midst of his quest to free the people of England from their fascist leaders, V is on a very personal mission to wreak vengeance on those who imprisoned and tortured him, and in doing so, created a monster. One by one he is systematically eliminating these enemies, leaving a single Violet Carson rose as his calling card at the scene of each murder.
Possessing deeply-held convictions, heightened by this bitter personal vendetta, V fights passionately for dignity and freedom in a dystopian and fascist Britain. This takes cunning and guile, a certain fearlessness, bravado, a capacity for extremism and a touch of madness.
“He’s a very complex and ambiguous man,” says Weaving. “He’s been imprisoned and tortured, mentally and physically abused. And that has created this vengeful angel, if you like. He’s an assassin, but also a very cultured and educated man who believes strongly in individual freedom.”
With his entire performance taking place behind the immobile mask, leaving him without the facial expressions or eye contact that are fundamental tools for an actor, Weaving had to find other ways in which to humanize and animate V. “I loved doing mask work at drama school a long time ago,” remarks Weaving, “and making V’s mask work onscreen was a great acting challenge. You need to convey a lot through voice, but there are also small, fluid movements you can use that help give the mask a life it might not otherwise have had. It was also a question of trying to work out what the mask says in different light and with various shadings.”
“From the moment Hugo put the mask on, we knew it would work,” says McTeigue. “He has a theatre background, which is important to the character. He also has a great physicality and a fantastic voice. He was able to make peace with the mask’s claustrophobic restraints and convey emotion through his voice and movement.”
V’s use of the Guy Fawkes mask and persona functions as both practical and symbolic elements of the story. He wears the mask to hide his physical scars, and in obscuring his identity, V becomes more than just a man with a revolutionary idea – he becomes the idea itself. This underscores V’s belief that a man can be defeated, but ideas can endure and retain their power forever. V’s mask also provides contrast to the metaphorical “masks” worn by his fellow citizens, who have surrendered their individual identities and beliefs in order to assimilate and avoid persecution by the government.
“In the film, V is described as an idea rather than a person,” says Natalie Portman, who stars alongside Weaving as Evey Hammond, the young woman in whom V awakens a latent activism. “One of the reasons he is so invincible is because you can kill a man, but an idea can’t be killed. So V represents truth, resistance and individualism. But his vengeance taints his political idealism.”
Playing opposite an actor wearing a mask throughout the entirety of the film was challenging, but director McTeigue had no concerns with Portman’s ability to engage emotionally with the character despite his fixed disguise. “I knew she would be able to play off the mask and help make it come alive.”
A highly accomplished young actress, Portman’s career already boasts roles in Star Wars: Episode I, II and III,as well as acclaimed performances in such films as Closer, Garden State and Everyone Says I Love You. Having previously worked with Portman as first assistant director on Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, McTeigue had witnessed firsthand her incredible talent and focus. “She’s completely professional, and looks luminous,” compliments the director. “But more than anything, her fearlessness and intelligence were perfect for the role.”
“Evey represents the people V is trying to help,” says Silver. “But while she joins V in his campaign to free the people of England, she doesn’t condone his pursuit of personal vengeance. Natalie is such a subtly expressive actress, we knew she possessed the rare ability to portray this kind of inner conflict.”
Evey is orphaned at a young age after her parents are killed for daring to speak out against the repressive regime gaining a stranglehold on their country. Thrust into activism after the politically-motivated death of their son, in a sense Evey’s parents chose their political ideals over their daughter. “She’s had a very personal experience with political activism – one that resulted in her parents’ death and left her alone – so she’s just trying to live her life under the radar and stay safe,” says Portman. “She lives through her fear.”
Until the night that fate hurls V into Evey’s life. Patrolling the streets after the universal 11pm curfew, undercover Fingermen, the state’s secret police, catch Evey alone in a cobblestone alley, stealthily making her way to a friend’s house. With only pepper spray to defend herself, she falls victim to the ruthlessness of their warped use of judicial discretion. But before the encounter disintegrates into brutality, a mysteriously cloaked man appears, saving Evey’s dignity and her life. Unknowingly, this chance meeting sparks Evey’s political awakening.
In the face of torture and solitary confinement, Evey’s political consciousness becomes fully realized. “Through her imprisonment she learns to face her fear, and overcoming that fear is important for her own integrity,” asserts Portman, who was required to shave her head on camera for a pivotal sequence in the film in which Evey’s identity is violently stripped down by her captors.
Portman was intrigued by the ideas in the story and by Evey’s transformation from an anonymous office worker to a brave and politicized heroine. “The script has really strong political and ideological overtones,” she says. “And it looks at the kind of choices that must be made in order to be a political person, and how those choices affect an individual’s private life.”
In preparing for her role, the actress watched The Weather Underground, a documentary about a group of young American radicals in the late 1960s and 1970s who bombed the Capitol building and broke Timothy Leary out of prison. She also read famed Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin’s autobiography, which describes his early Soviet imprisonment and subsequent leadership of Irgun, a militant Zionist group in Palestine responsible for terrorist activities intent on expelling the British from Palestine.
Portman also found Antonia Fraser’s Faith and Treason about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 informative. “I learned about the British royal oppression of Catholics and their uprising and the inspiration for Macbeth coming from all the plots on King James I’s life.”
Chief Inspector Finch is the detective on the hunt for V, racing to stop his string of murders and find him before he fulfills his promise to destroy Parliament on the 5th of November. Leading the state’s investigation into the mysterious and eerily similar murders of several prominent figures, Finch is determined at the outset to simply catch the elusive terrorist and his seeming accomplice, Evey.
However, as Finch unearths details of V’s history, he discovers shocking state secrets concealed by the government he serves and his sympathies begin to shift. He starts to question that which he has accepted for far too long. The investigation thrusts reality and truth in his path, waking him from his acceptance of the state’s oppressive stranglehold on the rights and freedoms of its people. Played by actor Stephen Rea, Finch guides the audience through the film’s detective story as he slowly begins to uncover evidence that suggests that the British government may have something unspeakably criminal to hide. “There’s an intriguing element of the hunter becoming very interested in his prey,” says Rea of his character.
Rea feels the ideas in the story are timeless. “It’s about what happens when government pushes people too far. It’s a warning, a pretty ancient warning, about the function of government and its responsibility toward its citizens.
“Andy and Larry are doing interesting and dangerous work,” Rea continues. “It’s a highly ambitious attempt to move something from one medium to another. Graphic novels are obviously static, single frames, and you’re transposing that to a moving picture. It’s tricky and not entirely realistic, but I found that interesting. It was good to be working with something that has a certain heightened quality to it.”
Rupert Graves is Dominic, Finch’s lieutenant and junior partner in the investigation. “He undergoes a bit of an epiphany during the film,” Graves points out. “He’s not a man of great imagination. He’s always put his head down and believed in the state, but he and Finch begin to realize that their government isn’t as good as they had thought.”
The villainous head of England’s totalitarian regime is Chancellor Sutler, played by the venerable John Hurt, two-time Oscar nominee for his lauded performances in Midnight Express and The Elephant Man. Sutler’s government rules by fear, ensuring submission of its citizens through intimidating means – secret police, constant surveillance and the threat of imminent and apocalyptic dangers. Censorship, propaganda, and subverting freedom of speech are the order of the day, and eliminating minorities is but a necessary casualty. “Sutler represents a society that believes that a fascist government is the best way to run a country,” says Hurt. “Don’t ask questions, let the Party get on with it and above all, don’t criticize our authority.”
Hurt starred as Winston Smith in Michael Radford’s film 1984, based on George Orwell’s chilling tale of a totalitarian society ruled by an omnipresent fascist leader. In V For Vendetta, with the exception of a few key moments, Sutler is predominantly seen on an oppressively immense monitor from which he delivers incendiary speeches to the country and erupts in vitriolic confrontations with his cabinet via digital conferencing.
In one comic scene, however, Hurt steps away from the screen to play opposite Stephen Fry in a mock variety show skit in which Fry’s character, television host Gordon Deitrich, daringly – and dangerously – pokes fun at the ruling Chancellor.
Deitrich, a suave television personality hired by the government to produce a daily variety show, is Evey’s trusted friend and confidante. But he has secrets of his own that must remain hidden from the state. “Deitrich must be dragged out of his moral torpor and make a stand,” says Fry of the evolution of his character’s political consciousness. “He rips up the censor-approved script of his nightly show and writes one which makes vicious fun of the Chancellor.”
Most of Fry’s scenes in the film are opposite Portman. “I’m immensely impressed by Natalie,” he says. “I mean, what is she, 12 and a half years old or something? She’s a barely divided embryo and yet she speaks multiple languages, is immensely accomplished and a natural film actress. She’s very bright and good natured. She’s quite something. She’s going to be around at the top of her profession for a long time.”
Rounding out the impressive ensemble cast is Tim Pigott-Smith, who plays Creedy, the head of Britain’s secret police, and V’s final and most dangerous nemesis. While Sutler appears to have the country tightly shackled, the real power rests within Creedy’s grip. Ben Miles is Dascomb, Sutler’s head of propaganda who cleverly spins V’s explosion of Old Bailey on BTN, the government-controlled network, as an “emergency demolition” project.
Two-time Laurence Olivier Theatre Award-winning actor Roger Allam plays Prothero, the arrogant, vitriolic host of a news program called “The Voice of London.” The wildly popular television show attracts millions of viewers who tune in to hear his latest rants, finding solace in the slogan that ends each of his broadcasts: England prevails. “He rants his particular beliefs, serving as a mouthpiece for the government’s propaganda,” says Allam. “His evangelism is a kind of nationalistic fascism.”
John Standing, one of England’s most respected stage, film and television actors, is Bishop Lilliman. This man of the cloth’s religious convictions takes a backseat to his perverse sexual cravings, which ultimately prove to be his undoing. “I thoroughly enjoyed playing Lilliman,” Standing remarks, “because he’s slightly comic and utterly atrocious. Lovely to do.”
The course of V’s life, and subsequently Evey’s as well, has been unalterably impacted by a woman named Valerie Page – a woman who neither of them ever met. Her story is one of the thousands of those who were tortured and killed by the government’s callous cruelty and persecution of those it deemed unfit – and also a story of the small shred of hope that can ignite a revolution. The role of Valerie is played by Natasha Wightman, whose previous work includes Robert Altman’s Gosford Park.
Acclaimed Irish actress Sinead Cusack plays Delia Surridge, a coroner haunted by her horrific past – a past she shares with V. “I never imagined that I’d be playing a vile human being,” says the Tony-nominated actress. “I always thought I was rather soft and sweet and Irish! Instead I’m this vicious killer and for that reason it was a departure for me. This film is really a very interesting psychological study, set in a world that we hope we’ll never have to inhabit.”