Branagh: Playing It Big and Wide in 'Frankenstein'
Gannett News, October 31, 1994
by Marshall Fine
Robert De Niro's rubber body
suit was falling apart.
As he and Kenneth Branagh rolled
around amid a ton of melted K-Y jelly (doubling for amniotic
fluid) for the creation scene in "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,"
Branagh noticed that the prosthetic covering was splitting in
the back. But there wasn't time or money to fix it - so Branagh
simply tried to hold it in place with his hand over De Niro's
otherwise nude posterior while they wrestled.
"I think that made him rather
nervous - we didn't know each other that well yet," Branagh
says with a smile. "It was a slightly bizarre thing. The
doing of that scene was prone to a little hysteria."
Hysteria of a particularly overheated
type was Branagh's goal in this latest version of the gothic
classic. Branagh, who also directs, plays Victor Frankenstein
and De Niro plays the creature. The $44-million film, which opens
Friday, had been done every other way, he says.
"I wanted to get away from
the idea of the nutty professor - of Colin Clive shouting, `It's
alive!' and get to something operatic and feverish," says
the Irish-born actor-director (whose name is pronounced BRAN-nuh).
"I wanted to make the creation
sequence more unsettling and dangerous, unmelodramatic.
"I wanted to say, `It's
alive' and reinvent it slightly. But that was a definite image
in my mind. I wanted to make the camera style be almost inside
Victor's head. I was going for frenzy."
Branagh wanted to make a faithful
adaptation of the novel - but not a conventional horror film.
"The novel is full of other things," he says. "There
are discussions of family. It's a great love story. There's much
about what goes on between father and son. It's the story of
a dysfunctional family and an abandoned child. There's more to
it than creating a big, lurching, grunting monster."
The film is the biggest undertaking
ever for the 33-year-old British wunderkind. As he points out,
the budget for this one film was larger than the combined cost
of his previous four - including the Shakespearean battles of
"Henry V" and the large cast and Italian locations
for "Much Ado About Nothing."
"It's daunting if you let
yourself think about it," he says. "I tried to concentrate
on just the next little bit I had to do. From time to time, I'd
think of the whole thing and be very scared indeed."
As if that weren't challenge
enough, there was also the prospect of directing De Niro and
working for Francis Ford Coppola, the film's producer.
"It was daunting to begin
with but it disappeared when we met," Branagh says. "They're
both very inspiring and they're both good collaborators. De Niro
was a very generous co-worker. About three or four months into
the nine-month preproduction period, I won his trust.
"Still, before and after,
one begins to get a bit shaky. I look at the poster and see Kenneth
Branagh and Robert De Niro in the same movie and it's a little
awe-inspiring. But he and Coppola don't carry any legend baggage
around with them. They just get on with it."
In revisualizing the tale, Branagh
sought a layer of scientific realism that would be right for
the late 18th-century period of the film. Shelley, in her book,
is particularly vague about the creation process, giving Branagh
license to incorporate such then-new ideas as acupuncture and
"I wanted the science to
be as plausible as possible, while making the birth imagery as
sexual as possible," he says. "We were trying to wipe
the slate clean and not be subject to all that baggage."
That included the look of the
creature. Rather than the towering, grunting figure Boris Karloff
played in James Whale's 1931 film, Branagh and De Niro followed
the book, making the creature a figure of power, but also one
who is articulate and malignantly intelligent. He is also portrayed
as a medical horror, a stitched-together figure whose seams are
not only visible but raw-looking."
The enduring nature of the "Frankenstein"
story is not the same as the continued popularity of Boris Karloff's
version of the character - though both obviously have staying
power, Branagh says.
"(Shelley) tapped into what
she wanted to - as she writes, `I shall busy myself with a story
that speaks to the mysterious fear of nature,"' Branagh
observes. "I don't know why we like to be scared. This is
like a cautionary tale. We're like naughty children hearing about
another naughty child, Victor Frankenstein, who almost gets away
with it - but doesn't.
"When it was written, at
the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, people were facing
a future that was almost unimaginable - and they were frightened.
At this end of this century, we're facing a communications revolution
that takes us almost the same way.
"And, with advances in genetic
science, we may soon be faced with the dilemma of what to do
if we can create life artificially."
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