Victor Frankenstein gives us a dynamic and thrilling twist on a legendary tale
John Landis was 30-years old when he wrote and directed the cult classic An American Werewolf in London.
Now Landis’ 30-year-old son Max resurrects the greatest monster of all time with his bold, imaginative and shocking screenplay Victor Frankenstein that has been magnificently brought to life on the big screen by Scottish film director Paul Mcguigan, whose feature work includes the wild and wacky Lucky Number Slevin. It releases on December 11 in South Africa.
”Max has said he was inspired to write this script because of the advent of Facebook,” says Mcguigan . ”People at the forefront of technological capability use that to implement a massive change in the way that we live our lives, and that’s why he was inspired to write Frankenstein. It’s about two guys with the keys to the kingdom in their hands. They’re doing stuff that could either be terrible or change the world for the better. Somehow, they’re always vilified. It’s about those people, rather than just the monster, but there’s still some cool monster sh*t in this film.”
Audiences have long embraced the 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (which she wrote when she was only 18) that launched the Frankenstein story, and McGuigan creatively reimagines the Frankenstein mythos.
Frankenstein’s grotesque monster has always been a firm favourite on the big screen and Victor Frankenstein gives us a dynamic and thrilling twist on a legendary tale.
Radical scientist Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) and his equally brilliant protégé Igor Strausman (Daniel Radcliffe) share a noble vision of aiding humanity through their groundbreaking research into immortality. But Victor’s experiments go too far, and his obsession has horrifying consequences.
Only Igor can bring his friend back from the brink of madness and save him from his monstrous creation.
Victor Frankenstein is a “Frankenstein” movie unlike any other.
While inspired by Mary Shelley’s classic novel and the countless interpretations of that story, screenwriter Max Landis’ “regeneration” focuses on the relationship between Victor and his best friend and assistant Igor. In fact, it’s the first story to be told largely from Igor’s perspective.
“It’s a love story between these two mean, really,” notes director Paul McGuigan. “Victor and Igor need each other; in fact, Victor needs Igor probably more than Igor needs Victor in his life.”
Moreover, the film, though set in 1860, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, has a contemporary sensibility. “I don’t think of it as a period film,” says Daniel Radcliffe, “but as being completely modern. Victor and Igor have cutting-edge ideas; they’re the tip of the spear. They view science as being more than just observational. They believe it could be creative and re-shape the world.
Adds McGuigan: “These two young men are changing the world.”
Victor Frankenstein is also, notes James McAvoy, a love letter to the myriad films featuring those characters and themes. “This film has many of the familiar elements you expect to see in a Frankenstein movie, but adds unexpected dimensions of character, relationships and entertainment.”
“Max Landis has done nothing less than capture the zeitgeist of all the Frankenstein movies he’s watched,” says McGuigan. “He’s cherry-picked ideas and created his own ‘monster,’ so to speak.”
”The thing I loved about the script when I read it was it was this big, bold, unapologetically entertaining cinematic action-adventure movie,” says Radcliffe. ”At its heart, it also had this great and really interesting relationship between these two guys. But it is quite a toxic relationship in some ways. They’re both essential to each other, but I get damaged by him at times. There was a sweetness to Igor as it was written, as there isn’t any side or edge to him. What you see is what you get. There’s an honesty to how grateful he is to have been taken into this world, which I found very appealing. I tried to make that as real as possible.”
McGuigan was especially drawn to Landis’ decision to tell the story through Igor’s eyes. That notion points to a key misperception about the character and his role in Frankenstein lore.
Igor was not a character in Mary Shelley’s book, nor did he appear in most of the subsequent film interpretations. Actor Dwight Frye’s hunchbacked lab assistant in James Whale’s “Frankenstein” (1931) is the main source for the “Igor” of public imagination, though the character he played was actually named Fritz. Most moviegoers know the character through Marty Feldman’s performance in Mel Brooks’ beloved comedy Young Frankenstein, though Feldman’s character insists on being called “Eye-gore.”
A different kind of moniker mix-up accompanies Victor himself. Many people attribute that name to the monster, instead of its creator – the good doctor.
“So we give the name ‘Frankenstein’ back to the scientist – to Victor Frankenstein,” says McGuigan.
”Max’s script starts off in a very interesting place, because we don’t actually get to the point that people are familiar with until to very late on in the film. It was interesting to give Victor Frankenstein back his name a little bit, because when you’re told of Frankenstein, you think of the monster. It was nice to actually play with that a little bit. Of course at some points in the film, he does become the monster. When you first start reading the script, you go, “That’s interesting, I never thought about that.” It’s not just a monster movie; it’s also a relationship film. It’s a film about two men who have a commonality in their passion for science and anatomy. That was interesting to visualize at the beginning of the film. It allows people to understand that we’re at the commonality that is between them, and then it just became about this relationship.”
McAvoy relates that, “Whenever somebody asked me what I was doing at the moment [during production of Victor Frankenstein], I would say, I’m playing Frankenstein, and they’d reply, ‘You’re a little short to be playing the monster.’ And I’d correct them and say, ‘No, no, it’s the doctor.’ So, yeah, we’re giving the name back to Dr. Vic.”
“If you think you knew Victor, the first few minutes of the film will prove you don’t,” says McGuigan. “He’s dangerous and fun to watch.”
Fun and dangerous, yes, but he’s also, brilliant, obsessed – and a sociopath. As Victor walks a fine light between lightness and darkness, and between life and death, only Igor can keep him from a descent into madness from which there’ll be no return.
That’s no easy accomplishment, given that Victor and Igor are exploring fundamental questions, such as: Where do we come from? Where do we go when we die?
Can we prevent – or reverse – death?
“Victor and Igor are at the forefront of scientific and medical research,” notes McAvoy. “But just because they can cheat death, should they do it?
“I think Victor’s intentions are good,” he continues. “He’s looking to improve the human condition, which is very fragile. Victor is trying to make it more robust and, ideally, eliminate death, which has been a human obsession for ages.”
To McAvoy, a character with such world-changing ambitions would not be a lab rat holding course at a chalkboard. He’d be nothing less than a force of nature. “Victor just doesn’t stop moving. He’s a creator of machines, as well as of a man, plus a skilled engineer and an accomplished surgeon.”
”I think Victor has always been maniacally obsessional, even as far back as in Mary Shelley’s original,” says McGuigan. ”What I felt we really tried to do was investigate that in a real post-Freudian world. We didn’t just go, he’s a bit energetic and a bit obsessed. He goes on vacation halfway through the book, and he comes back completely healthy and sane. He goes, “Oh, the monster’s alive? Thank goodness I’m really healthy; I can go kill it.”
”Whereas in the film, we tried to stay in a post-Freudian world, which is why he is so maniacal and hyper. It’s not just because he’s a mad scientist. We find the reason for that, and then run with it for the whole movie. We don’t let him off the hook halfway through the movie. That way, when he has to go off and kill his own creation, we’re not siding with him because he’s suddenly a good guy. We try and keep him that discomfiting, quixotic and mercurial character all the way through the film.”
Victor’s friendship with Igor is one of equals. Igor’s knowledge of anatomy instantly impresses the scientist, who takes Igor under his wing. Even as Igor is in many ways Victor’s first creation, Victor learns much from his friend and assistant.
Notes Radcliffe: “Igor has a very rich, intellectual life and, if he’s not the academic equal of Victor, he’s certainly a partner in terms of what they’re creating.”
Igor had spent his entire life in the circus, working as a clown. Although he’s much maligned and even abused by the owner and his fellow performers, Igor has become a gifted surgeon, healing injured performers and animals. Books and medicine are his refuge amidst these difficult, if not horrific, circumstances.
“Victor lifts Igor out of those horrible conditions, which sets up an interesting dynamic in their relationship,” says Radcliffe. “He has created a new life for Igor. As Igor and Victor embark on this journey together, Victor starts losing his mind, and Igor tries to pull him back from the edge of insanity. But how do you stand up to somebody after they’ve given you everything? So, there’s an imbalance and tension in their relationship that is fascinating to me.”
Like Victor, Igor is a man of action. “Igor is quite well matched with Victor, in terms of physicality,” says Radcliffe. That translated into a lot of what Radcliffe calls “chucking each other around,” including the aforementioned and vigorous hunchback-removing procedure.
“Every time Daniel and I had a scene together, we’d ask each other, ‘How physical and dangerous-looking can we make this? Come on, man!,’” says McAvoy. “We are similar in energy levels and physical ability, so we just kind of went at each other, 12 hours each day. Adds Radcliffe: “James is a bold actor and really hits the ground running in an exciting way. That enabled us to make some interesting choices together.”
”The thing that I liked about the script so much was it took a lot of different preconceptions about Frankenstein and ideas people have about the story,” says Radcliffe. ”Part of allowing people to twist their ideas around was obviously giving Igor a backstory and some more real depth than we’ve ever seen in terms of that character before.”
”We also needed to find out why he would have this incredible loyalty to Victor that never wavers at all, despite how bad he’s treated a lot of the time. We had to have him be this little creature who’s living this abject, horrible life at the beginning of the film. Then he’s saved from that and brought into this world where he’s empowered. He now has a say and a purpose in life. For me, that was very key into how you can suddenly understand his insane devotion to this man, even when it is being tested.”
“‘There are two things. We were trying to marry up what Max wrote, which isn’t just an adaptation of the book, or a remake of an adaptation of previous films, cartoons, comic books and Halloween costumes, with our own ideas about the characters,” says McAvoy ”The film is a combination of the entire zeitgeist-driven collective consciousness perception that we have of what the word Frankenstein means. That’s why there’s an Igor in the film, even though he was never in the book.”
”For me, it was about trying to marry the story with an entertainment value. There has to be an entertainment in the film that’s presented in the same way as it was in Mary Shelley’s book. The film also has to be slightly dicey and controversial at times. That’s harder to do these days, as people are not as disturbed easily. We’re not as disturbed by a movie that shows two guys trying to become God as much as people where when she wrote the book.
When the book was released, this story had the potential to lead to a massive public outcry and revolutionary. There was also controversy because a woman wrote the book. That was the stuff that was controversial back then. It’s going to be hard for us now to be controversial. But we still want to make people a little bit shocked sometimes, and make it a piece of entertainment and fun at the theater.
In our case, what Max wrote about was loss and grief. Victor has this massive hole inside him, and no matter how much he tries to fill it in, it doesn’t get any smaller; it just gets bigger and bigger. His ego compensates, and he becomes a God in his own head. He’s very close to achieving the qualifying factor for becoming a God, as the prime requisite for becoming a God is creating life. He’s nearly there, so he feels pretty massive and Godlike.
Those were some of the things that really formed the character and story in my head. I was trying to marry up the manic energy that was needed for the entertainment value of the film with a lot of truth that fueled more than the idea that we’re having fun.”
Mcguigan concludes: ”I also think it’s an interesting process as a filmmaker to take these two guys as actors and think about what do they bring to this? If you look at it as the analogy of a person, then you would say James is the heartbeat and Daniel is the soul of the film. There was a certain dynamic that happened straight away from day one of filming, where we had two very smart men. As a filmmaker who is watching and observing them, you can see their energy and compassion. They both flip over at one point. You could swap them around because of the journey we go through in the movie itself.”