Combustible Celluloid

BILL CONDON: The Father of the Father of Frankenstein

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

By some wonderful coincidence the day I met writer/director Bill Condon in San Francisco was the same day that brand-new prints of James Whale's "Frankenstein" (1931) and "The Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) were opening at the Castro Theater. Condon was as excited about going to see them as he was about his own movie, "Gods and Monsters", starring Ian McKellan as James Whale. It was a few minutes before we even spoke about his new film.

"I'm a big fan of James Whale," he begins, as he tells us Whale's story in a nutshell. The telling is so passionate, he makes me want to run out and see more Whale films.

"After Whale made 'Frankenstein' Junior Laemmle, this young kid who ran Universal, --[which was] owned by his father Carl Laemmle--gave [Whale] complete control. So [he started] with 'The Old Dark House' (1932), 'The Bride of Frankenstein', 'The Invisible Man' (1933), and 'Show Boat' (1936). Those movies are so fresh because they completely represent him and he had total control over them. But it was 'The Road Back' (1937), which was his real effort to get into the "A" list; George Cukor land. The Laemmles [then] lost control of the studio. And so these bankers took over and succumbed to pressure from Nazis, because ["The Road Back"] had been outlawed. [They] recut the movie. It came out and it bombed."

"That was bad. But what was worse [was] to get out of this contract he had to make three bad, horrible movies in a row ("Sinners in Paradise", "Wives Under Suspicion", and "Port of Seven Seas", all 1938). Then, he went to [other] studios and he made some good movies like "The Great Garrick" (1937) and "The Man in the Iron Mask" (1939), and they didn't hit. Besides that... he wasn't getting great properties, he didn't like working in that traditional studio system, where there were people looking over his shoulder all the time. And he had earned enough money, and it just wasn't worth it. By the time he made "Bride of Frankenstein", he was 45 years old. So, go to six years later. He was in his 50's already. So he was sort of a late bloomer in terms of movies. For the amount of work it took, it wasn't worth it." By 1941, Whale had retired. The book and the movie take place in 1957, after years of his having been out of the limelight.

"I have a friend, an older director, Curtis Harrington ("Night Tide", 1961; "What's the Matter with Helen?", 1971) who knew him, and I heard lots of stories about him. Then I heard that Christopher Bram, whose novels I had read, had written 'Father of Frankenstein' [about Whale]. As soon as I started reading it -- it's a very serious novel -- I thought, 'boy this is one that wouldn't be hurt by being made into a film'. And luckily, there'd been some interest from the big deal people in Hollywood because the book had been making the rounds when 'Ed Wood' (1994) was coming out. They thought, 'oh, it's another "Ed Wood"'. But then 'Ed Wood' bombed and they didn't want to go near it. So somebody like me could come along and option it."

The wonderful title "Gods and Monsters" was taken from a line of dialogue from "The Bride of Frankenstein". Condon says, "It was [our] first choice after 'Father of Frankenstein'. We actually have Brendan [Frasier] to thank for that. It probably would have stayed 'Father of Frankenstein', but he didn't want to be in a movie called 'Father of Frankenstein', because it sounded too 'B'. He was probably right."

"Gods and Monsters" very cleverly sidesteps all the conventions of bio-pics, as well as typical movies about Hollywood. In the movie, as well as in real life, James Whale suffered from a series of strokes, which left him unable to control his thought processes completely. He was often sieged with random memories, sounds, and smells, from a hundred different times; the war, making movies, parties, lovers, etc. Condon put this device to good use in the movie, telling Whale's story in a seemingly random order.

"What a great device. Thank you James Whale for that! [In the book], it's more fully fleshed out flashbacks. It's sort of chapter by chapter, past-present. I thought, in the film, [I would] give a sense of these stabs of memory, where the memories weren't like a typical bio-pic; but more like, 'as I'm talking about my father, I remember how he called me a sissy.' Stuff like that--emotional memories. More to the heart of the way he was. I really think the bio-pic thing so rarely works, because people's lives don't have a dramatic shape that can be satisfying. I mean, some of them, obviously, have worked. But I think it does take some kind of bold idea, like the one of the novel."

The movie also gives us the character of Clayton Poole (played by Frasier). Poole, who was invented for the book, is the gardener whom Whale befriends in the last weeks of his life. It's a strange friendship; an older and a younger man; one gay, one not; one sophisticated, one earthy. There are many references between Poole and the Frankenstein monster from "The Bride of Frankenstein". Condon introduces Poole in the movie by showing close-ups of his body parts, hands, legs, etc., so the effect is that Whale is "creating" him. In a way, the themes of loneliness and friendship from "Bride" become the themes of "Gods and Monsters" as well.

Condon tried to stay faithful to the book, "The biggest [changes] were [to] externalize these characters, so that they took a more dramatic shape. And [we took] the opportunity to do things from his movies because we were going to make a story about Whale in the style of Whale. For example, I think there's a descriptive line somewhere in those 300 pages where Whale says how great it would be to wash his brain clean. So that's just a throwaway line in the novel. But in the movie obviously you could turn that into a sequence from one of his own movies, where his brain actually does get taken out and put back in. So it was a lot of those kind of things, kind of visualizing it, more than anything."

Condon expresses his concern that the movie may split audiences up between the art-house crowd, the horror movie crowd, and the gay crowd. The gay element of the movie has drawn the most attention so far. "The first question is, 'so [Whale] died under mysterious circumstances--how do you think he really died?' You know what it is, is the enduring effect of Kenneth Anger's 'Hollywood Babylon', with the morbid, Hollywood, gay hustler character. You just put an older gay man at the bottom of his pool, and it's sort of an easy leap to make. But there's no mystery. It was a suicide. It had nothing to do with being gay. It was really this ailment he had."

Condon was able to get clips from "The Bride of Frankenstein" through slightly devious methods. "Universal is very protective of the 'Frankenstein' make-up. It's like their Mickey Mouse," Condon says. If he had gone ahead and paid full price for the rights, the movie could not have been finished for its minuscule $3 million budget. Condon says he originally wanted clips from other Whale films in there as well. "In my first draft of the script I had things from 'The Invisible Man'. The pool sequence [a Whale dream sequence] was much longer. It was sort of like, Whale goes outside, and starts peeling off his face, and goes to touch Clay, while invisible."

Condon has made his own career with horror and sci-fi movies. He wrote the screenplays for "Strange Behavior" (1981), "Strange Invaders" (1983), and "F/X 2" (1991), and wrote and directed "Sister Sister" (1987), as well as several made-for-TV movies. In 1995, he directed the sequel "Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh", on which he met another famed member of the horror genre, writer Clive Barker. "I just came back from a festival in France. And four interviewers--who had really gotten into 'Gods and Monsters'-- four separate people said, '"Candyman II" was so terrible! It's hard to believe it was the same director'." Barker came on board "Gods and Monsters" as a producer and a "patron". Condon talked about the many uncanny coincidences between Barker and Whale--"gay, and a painter, an expatriate living in Hollywood, and from the North of England--started in the theater in London. I brought my cut of the movie up to [Barker's] house to show it to him, and when it was over I said, 'if you don't watch it Clive, that's how you're going to turn out.'"

Even though he loves the horror genre, Condon still hopes to do other types of films. His next project is "Vicki Oberjeune: Alone in the Night"--a non-horror film about a fictional Hollywood legend, done in documentary style. "There's no question that Whale's horror movies are classics, and they were wonderful and successful. But there's always been a stigma, a slight stigma, attached to people who work in that genre. And he fought to try to get himself out of it, with 'Show Boat' and then 'The Road Back'."

Starting with Frasier as Poole and McKellan as Whale, Condon managed to assemble a terrific cast for "Gods and Monsters". He had Ian McKellan in mind from the start, "because he looks like him. I didn't even want to think about someone else." Condon admits that he had incredible good luck in getting McKellan. "My advice to anybody trying to make independent movies is that [Ian] had a stop date. He did 'Apt Pupil', and he had this opening, and if we didn't get it done by a certain date, which we hit on the day, he had to go back for 18 months of national theater. And I think if it wasn't for that we'd still be sitting there, and the company would be saying, 'Well, next month we'll have it together.' They really had a gun to their heads."

Lynn Redgrave is another wonderful addition to "Gods and Monsters". She gives an amazing performance as Whale's long-suffering maid, Hanna. "It's funny, because depending on how old you are, people have said she's like Frau Blucher in 'Young Frankenstein' (1974), but of course that comes from 'Bride' and Una O'Connor. We were definitely trying to make her a character out of a Whale movie."

The cast was finally rounded out by Lolita Davidovich. "She was sort of the last bit that got in place that got us all our financing. That's so much how these things get together. It's the combination of names. [For Lolita] it was only 2 days work. I'll always be grateful to her for doing it. She seems like a real 50's type. She really could capture that."

In addition to the leads, Condon had to find lookalike actors to play director George Cukor, and actors Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive, and Ernest Thesiger (who were all in "The Bride of Frankenstein" as well as other Whale films). The Cukor scene was perhaps the most pivotal. That single moment alone when the two directors meet encompasses so many secrets, stories, and history. Actor Martin Ferrero, whose resume also includes "man sitting on toilet" in "Jurassic Park" (1993), played Cukor. Rosalind Ayres played Elsa Lanchester, the actress who played both Mary Shelley and the bride in "The Bride of Frankenstein". "To me, the boldest is when they're having the pictures taken at Cukor's party, and he's having all those [flashback] images, and we cut to the bride going "gahh", and we cut right back to her. And she was good enough that we could do that." Jack Betts played the elderly Boris Karloff. "The thing about Jack is that he's a dead ringer for Clark Gable." Condon also spoke to actress Gloria Stuart, who is one of the few surviving performers to have worked with Whale (in "The Old Dark House" and "The Invisible Man"). But she was busy riding the wave of publicity surrounding her recent performance in "Titanic".

Despite being surrounded by James Whale fans, Ian McKellan was the one holdout who didn't know much about him or his work. But, after getting inside Whale's skin for a time, he has come to enjoy the films. Condon remarks, "I think he was surprised by how funny they are and how camp they are. And that really delighted him. Until then, he just thought of them as horror movies."

McKellan and Condon visited Whale's house as part of their research. "The woman who owns it now said that when she moved in she felt Whale's presence. So she had an exorcist come to get rid of him. And Ian McKellan said, 'Why the fuck did you do that?'" An actor of McKellan's enormous skill brought depths to the role that Condon hadn't even imagined. "So many moments. So many things. One tiny example where he's describing how Barnett dies, and says, 'just to give the laddie a taste' (adding a Scottish accent). Also, being offered the second martini at Cukor's party, and saying, 'just the one'. Which was his ad-lib, right there on the first day." Condon remembers being ecstatic. "Thank you! Oh God, it's going to work!"

October 9, 1998

Movies Unlimtied