It's Alive Again!

San Francisco Chronicle, October 30 1994
by Bronwen Hruska

At 34, he has just finished his fifth film, ''Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,'' which opens Friday in the Bay Area. He directed the classic tale, and played the starring role of Victor Frankenstein opposite Robert De Niro, who plays the Monster. With this highly stylized epic, Branagh joins the ranks of Neil Jordan (''Interview With the Vampire''), Mike Nichols (''Wolf'') and Francis Ford Coppola (''Bram Stoker's Dracula'') -- ''serious directors'' making over-the-top horror flicks with big budgets and stars to match.

And while ''Henry V'' and ''Much Ado About Nothing'' were surprise box-office hits, ''Frankenstein'' marks a new direction for Branagh: the Hollywood A-list.

Not that the Belfast-born actor, who was raised outside of London, has always been a horror fan. ''I was more of a gangster man,'' he notes. In fact, he still closes his eyes at the goriest moments in Brian De Palma's ''Carrie.''

''I've never seen the part where the bloody hand comes up. I'm always like this,'' says Branagh, his hands flying up to cover his eyes. ''I can't watch those 'Friday the 13th' movies either,'' he admits. Which may seem odd, given the ultra-bloody film he's made.

But after reading the original ''Frankenstein,'' the 1818 novel written by Mary Shelley when she was 19 years old, he saw potential. And a challenge.

As with his most recent movie, ''Much Ado About Nothing,'' in which he starred with his wife, Emma Thompson, Branagh's goal with ''Frankenstein'' was to uncover modern themes in a period piece. ''When it first came up, I thought, 'Why do they want to make another version of this?' It was reading the book that did it,'' he says. ''I thought, 'Christ, this makes much more sense now.' The basic premise -- people almost can create life now. There are test-tube babies -- we can chose the sex of our children. I mean, we're only a short step away. We must be. So suddenly you're more personally involved in the moral dilemma and it's not quite as easily laughed at.''

What he didn't realize was how long it would take to complete the $ 40 million Gothic horror extravaganza, complete with a frenzied creation scene and an Arctic voyage. ''I must have been kidding myself,'' says Branagh, who started the movie in October 1992 and expected it to be finished by Christmas 1993. ''Oh yeah, dream on,'' he says with a self-mocking roll of his bright blue eyes.

In fact, getting the script in shape took five weeks -- as long as it took to make 1992's ''Peter's Friends'' start to finish. His two Shakespearean films took seven weeks each.

But the five-month ''Frankenstein'' shoot in England was ''civilized,'' he says. Branagh filmed only five days a week, though he went into the studio every weekend to work. But leaving at night was a priority. ''In the evening, I really wanted to go home,'' he says, remembering how tired he would get after a day's work. ''And I wanted a drink.''

Branagh worked hard at keeping the original feel of Shelley's book, and he wanted someone who could play the creature believably and sympathetically. Perhaps having Coppola executive producing helped Branagh snag De Niro. ''The idea of playing someone who sort of grows up before your eyes, is born innocent, rejected by mankind and becomes an avenging monster, appealed to Robert,'' says Branagh, who spent two months convincing the actor to do it. ''He's played brilliantly scary and dangerous characters in the past. But here he plays someone who is also simple and sweet.''

The monster bears no neck bolts this time out. Instead, he wears a full-body latex suit supposedly stitched from human flesh. De Niro endured the makeup chair for 12 hours at a time to achieve the look of being pieced together from plague-ridden corpses circa 1794. In full makeup, he is gruesomely altered, but clearly himself. The De Niro sneer is somehow incorporated into the hideous look.

Branagh wasn't concerned about giving the monster a British accent like the rest of the players. De Niro instead worked with a stroke victim, who had to relearn speech in midlife. ''He was aware he didn't want to sound urban or New York,'' Branagh recalls. ''I'm sure coming in there's a chuckle to be had about the idea of, 'You f-- created me? You created me?' he says in studied De Niro street-speak. ''Robert had a twinkle in his eye about that as well.''

Reports that Branagh had been an overly controlling director on previous movies apparently didn't carry over to the ''Frankenstein'' set. Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Elizabeth, Frankenstein's sister turned wife, says the movie was one of the most collaborative productions she's worked on. All of the actors wrote bits of their own dialogue and had a say in how their parts were played.

Bonham Carter, for example, helped Branagh develop Elizabeth, an essentially two-dimensional character in the book, into a more realistic one. She gave Elizabeth some spine. At one point, the character breaks tradition and asks Frankenstein to marry her. ''That was controversial,'' Bonham Carter says of the scene she and Branagh wrote together. ''Can you believe it? Tri-Star said, 'You can't have a woman asking him to marry her.''' The scene remains in the finished version.

And though many actor-directors, including Robert Redford, won't act in movies they direct, Branagh seems to handle it well. Says Bonham Carter: ''He very instantly jumped from director to character. He has amazing energy and ability to communicate. He's very articulate, very clear, and he makes sure everyone is treated fairly.''

The size of the project gave Branagh some room to relax. ''Sometimes you have to make decisions up front,'' he says, referring to past directing jobs. ''You don't have the chance to let things occur as naturally as possible. I always tried to let people have time to speak up, but that was especially important this time. I thought, 'This is a monster and I'm not going to walk away from any scene if I don't feel I got what I need.'''

As for his own acting, he has someone else watch out for him. ''He's brutally honest with me,'' says Branagh of the ''guard'' who evaluates his performances on every movie in which he's acted and directed.

In fact, Branagh says, acting was like therapy for him through the demanding shoot. ''It's good for your soul in the midst of panic and anxiety, to find a way of letting go, of being someone else,'' he says. ''Maybe the first take or two I'd be slightly elsewhere, but I find acting fun, and I find directing very, very, very hard work. So if I got two years of just the hard work, as it were, I don't think I could have coped with it.''

Somehow, the struggles of creating the movie paralleled Frankenstein's own obsessive task. ''There were so many things to think about, making this movie. And in this case it was a uniquely helpful mode to be in for Victor Frankenstein, who was trying to grasp many things all at once.''

It did get tricky at times. In the birthing scene, for example, Frankenstein struggles to get hold of his Monster after it has overturned a huge vat of amniotic fluid in which it was brought to life. Branagh and De Niro slipped around the lab in a ton of warm K-Y Jelly in a series of unsuccessful attempts to stand up.

''The embarrassing thing was in about take two. With all that slipping around and all, the Monster's makeup, although designed to be tremendously robust, started splitting up Robert's bottom,'' he says, breaking into a sly grin. ''I had to keep turning him around so the split wasn't in the shot. And, of course, he was completely in character, dizzy, spinning around. I said, 'Listen, this is great but you've got a great big rip down your a-- , and quite frankly we're not seeing what we set out to see and I'm going to keep my hand over it if we're in trouble. Please, please take this in the spirit in which it's meant.'''

With the movie's imminent release, ''Frankenstein'' is still in Branagh's blood. Aside from the occasional nightmares he has featuring De Niro's face, there have been some other effects of making this movie. ''I think it does get into the system,'' he says. ''No matter how un-Methody you are. To be perfectly honest, I'm a bit melancholy. During 'Much Ado,' it was impossible not to be infected by a certain joy. But here I've been thinking about the moral dilemmas of eternal life. You can be weighed down by that.''

He pauses a minute, to think about the past two years of work. ''I'll be glad to put the Monster to bed.''

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