Bringing Life to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Fangoria, November 1994
by Mark Salisbury
**thanks to Virginia Leong
"It's like a Greek tragedy,"
says Kenneth Branagh, actor, director and co-producer of this
fall's eagerly awaited, big-budget Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
"Everybody's gone on major cathartic journeys by the end.
There are figures with tragic flaws, there is a tragic inevitability
and yet it is so amazingly immediate and popular. Of all the
Gothic stories I'm familiar with, it's the one that sort of has
Best known as the director/star
of the big-screen Shakespearean movies Henry V and Much
Ado About Nothing (he also helmed the Hitchcockian thriller
Dead Again, in which he co-starred with his wife, Oscar-winning
actress Emma Thompson), Branagh believes that Shelley's enduring
classic has a great thematic richness. It's a quality he feels
filmmakers have hitherto failed to incorporate into previous
versions of the tale. But with this adaptation, Branagh says
he hopes to finally bring the full power and resonance of Shelley's
epic to the screen.
The 33-year-old Belfast-born
filmmaker was approached by Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope
company in autumn 1992, three months prior to the release of
Bram Stoker's Dracula, while he was still in postproduction
on Much Ado. He was asked if he was interested in directing
a film version of Shelley's novel as well as playing the title
role of Victor Frankenstein, but while he liked the idea, he
was not keen on the script -- written by Steph Lady -- that Zoetrope
had been developing.
"It was a good piece of
work, but it was not sufficiently different from other Frankenstein
movies to make me want to do it," he recalls. "I read
the original novel, which was very different from anything I'd
ever seen, and so I went back to TriStar and said, 'If we can
perhaps start again, get back to square one and really attempt
to do the Mary Shelley book, then I'd be very interested.' So
that was what we did."
Frank Darabont, scripter of several
episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, co-writer
of Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and The Blob as well
as writer/director of the Stephen King adaptation The Shawshank
Redemption, was brought in to revamp the screenplay. The
new draft incorporated some of Lady's work, but mainly went back
to the novel. "There are two major departures," Branagh
admits, "and I hope they are Shelley-ian in spirit."
Consequently, the film, much
like the David Wickes-directed TNT movie which aired last year,
follows the novel extremely closely, beginning with a storm at
sea and Victor Frankenstein relating his tale to polar adventurer
Captain Walton (Aidan Quinn). The film then flashes back to disclose
the events leading up to Victor's presence in the Arctic. "We
tried to do what appealed strongly to me about the story,"
explains Branagh. "I find it very emotional, very moving,
very strong morally and very complex in what it provokes in the
reader. There seemed to be no easy options; it created a fascinating,
immediate moral debate which seems to sit very resonantly nowadays.
Obviously it's a terrific story -- it's a racy Gothic tale, you
want to know what happens next -- but it raises interesting issues
about family and the basic essential questions about whether
it's a good idea to create life, or to prevent death -- to take
the place of nature, of God, or of a creator."
Which is all fine and well, but
what Fango readers really want to know is whether Branagh sees
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as a horror film. "I
suppose I don't, really," he says, almost apologetically,
"I mean, I like horror films, but I think of this as a...I
don't even know what it is, actually; it seems like a Gothic
fairy tale, like a Grimm fairy tale, with very horrible and horrific
images. But they're not just involved with old-fashioned suspense
scares; they involve the dread produced by the limits to which
human beings will go. The limits that Victor Frankenstein will
go to pursue his dream are truly horrifying, and there's one
sequence in the film which is not in the original book, but which
I think is legitimate and Shelley-like in spirit.
"All I can say about it
is that at this stage of the game, when I'm watching it,
it is truly dreadful," he says of this new scene. "And
I think, 'Christ, this is going to be laughable, isn't it? We've
gone too far.' But it holds. What Shelley came up with is something
so compulsive, and seems to tap into something so dark and primal
about our natures, that you are held in spite of yourself; you
are held in spite of the fact that you might want to laugh. Maybe
it's because of the here and now; it all seems too frighteningly
true. A lot of what Victor does is motivated by a perverted application
of his own ferocious capacity for love.
"The other thing that runs
through the picture is this tremendous romance," he adds.
"There's a great love story, not only between Victor and
Elizabeth [Helena Bonham Carter] but between Victor and the Creature,
between a father and a son. It's as simple as that on one level:
a child abandoned by a father who gets to the point of actually
bringing life to this thing and then says, 'What have I done?'"
Since Branagh had directed himself
in four previous features (including the comedy Peter's Friends)
as well as countless times on stage, he felt no qualms about
both helming and starring in Frankenstein. "It felt
the appropriate thing to do," he says, "and in a strange
way there are some parallels between the monster Victor is building
and the monster that in some way you take charge of when you
make a film of this size. I think I'm quite good casting for
it in a way, and it seemed to work out. The obsessive nature
of the character and the obsessive drive you need to have in
order to be at the reins of something as big as this sort of
coincided in a way that was helpful for the story. I suppose
that for a film of this size, they wanted an unusual look at
it, and I believe they thought that in some way I was an original
choice. I'm sure they were nervous about what in Hollywood terms
might be deemed my sort of arty credentials, but they probably
thought they could offset whatever dangers that might create
at the box office by attracting a major star to play the Creature.
People get excited by good combinations of actors, so I suppose
they were prepared to go along with me being in it and hope that
the star part might come from elsewhere."
True to form, Branagh -- who
cast major players Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton and Keanu
Reeves in Much Ado -- surrounded himself with a topnotch
cast made up of both British and U.S. actors, including Carter
as Elizabeth, Victor's adopted sister and love interest; Monty
Python's John Cleese as professor Waldman, Victor's mentor; and
Tom (Amadeus) Hulce as Victor's student friend Henry.
The most inspired piece of casting, however, was that of Robert
De Niro as the Creature. Branagh says his decision to cast the
man many consider to be the greatest actor of his generation
was based on his desire to break the mold with regard to how
the Creature is perceived.
"I wanted a Creature who
was completely different from previous films and much nearer
to what Shelley envisaged; I wasn't after a 6-foot-6 actor with
a square head," offers Branagh, who says the Oscar-winning
De Niro was always at the top of both his and Coppola's wish
list. Together with a special makeup artist Daniel Parker, Branagh
spent nine months coming up with a concept for the Creature that
would ultimately require De Niro to be completely covered with
prosthetics, necessitating the actor to spend up to 10 hours
a day in the makeup chair. "He is a butchered mismatch of
different organs and body parts," says Branagh of the idea
behind his Creature's look. "He has two different eyes,
he has a different brain and a body that comes from several different
people -- it's a look that tries to get away from the classic
Karloffian and Munster image."
Given De Niro's remarkable acting
talents and his famed Method approach, Branagh says that actor
worked long and hard to mold the Creature's character to his
look, making sure that every detail in the character had some
relevance. "What Robert and myself have tried not to go
for is something that is coyingly sympathetic or sentimental,"
Branagh says. "But he is an innocent; half of his journey
through the film, if you like, is that of a child receiving a
very rough and tough education in the world, and we see his curiousity
and naivete and innocence. One of the triumphs of Robert's performance
is that there's nothing simpering or self-pitying about it: he
just is what he is, and he discovers by experience, often very
painful experience, that in order to live in the world he is
going to have to become something else. He cannot rely on the
family in the woods that he hoped would take him in, because
when they see what he looks like, they turn on him as well. Then
he finds out how he has been created, and so he goes back to
his maker and says, as he does in the book, 'You make me a mate,
you make me a female friend, and then we'll go live at the North
Pole. No one'll ever see us again, I promise, but you have to
And does this particular Victor
give in to the request? "Top secret," chuckles Branagh
cagily. "Top secret. All I can say is that there is a startling
moment at the end of the movie that answers the question about
Branagh says that although he
had already seen almost every filmed version of Shelley's story,
he purposefully reacquainted himself with a number of them before
he began shooting in the interest of research. "I felt very
familiar with the Hammer and James Whale versions, but I did
rewatch them because I was interested in seeing them again,"
he explains. "I also rewatched Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein,
which I think is an absolute classic; it gets better every time
you see it."
With all these forebears in mind,
Branagh set out to offer a different screen interpretation of
Shelley's doctor. "It is no longer a melodramatic story
about a madman," he says. "I think that Victor Frankenstein
is dangerously sane. This is an intelligent man who believes
that he is doing the right thing. he is a good man, sort of a
visionary, but one who you know shakes hands with the devil on
one level. He takes part in a Faustian bargain in return for
the knowledge about how to create life. But there are consequences
that accrue, like not knowing how the thing he has created will
behave, whether it will be dangerous or violent, whether it will
have descendants that will proliferate. All of those unknown
factors -- whether it will be diseased, whether it will eat people
or whatever -- that whole area of the unknown that he takes on
board is one that he has a rational attitude toward.
"Victor is a man who just
resists losing fine, interesting, creative, generous, brilliantly
intelligent people; he regrets their passing," Branagh says.
"He disagrees with the way God does it, as many people do.
He says at one point, 'God gave us death, God gave us plagues,
God gave us war, God gave us a very imperfect world. But he also
gave us the ability to improve it, and that's our responsibility.
What I'm doing is an evolutionary stage.' So all of it becomes
much more pungent."
Indeed, the relevance of the
book today is not lost on Branagh. "Mary Shelley was writing
at the beginning of one revolution, the industrial revolution,
and here we are presenting this film at the beginning of another,
a technological revolution, where we are one step away from virtual
reality," he says. "It's not a story about a monster
from a faraway Gothic land, some sort of Transylvanian beast;
it's about the here and now. She seemed to have tapped into a
very primal myth about creation and about male frustration, about
not actually being able to have children on their own, and I
think a lot of Victor Frankenstein's confused motivation has
to do with that, and with the celebration of family and the confusion
Given the novel's position alongside
Dracula as one of the two great works of horror literature,
and with Coppola again on board -- if only in a producing capacity
-- it's easy to see the film as a fitting companion piece to
Coppola's popular take on Stoker's tale. "What Francis was
going for there was so stylized, and so romantic and exotic and
erotic, it felt strange in a way how all of those tales could
be classed together under the Gothic label," Branagh says.
"My recurrent feeling about Frankenstein had to do
with its contemporary qualities, and what I felt strongly about
Dracula was the incredible evocation of another world.
One of the qualities of Frankenstein that distinguishes
it from Dracula is its immediacy as a story. How the two
films sit alongside each other I don't know. All I know is that
I am very proud to have done a picture that Coppola's name is
With Frankenstein behind
him, however, he doesn't foresee himself returning to the genre
anytime soon. "This story is so rich that for me it is Shakespearean
in scope," he says. "I suspect that at least in the
short term, this particular project has gotten an enormous amount
out of my system."
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