He's Created A Monster

The Gazette (Montreal), November 6 1994
by Jamie Portman

Sometimes, in making a film, you genuinely tempt fate.

Actor-director Kenneth Branagh has a perfect example - the ton of KY Jelly in which he and an unclothed Robert De Niro slithered about during the shooting of a crucial scene in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Branagh plays Victor Frankenstein, the obsessive doctor determined to create life, regardless of the consequences. De Niro is The Creature, the grotesque and deplorable result of Victor's researches. A stitched-together composite of assorted organs, bones and skin, it has just been brought to life electronically in a vat of amniotic fluid; now the vat has tipped over, along with the fluid and an assortment of wriggling electric eels, and The Creature is as helpless as a new-born babe as the doctor struggles in the slime to get him on his feet.

Branagh admits he found the scene frightening to do because of De Niro's obsession with getting it right.

"Instead of real amniotic fluid we had this ton of KY Jelly, plus a lot of rubber eels, which tended to slap around us at the wrong time. Bob had these simple but effective tricks to make it more real. Before we shot, he'd revolve in circles for three or four minutes so he was completely dizzy and didn't know what he was doing . . . he was almost sick. And for me, it was like picking up a dead weight."

To Branagh's alarm, De Niro insisted on several takes, despite the fact that four cameras were in operation for the scene.

"I said, 'We don't need to do this again,' but he kept doing this revolving thing and I kept fearing he would fall down and smash his head on something and we'd have to stop shooting."

A costly delay was the last thing Branagh wanted for a film already budgeted at $ 40 million. He admits he had further grounds for concern: "I'm not the type of experienced film-maker who had done a film of this size before."

But he says he's satisfied with the way the scene came out and he's positive about this latest - and in many ways most authentic - screen version of the most famous horror story of all time.

"I'm very pleased. I made the picture I wanted - which was very exciting and rewarding - and that's all you can do."

Critics haven't been as enthusiastic. The movie, which opened in Montreal on Friday, has received a drubbing at the hands of reviewers. Many of them are calling the big-budget film the first real misstep of golden boy Branagh's career.

In fact, bringing Mary Shelley's 1818 classic to the screen for 1994 audiences posed challenges far different from those Branagh faced in his successful adaptations of Shakespeare's Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. Here, he was not only confronting epic production demands, he and writers Steph Lady and Frank Darabont were also seeking a fresh vision for a story which has been the basis for a great many movies - most notably Universal's still- impressive 1930s trilogy starring Boris Karloff as The Monster.

It's a sign of the times that in Branagh's treatment, the word "monster" was forbidden during shooting. In conformity to the novel, De Niro's character is known as The Creature. And although Branagh did not show any of the Karloff films to cast members, he did screen Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein for them: Branagh loves the 1974 spoof but he also saw it as a useful way of cautioning himself and his cast against high- camp excesses.

But he still believes the Frankenstein saga demands a florid, even operatic style - and he makes no apology about pursuing this approach in the film.

"You know your territory with a story like this. If you've got my particular sensibilities, which are operatic and romantic, you're attached to the grand idea - of Victor Frankenstein being a kind of Faustian figure, a good man who believes that if he only does the right thing, he may change the world for good.

"He allows his vanity and his obsession and his great skill to get in the way of fully considering what the consequences might be."

But Branagh also sees a wild romantic element in Mary Shelley's original story - as exemplified in Victor's love for his adopted sister, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter).

"The idea of a love powerful enough to make most people happy should be enough for one man in a lifetime. But it isn't. He has to go off as it were and climb that mountain or get into this spacecraft - or, in this case, perform the ultimate act of hubris.

"So I felt that the audience should be transported and taken away and given a big cinematic experience that concerned big ideas."

It's with an almost adolescent Irish fervor that Branagh ticks off the components that excite him in this film:

"Vibrant colors. Big landscapes. Large physical objects like mountains and lakes against people who are quite small, as though they're peeping at a fairy story so that Victor and Elizabeth are sometimes like Hansel and Gretel. A big ballroom. A handsome, romantic, sweeping staircase. A place that would be lovely to live in, but there's a dark side to it as well."

Story relevant today

Branagh's purpose: to revitalize the Frankenstein story and give audiences "a cinematic experience" for the '90s.

"The black and white melodramatic versions have been done, and the gory, gory versions have been done. The suspense versions have been done and the comic versions have been done."

For his version, Branagh saw new opportunities in rethinking such material "in an exciting, exhilarating way."

But he also sees troubling aspects of the Shelley novel that are far more relevant today than they were 60 years ago.

"Our world has changed so much that we perceive it in a different way. The prospect of creating life is much closer now. The moral dilemma that Victor Frankenstein ultimately goes though is something I suspect we'll all have to think about, sooner rather than later."

De Niro was Branagh's first choice for The Creature.

"I needed a great actor. I needed someone who was going to be brave enough to take on a role which has become a modern icon. We're used to Boris Karloff and all the versions since then of THAT makeup. Bob was not going to be put off by any of this. He was always willing to take a risk."

Branagh, De Niro and makeup designer Daniel Parker spent nine months planning The Creature's look (Branagh conceived him as having been put together in a rush during the Plague, often from decaying flesh).

De Niro was cautious

They researched late-18th-century medical techniques and asked themselves all manner of questions. Example: "If we were replacing a jaw, how would we sew it back on?"

Unlike the Karloff monster, De Niro's Creature is intelligent, learns to read and speak and understands the dreadful implications of what Frankenstein has done.

Before he accepted the role, the Oscar-winning actor checked out his co-star and director thoroughly, screening all of Branagh's films and television performances. Branagh says De Niro's caution was understandable.

"To work well, he needs to feel comfortable, to establish trust - and it worked out in a way that was very good for me."

And what of Branagh's own character of Victor Frankenstein?

"I conceived a Victor who was rational and sane and basically a good man - at least he thought he was. I hope the audience will go some way with him rather than dismiss him as a madman at the beginning."

And what are the joys and hazards of this latest Frankenstein film?

Branagh turns on the charm: "The joys of making it are that it's unusual and I guess the risks are that it's not quite what people want."

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