Bringing Life to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Fangoria, November 1994
by Mark Salisbury
**thanks to Virginia Leong

"It's like a Greek tragedy," says Kenneth Branagh, actor, director and co-producer of this fall's eagerly awaited, big-budget Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. "Everybody's gone on major cathartic journeys by the end. There are figures with tragic flaws, there is a tragic inevitability and yet it is so amazingly immediate and popular. Of all the Gothic stories I'm familiar with, it's the one that sort of has everything."

Best known as the director/star of the big-screen Shakespearean movies Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing (he also helmed the Hitchcockian thriller Dead Again, in which he co-starred with his wife, Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson), Branagh believes that Shelley's enduring classic has a great thematic richness. It's a quality he feels filmmakers have hitherto failed to incorporate into previous versions of the tale. But with this adaptation, Branagh says he hopes to finally bring the full power and resonance of Shelley's epic to the screen.

The 33-year-old Belfast-born filmmaker was approached by Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope company in autumn 1992, three months prior to the release of Bram Stoker's Dracula, while he was still in postproduction on Much Ado. He was asked if he was interested in directing a film version of Shelley's novel as well as playing the title role of Victor Frankenstein, but while he liked the idea, he was not keen on the script -- written by Steph Lady -- that Zoetrope had been developing.

"It was a good piece of work, but it was not sufficiently different from other Frankenstein movies to make me want to do it," he recalls. "I read the original novel, which was very different from anything I'd ever seen, and so I went back to TriStar and said, 'If we can perhaps start again, get back to square one and really attempt to do the Mary Shelley book, then I'd be very interested.' So that was what we did."

Frank Darabont, scripter of several episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, co-writer of Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and The Blob as well as writer/director of the Stephen King adaptation The Shawshank Redemption, was brought in to revamp the screenplay. The new draft incorporated some of Lady's work, but mainly went back to the novel. "There are two major departures," Branagh admits, "and I hope they are Shelley-ian in spirit."

Consequently, the film, much like the David Wickes-directed TNT movie which aired last year, follows the novel extremely closely, beginning with a storm at sea and Victor Frankenstein relating his tale to polar adventurer Captain Walton (Aidan Quinn). The film then flashes back to disclose the events leading up to Victor's presence in the Arctic. "We tried to do what appealed strongly to me about the story," explains Branagh. "I find it very emotional, very moving, very strong morally and very complex in what it provokes in the reader. There seemed to be no easy options; it created a fascinating, immediate moral debate which seems to sit very resonantly nowadays. Obviously it's a terrific story -- it's a racy Gothic tale, you want to know what happens next -- but it raises interesting issues about family and the basic essential questions about whether it's a good idea to create life, or to prevent death -- to take the place of nature, of God, or of a creator."

Which is all fine and well, but what Fango readers really want to know is whether Branagh sees Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as a horror film. "I suppose I don't, really," he says, almost apologetically, "I mean, I like horror films, but I think of this as a...I don't even know what it is, actually; it seems like a Gothic fairy tale, like a Grimm fairy tale, with very horrible and horrific images. But they're not just involved with old-fashioned suspense scares; they involve the dread produced by the limits to which human beings will go. The limits that Victor Frankenstein will go to pursue his dream are truly horrifying, and there's one sequence in the film which is not in the original book, but which I think is legitimate and Shelley-like in spirit.

"All I can say about it is that at this stage of the game, when I'm watching it, it is truly dreadful," he says of this new scene. "And I think, 'Christ, this is going to be laughable, isn't it? We've gone too far.' But it holds. What Shelley came up with is something so compulsive, and seems to tap into something so dark and primal about our natures, that you are held in spite of yourself; you are held in spite of the fact that you might want to laugh. Maybe it's because of the here and now; it all seems too frighteningly true. A lot of what Victor does is motivated by a perverted application of his own ferocious capacity for love.

"The other thing that runs through the picture is this tremendous romance," he adds. "There's a great love story, not only between Victor and Elizabeth [Helena Bonham Carter] but between Victor and the Creature, between a father and a son. It's as simple as that on one level: a child abandoned by a father who gets to the point of actually bringing life to this thing and then says, 'What have I done?'"

Since Branagh had directed himself in four previous features (including the comedy Peter's Friends) as well as countless times on stage, he felt no qualms about both helming and starring in Frankenstein. "It felt the appropriate thing to do," he says, "and in a strange way there are some parallels between the monster Victor is building and the monster that in some way you take charge of when you make a film of this size. I think I'm quite good casting for it in a way, and it seemed to work out. The obsessive nature of the character and the obsessive drive you need to have in order to be at the reins of something as big as this sort of coincided in a way that was helpful for the story. I suppose that for a film of this size, they wanted an unusual look at it, and I believe they thought that in some way I was an original choice. I'm sure they were nervous about what in Hollywood terms might be deemed my sort of arty credentials, but they probably thought they could offset whatever dangers that might create at the box office by attracting a major star to play the Creature. People get excited by good combinations of actors, so I suppose they were prepared to go along with me being in it and hope that the star part might come from elsewhere."

True to form, Branagh -- who cast major players Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton and Keanu Reeves in Much Ado -- surrounded himself with a topnotch cast made up of both British and U.S. actors, including Carter as Elizabeth, Victor's adopted sister and love interest; Monty Python's John Cleese as professor Waldman, Victor's mentor; and Tom (Amadeus) Hulce as Victor's student friend Henry. The most inspired piece of casting, however, was that of Robert De Niro as the Creature. Branagh says his decision to cast the man many consider to be the greatest actor of his generation was based on his desire to break the mold with regard to how the Creature is perceived.

"I wanted a Creature who was completely different from previous films and much nearer to what Shelley envisaged; I wasn't after a 6-foot-6 actor with a square head," offers Branagh, who says the Oscar-winning De Niro was always at the top of both his and Coppola's wish list. Together with a special makeup artist Daniel Parker, Branagh spent nine months coming up with a concept for the Creature that would ultimately require De Niro to be completely covered with prosthetics, necessitating the actor to spend up to 10 hours a day in the makeup chair. "He is a butchered mismatch of different organs and body parts," says Branagh of the idea behind his Creature's look. "He has two different eyes, he has a different brain and a body that comes from several different people -- it's a look that tries to get away from the classic Karloffian and Munster image."

Given De Niro's remarkable acting talents and his famed Method approach, Branagh says that actor worked long and hard to mold the Creature's character to his look, making sure that every detail in the character had some relevance. "What Robert and myself have tried not to go for is something that is coyingly sympathetic or sentimental," Branagh says. "But he is an innocent; half of his journey through the film, if you like, is that of a child receiving a very rough and tough education in the world, and we see his curiousity and naivete and innocence. One of the triumphs of Robert's performance is that there's nothing simpering or self-pitying about it: he just is what he is, and he discovers by experience, often very painful experience, that in order to live in the world he is going to have to become something else. He cannot rely on the family in the woods that he hoped would take him in, because when they see what he looks like, they turn on him as well. Then he finds out how he has been created, and so he goes back to his maker and says, as he does in the book, 'You make me a mate, you make me a female friend, and then we'll go live at the North Pole. No one'll ever see us again, I promise, but you have to do this.'"

And does this particular Victor give in to the request? "Top secret," chuckles Branagh cagily. "Top secret. All I can say is that there is a startling moment at the end of the movie that answers the question about the mate."

Branagh says that although he had already seen almost every filmed version of Shelley's story, he purposefully reacquainted himself with a number of them before he began shooting in the interest of research. "I felt very familiar with the Hammer and James Whale versions, but I did rewatch them because I was interested in seeing them again," he explains. "I also rewatched Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, which I think is an absolute classic; it gets better every time you see it."

With all these forebears in mind, Branagh set out to offer a different screen interpretation of Shelley's doctor. "It is no longer a melodramatic story about a madman," he says. "I think that Victor Frankenstein is dangerously sane. This is an intelligent man who believes that he is doing the right thing. he is a good man, sort of a visionary, but one who you know shakes hands with the devil on one level. He takes part in a Faustian bargain in return for the knowledge about how to create life. But there are consequences that accrue, like not knowing how the thing he has created will behave, whether it will be dangerous or violent, whether it will have descendants that will proliferate. All of those unknown factors -- whether it will be diseased, whether it will eat people or whatever -- that whole area of the unknown that he takes on board is one that he has a rational attitude toward.

"Victor is a man who just resists losing fine, interesting, creative, generous, brilliantly intelligent people; he regrets their passing," Branagh says. "He disagrees with the way God does it, as many people do. He says at one point, 'God gave us death, God gave us plagues, God gave us war, God gave us a very imperfect world. But he also gave us the ability to improve it, and that's our responsibility. What I'm doing is an evolutionary stage.' So all of it becomes much more pungent."

Indeed, the relevance of the book today is not lost on Branagh. "Mary Shelley was writing at the beginning of one revolution, the industrial revolution, and here we are presenting this film at the beginning of another, a technological revolution, where we are one step away from virtual reality," he says. "It's not a story about a monster from a faraway Gothic land, some sort of Transylvanian beast; it's about the here and now. She seemed to have tapped into a very primal myth about creation and about male frustration, about not actually being able to have children on their own, and I think a lot of Victor Frankenstein's confused motivation has to do with that, and with the celebration of family and the confusion of sexuality."

Given the novel's position alongside Dracula as one of the two great works of horror literature, and with Coppola again on board -- if only in a producing capacity -- it's easy to see the film as a fitting companion piece to Coppola's popular take on Stoker's tale. "What Francis was going for there was so stylized, and so romantic and exotic and erotic, it felt strange in a way how all of those tales could be classed together under the Gothic label," Branagh says. "My recurrent feeling about Frankenstein had to do with its contemporary qualities, and what I felt strongly about Dracula was the incredible evocation of another world. One of the qualities of Frankenstein that distinguishes it from Dracula is its immediacy as a story. How the two films sit alongside each other I don't know. All I know is that I am very proud to have done a picture that Coppola's name is on."

With Frankenstein behind him, however, he doesn't foresee himself returning to the genre anytime soon. "This story is so rich that for me it is Shakespearean in scope," he says. "I suspect that at least in the short term, this particular project has gotten an enormous amount out of my system."

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