On the Set of ‘Victor Frankenstein’: Breathing New Life into the Dead

     November 5, 2015

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“Frankenstein Begins”

“No – that’s not right. What about Igor & Frankenstein?”

“How about just Igor?”

“Isn’t there a cartoon already called Igor?”

There’s no title in place when I visit the London set of what’s then called ‘Untitled Frankenstein Film’. On the van ride to set and outside the studio lot, many of the press make guesses/suggestions to what inevitably the film will be called. Igor, Igor Lives, Frankenstein: Origins, I Igor… Any and all possible combination(s) of Igor and Frankenstein are offered up. I’m about five-seconds away from placing ten bucks on Igor and Frankenstein as the winning title; but stop myself when I realize the inherent difficulties in collecting my sure-to-be winnings from some poor Brit press sap. This may be one of the only wise decisions I ever make. Never once, though, in any conversation is ‘Victor Frankenstein’ brought up as a potential title – which, after it’s announced six months later, is of course the correct title. How could I not see it? Way better than ‘Igor and Frankenstein’. What the hell was I thinking?

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Image via 20th Century Fox

The question now with any new iteration of the Frankenstein mythos boils down to one simple question: Is there anything actually left to tell? The most iconic movie monster of all time has undergone every single rendition under the sun. In the classic Universal Pictures, Frankenstein’s Monster is a tragic figure, yearning for companionship but unable to ever find a like-minded suitor. The 1950s Hammer Films redefines The Monster as a violent unrepressed Id – an extension of its creator. It’s here that Victor Frankenstein takes precedence over The Monster. As played by Peter Cushing – Victor is a charismatic amoral genius constantly undone by his own hubris. The Monster then becomes the physical manifestation of Victor’s ego-gone-unchecked.


 

Andy Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein brings a Freudian slant to such a reading, turning the doctor impotent and The Monster into a materialization of his festering sexual desires. Post-modern spins on the character continue with Blackenstein & I Was A Teenage Frankenstein, merging the gothic story with Blaxploitation and Teen-Cinema. And then there’s Young Frankenstein – laying the whole ‘Modern Prometheus’ bare and tearing away at the archetypes (mad scientist, lonely monster, unrepressed Id, intemperate sexuality) established over the forty years prior.

Rocky Horror Picture Show and Frankenhooker further deconstruct the mythos to the point where the only place to go is backwards. Finally – Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein completes the circle, harkening back to the original themes of the novel: hubris-gone-unchecked and the existential malaise of being borne. After that – it’s pretty quiet for Frankenstein and his Monster. There’s a children’s rendition of the mythos (Frankenweenie) and an ill-fated attempt to turn The Monster into a Romantic Hero (I, Frankenstein); but at that point, it feels as if all life has been sapped from the story. There are only so many times you can resurrect the dead before it all begins to feel a little perfunctory.

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Image via 20th Century Fox

So then what story is there left to tell? One word: Igor.

Victor Frankenstein, instead of focusing on the well-worn Frankenstein/Monster relationship, shifts towards the burgeoning friendship between Victor (James McAvoy) and the hunchback Igor (Daniel Radcliffe). The film, a prequel of sorts, posits Victor’s first experiment wasn’t creating a monster out of man, but a man out of a monster. It’s a clever reversal – and the script by newfound genre stalwart Max Landis continues his streak (post Chronicle) of dissecting the bro-camaraderie that develops between young adult males. It’s an interesting pairing of writer (American writer with a very modern sensibility) with material (Victorian-era British novel). What you end up with (judging by my time on set) is a feature that has all the familiar pieces – London, a mad scientist, a laboratory, monster(s), murder – but remixed and rejiggered and pieced together into something else entirely. Director Paul McGuigan will astutely point out later that the film itself could be considered ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’.


 

Igor, up to now, has been a fairly one-dimensional supporting character in Frankenstein lore. The hunchback lab assistant doesn’t even appear in Mary Shelley’s book, first popping up in the original 1931 Frankenstein – except not under the name ‘Igor’ but as ‘Fritz’. The name ‘Igor’ can be traced to Bela Lugosi’s ‘Ygor’ in the Frankenstein sequels: a character, while not a hunchback, deformed by a lump in his neck, causing one shoulder to protrude up at ninety degrees. Subsequent horror films often feature a hunchbacked assistant sometimes named ‘Igor’, sometimes not. It’s not really until Marty Feldman’s comedic portrayal of Igor (“Eye-gor”) in Young Frankenstein that the character seeps into the public consciousness. Suddenly the weird bit background player who pulls a lever and loyally follows a mad scientist became a character in his own right, albeit a character defined by his loyalty and deformity. Even still, Igor has remained in the shadows, always a supporting character (with the exception of the 2008 animated feature Igor). Victor Frankenstein then marks the first live action attempt to delve into Igor’s backstory and turn the supporting character into the lead.

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Image via 20th Century Fox

Outside the London soundstage of Victor Frankenstein, a group of Victorian-era appropriate extras in top hats, hoop skirts, bonnets, waistcoats & breeches mill about texting on their phones. All the extras seem incredibly young. There’s no one over the age of thirty-five, perhaps signifying the hipper, more youth-oriented focus of the feature.


 

Inside – the soundstage has been turned into a Barnaby-esque circus, the ground covered in a punishing smoking sand within a striped tent, a high wire raised above. I creep around the tent and the movie lights and take a seat in the top row of the circus bleachers. The set smells of wet paint and gasoline. I half expect to pass out and tilt backwards off the seating to my demise. Later, I’m told, this entire set was originally built outside – and much of the scenes within had been shot there; but due to unfortunate weather, the tent blew and tattered. Now the circus has been set up indoors both for crew safety and to avoid any further delays. Because this was originally an outdoor tent, it had been proofed to handle water – which is now the root of the strong smell indoors.

Down below the bleachers – James McAvoy, dressed in proper Victorian Englishman attire, converses with some smeared pancake-make-up clown. It takes awhile to recognize the ratty haired hunchback as Daniel Radcliffe, nearly unrecognizable under the black & white facial paint. The duo is at the tail end of production in week ten of shooting Victor Frankenstein (in between takes, the entire crew will later line up for their final set photo). Despite nearing the end of the shoot, the scene filmed today takes place fairly early on in the picture.

At the onset of Victor Frankenstein, Igor (Radcliffe) is working as a clown for a low-rent circus where even amongst the freaks, he is considered less than. Victor Frankenstein is in attendance for today’s show to watch Igor’s secret-object-of-affection, the trapeze artist Lorelei (Jessica Findlay Brown), perform a high wire walk. When Lorelei’s stunt goes terribly wrong, Victor & Igor both rush to save her. Ostensibly, the scene’s a ‘meet cute’ between Victor & Igor, the two men seeing each other for the first time, arguing over the proper way to resuscitate Lorelei, performing a ‘dry surgery’ and finding that they have more in common than their disparate appearances would suggest.


 

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Image via 20th Century Fox

The success of Victor Frankenstein is entirely contingent on the chemistry between these two leads. Paul McGuigan, to his credit, seems more than aware of such a fact, playing out the entirety of the scene in each shot regardless of whether it’s a single or wide. This allows McAvoy and Radcliffe to really interact and bounce off one another. It’s a fun dynamic to watch take root. Radcliffe – humble and mealy-mouthed – stands in stark contrast to McAvoy’s assured bravado and quickness. Victor will casually toss out an insult at the poor hunchback and the glee in which McAvoy relishes his perceived superiority is only further magnified by Radcliffe’s awe-shucks hurt at the barbs. It’s amazing that the two British actors have yet to work together – as the energy they both bring to set nicely melds together into a strange yet cohesive whole.

Later in between takes, McGuigan and the cast stop by the bleachers to talk with the press about their new version of Frankenstein (the full interviews to which will run separately). The key phrase repeated time and again focuses on the ‘modernity’ of this new film. This isn’t the same-old, same old. Yes – it’s set in the Victorian era – but it has a contemporary tone and sensibility. There’s action, horror, comedy and a dash of romance to Victor Frankenstein. It’s a big film and it’s been designed to appeal to as large an audience as possible. It’s not about the creation of a monster (although various monsters are brought to life), but about the Pygmalion-like relationship between Victor and Igor beforehand. McGuigan sums it up nicely: “Victor creates [a man out of Igor] way before The Monster. There’s a bit in the film where Igor’s a hunchback and suddenly he’s not. And you realize why – because Victor uses science to get him upright again. Igor goes from The Monster to the man and then we recreate the man into the monster.”


 

This clear new thematic through-line has resurrected Frankenstein from the brink of death and tedium. By focusing on the human-component of the tale, Victor Frankenstein has re-started the filmic cycle of Frankenstein and birthed a new and potentially continuing chapter to the saga.

It’s alive indeed.

Victor Frankenstein opens in theaters November 25th. For more from my set visit, peruse the links below:

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