Taming the Beast
Toronto Sun, November 6 1994
by Bob Thompson
So many movies. So little opportunity
to do something different. Kenneth Branagh worry? Not him. The
star of stage, screen and TV talk shows went full steam ahead
into the creation called Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
The beast burdened by his own
creation is a cliche that has been re-made dozens of times for
different reasons and in different languages.
This one stars Robert De Niro
as a man-created monster. This particular version also boasts
Branagh as the obsessed Dr. Frankenstein, a victim of his own
Interesting. Why? Well, Branagh's
first big-budget film about something so familiar could be extremely
dangerous to his creative health, and moviemaking future.
Indeed, the fact that he also
acts in it might double the jeopardy. What does Branagh think?
Let's find out.
But first, on a lighter note,
did the cast really watch Mel Brooks' spoof Young Frankenstein
before Branagh's film started shooting in London.
"Indeed, the territory has
been covered in so many ways," says Branagh. "We watched
it to make sure we didn't do certain things. We did do, 'It's
alive. It's alive.' But we wanted to do that to see if we could
do it without getting a laugh."
No other renditions were viewed,
but Branagh is aware of the dramatic baggage that comes with
a Frankenstein project.
"I knew the audience had
to be taken away, and into the cinematic experience, vibrant
costumes, big landscapes. I made sure the people are quite small
by comparison, like in a fairy story.
"The black-and-white melodramatic
versions have been done, the gory versions have been done, the
suspense ones have been done, and the comic versions have been
done, so my version was there to be seized."
Originally, Francis Coppola was
supposed to be involved creatively with De Niro. Branagh showed
up. What did De Niro say about that?
"De Niro wasn't going to
be put off by that. But you know he's always going to take a
risk. He can be scary but he's very unpredictable. The monster
ended up very much a product of what he wanted it to be."
So what about De Niro as Frankenstein's
"He was the first choice
as far as I was concerned. It wasn't a question of the physical
side. It was the quality of his truthfulness. Coppola helped
me secure his services and we spent a lot of time getting to
know each other. Bob checked me out pretty good."
But Branagh had directed before
- Henry V, Dead Again, Peter's Friends and Much Ado About Nothing.
Why the scrutiny?
"He watched everything I
had done and asked a lot of people about me. It was going to
be hard work for him. And he was going to work in England. And
I'm not experienced doing a film this big. I think in fairness
he had to feel comfortable. And he did."
Big film? What does that mean
"I don't know whether I'm
allowed to say that," he says. "But I guess I could
say in the $ 40 million bracket."
Fancy price. Is that why it has
a fancy title?
"I think it was something
as crude as another studio owned the title. And we were doing
something that was a combination of the novel and reflecting
Mary Shelley's life."
Yet it still contains the inevitable
"Partly because our world
has changed so much, we now receive the theme in a different
way, I think. The possibilities of creating life is so much closer
now. The moral dilemma is more vivid, and I suspect we are all
going to have to deal with it."
Branagh, in fact, interviewed
the cast and crew about it.
"If you could bring back
someone, would you do that?" That's what he asked them.
No, they said, it wasn't natural. Then he said, "What about
if it was somebody you knew? And they all said, 'That's different.'"
Branagh knew it wasn't, but he
also knew he was on to something after he read Shelley's novel
then read about the author.
"We looked at her own life;
her obsession with birth was real. She was haunted by the death
of her own mother, who after some nine days of giving birth to
Mary passed away in some agony."
Even as young as 20, Mary Shelley
was different. Branagh agrees: "She was a woman of morbid
Anyway, Branagh decided to do
a hybrid of Shelley's life and her novel. "The movie is
a combination of the texture of the book and her own life, and
I also decided to make it grand and gothic, and almost Shakespearean
Which makes sense.
"My particular sensibilities
are Celtic and romantic, and I was attached to the romantic idea
of Frankenstein as a Faustian figure. He feels that if he does
something for good, he can change the world for the better with
his creation. But he allows his vanity and his obsession to get
in the way of fully considering what the consequences will be."
Hey, it happens.
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