Inspiration to highlight an important life message can often arise from the seemingly most surprising places. Director Haifaa al-Mansour, who’s the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia, quickly and naturally connected with ‘Frankenstein’ creator, Mary Shelley, despite them coming from completely different eras. But both women strived to do whatever it took to find and express their voices in their respective societies, and break free from the superstitions that have been placed on them both. With Al-Mansour embracing the strength and fight that the 19th-century writer found within her, and believing that the young English woman’s life is a powerful story that feels very relevant right now, the filmmaker crafted an all-to-important film with the new biopic, ‘Mary Shelley.’
The romantic drama’s helmer, who takes whatever means necessary to bring what she deems as important stories to the screen, is regarded among Saudi Arabia’s most significant cinematic figures. Al-Mansour’s last helming effort, the 2012 drama, ‘Wadjda,’ which marked her feature film directorial debut, won her wide critical acclaim for breaching the wall of silence around the sequestered lives of Saudi women, which has helped her emerged as an important talent from the Arab world. Al-Mansour also contributed to the story of her newest helming effort, which was written by Emma Jensen.
IFC Films is set to theatrically release ‘Mary Shelley’ tomorrow in New York City, at the IFC Center, and Los Angeles, at the Laemmle’s Monica Film Center. The distributor will also unveil the drama On Demand on June 1.
‘Mary Shelley’ follows the title character (Elle Fanning), who was raised by her kindly but debt-ridden bookseller father, William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), and tormented by her villainous stepmother, Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggatt). While growing up in England, young Mary longed for a life bigger than her sheltered upbringing.
Later, as a young woman, Mary is sent to live in Scotland, after having one too many fights with her disapproving stepmother. While there, she meets and embarks on a whirlwind romance with the charismatic but mercurial poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth). As a result, her dream of embarking on a sophisticated life amongst the intellectual elite finally seems to be within her grasp. She brings her rambunctious stepsister, Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley), with her after she marries, and moves in with, Percy.
But Mary’s fantasy quickly dissipates when she realizes the harsh reality of her new husband’s moody and dissolute ways, and the fact that their living situation has also created a public scandal. Percy’s formerly high financial status is no longer secure, as his father has cut him off from the family fortune for his political beliefs. As a result, the threesome is now frequently on the run from Percy’s creditors. Mary also learns that her new husband already has a wife and a young child. But her luck seems to improve one stormy night, when a friendly challenge among a rained-in group of romantic writers leads her to invent one of the most iconic horror stories of all time-Frankenstein-before she’s even 20 years old.
Al-Mansour and Boothgenerously took the time to sit down for an exclusive interview at The Roxy Hotel in New York City to discuss directing and starring in ‘Mary Shelley’ during this spring’s Tribeca Film Festival. Among other things, the helmer and actor discussed how they were drawn to bring Shelley’s story to the screen, as she was a young woman who fought to have her own voice in the early-1800s. The duo also embraced the opportunity to have the biopic have its U.S. premiere during the New York-based festival.
ShockYa (SY): Haifaa, you contributed to the the script for the new drama, ‘Mary Shelley,’ which was penned by Emma Jensen. What interested you in chronicling the title writer’s life in a biopic?
Haifaa Al-Mansour (HA-M): I was sent the script, whose initial draft was written by Emma. I didn’t know much about the story, because I’m from Saudi Arabia. But I thought Mary’s story is amazing. She was a young woman who fought to have her own voice in that era (the early-1800s). For her to write the story (of ‘Frankenstein’), which is anchored in science-fiction and advanced technology, was surprising, because she decided not to write about love or marriage, which was expected of her during that time. **SPOILER ALERT** I also like how in the third act, the movie shows how she struggled with publishers over how to bring her work to the world, since she was dismissed as a female writer. **END SPOILER ALERT**
SY: Douglas, you play Percy Shelley in the drama. What was it about the role, as well as the overall script, that convinced you to take on the role?
Douglas Booth (DB): What interested me was that there were three incredible women who were already attached-Haifaa was at the helm, and I really love her films that she has already made. I also thought she was the perfect person to tell this story, because she’s had a similar struggle against society that Mary had as she tried to find her voice. I also think Elle Fanning and Bel Powley are two of the most talented actresses of their generation. So there was a great director and actors involved. I had a great chemistry with Elle, so I thought, yes, I’m in!
SY: Haifaa, in addition to working on the script, you also helmed ‘Mary Shelley,’ like Douglas just mentioned. How did working on the story influence your directorial style? What was your overall approach to helming the biopic?
HA-M: It was fun to work with the young actors. it was great to see what they could do with their scenes, and the energy they brought to their performances. I worked in Saudi Arabia before, so I’m always careful of what I say. So it was fun to just work with the actors on this movie to create dialogue that really fits the characters.
The film was also shot all across Europe. So it was challenging to put everything together, and like a puzzle to find all of the locations where we ended up shooting in throughout Dublin and France.
SY: Speaking of the actors, Haifaa, what was the casting process for the movie?
HA-M: We wanted Elle because she’s a former child actor who’s now emerging into more adult roles. That helped, because we wanted to show how young Mary really was when she wrote the novel. We also wanted to show how mature she was, as well as her subtleties. So we wanted an actress who has that elegance, and Elle did an amazing job with that.
Bev had just finished ‘shooting ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ when we were casting this film, and she’s really wonderful. So I thought she’d be the perfect person to play Claire. We then had to find someone to play Percy, and we really liked Douglas. The day we put him in a room with Elle, Amy Baer, who was one of the producers, and I knew we found the perfect person to play our leading man.
SY: Once the actors were cast, did you all the chance to rehearse together, in order to build the characters’ backstories, motivations and relationships?
DB: The experience of rehearsing was great. We became really close, and had a great time. When you’re stuck together in Luxembourg, there’s not much else to do but hang out with each other! So we became really close and created a great energy, which you can see on screen. So it was a really fun and collaborative process.
SY: Like you both mentioned, ‘Mary Shelley’ was shot across Europe. What was the experience of filming on location?
DB: I really enjoyed being on location, because everyone is really brought together, as everything else disappears. You really bond over dinner, and form true connections.
HA-M: Finding the locations was frustrating at times as the director, though! Dublin was a great place to film, because it looks like England and they’re not really precious about their buildings. But we didn’t have the money to make changes to the locations in Luxembourg. All independent films have those types of challenges to overcome, but that’s what gave this film it’s distinct nature. I think films have a unique life when they come together.
SY: Speaking of making ‘Mary Shelley’ independently, how did that experience influence the creativity?
DB: One of the biggest challenges on all independent films is the lack of money. Time means money, and money means time. You always want more time, and never want to lose things. We did our best, but we would have loved to have a few more days at the end of the shoot, in order to relieve the tension on everyone.
HA-M: To illustrate what Douglas is saying, there’s a scene between Bel and Elle on a flight of stairs. But that scene was originally written to take place on a roof, and their characters are looking over the world and at the sky. I really wanted to shoot the scene that way, and we had the money to build the roof. But then it rained, and the roof was gone. We had some time in our schedule, so we shifted some scenes, but we ended up up only having about a half-an-hour or an hour left. But I really wanted to film that scene. So we set up one shot, where they sit together, and it’s a beautiful, tender moment that I’m happy we captured. So it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a lot of money sometimes; if you don’t, it can actually make you work harder, and create magic.
SY: Following up on shooting the 19th-century movie across Europe, what was the process of working with the production designer, Paki Smith, to create the look of the locations?
HA-M: We built a studio in Luxembourg, because the buildings there don’t look like England. On paper, the studio looked way bigger than what it actually was. When I got there, I was like, “What?!? This is so small!”
DB: Well, our production designer, Paki, built the bookstore, and it felt very small and intimate. But we wouldn’t have been able to shoot in that setting if it wasn’t on a stage. Being in the studio let us pull walls out, and put the whole film crew there instead.
Mary was in a pressure cooker in this small, oppressive place. But then when the story goes to Scotland, everything feels big and open. Mary then runs to Percy, and she’s able to spread her wings again. I like that, and how it’s reflected in the locations.
HA-M: He should do the public relations for the film-he described that so beautifully! (laughs)
SY: What was the process of also working with ‘Mary Shelley’s costume designer, Caroline Koener, to create the characters’ looks?
HA-M: We worked with Caroline on the design of the costumes. She wanted to do research around the world, but we told her that we didn’t have the money to fly her to all of these different countries. But she insisted, and I loved that. So she traveled, and picked out really beautiful fashions. Before she traveled, she and I discussed that I wanted to make the costumes modern, and find that simplicity. She also worked with the actors a lot, and showcased their personalities.
DB: Yes, it was a very lengthy process. We didn’t want anything to feel fussy, because our characters were very much rebels and revolutionaries of their time. So we wanted to break down the customs a bit. How they wore their clothes during that time was very strict-they had to button a certain amount of buttons, and the cuffs had to be folded a certain way, for example. So we wanted to play, and loosen up the costumes. The girls revolted at one point; Elle and Bev said, “We’re not wearing corsets anymore!” (laughs)
SY: ‘Mary Shelley’ made its U.S. premiere in the Spotlight Narrative section of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. What has the experience of screening the biopic at the festival?
HA-M: This is my second film to have played at Tribeca (after ‘Wadjda’), so I’ve been here before. But it really is special to be back.
SY: The drama is set to be released by IFC Films. What has the process of securing the distribution deal with the company like?
HA-M: It’s been an amazing experience; I love working with IFC, and I hope to work with them again on other movies.