He's Created A Monster
The Gazette (Montreal), November
by Jamie Portman
Sometimes, in making a film, you genuinely tempt fate.
Actor-director Kenneth Branagh
has a perfect example - the ton of KY Jelly in which he and an
unclothed Robert De Niro slithered about during the shooting
of a crucial scene in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
Branagh plays Victor Frankenstein,
the obsessive doctor determined to create life, regardless of
the consequences. De Niro is The Creature, the grotesque and
deplorable result of Victor's researches. A stitched-together
composite of assorted organs, bones and skin, it has just been
brought to life electronically in a vat of amniotic fluid; now
the vat has tipped over, along with the fluid and an assortment
of wriggling electric eels, and The Creature is as helpless as
a new-born babe as the doctor struggles in the slime to get him
on his feet.
Branagh admits he found the scene
frightening to do because of De Niro's obsession with getting
"Instead of real amniotic
fluid we had this ton of KY Jelly, plus a lot of rubber eels,
which tended to slap around us at the wrong time. Bob had these
simple but effective tricks to make it more real. Before we shot,
he'd revolve in circles for three or four minutes so he was completely
dizzy and didn't know what he was doing . . . he was almost sick.
And for me, it was like picking up a dead weight."
To Branagh's alarm, De Niro insisted
on several takes, despite the fact that four cameras were in
operation for the scene.
"I said, 'We don't need
to do this again,' but he kept doing this revolving thing and
I kept fearing he would fall down and smash his head on something
and we'd have to stop shooting."
A costly delay was the last thing
Branagh wanted for a film already budgeted at $ 40 million. He
admits he had further grounds for concern: "I'm not the
type of experienced film-maker who had done a film of this size
But he says he's satisfied with
the way the scene came out and he's positive about this latest
- and in many ways most authentic - screen version of the most
famous horror story of all time.
"I'm very pleased. I made
the picture I wanted - which was very exciting and rewarding
- and that's all you can do."
Critics haven't been as enthusiastic.
The movie, which opened in Montreal on Friday, has received a
drubbing at the hands of reviewers. Many of them are calling
the big-budget film the first real misstep of golden boy Branagh's
In fact, bringing Mary Shelley's
1818 classic to the screen for 1994 audiences posed challenges
far different from those Branagh faced in his successful adaptations
of Shakespeare's Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. Here, he
was not only confronting epic production demands, he and writers
Steph Lady and Frank Darabont were also seeking a fresh vision
for a story which has been the basis for a great many movies
- most notably Universal's still- impressive 1930s trilogy starring
Boris Karloff as The Monster.
It's a sign of the times that
in Branagh's treatment, the word "monster" was forbidden
during shooting. In conformity to the novel, De Niro's character
is known as The Creature. And although Branagh did not show any
of the Karloff films to cast members, he did screen Mel Brooks'
Young Frankenstein for them: Branagh loves the 1974 spoof but
he also saw it as a useful way of cautioning himself and his
cast against high- camp excesses.
But he still believes the Frankenstein
saga demands a florid, even operatic style - and he makes no
apology about pursuing this approach in the film.
"You know your territory
with a story like this. If you've got my particular sensibilities,
which are operatic and romantic, you're attached to the grand
idea - of Victor Frankenstein being a kind of Faustian figure,
a good man who believes that if he only does the right thing,
he may change the world for good.
"He allows his vanity and
his obsession and his great skill to get in the way of fully
considering what the consequences might be."
But Branagh also sees a wild
romantic element in Mary Shelley's original story - as exemplified
in Victor's love for his adopted sister, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham
"The idea of a love powerful
enough to make most people happy should be enough for one man
in a lifetime. But it isn't. He has to go off as it were and
climb that mountain or get into this spacecraft - or, in this
case, perform the ultimate act of hubris.
"So I felt that the audience
should be transported and taken away and given a big cinematic
experience that concerned big ideas."
It's with an almost adolescent
Irish fervor that Branagh ticks off the components that excite
him in this film:
"Vibrant colors. Big landscapes.
Large physical objects like mountains and lakes against people
who are quite small, as though they're peeping at a fairy story
so that Victor and Elizabeth are sometimes like Hansel and Gretel.
A big ballroom. A handsome, romantic, sweeping staircase. A place
that would be lovely to live in, but there's a dark side to it
Story relevant today
Branagh's purpose: to revitalize
the Frankenstein story and give audiences "a cinematic experience"
for the '90s.
"The black and white melodramatic
versions have been done, and the gory, gory versions have been
done. The suspense versions have been done and the comic versions
have been done."
For his version, Branagh saw
new opportunities in rethinking such material "in an exciting,
But he also sees troubling aspects
of the Shelley novel that are far more relevant today than they
were 60 years ago.
"Our world has changed so
much that we perceive it in a different way. The prospect of
creating life is much closer now. The moral dilemma that Victor
Frankenstein ultimately goes though is something I suspect we'll
all have to think about, sooner rather than later."
De Niro was Branagh's first choice
for The Creature.
"I needed a great actor.
I needed someone who was going to be brave enough to take on
a role which has become a modern icon. We're used to Boris Karloff
and all the versions since then of THAT makeup. Bob was not going
to be put off by any of this. He was always willing to take a
Branagh, De Niro and makeup designer
Daniel Parker spent nine months planning The Creature's look
(Branagh conceived him as having been put together in a rush
during the Plague, often from decaying flesh).
De Niro was cautious
They researched late-18th-century
medical techniques and asked themselves all manner of questions.
Example: "If we were replacing a jaw, how would we sew it
Unlike the Karloff monster, De
Niro's Creature is intelligent, learns to read and speak and
understands the dreadful implications of what Frankenstein has
Before he accepted the role,
the Oscar-winning actor checked out his co-star and director
thoroughly, screening all of Branagh's films and television performances.
Branagh says De Niro's caution was understandable.
"To work well, he needs
to feel comfortable, to establish trust - and it worked out in
a way that was very good for me."
And what of Branagh's own character
of Victor Frankenstein?
"I conceived a Victor who
was rational and sane and basically a good man - at least he
thought he was. I hope the audience will go some way with him
rather than dismiss him as a madman at the beginning."
And what are the joys and hazards
of this latest Frankenstein film?
Branagh turns on the charm: "The
joys of making it are that it's unusual and I guess the risks
are that it's not quite what people want."
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