In “The Raven,” which opens nationwide on April 27, John Cusack stars as a fictionalized version of Edgar Allan Poe. And in this big-screen extravaganza, directed by James McTeigue (“V for Vendetta”), Poe isn’t just the famous – and famously sozzled – author of “The Raven” and “The Telltale Heart”; he’s also a surprisingly spry action hero, recruited by the police to help solve a series of grisly murders based on his own stories.
Last weekend, Cusack, a newly minted Hollywood Walk of Famer, and his close friend Mark Leyner, author of "The Sugar Frosted Nutsack," appeared at the LA Times Festival of Books to talk about Poe, his legacy, the new movie, and the artistic imperative – felt by writers and actors alike – to brave the darkness in order to tell great stories. He also offers some insight into why he hasn't starred in a romantic comedy for a while. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation, with selections from the audience Q&A that followed.
Mark Leyner: John and I have known each other many years now, and spend a lot of time talking about everything, in every little way. But this seemed a little daunting…. And I was sitting on the plane next to a little girl who was maybe five or six at the most, and she asked me … to ask John, “To what degree do you think that the relationship between this movie, The Raven, and the literary-historical construct known as Edgar Allan Poe, is analogous in a Lévi-Straussian sense to the relationship between the movie and the sociocultural construct known as John Cusack?”
John Cusack: That’s an extraordinary five-year-old. I think she’s talking about the meta-Poe, the Poe within Poe, the dream within the dream.
ML: Well, I think when people heard you were doing this movie, the question comes up: What Poe are you talking about? Who are you enacting, and what is the movie about? Is it a kind of biographical movie? What sort of use does the movie make of a figure we all know something about?
JC: What we didn’t want to do is a straight biopic of Poe… This is a film where Poe becomes almost enrolled or enlisted into one of his own stories, and … gets almost captured by his own themes…. So we thought that was a much better way to get into all of his stories, to dramatize his stories, and to get inside of his imagination, because to me, his language as a writer is the sort of the language of the subconscious, and it’s dark, and it’s primal, and it’s perverse, and it’s shocking, it’s horrific….
Poe is a guy who created so many genres that we take for granted today…. Obviously, he’s the godfather of gothic horror, he created horror, but he also influenced science fiction … he invented the detective genre…. And he also was …very adept at tapping into the fears and neuroses and obsessions of the era. So while he was making intense, beautiful, esoteric poetry, and metaphysical philosophy papers, and social criticism, he was also writing pulp, shocking Saturday evening thrillers, where at the end of the stories orangutans were coming out of chimneys and cutting up women. So he was a master of high- and low-brow, he was esoteric and pulp. He was such a contradiction…. So by having a mixture of fantasy and fiction and legend, I felt like … it was a terrific device for the movie.
ML: What we think of as Poe-esque, or whatever the adjective would be, is about that moment where you sort of realize what’s about to happen to you.
JC: Yeah, yeah, he was the master of the jump-scare and the sudden ending, and all of his stories sort of ended in a way with a mystery, where they could never be contained or really understood or rationalized in some ways. But I think he also was, I think he was interested in death the way someone is interested in exploring…. He was an explorer into the underworld, into the unconscious.
ML: Is there something about our culture right now that creates a more urgent need … for darkness?
JC: Well, we were talking about maybe the need for some sort of authenticity, right? And in a culture that’s sort of denied a shadow and those types of things, there’s an authenticity in actually feeling all those emotions, and feeling and experiencing all those terrors and giving voice to them.
There is a certain kind of ferocity of mind that a writer like [Poe] had… [When] most people have a nightmare, they say, let me wake up as quickly as I can, but then there are a few writers who say, I’m going to have a nightmare, I want to go deeper in, and I want to ride that, I want to see what’s even farther down there…. I don’t even really have that in me, but I can certainly respect the … search for some sort of authentic experience.
ML: John, you just said something that I think gets to a question people might have on their minds, which is: This is not like you, so was this a more strenuous preparation outside of yourself than you’ve been accustomed to, playing someone like this?
JC: Yeah, it was…. If you get to do Shakespeare or some great writer, you get to immerse yourself in that writer’s mind. And Poe is not a mind that you want to stay in all year round, but it certainly is a nice place to visit…. I think everybody can relate to Poe and to horror and to gothic horror … but he was also a great poet and he loved, I think, very deeply. I think he was an incredibly complex person…. He wasn’t just one thing and … even though he is now the Halloween icon … if you read him again as an adult, you go, Oh wow, this was somebody who was sort of defying labels and convictions and mashing up genres and just exploring endlessly his own psyche.
ML: Well, I will never have the great fortune to play Edgar Allan Poe, as you have.
JC: But you did get to write a new Poe poem. Do you remember that?
ML: Yes…. There was a place in the script where we decided it required a little piece of Edgar Allan Poe poetry, and it just seemed…
JC: And I just, I looked at Mark and I went, “You’re on your own.”
ML: Well, it just seemed easier to just write it myself than look it up, you know…. But I did want to say that Poe, towards the end of his life, spent, I think, three or four days wandering drunk in Jersey City, and I can say that I have wandered drunk in Jersey City for several days, so in that sense there is a connection among the three of us.
JC: And strangely, I have wandered drunk in Jersey City as well.
ML: Anyway, as we said, we can talk for hours and hours and hours about this. I’m sure you have questions about this for John. I would love to answer any questions, so why don’t we turn this over to you guys for a while.
Audience question: How has this movie changed your perspective about death?
JC: The part of Poe’s writing I always responded to most was that sort of metaphysical sweet spot … between waking and dreaming, life and death, that sort of place. I like the horror, I like all of his writing, but that was the thing I’ve always been most keen on. I think by exploring that, I think that you look at it as just another frontier, but then again, I’m sure when the day comes, I’ll be full of terror.
Audience question: Hi. There’s a wonderful book that was made famous on the Oprah show called “The Dark Side of the Light Chasers,” and it illuminates the necessity and importance of working with our shadow side in order to become whole, and unless people are willing to face the shadow side, investigate it, and walk straight into the monster, they never will achieve that wholeness, by just trying to stay positive all the time. So I’m curious in terms of Poe, do you feel that he was investigating his shadow side in order to achieve that, and did it help him progress to a perhaps more enlightened or whole state of being?
JC: I think you’re, like, dead on in every way. I don’t know if as an artist he could have characterized it that way, just as an explorer, but I think that was, in essence, what he was doing…. That’s what actors do, too. What we do is we go to places that most people want to avoid, and we do it publicly….
ML: I also think there are writers who are sort of at war with themselves, and for whom writing represents a kind of struggle, a kind of guerilla war against oneself, and the idea is, in a way, to even assassinate oneself, that your book or your work represents a kind of liquidation of yourself.
Audience question: Hi, I think of you, John, as having kind of a sense of humor about yourself and about the world, and when you look at Poe’s writing, it’s horrific, but on the other hand it’s also kind of absurd, like “The Tell-Tale Heart.” And I wondered if you added humor?
JC: We did, but it was really something that we found in his writing…. He used to say his writing was “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque.”
Audience question: I’m curious as to your take on the ideal that we have to be messed up to create good, messed-up art…. How much you feel that you have to actually experience that dark side?
JC: I think it gets back to that sort of shadow question, which is, those emotions, dealing with them, experiencing them, are the sort of portal to creativity, right? That’s the idea. I don’t think that necessarily means that you have to go drink yourself into DTs and do laudanum to know what that is like. Also, we all have muscle memory from our 20s. You have to sort of … graduate to a more sophisticated form of madness, but I think you definitely have to push yourself to the edge of it to where you’re frightened. But that’s kind of the job …. I’ll put it this way: to be an artist you have to have a problem, and to be a good artist, you have to start to deal with your problem in some way.
JC: Wow, I said something smart.
Audience question: What do you think is more difficult: playing Poe or being a long-suffering Cubs fan?
JC: That’s cruel. I’d say, without question, Cubs.
Audience question: I loved “Say Anything,” “Grosse Point Blank.” Don’t have a dog, but I absolutely loved “Must Have Dogs.” Wondering if you have any plans of doing any romantic comedies again?
JC: Mark and I wrote a script called “Pipe Dream.” We also adapted one of his novels, “Et Tu, Babe.” And “Pipe Dream” is a romantic story. It’s sort of a Montagues-Capulets story about an anarchist poet who falls in love with Rupert Murdoch’s daughter. It’s clearly a class issue. But that’s not romantic comedy, but it’s more in the “Grosse Point Blank” vein, I guess you’d call it. I’m open for anything … but they don’t really make kind of Preston Sturges comedies anymore, they sort of make, uh, I don’t know what they make in Hollywood, but they don’t really make good romantic comedies anymore, is what I’m saying.