Having an internationally infamous name can be an equally beneficial and exasperating experience for people who are intensely determined and motivated to find success in their chosen field of work. The title character in the upcoming sci-fi horror film, ‘Victor Frankenstein,’ which 20th Century Fox will distribute into theaters nationwide on Wednesday, thrives on his family’s name to obtain renowned fame as a scientist. Audiences have long embraced the 1818 novel by Mary Shelley that launched the Frankenstein story, as the writer emotionally emphasized how the title character yearned to achieve his own success, even though he has to rely on the help of his family’s influence.
‘Victor Frankenstein’ intriguingly relies on vital information that was originally featured in Shelley’s centuries-old story to captivate viewers and engage their nostalgia. But director Paul McGuigan also creatively reimagined the Frankenstein mythos, including the title scientist’s motivations in creating his creature, in the latest retelling. The filmmaker commendably strove to prove in the sci-fi drama that he could offer more powerful and unique insight into a beloved character, who needed the recognition of his family’s name to succeed, even though they didn’t support his ambitions.
‘Victor Frankenstein,’ which was written by Max Landis, follows a hunchback nameless clown (Daniel Radcliffe) who dreams of finally escaping his life-long imprisonment at the circus. His only form of escapism is his devotion to his medical studies, which the other circus performers strongly disapprove of, as they think it’s his way of rebelling against them. But after the radical title scientist (James McAvoy) visits the circus in his quest to create life in his lab, he witnesses the clown save the life of his fellow performer, Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay).
So Victor decides to help the clown escape the circus, so that he can become his assistant, and help him in his groundbreaking research into immortality. Victor and his new protégé, who he names Igor, set out to bring their noble vision of indefinitely expanding people’s lives to fruition. But when the creature they created together ultimately threatens to put their lives in grave danger, as it lacks any true humanity and compassion for its designers, it’s up to Igor to save his mentor from the monster that was supposed to fulfill their aspirations.
McAvoy, Radcliffe and McGuigan generously took the time recently to talk about starring in, and directing, ‘Victor Frankenstein’ at New York City’s Crosby Street Hotel. Among other things, the actors and director discussed how McAvoy and Radcliffe’s relationship is quite different from the once Victor and Igor have in the horror drama, as they both respect each other’s professionalism and work ethic, whereas the title character often took his new assistant for granted; and how, unlike in Shelley’s book, Victor remains an erratic and impulsive character all the way through the film, as he determinedly tries to redeem his past mistakes through the invention of his creature, which he feels can save humanity through its immortality.
Question (Q): Daniel and James, how did your working relationship mirror the fascinating dynamic between Victor and Igor?
Daniel Radcliffe (DR): Thankfully, our relationship didn’t mirror the relationship between the characters at all, in the sense that Victor and Igor’s relationship is quite an abusive one. I think James and I are fairly similar, in terms of our work ethic, and the fact that we take the job seriously and we’re focused. But we’re lucky that we get to work in an industry where we can have a lot of fun while doing our jobs. The job was great, but thankfully, I was not indebted to James forever, and he was abusing me and hitting me. It wasn’t like that.
James McAvoy (JM): For me, the roles were reversed in one big way, in that Daniel is the most professional actor I’ve ever worked with in my life. I pride myself in being very professional, but to be like, ‘Wow, I’m learning from him,’ was nuts.
DR: That is weird.
JM: You’re ten years younger than me, but you’re actually way more experienced than I am. You’re also more professional than some other people I’ve worked with, who have been in the business for 40 years. It’s to be admired. We love each other!
DR: I’m dying over here.
Paul McGuigan (PM): I’m a great believer in working with people who you admire, especially those who you have collaborated with before, and you know exactly how they work and what they’re capable of doing. I’d work with James and Daniel again in a heartbeat, because I saw the amount of effort they both put into their work. They talk about being professional, but it goes beyond that. If you want to be smart, you just get the people who you know are your favorite actors, and with whom you like to work.
Q: James and Daniel, can you both talk about your roles, and how different they are to preconceptions people have about Igor and Victor from the ‘Frankenstein’ universe?
JM: I think Victor has always been maniacally obsessional, even as far back as in Mary Shelley’s original. 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.
DR: 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. 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.
Q: Igor also lost his hunchback after he met Victor in the film.
DR: That was one of the things I liked in the script. You have to find ways of honoring all those clichés at the beginning of the film, and then you can have some real fun subverting the other ideas that people have about the story.
PM: 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.
JM: It’s a book of two halves. The first half is about a scientist’s obsession. The second half is much more a Pinocchio story of an existential development of a monster going, ‘I want to be a real boy.’ We still get that Pinocchio story, but we get it through Daniel’s character. The film is about the people that actually exist, as well as scientists.
Max has said he was inspired to write this script because of the advent of Facebook. 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.
Q: Daniel and James, since you were playing iconic characters, what did you learn about them as you were trying to define them?
JM: 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. 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.
PM: 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.
DR: The thing I loved about the script when I read it was it was this big, bold, unapologetically entertaining cinematic action-adventure movie. 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.
Q: How was it working with Gordon, the first creature Victor and Igor create, in both the digital and physical incarnations?
DR: Gordon was great. We’ve discovered on the press tour that actually not everyone thinks Gordon is very cute! Since we spent so much time around him, we became a little de-sensitized! It’s like when you hear about people who work with the Muppets; they don’t talk to the animators, and instead just talk to the Muppets after a while.
It was similar with Gordon for me. I would go up and do something to him. Then the guys operating him would see that I was doing something, and would make him respond. At that point, I completely forgot there were three guys in a box who operating him. It was one of my favorite animatronic creature effect things I’ve ever seen. I also got to do a lot of my fighting with one of the stunt girls who played Gordon.
PM: A CG version of Gordon wasn’t used until the point when he started. But up until that point, it was animatronic, which I like. These guys were doing their own stunts. Daniel was hanging off a staircase with a stunt girl attached to him.
Q: Since the film is about friendship and loyalty, what is your friendship like, Daniel and James?
DR: I’d heard lots of wonderful and lovely things about James, and they’d all transpired to be true. When I said I was working with James, everyone said, “Oh you’re really going to enjoy that.” People thought we’re similar, and I do think we have a fairly similar work ethic. It wasn’t so much being surprised as it was discovering all the pleasant things I’d heard about him were true, which is nice!
JM: On my first day on set, they came to my trailer door and said, “James, we need you on set.” I thought, “I’m ready. Well done me, I’m straight out of my trailer and not keeping anyone waiting.” I was quietly proud of myself. But then as I was walking to set, I heard Daniel literally running, and I thought, is he going to do that every day? If he does, I’m going to lose weight by competitively trying to get there before him.
Daniel’s enthusiasm for what it is we do sounds like it should be taken for granted, but it’s actually not always the case. There are a lot of people who have a very self-harming, dysfunctional relationship with acting. Ii=t’s not good for them, they don’t like it, it makes them feel horrible and they hate everybody for making them do it. Yet they’re really successful, and have been doing it for a long time.
Whereas what’s really cool about Daniel is that he thinks, this is our job, we’re good at it and we really enjoy doing it. Yes, some days are harder than others, and some days aren’t fun, but that’s life.’ I just love that attitude because there isn’t a level of front to get through before you get to the attitude of, shall we do some nice work and enjoy ourselves?
Q: What was the process of filming the hunchback depletion scene?
JM: (It developed) to the horror of our producers!
PM: James went on set and asked for something that looks like pus that he can put in his mouth. Everyone was like, really? It was his first day on set because we’d done a week of shooting before he was available for us. He looked at Dan and goes, “Okay, you’re ready?” I thought, oh my God, he’s going to kill him! James is very physical, and Dan is, as well, so it was an interesting day. To me, that scene sums up the movie in a sense- the physicality, smart dialogue, the interaction between the two and the transformation.
DR: And the grossness.
JM: The first scene at the circus, which is a bit of a cheesy, action one, helped set the tone. But for me, all the other scenes between Daniel and I seemed really physical. I don’t know whether that was what Max intended, or whether we brought that. But I do feel that we brought it a bit. I feel the film needed energy and pace, and you can do that with editing and music. But I felt we needed to provide that physical energy.
The siphoning off the hump was in the script. But the actual idea of siphoning off what the hump contained, the same way people sometimes do with gasoline, was my idea. We got to the set the day before we shot the scene, so that we could a quick rehearsal. I said to the prop guys, “We need some rubber hosing.” They asked, “What’s he talking about?” But we did get the rubber hosing, and everybody kept thinking, this just is not going to work. Arguably, a lot of the audience might think, that didn’t work for me. But we managed to get it to work, and I’m really proud of myself.
Check out Shockya’s exclusive photos from the New York ‘Victor Frankenstein’ press conference below.
Written by: Karen Benardello