Jolting New Life Into Frankenstein
The Morning Call, November 4
by Amy Longsdorf
When Kenneth Branagh was approached
to direct and star in "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,"
he was instantly intrigued. How, he wondered, could he jolt life
into the horror classic without slipping into parody? To get
his bearings, he screened "Young Frankenstein," Mel
Brooks' classic scary movie spoof.
"It's a great, great film,"
says Branagh. "I love the moment when Frau Blucher (Cloris
Leachman) confesses. Her back is against the door, and the music
swells, and she says, 'Yes, he vass my boyfriend.'
"But as we watched it, we
immediately knew we couldn't have any size gags. Or Frau Bluchers.
And it probably wasn't a good idea to have a character with movable
humps. We watched it because we had to know how we were going
to be different."
Being different has always been
important to Branagh. When he mounted his blood-and-guts version
of "Henry V," he dared to strip the battle sequences
of their customary majesty. When he brought "Much Ado About
Nothing" to the screen, he cast it with the likes of Keanu
Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard and Michael Keaton.
For his latest classical outing,
Branagh decided to break with the traditional account of Dr.
Frankenstein as a mad scientist. Instead, Branagh re-imagined
the doctor as a Faustian figure who believes his medical experiments
will ultimately benefit mankind.
"Frankenstein is a good
man, a rational man," says Branagh. "But he allows
his vanity and his obsession to get in the way of fully considering
the consequences of what he does."
In Branagh's "Frankenstein,"
which opens today in area movie theaters, Robert De Niro stars
as the nameless creature that Victor Frankenstein (Branagh) creates
and then denies. Helena Bonham Carter co-stars as Elizabeth,
Frankenstein's adopted sister and lover.
Considering that the story of
Dr. Frankenstein and his monster has been around for more than
170 years, mounting yet another screen version seems like risky
business, even for a brave chap like Branagh.
"The territory has been
covered many, many times," acknowledges the filmmaker, 33.
"The black and white melodramatic versions have been done.
The gory, gory versions, the suspense versions, the comic ver
sions: They have all been done. I wanted to make the romantic,
cinematic version. That's why I felt that sweeping camera movements
were required. I wanted to give people a cinematic experience
full of big ideas, vibrant colors, big landscapes.
"I wanted to see people
against large mountains and lakes, almost as if I were telling
a fairy tale, with Victor and Elizabeth as Hansel and Gretel.
I wanted that big, blue ballroom and a long, sweeping staircase.
I wanted Victor's home to be lovely but also to be a place that
had a dark side, just like in a fairy tale."
The legend of Dr. Frankenstein
has been the stuff of more than 25 features, as well as one television
series, "The Munsters." Along the way, there have been
some strange interpretations, notably Peter Boyle's comic turn
as the monster in "Young Frankenstein" and Tim Curry's
campy performance as the garter-belt-clad doctor in "The
Rocky Horror Picture Show." But the best-known incarnation
remains James Whale's "Frankenstein" and "The
Bride of Frankenstein," both of which starred Boris Karloff
as the creature and Colin Clive as the doctor.
"I can remember a long time
ago being amused at the sight of Colin Clive rushing toward the
screen yelling, 'It's alive! It's alive!,' " laughs Branagh.
"Those movies are vivid and brilliantly done. What's amazing
about both films is that they are so camp. There's been nothing
like them before or since."
Up close, Branagh looks the part
of a genuine romantic. A cascade of blond curls surrounds his
pale, bearded face. He speaks with a BBC accent but possesses
an Irishman's musical way with the language.
But don't be fooled by his dreamy
appearance. The Belfast-born Branagh is so ambitious he makes
Doogie Howser seem like a slacker. After joining the Royal Shakespeare
Company, he promptly became the youngest member ever to play
Henry V. As he was getting ready to portray the young prince,
Branagh consulted Prince Charles for advice. Charles not only
assisted Branagh but agreed to become a patron of the actor's
Renaissance Theatre Company.
Afterward, Branagh starred in
such movies and TV films as "High Season" (with Jacqueline
Bisset), "A Month in the Country" (with Natasha Richardson)
and "Fortunes of War" (with future wife Emma Thompson)
while simultaneously establishing himself as the preeminent Shakespearean
actor of his generation.
By the time Branagh made his
directorial debut with the Oscar-nominated "Henry V,"
he had written an autobiography ("Beginnings"), penned
two plays (one of which, "Public Enemy," is being revived
off-Broadway), and withstood countless Laurence Olivier comparisons.
His follow-up films -- "Dead Again," a paranormal potboiler;
"Peter's Friends," a "Big Chill"-ish comedy,
and "Much Ado About Nothing" -- failed to fulfill Branagh's
Oscar potential but surprised many in Hollywood by becoming substantial
"One of the reasons I did
this movie was because of Ken," admits Bonham Carter. "He's
a very persuasive individual. He was certain that we could make
a dynamic movie out of this story."
The notion of creating a "Frankenstein"
for the '90s first occurred to Francis Ford Coppola and James
V. Hart, the filmmakers responsible for bringing "Bram Stoker's
Dracula" to the screen in 1992.
Hart and Coppola hired Frank
Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption") and Steph Lady
to write a screenplay that adhered to Shelley's original vision.
In the process, the screenwriters departed from the standard
movie cliche of a speechless monster and a hunchback assistant.
"We looked at Mary Shelley's
life a great deal," notes Branagh, who contributed uncredited
scenes to the screenplay. "Her obsession with childbirth
was clear. She was haunted by -- and felt guilty about -- the
death of her mother, who died nine days after giving birth to
her. And she was absolutely haunted by the death of her own children
"She was a woman of a morbid
imagination. But she was also incredibly well read. She was aware
of classical literature and plays. They became the thematic models
for 'Frankenstein.' That's why I always knew I wanted to take
this in a Gothic, grand direction. It's almost Shakespearean
in a way. It's about big things and domestic things at the same
time. 'Hamlet' is about a dysfunctional family on one level,
but it has epic references too. This is a story about a man who
builds another man, but the consequences of it affect the entire
In an era of organ transplants,
test-tube babies and surrogate pregnancies, Branagh believes
Shelley's scenario is more relevant than ever. "The story
is much more urgent and emotional than it once was," says
Branagh. "Think about it: If you had a loved one who died
tomorrow and you could bring him or her back to life in a slightly
butchered form, would you do it? I think we're getting close
to that soon. We've been interfering with nature since man lit
a fire and put a roof over his head. The nature of man is to
Branagh's first choice to play
the creature was De Niro. "I wanted a great actor, an actor
brave enough to take on a role that has become a modern icon,"
notes Branagh. "We're so used to Boris Karloff and versions
of that make-up, comic or whatever. What I hate is the cliche
of the creature as a permanently simpering victim, with a violin
going all the time. And the flower business. You want to punch
it. I knew De Niro wouldn't do that. I knew he could be scary,
but that he'd also take risks."
To prepare for the role, De Niro
consulted plastic surgeons, stroke victims and speech therapists.
When he arrived on location in London, he helped design his elaborate,
stitched-from-plague-ridden-cadavers look. Occasionally, De Niro
was required to spend 12 hours in the make-up chair.
No amount of preparation, though,
readied De Niro or Branagh for the birth sequence, which required
the nude, newly-born monster to grapple on the floor with his
maker in several inches of slimy goo. "The difficulty was
that instead of amniotic fluid, we had a ton of KY-Jelly and
a lot of rubber eels," reports Branagh. "Robert had
been in make-up for 12 hours and, yes, doing it was partly funny.
We said, 'It's a new life. It needs to be banged on the back.'
So, Robert would revolve in circles for three or four minutes
until he was completely dizzy. And then, for me, it was like
picking up a dead weight. He was almost sick from the spinning,
the smell of KY-Jelly and the eels slapping around. By the end,
we were hysterical."
The actress Branagh sought for
the role of Elizabeth was Bonham Carter, best known for her work
in such Merchant/Ivory flicks as "Room With a View"
and "Howards End." Emma Thompson, Branagh's wife of
five years and frequent co-star, was never in the running.
"We had done four pictures
together and we had just played a loving couple opposite each
other in 'Much Ado About Nothing,' " explains Branagh. "I
wanted to have several elements in this that would skew it for
me creatively. I didn't want to rely on her. I wanted to tickle
expectations a little bit."
Oddly enough, both Branagh and
Thompson are starring in movies about procreation. Thompson's
"Junior," due Nov. 23, co-stars Arnold Schwarzenegger
as the world's first pregnant man. "It's in the air, isn't
it?" says Branagh, who shares a home with Thompson in the
north of London. "I like to think of 'Junior' as some sort
of perverse 'Frankenstein' story."
So, do the Branaghs have plans
for any juniors of their own?
"Hmmmm," he says. "You're
not going to draw me out on that question, but I will say that
I think we're going to have children. I just hope I'm not impregnated
like Arnold was."
Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium