Branagh's Gothic Vision

USA Today, November 3, 1994

Bringing an epic creature feature to life

"We have to do these things for art," Kenneth Branagh is saying about his slithering in one ton of K-Y Jelly with a seemingly nude Robert De Niro in the creation scene of his latest movie, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, opening Friday.

"We wanted to give a good rock 'n' roll ride," adds Branagh, who directs and stars as the obsessed Dr. Victor Frankenstein, determined to create life in the laboratory at any price. p> De Niro is his hideous-looking creature, a patchwork quilt of mixed-and-matched organs, limbs and skin. He electronically bursts to life from a toppled-over tank of amniotic fluid and writhing electric eels.

The helpless creation flops and flounders in the slime, struggling to stand on his feet for the first time. Doc takes a beating slipping in the goo as he tries to help.

Shooting the scene was even more intense than it looks. "Before we'd do the shot, Robert would spin in circles for two or three minutes with his eyes closed to get dizzy," Branagh says. "He wanted to be totally convincing. He was out of it. I thought, `Don't fall over and crack your head open!' He was like dead weight and I'd whisper, `Just help me, just help,' " he recalls. "I thought, `I'm going to rupture some delicate part of my anatomy.' "

Making matters worse, De Niro, who looks naked, was actually encased in a prosthetic covering that took 12 hours to apply in order to give his misshapen body a blended, realistic look.

Under the casing he wore only white briefs. The problem is "the prosthetics were splitting in the place where a normal bottom splits," Branagh says. "You began to see his white briefs. So I kept putting my hand on his bottom (to cover them). I don't know if he took that the wrong way."

To be sure, this latest, $40 million Frankenstein offers a different approach to one of the screen's oldest and most-told stories.

Branagh says it's actually the most faithful to Shelley's original piece, written in 1818.

Sitting by a pond filled with swans at the rustically posh Bel-Air Hotel, Branagh, 33, says he's a fan of Boris Karloff's original 1931 Frankenstein movie. He first watched it on TV from behind the couch in his family's Belfast, Ireland, home when he was 8.

However, even that classic, he says, "is very different from what's in the book. And after 60-odd years they've (subsequent Frankenstein films) been treated to such reinterpretation. . . . There are so many schlock versions of it . . . I felt like there was really room to do something different."

Landing De Niro for his creature, which is played sympathetically in this version, was a major coup that took four face-to-face meetings.

They concurred on the vision from the start. "We knew we wanted to abandon the bolts in the neck and the flat head," Branagh says. In fact, the word "monster" wasn't permitted on the set during shooting.

But De Niro, admits Branagh, "was a little nervous, I think, that I was going to over-intellectualize things." Branagh says his background in Shakespeare, onstage in London and in films such as Henry V, for which he received acting and director Oscar nominations, has saddled him with a persona that's more serious and high-brow than he really is.

In person, Branagh, with longish curly hair and dressed in jeans, is upbeat but reserved. He suspects this movie may broaden his image. "I'll be interested to see how others see me as a result of this. I was brought up on the movies, not in a library being read poetry to. I just happen to be interested in Shakespeare."

Filling out Frankenstein's cast is John Cleese, as the obsessed doctor's enigmatic and troubled professor, Helena Bonham Carter as his love, Elizabeth, and Tom Hulce as his best friend.

Branagh says he and Hulce had an instant rapport. It could be because Branagh was a final contender for, and had hoped to make his screen debut in, the lead in 1984's Amadeus, a role Hulce won, and for which he received an Oscar nomination. "We had a laugh about that," he says.

Instead, Branagh has made his mark in film by simultaneously directing and acting. To ensure that his performances don't suffer while pulling double duty, he hires Hugh Cruttwell, the retired principal of his alma mater, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, to critique his acting during filming.

Branagh also relies on feedback from his cast. "If I've been in it, I don't want to be the only voice."

For the first time since he began directing movies, Branagh's wife, Academy Award-winning actress Emma Thompson, wasn't among those voices. There wasn't really an appropriate part for her, says the director. Instead, later this month she'll show her comedic side in Junior, as the clumsy scientist girlfriend of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who stars as a pregnant man. It's a sort of bizarre comic version of the same tale, notes Branagh, who visited the set. "They're both about an unnatural birth."

As for becoming parents in real life, he says, "It would be very nice to. I guess we've probably got to get a move on it, but both of us feel right now we can't see beyond getting these two movies out."

Their filming schedules, he says, fortunately didn't conflict, forcing a long separation. "When I was shooting, Em was still at home and we led a pretty normal life. We're never apart for more than two or three weeks. We have the luxury that comes with a degree of success that allows us to choose in a way that other people don't have. I mean, I'm not going to go do a movie in Africa for nine months. That's when it gets difficult."

However, after four pictures together - Henry V, Dead Again, Peter's Friends and Much Ado About Nothing - Branagh says it was "necessary artistically" for him to tackle a project without his better half. "I needed to spread my own wings a little bit - and also so we don't get too cozy together in a working situation. But we very much look forward to doing another one."

Should Frankenstein hit, he'd consider a sequel. But he'll let somebody else take the K-Y plunge next time. "You could never get it out of your hair. It was a pretty rabid scalp after that."

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