Jolting New Life Into Frankenstein

The Morning Call, November 4 1994
by Amy Longsdorf

When Kenneth Branagh was approached to direct and star in "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," he was instantly intrigued. How, he wondered, could he jolt life into the horror classic without slipping into parody? To get his bearings, he screened "Young Frankenstein," Mel Brooks' classic scary movie spoof.

"It's a great, great film," says Branagh. "I love the moment when Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman) confesses. Her back is against the door, and the music swells, and she says, 'Yes, he vass my boyfriend.'

"But as we watched it, we immediately knew we couldn't have any size gags. Or Frau Bluchers. And it probably wasn't a good idea to have a character with movable humps. We watched it because we had to know how we were going to be different."

Being different has always been important to Branagh. When he mounted his blood-and-guts version of "Henry V," he dared to strip the battle sequences of their customary majesty. When he brought "Much Ado About Nothing" to the screen, he cast it with the likes of Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard and Michael Keaton.

For his latest classical outing, Branagh decided to break with the traditional account of Dr. Frankenstein as a mad scientist. Instead, Branagh re-imagined the doctor as a Faustian figure who believes his medical experiments will ultimately benefit mankind.

"Frankenstein is a good man, a rational man," says Branagh. "But he allows his vanity and his obsession to get in the way of fully considering the consequences of what he does."

In Branagh's "Frankenstein," which opens today in area movie theaters, Robert De Niro stars as the nameless creature that Victor Frankenstein (Branagh) creates and then denies. Helena Bonham Carter co-stars as Elizabeth, Frankenstein's adopted sister and lover.

Considering that the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster has been around for more than 170 years, mounting yet another screen version seems like risky business, even for a brave chap like Branagh.

"The territory has been covered many, many times," acknowledges the filmmaker, 33. "The black and white melodramatic versions have been done. The gory, gory versions, the suspense versions, the comic ver sions: They have all been done. I wanted to make the romantic, cinematic version. That's why I felt that sweeping camera movements were required. I wanted to give people a cinematic experience full of big ideas, vibrant colors, big landscapes.

"I wanted to see people against large mountains and lakes, almost as if I were telling a fairy tale, with Victor and Elizabeth as Hansel and Gretel. I wanted that big, blue ballroom and a long, sweeping staircase. I wanted Victor's home to be lovely but also to be a place that had a dark side, just like in a fairy tale."

The legend of Dr. Frankenstein has been the stuff of more than 25 features, as well as one television series, "The Munsters." Along the way, there have been some strange interpretations, notably Peter Boyle's comic turn as the monster in "Young Frankenstein" and Tim Curry's campy performance as the garter-belt-clad doctor in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." But the best-known incarnation remains James Whale's "Frankenstein" and "The Bride of Frankenstein," both of which starred Boris Karloff as the creature and Colin Clive as the doctor.

"I can remember a long time ago being amused at the sight of Colin Clive rushing toward the screen yelling, 'It's alive! It's alive!,' " laughs Branagh. "Those movies are vivid and brilliantly done. What's amazing about both films is that they are so camp. There's been nothing like them before or since."

Up close, Branagh looks the part of a genuine romantic. A cascade of blond curls surrounds his pale, bearded face. He speaks with a BBC accent but possesses an Irishman's musical way with the language.

But don't be fooled by his dreamy appearance. The Belfast-born Branagh is so ambitious he makes Doogie Howser seem like a slacker. After joining the Royal Shakespeare Company, he promptly became the youngest member ever to play Henry V. As he was getting ready to portray the young prince, Branagh consulted Prince Charles for advice. Charles not only assisted Branagh but agreed to become a patron of the actor's Renaissance Theatre Company.

Afterward, Branagh starred in such movies and TV films as "High Season" (with Jacqueline Bisset), "A Month in the Country" (with Natasha Richardson) and "Fortunes of War" (with future wife Emma Thompson) while simultaneously establishing himself as the preeminent Shakespearean actor of his generation.

By the time Branagh made his directorial debut with the Oscar-nominated "Henry V," he had written an autobiography ("Beginnings"), penned two plays (one of which, "Public Enemy," is being revived off-Broadway), and withstood countless Laurence Olivier comparisons. His follow-up films -- "Dead Again," a paranormal potboiler; "Peter's Friends," a "Big Chill"-ish comedy, and "Much Ado About Nothing" -- failed to fulfill Branagh's Oscar potential but surprised many in Hollywood by becoming substantial hits.

"One of the reasons I did this movie was because of Ken," admits Bonham Carter. "He's a very persuasive individual. He was certain that we could make a dynamic movie out of this story."

The notion of creating a "Frankenstein" for the '90s first occurred to Francis Ford Coppola and James V. Hart, the filmmakers responsible for bringing "Bram Stoker's Dracula" to the screen in 1992.

Hart and Coppola hired Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption") and Steph Lady to write a screenplay that adhered to Shelley's original vision. In the process, the screenwriters departed from the standard movie cliche of a speechless monster and a hunchback assistant.

"We looked at Mary Shelley's life a great deal," notes Branagh, who contributed uncredited scenes to the screenplay. "Her obsession with childbirth was clear. She was haunted by -- and felt guilty about -- the death of her mother, who died nine days after giving birth to her. And she was absolutely haunted by the death of her own children in childbirth.

"She was a woman of a morbid imagination. But she was also incredibly well read. She was aware of classical literature and plays. They became the thematic models for 'Frankenstein.' That's why I always knew I wanted to take this in a Gothic, grand direction. It's almost Shakespearean in a way. It's about big things and domestic things at the same time. 'Hamlet' is about a dysfunctional family on one level, but it has epic references too. This is a story about a man who builds another man, but the consequences of it affect the entire planet."

In an era of organ transplants, test-tube babies and surrogate pregnancies, Branagh believes Shelley's scenario is more relevant than ever. "The story is much more urgent and emotional than it once was," says Branagh. "Think about it: If you had a loved one who died tomorrow and you could bring him or her back to life in a slightly butchered form, would you do it? I think we're getting close to that soon. We've been interfering with nature since man lit a fire and put a roof over his head. The nature of man is to evolve."

Branagh's first choice to play the creature was De Niro. "I wanted a great actor, an actor brave enough to take on a role that has become a modern icon," notes Branagh. "We're so used to Boris Karloff and versions of that make-up, comic or whatever. What I hate is the cliche of the creature as a permanently simpering victim, with a violin going all the time. And the flower business. You want to punch it. I knew De Niro wouldn't do that. I knew he could be scary, but that he'd also take risks."

To prepare for the role, De Niro consulted plastic surgeons, stroke victims and speech therapists. When he arrived on location in London, he helped design his elaborate, stitched-from-plague-ridden-cadavers look. Occasionally, De Niro was required to spend 12 hours in the make-up chair.

No amount of preparation, though, readied De Niro or Branagh for the birth sequence, which required the nude, newly-born monster to grapple on the floor with his maker in several inches of slimy goo. "The difficulty was that instead of amniotic fluid, we had a ton of KY-Jelly and a lot of rubber eels," reports Branagh. "Robert had been in make-up for 12 hours and, yes, doing it was partly funny. We said, 'It's a new life. It needs to be banged on the back.' So, Robert would revolve in circles for three or four minutes until he was completely dizzy. And then, for me, it was like picking up a dead weight. He was almost sick from the spinning, the smell of KY-Jelly and the eels slapping around. By the end, we were hysterical."

The actress Branagh sought for the role of Elizabeth was Bonham Carter, best known for her work in such Merchant/Ivory flicks as "Room With a View" and "Howards End." Emma Thompson, Branagh's wife of five years and frequent co-star, was never in the running.

"We had done four pictures together and we had just played a loving couple opposite each other in 'Much Ado About Nothing,' " explains Branagh. "I wanted to have several elements in this that would skew it for me creatively. I didn't want to rely on her. I wanted to tickle expectations a little bit."

Oddly enough, both Branagh and Thompson are starring in movies about procreation. Thompson's "Junior," due Nov. 23, co-stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as the world's first pregnant man. "It's in the air, isn't it?" says Branagh, who shares a home with Thompson in the north of London. "I like to think of 'Junior' as some sort of perverse 'Frankenstein' story."

So, do the Branaghs have plans for any juniors of their own?

"Hmmmm," he says. "You're not going to draw me out on that question, but I will say that I think we're going to have children. I just hope I'm not impregnated like Arnold was."

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