Constantine, the 2005 Keanu Reeves–starring adaptation of the Vertigo Comic, had a rough go of it at first. Though it’s a cult favourite now, it didn’t do especially well at release, partially due to the fact that it transgressed a boundary that most comic book films still refuse to cross: it was rated R in the U.S., limiting its exposure to the teenage demographic that’s still incredibly vital to selling any comic book film. But, as it turns out, the creators tried to hit that PG-13 benchmark. They really did.
Today, Reeves, director Francis Lawrence, and producer Akiva Goldsman reunited for a panel commemorating Constantine’s 15th anniversary, hosted by Collider’s Steven Weintraub. It’s a delightful panel (you can watch it in full below), and not just because Reeves is there with his perfect, beautiful eyes; everyone involved has a clear love for this film and dishes a lot of intriguing behind the scenes details. Like, about that R? It was out of their hands.
“Originally when we all started on this we thought it would be a rated-R film,” Francis Lawrence said. “Warner then dictated that it had to be PG-13 because of what it cost. We got the list of guidelines of what you can and can’t do in a PG-13 movie and we followed those rules to a T.”
Those informal but reliable rules — including how many and what types of profanity a film can use, how much gore is allowed, etc — were a blueprint during production. But when it came time for the MPAA raters to sit down and watch the film, the rules suddenly became a lot less important.
“I remember hearing that they got about five minutes in and put their notepads down,” Lawrence said. “They said we got a hard R for ‘tone.’ This is not something that’s on the list. But, basically, there was an overwhelming sense of dread, was what I heard, from the opening scene on. And they didn’t think there was anything we could do about it.”
He does drama. He does comedy. He does kick-arse action. He does dramatic readings. He plays guitar. Hell, we wouldn’t be surprised if he still goes surfing sometimes. And now, Keanu Reevers — movie star, cultural icon, genuinely cool dude — can add “comic book writer” to his enviable resumé.Read more
So Constantine, a film which struggled so valiantly to stay inside its prescribed ratings guidelines, fell outside of them because it was just… sort of moody?
“There’s a weird subset of religious horror that seems to get an R much more quickly,” Akiva Goldsman, producer on the film, added. “What you learn is that despite the fact that there are guidelines, it’s a purely subjective interpretation. And that subjectivity ebbs and flows based on the group that is designating the rating. But we have a lot of demons. Demons seem, for some reason, to trigger an R rating.”
Ah! A demonic curse, then. Certainly that’s something Constantine as a character can understand. For Lawrence’s part, he was just disappointed that he never got a chance to make a version of the film that leaned into its own darkness and went after the R it would end up getting anyway, despite the production’s protests.
“We got a bit screwed on that front,” Lawrence said.