CS visits the set of the Victor Frankenstein movie, starring James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe
No matter how controlled, no matter how well organised, and no matter how calm it may seem on the surface, there’s something about the electric atmosphere of a film set – any film set – that’s reminiscent of a three-ring circus. This has never been more true than when ComingSoon.net visited the set of the Victor Frankenstein movie.
Shortly after we arrive at London’s Shepperton Studios, we’re led through the maze of sound stages, past extras in Victorian period costume, and straight onto the sound stage. Ordinarily when walking into one of these buildings, the first thing you’d see are the scaffold poles and wooden beams that form the support structures for the sets inside. Instead, as our eyes adjust to the reduced lighting, we find ourselves inside an enormous big top. One that fills the entire soundstage, complete with audience, performers, and a sand-covered floor. It even has a peculiar smell, which producer John Davis, our ringmaster for the afternoon, explains comes from the waterproof coating on the enormous poles that supported the tent.
As we’re led to a row of bleachers, the opposite side of the marquee from the throng of extras playing the crowd, it becomes clear just how much thought has gone into the construction of this set. Almost nothing that can be seen – save for the cameras, and the tracks – gives away that this is anything other than a Victorian circus tent. Even the lighting blends into the design of the set.
Not long after we’ve found our seats, the room falls quiet, the cameras roll, and a take begins. The shot is a fairly simple one, James McAvoy’s Victor Frankenstein and Daniel Radcliffe’s Igor tend to an injured woman, played by Jessica Brown Findlay, before she’s eventually carried off on a stretcher. And while the cameras focus in on the three leads, our attention is on the crowd. More specifically, the sheer number of background artists who make up that crowd. In recent years, it’s become common for shots like this to be filled with people in post by the VFX department, but as Davis explains, director Paul McGuigan “really took to the idea of wanting to get as much in camera as possible.”
As the crew reset for another take, Davis provides some context for the scene: “This is essentially the scene where these two characters meet, where the hunchback who turns out to be Igor, and Victor meet up here in the circus over the body of the fallen Lorelei, who is our circus trapeze artist and gymnast. It’s almost somebody who’s been very friendly to the hunchback, so he’s got a vested interest in trying to save her life. So it really is the first sort of meeting of all three of these characters and the beginning of what becomes this ongoing relationship between Victor and the hunchback.”
“It’s 1860, London,” he continues, “The Victorian Era, as we’re moving into the industrial revolution. And realistically, what the movie – tonally – is trying to say, too, is that this was cutting edge; what Frankenstein was doing at the time was something that was a precursor to the industrial era. The things that you’ll see portrayed in our movie, anyway, showed his vision for the future, what could be done in terms of battling death, for instance; not just life-saving techniques, but ultimately what he tries to do, which is create life from death.”
Those familiar with the Frankenstein story, either through the book, or the countless existing cinematic adaptations, may notice that this scene – indeed these versions of the characters – differ from what audiences may expect. This is a product of screenwriter Max Landis’ desire to write a movie “with a real modernity to it”, as Davis explains, “Max is the original mad genius on this project, it was his vision from the beginning, what he pitched to us, and what he eventually put on paper. I think what Max was trying to originally accomplish was a Frankenstein unlike any you’ve seen before, which is one that’s rooted in character relationships between a – maybe not mad, but misunderstood, scientist – who’s got a strong pull and vision, and the origin of his assistant, and how that relationship started.”
Once again, the cameras roll for another take, and once they cut, we’re joined by director Paul McGuigan, who provides some additional insight into the thinking behind this new version of the story. “I think what’s nice about Max Landis’ script is it cherry-picked all the things from that. Not just Mary Shelley’s book, but more importantly the cinematic history. I liked that, and thought that was really smart. You have Daniel playing Igor. Igor was never in the book, and you have this kind of partnership,” he explains, “He plays a big part in the film in the sense that he helps bring a soul to Victor Frankenstein that he’s never really had in either the book, or certainly not in any movie I’ve seen. He’s always been a mad scientist with funny hair, and that’s it. He’s not had a backstory.”
McGuigan has had experience updating franchises before, having been a director on the BBC’s hugely popular Sherlock series since the pilot episode. He’s already faced criticism for changing beloved Victorian characters, and this has informed his attitude to this new adaptation, as well as his opinion of those who hold rigidly to the source material. “With Sherlock, before I even made a frame of ‘Sherlock,’ everyone was telling us ‘what a horrible thing to do, bringing them into the modern world, that’s f*cking horrific, why would you do that?’ What we did was we gave people the familiar, we gave them the apartment in baker street, the two chairs at the fireplace, so people went all right, all right. OK. It’s not a big penthouse suite with flatscreen TV. So with this as well we’re trying to introduce people to a familiar world, but then take that away from them and do our own thing.”
At the core of the film is the relationship between Frankenstein and Igor. For this, the team brought in James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe. As McGuigan explains, “both could fit either role… It’s a reimagination, a rebirth if you’d like, the idea of starting both characters from what you think they are, to who they become. So that’s why we picked those parts for each of them.”
For Radcliffe, the reason for becoming involved with the project was clear. “There’s always an attraction to it, in the same way there was about playing Ginsberg [in ‘Kill Your Darlings’], about any kind of transformation”, the actor explains, “particularly a physical one as well – I really enjoy that. I enjoy working with hair and makeup a lot, I enjoy watching people being good at their jobs, and so hair and makeup and prosthetics and all that lot. I’ve always loved being involved in that, but this is definitely the most heavily made-up look. I’m not sure if it’s a deliberate thing, but I think most actors enjoy looking in a mirror and not seeing themselves.”
That transformation involves a prosthetic hunchback, which for Radcliffe, required some experimentation. “When I knew I was playing the part, I experimented with a few different things you can do, and a couple of them couldn’t have been sustained. I did a couple of them for a day, and had pain for a week. This is the thing I arrived at, it’s the most contorted, and the most sustainable, but it’s not long-term pain. Although I guess I’ll need to wait a while to know about that.”
One of the key requirements for the prosthesis Radcliffe wore – apart from not causing long-term damage – was that it could stand up to the physicality of the role. Radcliffe considers himself to be a physical actor, and is comfortable with aggressive scenes, but much of the time, he finds it hard to persuade those he’s performing against to engage in a convincing way. As he puts it, “Most actors don’t do it; don’t want to hurt you.” In McAvoy, however, he found a like mind.
“James and I have enough confidence in each other that we’re not going to hurt each other. It’s amazing working with James on that level; he gives 100% every time. He just throws me around.” Radcliffe explains, “I’d like to think I’ve been the most willing victim he’s ever had. Pretty much our first day actually was him repeatedly slamming me against a pillar; so yeah, that set the tone. I’ve enjoyed all aspects of working with him, but I think the physical side is what sets this apart.”
Although the two characters come to blows in the film, and their relationship is antagonistic, it begins with an act of kindness. Victor saves Igor from a life as a nameless servant in the circus, and shows him, as Radcliffe puts it, “a world where his intellectual gifts are valued rather than unappreciated, and where he is seen as a fully-fledged and extraordinary person rather than a bit of dirt on someone’s shoe.” This salvation leads Igor to develop an “insane loyalty” to Victor, which in turn drives the conflict in the film, as Radcliffe explains:
“The battle for Igor is once Victor has rescued him, and he develops this insane loyalty to him. Then Victor starts going off the deep end ego-wise. It starts off being very well-intentioned, ‘I want to create life, and do something incredible to change the world,’ and as his ego takes over, it just becomes, ‘how far can I push this? What crazy, insane thing can I do, just because I can?’, and I think for Igor – the chance to change the world for the better is something he never thought he would get, so entering into that, he’s incredibly excited, he wants to be part of that, but then the battle for him in the film is trying to work up the courage to actually stand up to Victor and to tell him to stop.”
That ego which drives Victor was something that helped James McAvoy find the character, as he explains: “He’s trying to improve the human condition. He’s trying to improve this fragile state that we all find ourselves in. He’s trying to prolong life, he’s trying to banish death. But at the end of the day he’s just got a massive f*cking ego and he’s a bit of a megalomaniac as well – no, he’s not a megalomaniac, he is an egomaniac.”
He continues, “He can’t really connect with anybody because he sees the world, all he sees is what he wants and what he wants to get out of it until he meets… Igor, and he suddenly finds somebody who is exceptional and on a par with him, and somebody who’s as fascinated with human anatomy as he is.”
In spite of Victor’s shortcomings, and indeed, cruelty, Radcliffe is still certain that audiences will be able to relate to him, and to Igor’s loyalty to him, “The fact that Victor saves me, and then creates me, gives me this identity, and a new physical appearance, it engenders that loyalty.” He explains, “In that moment, the finale of the film is set up, you need to establish that loyalty, because he treats me so badly throughout the film, that you would be going, ‘well why are you even bothering with this guy anymore?’, and actually it’s the fact that Victor at the beginning was the only person who ever saw anything in me enough to try to save me. To try to make me achieve anything more with my life. At the end of the film, he has pushed everybody so far away, that I know I’m the only person who would even possibly try to save him. It is a really nice way of tying those characters together in an extreme, but also totally understandable kind of way.”
In the player below, you can watch a new clip from the Victor Frankenstein movie! Victor Frankenstein opens in theaters on November 25.