Branagh's Gothic Vision
USA Today, November 3, 1994
Bringing an epic creature feature to life
"We have to do these things
for art," Kenneth Branagh is saying about his slithering
in one ton of K-Y Jelly with a seemingly nude Robert De Niro
in the creation scene of his latest movie, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,
"We wanted to give a good
rock 'n' roll ride," adds Branagh, who directs and stars
as the obsessed Dr. Victor Frankenstein, determined to create
life in the laboratory at any price. p> De Niro is his hideous-looking
creature, a patchwork quilt of mixed-and-matched organs, limbs
and skin. He electronically bursts to life from a toppled-over
tank of amniotic fluid and writhing electric eels.
The helpless creation flops and
flounders in the slime, struggling to stand on his feet for the
first time. Doc takes a beating slipping in the goo as he tries
Shooting the scene was even more
intense than it looks. "Before we'd do the shot, Robert
would spin in circles for two or three minutes with his eyes
closed to get dizzy," Branagh says. "He wanted to be
totally convincing. He was out of it. I thought, `Don't fall
over and crack your head open!' He was like dead weight and I'd
whisper, `Just help me, just help,' " he recalls. "I
thought, `I'm going to rupture some delicate part of my anatomy.'
Making matters worse, De Niro,
who looks naked, was actually encased in a prosthetic covering
that took 12 hours to apply in order to give his misshapen body
a blended, realistic look.
Under the casing he wore only
white briefs. The problem is "the prosthetics were splitting
in the place where a normal bottom splits," Branagh says.
"You began to see his white briefs. So I kept putting my
hand on his bottom (to cover them). I don't know if he took that
the wrong way."
To be sure, this latest, $40
million Frankenstein offers a different approach to one of the
screen's oldest and most-told stories.
Branagh says it's actually the
most faithful to Shelley's original piece, written in 1818.
Sitting by a pond filled with
swans at the rustically posh Bel-Air Hotel, Branagh, 33, says
he's a fan of Boris Karloff's original 1931 Frankenstein movie.
He first watched it on TV from behind the couch in his family's
Belfast, Ireland, home when he was 8.
However, even that classic, he
says, "is very different from what's in the book. And after
60-odd years they've (subsequent Frankenstein films) been treated
to such reinterpretation. . . . There are so many schlock versions
of it . . . I felt like there was really room to do something
Landing De Niro for his creature,
which is played sympathetically in this version, was a major
coup that took four face-to-face meetings.
They concurred on the vision
from the start. "We knew we wanted to abandon the bolts
in the neck and the flat head," Branagh says. In fact, the
word "monster" wasn't permitted on the set during shooting.
But De Niro, admits Branagh,
"was a little nervous, I think, that I was going to over-intellectualize
things." Branagh says his background in Shakespeare, onstage
in London and in films such as Henry V, for which he received
acting and director Oscar nominations, has saddled him with a
persona that's more serious and high-brow than he really is.
In person, Branagh, with longish
curly hair and dressed in jeans, is upbeat but reserved. He suspects
this movie may broaden his image. "I'll be interested to
see how others see me as a result of this. I was brought up on
the movies, not in a library being read poetry to. I just happen
to be interested in Shakespeare."
Filling out Frankenstein's cast
is John Cleese, as the obsessed doctor's enigmatic and troubled
professor, Helena Bonham Carter as his love, Elizabeth, and Tom
Hulce as his best friend.
Branagh says he and Hulce had
an instant rapport. It could be because Branagh was a final contender
for, and had hoped to make his screen debut in, the lead in 1984's
Amadeus, a role Hulce won, and for which he received an Oscar
nomination. "We had a laugh about that," he says.
Instead, Branagh has made his
mark in film by simultaneously directing and acting. To ensure
that his performances don't suffer while pulling double duty,
he hires Hugh Cruttwell, the retired principal of his alma mater,
the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, to critique his acting during
Branagh also relies on feedback
from his cast. "If I've been in it, I don't want to be the
For the first time since he began
directing movies, Branagh's wife, Academy Award-winning actress
Emma Thompson, wasn't among those voices. There wasn't really
an appropriate part for her, says the director. Instead, later
this month she'll show her comedic side in Junior, as the clumsy
scientist girlfriend of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who stars as a
pregnant man. It's a sort of bizarre comic version of the same
tale, notes Branagh, who visited the set. "They're both
about an unnatural birth."
As for becoming parents in real
life, he says, "It would be very nice to. I guess we've
probably got to get a move on it, but both of us feel right now
we can't see beyond getting these two movies out."
Their filming schedules, he says,
fortunately didn't conflict, forcing a long separation. "When
I was shooting, Em was still at home and we led a pretty normal
life. We're never apart for more than two or three weeks. We
have the luxury that comes with a degree of success that allows
us to choose in a way that other people don't have. I mean, I'm
not going to go do a movie in Africa for nine months. That's
when it gets difficult."
However, after four pictures
together - Henry V, Dead Again, Peter's Friends and Much Ado
About Nothing - Branagh says it was "necessary artistically"
for him to tackle a project without his better half. "I
needed to spread my own wings a little bit - and also so we don't
get too cozy together in a working situation. But we very much
look forward to doing another one."
Should Frankenstein hit, he'd
consider a sequel. But he'll let somebody else take the K-Y plunge
next time. "You could never get it out of your hair. It
was a pretty rabid scalp after that."
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