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 selfish ego.

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 monster.

"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 in dollars?

"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 ethical question?

"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 imagination."

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 in tone."

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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