It's A Monster!
Interview, November 1994
by Graham Fuller
**contributed by Neth Boneskewy
Kenneth Branagh might seem an
unlikely choice to helm Francis Coppola's $44 million production
of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, companion piece to Coppola's
own Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992). Branagh's four previous films
as director have not distinguished him as any kind of auteur,
yet maybe Hollywood prefers a tenacious jack-of-all-genres: Henry
V (1989) is a gripping war film, Peter's Friends (1992) a warming
English Big Chill, and Much Ado About Nothing (1993) a lissome
summer romp; only Branagh's Hitchcock homage, Dead Again (1991),
has suggested that this unstoppable Renaissance man might have
been better off sticking to the boards.
If Branagh has adhered to the
spirit of Frank Darabont's florid but genuinely chilling screenplay,
the most faithful adaptation yet of the Romantic masterpiece
conceived by Mrs. Shelley at the Villa Diodati, near Geneva,
in June 1816, he may still prove a powerful visual stylist. Branagh
himself plays Victor Frankenstein, Robert De Niro is his equally
tortured Creature, and Helen Bonham Carter is Elizabeth, love
object of gothic cinema's most infernal Oedipal triangle.
Graham Fuller: Why do you
think Francis Coppola approached you to direct this version of
Frankenstein? Do you think he sensed that your appreciation of
the mythic resonances in Shakespeare would lend itself to the
Kenneth Branagh: I never asked
him, actually. I was too nervous to, in case he said, "I'd
never heard of you. Somebody suggested you." Certainly,
at this end of things, I've noticed that the subject has a Shakespearean
scope and grandeur. Frankenstein feels like an ancient tale,
the kind of traditional story that appears in many other forms.
It appeals to something very primal, but it's also about profound
things, the very nature of life and death and birth--about, essentially,
a man who is resisting the most irresistible fact of all, that
we will be shuffling off this mortal coil. It was sent to me
as I was rehearsing a production of Hamlet, and it seemed to
me that the two things were linked. Hamlet and Victor Frankenstein
are each obsessed with death. Hamlet's whole story is a philosophical
preparation for death; Victor's is an intellectual refusal to
GF: You had Frank Darabont
revise the original script. What changes did you ask for?
KB: I asked him to include all
those events and characters in Mary Shelley's novel that hadn't
been seen together in a film. One of the main themes in the book
is the idea of a happy and united family being destroyed when
Victor's mother dies of scarlet fever after nursing her adopted
daughter, Elizabeth, through it. We have Victor's mother dying
after giving birth to his brother, because we wanted to give
an emotional root to his resistance to death and to set up the
fact that he chooses not to provide his own son--the Creature--with
a family to grow up in.
We've also made Elizabeth, Victor's
"more-than-sister," as he describes her, as strong
a presence in the Frankenstein story as Mary Shelley was in the
life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom I think Victor was partly
based on. This was something Frank was less keen on, but I felt
very strongly that Mary Shelley and, indeed, her mother, Mary
Wollstonecraft, were tremendous heroines who should be represented
as Mary Shelley would have written them, were she writing now,
instead of within the literary conventions of the early nineteenth
GF: Mary Wollstonecraft died
a lingering, painful death after giving birth to the future Mary
Shelley, who lost a prematurely born child in 1815, a year before
she began the novel. So when Shelley describes Victor's laboratory
as a "workshop of filthy creation," you get the sense
that she's describing the womb. Your movie is thick with weird
natal imagery. Were you drawing on the tragedies in the Shelley
family as a kind of metaphorical backdrop to the creation saga?
KB: There are vaguenesses in
the book that allow for the readers' imaginations to come into
play, like the creation sequence itself, and in order to fill
those gaps and build the psychological details of the characters,
we did go to the Shelley family. I think Mary experienced great
guilt in giving birth to her children, only one of whom lived
to maturity. She was surrounded by images of death--Percy wooed
her on her mother's tombstone in the Old St. Pancras Churchyard--and
that closeness to the reality of death fed the excitability and
passion and feverish imagination that ran through her entire
household. Our screen-play was infused with that. We also tried
to make as many explicitly sexual birth images as possible. In
Victor's lab, we have a huge phallic tube which shoots electric
eels at an enormous womb like sarcophagus. When the Creature
is born, the amniotic fluid it's cooked in spills out into this
awful delivery room. It's low-tech version of a very ugly birth.
GF: Did you explore the Promethean
aspects of the novel?
KB: I think Victor's desire to
realize his hubristic obsession of creating life--his fight with
God, if you like--is very powerfully represented. There are strong
images of fire and ice, heat and cold, blood and butchery throughout
the book, and we tried to match those in the film. There's an
almost operatic battle between Victor and his own creator to
win the battle of creation.
GF: Your film draws on pinnacle
moments in James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein
(1935): You have Victor's little brother killed by the Creature;
there's a pathos-laden interlude with the blind grandfather;
and the reanimated Elizabeth goes berserk.
KB: The re-creation of Elizabeth
is not in the novel, but it was impossible to resist the temptation
to have Victor bringing back to life the person he loved above
all. It's our major departure from Shelley, yet it seemed to
make psychological sense. It may be that our film is too packed
with incidents, and that Whale was wise to reduce the first film
to the idea of building a monster and the second one to making
him a mate. But we wanted to see how much we could disturb people.
Hopefully, when audiences see Victor about to reanimate his dead
lover, they'll go, "Oh no, surely he won't, he can't; oh
my God, he will!" It's a grotesque sequence in the film,
and yet it's strangely moving in a way that's different from
Whale's high camp.
GF: As a director, knowing
that you had to make the Creature believable, how did you get
beyond De Niro's icon status?
KB: By working specifically on
his character. We wanted to make the creation of the Creature
as realistic as possible within the period, so we talked about
how they would have stitched limbs together at that time. We
talked about which parts of the body would be missing and why
they would be missing. Would the corpse that the body is based
on have been previously diseased, and if so, where? We looked
at a color dictionary of facial reconstruction, plastic-surgery
books, and crime-scene photographs, so right from the start we
were working closely with Bob, as opposed to being in awe of
him as someone bringing extra baggage. Just before he finished,
he agreed to talk to the documentary unit that was producing
a promotional featurette for us as long as I did the interview.
I was happy to do this after a year of working with him, but
when I sat down in front of him, it was then that I became tongue-tied
and awestruck. I was very glad it hadn't occurred until that
GF: I know Coppola had an
AIDS metaphor in mind when he made Dracula. There seems to be
one here, too, in the cholera epidemic and Victor's desire to
find a cure for all illnesses.
KB: Yeah, I think there are some
parallels. Through Victor, Mary Shelley talks about the pioneering
work of brilliant scientists, which allows us to lay a moral
dilemma where no doubt, behind closed doors somewhere, a cure
for cancer or AIDS is being discovered, but with some kind of
price to pay. An image that came to mind was Einstein and Oppenheimer
being so caught up in the excitement of solving the mathematical
equation that would enable the splitting of the atom that, had
they known what it was going to lead to, they might have thought
GF: Joyce Carol Oates describes
Frankenstein as a parable about the dangers of denying responsibility.
What do you think is going on unconsciously?
KB: Instead of being a very small
thing that one can pick up and cuddle and cossett, the Creature
is a huge, fully formed thing that, because of the recklessness
of its creator, is endowed with a whole series of powers that
make it, through no fault of its own, incredibly dangerous. Nevertheless,
it's as similarly dependent on the creator as if it were tiny
and cherishable. This underlines notions of scientific, political,
and social responsibility. I think that this disadvantaged, hulking
brute Victor has created holds a mirror up to nature and says,
"Here is an aborted, perverted man who in his very being
is an image of what we should be avoiding."
GF: What about the sexual
elements? There's obviously a fear that the Creature is going
to violate Elizabeth. Is it also implied that he rapes Justine
Moritz, the housekeeper's daughter?
KB: We imply that he is very
excited by her. In the book, Shelley alludes briefly but potently
to the idea that if the Creature were to have companionship,
it would be at the risk of a whole tribe of these beings peopling
the earth. This is how Shelley nods obliquely toward the idea
of sex, though I think she's quite titillated by it and goes
to some pains to describe the size of the Creature, to brilliant
comic effect. She was aware that if this Creature is eight feet
tall, as he is the book, presumably he's got an enormous plonker,
and that might be tremendously exciting to whoever was on the
receiving end of it. It creates a sexual jealousy between Victor
and the Creature that is quite explicit in the last sequence
of our film, when Elizabeth is re-created. Indeed, one is force
to think that the Creaturess might be better off with the Creature
than with Victor.
GF: What was your guiding
principle in composing and framing the film?
KB: I wanted to create a fairy-tale
world of primary colors, of large rooms, of space and size, of
big buildings, of big nature. I wanted to have a sense of the
presence of enormous natural forces, and of humans being small
in relation to all these things. I want the audience to be there
in Victor's fevered imagination and I want to them to catch the
bug, so the camera moves a great deal. The camera work is often
expansive and bright, but when we go to Ingolstadt, where the
plague is, the images are dark and miserable and sweaty and grimy.
Shelley herself made those contrasts quite broad.
GF: Did unexpected metaphors
KB: It's become very religious
in a way. There's a lot of Christ-like imagery in it, and Victor's
laboratory, I've suddenly realized, looks like a holy cathedral.
It seems very sacrilegious, ungodly. You're really aware that
you're watching a man who's shaken hands with the devil, and
there's something diabolical in there that was not conscious
but just seeps through the entire picture.
GF: Did you get right to the
core of horror?
KB: When Victor decides to re-create
his dead bride in this picture, it's so horrific as to be almost
unbearable. When he then dances with her, it's impossible to
conceive of what's happening, because of your emotional investment
in their relationship. It's your worst nightmare come true before
your very eyes. It's more than just being frightened by what
the Creature looks like, more than just being scared because
something emerged from the shadows when you're not expecting
it. Although the film obeys some of the horror genre rules, it
evokes a primal repulsion at something that is almost beyond
the imagination and yet is sufficiently close to what's possible
as to be profoundly disturbing. I will not be sad to say good-bye
to this project, because it's quite a hard thing to carry around
in your system for two years. After Frankenstein, I feel as if
I want to make a film about somebody having a nice cup of tea.
GF: Did the movie ever become
your own personal monster?
KB: At times it did, yeah. It's
a big thing and it demands massive amounts of attention, and
having come this far and having had the amount of freedom I've
had to work on it, it's not possible to walk away from it without
feeling that everything that you wanted to say or do in it has
at least been attempted. So to that extent it remains a obsession.
GF: You've directed five movies
now, and yet I get the sense that you never really intended to
be a film director.
KB: No, I didn't expect that
to be the case. I am genuinely surprised by it. I know that Frankenstein
has squeezed the last bit out of me for a while.
GF: Have you laid the ghost
of the hubris that the Bristish press reckoned was your lot?
KB: I really don't know. I guess
if you hang around long enough and continue to do the best work
you can, people will at least get used to you and take aim at
someone else. Somehow I know there was something so right about
my doing Frankenstein and taking so long over it that I've probably
been laying some ghosts inside myself. It was a very necessary
job for me to do, but it'll take some time to recover from it.
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