Reading through interviews on your website you say that if you were making Anna Karenina now, you’d make her a Beverly Hills housewife who’d throw herself under a SUV… is it a particular interest of yours, taking stories from literature and bringing them into the 21st century?
The short answer is yes. One of my theories – if you can call a theory – is that in the late 19th century, the novel was the only form of home entertainment there was, really, so there’s something about novels from then, particularly ones from the late 19th century, that make them different from novels from any other era. They had gas lighting and electric light by the end of the 19th century so they were sitting at home wanting something to do – it’s hard to read a novel by candlelight, I would think. Those novels are stupendous.
They are also free! That’s not a small issue, really; they’re not owned by anybody. One of the problems about making movies in the modern era is that Warner Bros. or Disney or whoever own everything, so you can’t film anything… all the big copyrights are owned by corporations which I think is kind of wrong!
I’d never read the book before, and I was very impressed with it. I thought there were a couple of significant aspects which had not been represented accurately, the first being that Mary Shelley does not say that he dug up body parts and reanimated a corpse. That’s James Whale’s invention and it was so convincing in the 1931 film that that’s what most people believe the novel is about, but it’s really not what she says.
What she says is that he created life, which is entirely different – because if he could reanimate corpses, the novel would have no tension at all because in the novel, the monster basically kills everybody who’s near and dear to Frankenstein, so why doesn’t he just reanimate them if he could? That’s not what he’s doing. The whole point is that the creature is a new life. He’s not some sort of diseased brain brought back to existence; he’s a soul, and I think that’s really intrinsic to the story. I feel that had been slightly lost in other versions.
The newness of the creature is critical, and that’s a dichotomy that you have in your film – the voiceover and Shelley’s narrative for the monster, which is very erudite, and yet it’s somebody who is learning from the start…
I think that was Shelley’s point: he was better than man, he was stronger, he was smarter. At one point, in the novel, Victor Frankenstein is about to build a woman and he changes his mind because he thinks they would breed, and breed Homo sapiens out in the way we did to the Neanderthals. They’re tougher, they’re harder to kill, they’re more intelligent. I think that’s a very interesting part of the novel.
There are so many things about the novel which are so forward-thinking and visionary for 1819 and I think it’s why it still speaks to us, why there are so many different adaptations, and why it’s such a seminal work not just in terms of horror but also science fiction. The only thing that I can think of that’s comparable in that sense is Sherlock Holmes. I think Holmes has stayed with us because Holmes contains one of the central fictions of our society which is utterly untrue, which is that policemen take time solving crimes. If there’s a crime anywhere in the world, there’s no one in the police station deducing things from clues! The police procedural is largely Conan Doyle’s invention…
What do you feel is so different about your version of Frankenstein?
What I wanted to do was point out the currency of her idea; she intuited at the very beginning of the scientific era that the purpose of science would be to create consciousness… And we don’t even know what consciousness is. Even if you could theoretically could make a body in a 3D printer, you still wouldn’t know how to imbue it with life. That’s the part nobody has even got close to – and what does that even mean? That’s such a powerful and key idea.
By making it from the point of view of the monster, I think there’s something we can all sympathise with: this idea that we’re thrust into a world that is hostile and incomprehensible. He has these noble and romantic feelings that drive him, but because he is so constantly under threat and taught nothing but violence, he becomes a monster. He becomes violent. That was the thing that I found moving about the story was the idea that his innocence is corrupted in the most appalling way – and that’s why the movie had to be so viscerally horrific.
In our interview with him, Tony Todd commented that you held the camera yourself for a lot of the filming of Frankenstein…
I’ve always operated camera actually, and it’s just something I like. I know there was a certain point at which people decided that directing was watching television in a tent, but whenever I’ve tried to do that, I’ve just started taking a nap. Television puts me to sleep: not the content, but the actual machine.
I like to be physically involved in it, and not everybody wants to do that – but it’s something I enjoy, particularly if it’s handheld. I like to physically hold the camera and look through the lens because you get more immediacy that way. I like to move the camera in ways that I wasn’t necessarily think of when we were rehearsing it or blocking it. I like the idea that it’s happening and I’m just trying to film it. If everything looks like everybody’s doing it for the 4000th time, there’s a different feel to that, it reduces the immediacy. Sometimes that really works, by the way – it just depends what you’re doing. There are no rules!
Also you can screw up and it gives you a better relationship with the actors. If you’re sitting off somewhere watching television and commenting on them afterwards, you’re sitting in judgement on them, but if you’re right there struggling to make the shot and it’s physically demanding, you’re right there on the floor with them and it’s a different feel.
When I started, you were always right there by the camera, because the monitors were either very crude or just didn’t help. You couldn’t tell anything on them.
Yes – with the example of Tony, yes, obviously he had a whole backstory as to how [his character Eddie] ended up on the streets. In terms of the movie, you don’t need to know that.
I think it is really good in terms of giving people the freedom to do things and play with things – for the scene when Tony was busking in the street, I took him and Xavier [Samuel, who plays Adam] out into downtown LA and they were just playing on the street corner trying to make some money. Tony was making the song up as he was playing it; it felt wonderful because that’s really an example where improvising can really add something rather than having some studio extra who’s walking along and deciding whether or not to give them money.
There was something rather funny about it – the people were people just passing by. I like the idea of leaving the door open so someone can walk into the shot.
It wasn’t really chronological. When you have the beginning part of a film in one location and the end in the same one, you’re not going to go there, leave and come back. You’re going to do it all there. It’s just one of those things.
Within each location you always go in chronology. For actors, that’s part of filmmaking that’s so normal to anybody who does it, it’s not really an issue. It’s part of an actor’s job to keep track of where they are in a story.
Xavier is a really good actor! That’s why I prefer actors who have done a lot of theatre work. Anybody’s who got up on stage every night and has to tell a story from beginning to end, they understand that they’ve got to have their part of it figured out. Every scene you have to keep a track of development. Obviously I have to make sure they’re doing it, but it has to come from them really.
How did you find Xavier?
I auditioned various people: you couldn’t read people for the part because Adam didn’t have a lot of dialogue, and obviously there were physical demands to the part. He had to be perfect looking. Not everybody qualifies! I saw Xavier’s work and was very impressed with it, so I took him out into Griffith Park and shot some stuff, improvised it with him in the woods, and he immediately threw himself into a pond up there. I was impressed… He’s Australian, he’s not afraid of getting his hands dirty.
He’s wonderful: he took a lot of punishment in the course of the movie. He took some beatings, and I’m not advocating that – a stuntman slipped on him and he ended up getting a little bruised – but he didn’t complain, that’s for sure.
You mention you’re looking at other horror projects – can you say anything about those?
I have a project which I’m hoping to announce very shortly which is also based on a 19th century tale, but it’s a very visceral and frightening update. I’m not going to give you a clue! It’s not Dracula, I’ll tell you that – but I don’t think anybody has really done the Bram Stoker book. All the books have their problems – nobody has ever literally done Mary Shelley’s book because it has weird digressions. You just wouldn’t do it.
There are many of them and I intend to do them, so I’m not going to tell you what they are – quite a few of them are based on public domain books. There’s always an element that someone else could get in and do them. In the case of Frankenstein, that’s true… but I don’t think that matters, because in the same way as Sherlock Holmes, the text is so malleable you can just use it as a jumping-off point if you want.
Frankenstein is available on digital platforms now and on Blu-ray and DVD from February 22nd courtesy of Signature Entertainment.