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Austin Chronicle Frankenstein's Dad

By Marc Savlov

JANUARY 4, 1999:  Some of the best films seem to come out of nowhere, unexpected, unheralded little gems that arrive full-born and catch everyone off-guard with their striking originality and refreshing vitality. Bill Condon's new film, Gods and Monsters, is the perfect example, a modestly budgeted adaptation of novelist Christopher Bram's Father of Frankenstein.

Set in 1957 Hollywood, the film tells the story of the final days of director James Whale, the expatriate British director of Showboat, The Man in the Iron Mask, and The Invisible Man, who eventually found his oeuvre overshadowed by his two most famous films, Frankenstein and its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Openly homosexual and tormented by memories of his squalid London upbringing, not to mention a recent stroke, Whale (played in Condon's film by Sir Ian McKellen) toys with the notion of suicide while simultaneously finding an unlikely ally in his hulking gardener Clayton Boone, a handsome, working-class ex-Marine with emotional baggage of his own.

Unlike anything else released in 1998, Gods and Monsters paints a grimly comic and affecting story of Whale's mysterious twilight (the real Whale was found dead in his pool in 1957 under nebulous circumstances) while providing a bravura showcase for the talents of McKellen, who just last month was named best actor for his performance by the National Board of Review (which also named Gods and Monsters as best picture) and the Los Angeles Film Critics. Both the picture and McKellen have also been nominated for Golden Globes.

Condon, whose previous credits include co-authoring the cult films Strange Behavior and Strange Invaders, spoke with me about his remarkable film by phone from his home in Los Angeles.

Austin Chronicle: Give me some background on how you came to Gods and Monsters.

Bill Condon: I'd always been a big fan of James Whale's movies and in fact had a friend, director Curtis Harrington, who had actually known him. All that drew me to Christopher Bram's novel Father of Frankenstein. When I read it I just thought it could make a good movie and I could have a lot of fun playing around with it in the Whale style, certainly around the edges. Chris had taken the end of Whale's life and did this speculation that included a lot of rich and interesting ideas. My partner, Gregg Fienberg, and I optioned the novel and then I sat down and wrote the script over a period of six months. After that we sent it off to Ian McKellen who eventually agreed to do it, and then it was just a matter of getting the money together.

AC: Did you have McKellen in mind from the beginning?

BC: Yes. In my mind, when I was writing the script, he seemed like such an obvious choice. There are many parallels between his life and James Whale's, so that was really the first hurdle we had to get over, one of many.

AC: Did McKellen immediately take to the project or did he have any reservations?

BC: He liked it very much and was quite interested, but he had one comment that actually a number of people made, and that was the question of why, when you've got someone who was as openly gay and as successful [as Whale], why then focus on their period of decline, as opposed to telling the whole story. And of course the answer is that while those stories may be inspiring, they aren't often the most interesting or rich dramatically. That was more of a question than even a concern, really.

He was also a little nervous about playing somebody so old since he was about to play a 77-year-old Nazi in Apt Pupil. I reminded him that he gets to be Whale as a young man -- in his 40s -- doing Bride of Frankenstein in part of the picture, and he agreed to do it.

AC: Was Brendan Fraser someone else that you went after specifically?

BC: That took a longer time. He was somebody I wanted, but so much of casting a picture today is based on foreign sales organizations; it's who they tell you means something in various sales territories and who can help you get the presales and all that. At that point, before filming, Brendan's stock was pretty low, because George of the Jungle had yet to come out. We had to go through a few of the people who we knew would never do it first, you know, which wastes a lot of time but it's something you have to do, to take it to the superstars first and see if they're interested.

Thank God Ian had this sort of stop date. He was going back to the National Theatre for 18 months and this had to get done, and because of that we had to get very serious about who's right for the role and who might do it. And luckily Brendan was both.

AC: Some of the critics have choked a bit on Fraser's performance, saying that he's just too modern to work in this very Fifties, almost surreal period piece. What's your take on that?

BC: Yeah, that's interesting. I think he's so good in it, and he does have the hardest part because he has to kind of sit there and listen and still hold the screen with McKellen and be this equal weight and create this character out of things that are mostly happening on the inside. I think he does an amazing job, and even Ian, when he saw the film projected the first time, said, "God, I have a lot to learn from that boy." So he felt that way too.

I think what surprised me was that I didn't know that in more serious circles that Brendan has -- I guess stigma is too strong a word -- but that there is this feeling that having done a lot of these goofier kinds of films, that people have some difficulty accepting him in a more serious part such as this. And as for the contemporary thing, I think he acted "period" very well. In my eyes, he didn't seem to bring any contemporary demeanor to the role, and in fact even the George of the Jungle body that he had at that time, he went and kind of made a point of eating for a month before doing Gods and Monsters so that he didn't have that same kind of physique.

AC: Lynn Redgrave, as well, gives an amazing performance as Whale's housekeeper Hanna. How did that come about?

BC: Well, it's almost as if she stepped out of one of James Whale's movies, you know, as this sort of Teutonic housekeeper. We needed someone who could get the comedy of it but also keep it real in terms of the accent and emotionally, you know, and I had the sense that she was someone who could do that. And she did. If you think back, she's always been this great kind of character actress who doesn't always get the chance to do stuff like this and so this really provided a great opportunity for her.

AC: There's a flashback scene in the film that takes place on a re-created version of Whale's Bride of Frankenstein set and it's just spot-on. Were you able to use any of that film's actual remaining props as Mel Brooks did in Young Frankenstein or was that re-created out of whole cloth? It really does look like the genuine article.

BC: It wasn't the real thing. I know that's what Brooks was able to do with props and such but we couldn't find them. For us it was just a matter of taking the film and getting stills off of it and then just sitting there and rebuilding it. We had some great prop guys who knew how to do the research on how it worked then and what it looked like. It was very fun but at the same time a little frustrating because we thought we'd be able to find more than we did.

AC: While I wouldn't go so far as to call Gods and Monsters a part of the new wave of gay American cinema, the subtext of Whale's open homosexuality is a major part of the film. Do you feel Sir Ian McKellen's openness regarding his own homosexuality added to his portrayal and understanding of the character of Whale, and is this something you considered during casting?

BC: First of all, what I like is the play between the McKellen that you know as the very outspoken gay activist and the kind of openly gay person of four decades ago. I think that was a pre-political time in terms of sexuality, and you feel that. And I think that McKellen reveals more of himself in this movie, too. Not that Ian hides, but I think that he loves becoming a completely other person, and in this movie I think he was really enjoying making the connections to what's inside him, both good and bad.

AC: As a director in Hollywood today, and having done a film dealing with these issues, do you feel that people in Whale's situation today -- openly gay members of the film community -- have it any easier?

BC: You have to remember that for Whale in the Thirties it was actually pretty good, almost for the opposite reason, because it was so closed then. Hollywood back then was just kind of this sophisticated little village compared to the rest of the world, whereas now I think Hollywood very much reflects the rest of the world. There has always been a strong gay presence in the arts and now in the business side as well. The shame of it is that there are still actors or movie stars who may be gay who have to live this very old-fashioned kind of secret life. It's a very slow process though.

AC: Having read it and decided that you wanted to make a film of it, how did you go about adapting Christopher Bram's novel to the screen?

BC: It's a very well-structured book to begin with. Chris had written film criticism early on and obviously because it's based on a filmmaker's life there was a really strong kind of structure to it that I think a lot of novels don't have. I probably had the typical challenges of adapting a novel, such as taking these rich, interior lives and turning them into visuals or putting them into some form of dialogue and interaction instead of having them occur inside the characters' heads. For example, right from the beginning, Whale is speculating about suicide. The movie version of that is sort of a comic moment where he imagines what it would be like to be found by Hanna the next day after he's overdosed on pills. That's an example of something that's not in the book but is a visual translation of an important point to make early on in the movie.

AC: How does Bram feel about the film?

BC: He really loves it. He had read my script and came out to visit the set and I really felt all along that it was important to keep him involved.

AC: Are you ever concerned about finding yourself in a position like Whale's, where your body of work could be overshadowed by one or two films that supersede all else in the public eye? That's usually a problem faced by genre directors, but then, you've done a fair amount of genre work yourself with writing Strange Behavior and Strange Invaders and so on.

BC: I would love to have that happen! If you really look at it, whether it be films or literature or whatever, people really do have just a couple of extraordinary things in them, I think. There are those exceptions like Hitchcock or Wilder, and you would love to have a career like that, but I think you can't get greedy. I find that it's kind of like this chain that directors you're interested in build to that big success and then they're afraid to work again. And so they end up only making movies every three or four years, because suddenly there's this feeling that they have to reach that same pinnacle every single time. I certainly feel much prouder about Gods and Monsters than anything I've done before.

AC: Your academic background, I noticed, is not in filmmaking at all but in philosophy at Columbia. That said, have you developed some sort of underlying personal philosophy regarding filmmaking that you'd care to share?

BC: You know, I think I've developed one on this film. This has been such a completely cleansing experience for me. It's hard not to get into clichés like maintaining your own vision and stuff like that but it really is something that you can fight for every step of the way. Filmmaking is difficult because you have to go out and get that money but at the same time it's this amazing luxury that you just don't get every day. I guess that would be my philosophy. I'd like to keep this up for a while, you know?

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