Director Gives All to 'Frankenstein'

Los Angeles Daily News, November 12 1994
by Yardena Arar

Nobody ever has accused Kenneth Branagh of ducking a challenge. But now he says he'd have to, because he's just too tired after wrestling with "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein."

In the half-dozen years since he burst on the film scene with "Henry V," he has directed and starred in a noirish mystery that unfolds in two lifetimes ("Dead Again"), an ensemble comedy ("Peter's Friends") and yet another Shakespeare play revisited for the masses, "Much Ado About Nothing."

Each time, he has walked away with the energy to perform with his Renaissance Theatre company while preparing for whatever came next.

But he finally may have met his match in "Frankenstein." Two years in the making, the new version of the 1818 horror standard is his most ambitious production to date, with a big studio budget, a very big costar in Robert De Niro and a big name in Francis Ford Coppola as Branagh's coproducer.

"It required such a huge effort on every level - my guts are in it for better or worse," Branagh said, looking weary.

"If someone said to me next week, 'We'd like you to make a $20 billion movie,' even if I thought it was the greatest story since time immemorial, I wouldn't be able to do it. I just don't have the juice in the tank."

Branagh, 33, wasn't particularly interested in tackling "Frankenstein" when he received draft screenplays from Coppola and TriStar Pictures, the joint developers of the project. He began to change his mind only when he read the novel.

"I felt the book was not only a page-turning Gothic yarn, but just very contemporarily relevant, because I just seem to be forever reading stories about genetic science developments, and so that central idea of him creating life was no longer a fantasy. I mean, it was something that any audience, watching it now, can feel a little closer to."

He feels the 1931 version of "Frankenstein" starring Boris Karloff, which generally is regarded as the best adaptation, has become dated.

"In 1931, we weren't doing heart bypass operations or using baboon hearts to put in kids and things. . . . That changed the whole way it would be received, I think, and it meant that we could get away from all of the stuff that's been."

Branagh also discovered other themes in the story, including parental responsibility, abandonment, the fight between personal ambition and work and family and love.

"There's a story of a dysfunctional family in there that's an entirely personal one," he said.

While screenwriters Steph Lady and Frank Darabont tailored the script to Branagh's vision, Branagh began tailoring himself for the title role, the doctor who builds a man out of spare body parts and jump-starts the Creature with electricity, a relatively new discovery in Shelley's day.

Branagh said he related to Frankenstein because he knows what it's like to be obsessed with the creative process.

"There was a parallel, I thought . . . the sort of tunnel vision that you require [to make a film] bleeds through, I think, into the character itself. I don't think my expression changed much from behind the camera to in front of the camera. It was a very intense act of concentration to try and keep it all together."

"His obsessive streak is rather similar to the person he was playing," confirmed Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Elizabeth, the great love of Frankenstein's life.

Branagh's Victor Frankenstein is a far cry from the hysterical figure in Shelley's book. He's not a mad scientist; he's a doctor who truly believes he can help mankind by finding a way to bring the dead back to life.

"We wanted to make him sort of a complete man, a Renaissance man of some kind," he said.

Branagh also decided to beef up Carter's character, who draws only passing mention in the book. He persuaded Carter to help him reinvent the character.

"He tried to invest her with as much independence of mind and passion and spirit, and try to redeem her from just being a decorative thing, and make sure that she made her own choices and decisions, and wasn't just the girlfriend or wasn't just Mrs. Frankenstein," she said.

To reinvigorate the Creature, Branagh enlisted De Niro.

"I wanted somebody who'd give an impression of massivity and bulk, but who'd be able to do those extremes - be frightening but also be sort of agile, and who would have the kind of gravity that the creature needs to have . . . and somebody who wouldn't be intimidated by Karloff and all the rest of them. Bob just wiped the slate with that."

Coppola was helpful without being intrusive, Branagh said.

"He helped, kind of, shape and edit, and was a really supportive presence - a godfather, in fact," he said.

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