Writer-director Bill Condon passionately praises the subject of his biopic
"Gods and Monsters" is the epitome of a cinematic homage. A semi-fictional biography of the last weeks of "Frankenstein" director James Whale, it is clearly a labor of love from writer-director Bill Condon, who sees beyond the camp of Whale's most memorable works and into the soul of a man whose films often reflected at once his inner discord and his dark sense of humor.
Condon -- a spry fellow in his late thirties with the enthusiasm of a kid climbing a tree -- has been a fan of Whale's work since his early interest in film, although it was another horror movie that is his first memory of how powerful a medium motion pictures can be. When he was five years old, he says, he saw "House on Haunted Hill" during a move to new house, then wen't home to his first night in new bedroom. "I still remember the terror of that night!"
A $3 million picture shot in only 24 days, "Gods and Monsters" -- which Condon adapted from Christopher Bram's novel "Father of Frankenstein" (and since this interview he has won an Oscar for his screenplay) -- borrows freely and deftly from Whale's visual and narrative style as he envisions one conceivable scenario for events leading up to director's drowning suicide in his own swimming pool in 1957, many years after his career had bottomed out.
In San Francisco on a publicity tour in October, I met Condon at the Prescott Hotel to talk about the movie.
SPLICEDwire: I haven't read the book. What kind of departure did you make in the film.
Bill Condon: I would say in general it's a very faithful adaptation. The biggest things were just, you know novels are rich in the interior lives of these characters, and we're externalizing it. So that took a more dramatic shape. And taking the opportunity -- because we were making a story about Whale in the style of Whale -- to do things from his movies, visually.
SPLICED: It's such an interesting idea to take the private life of a legendary director and fictionalize in the spirit of his life. It's rarely done with so much exploration of characters.
Condon: I know what you mean. Sometimes, like in "Ragtime" or something like that, they're take real characters and use them (just) as archetypes.
SPLICED: Whale's series of strokes gave you great freedom to...
Condon: Oh, I know. What a great device! In the film I wanted to give a sense of these stabs of memory. Where in like a typical biopic the memories are like "Well, I did this great thing..." But this is more like as I'm lying about my father, I'm remembering how he called me a sissy. Stuff like that. Emotional memories that get to the heart of what made him the way he was.
I really think the biopic thing so rarely works, because people's lives don't have a dramatic shape that can be satisfying. Some of them obviously have worked. But I think it does take some kind of bold idea -- like the one in the novel, to just deal with the last month of his life -- to really get to the essence of a character.
He really did have a series of strokes. And it was getting worse, I guess. That's part of his suicide note: The future is nothing but old age and pain. He didn't want to be a burden, but it was almost an aesthetic choice, too. He had such a nice life.
Unfortunately when you have a movie with a gay figure, it can be seen as an addition to the necrology of gay suicides in movies. But it had nothing to do with being gay. That was nothing to do with his suicide. It was really just this ailment he had.
SPLICED: How did you first get involved with this project? Was it when you read the book?
Condon: I have been a big fan of James Whale. I had a friend, an older director, Curtis Harrington, who knew him. I'd heard lots of stories about him. Then I heard that Christopher Bram, whose novels I'd read, had written about this and I got a hold of it, and as soon as I started reading it, I thought this is one that wouldn't be hurt by being made into a film. I thought it could make a great movie.
There had been some interest in it from big people in Hollywood, because the book had been making the rounds when "Ed Wood" was coming out. But then "Ed Wood" bombed, and no one wanted to go near it. So, luckily, someone like me could come along and option it.
SPLICED: And "Ed Wood" is a great, great movie.
Condon: Yes, it's a great movie. But I must say, it was used as a club to beat us with when we tried to get financing for this movie because it wasn't successful. If we made the $4 million that "Ed Wood" made, I think everyone would be very happy. But, of course, "Ed Wood" cost whatever huge amount of money.
It's a weird comparison. There's Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and I guess that that's the thing. They're totally different movies, totally different filmmakers, totally different lives. The both worked with horror icons, and they died. That's what they have in common. But it stuck, that "Ed Wood" comparison.
SPLICED: You've make a horror movie yourself, ("Candyman 2"). Did that provide you with a connection to Whale?
Condon: There is a weird connection to Whale there. There's no question that Whale's movies are classics. They were wonderful, and successful. But there's always been a stigma attached to people who work in that genre, and even he fought it, to try to get himself out of that with "Show Boat" and "The Road Back." Whale had complete control (in his early movies at Universal), starting with "Dark House," "Frankenstein" and "The Invisible Man" -- Those movies completely represent him. But with "The Road Back," which was his real effort to get into A-list George Cukor land, bankers had taken over (the studio) and ... to get out of his contract he had to make three bad, horrible movies in a row. Then he went to studios and made some good movies like "The Man in the Iron Mask," but they didn't hit. He didn't like working in the traditional studio system with people looking over your shoulder all the time. He'd made enough money and it just wasn't worth it to him.
SPLICED: Was your "Candyman" connection how you got Clive Barker to produce?
Condon: I went to Clive (Barker) and asked him to be involved as kind of our patron.
SPLICED: There's somebody who has been trying to move on from the genre as well.
Condon: Exactly. And gay, and a painter, and an expatriate living in Hollywood, and started in theater in London. When I brought my cut of the movie up to his house to show it to him, I told him "If you don't watch it, Clive, that's how you're going to turn out!" (Condon winks ironically.)
SPLICED: Anything changed from your cut before the final release?
Condon: No, no. And straight from the script. A few changes for budget and anything great the actors brought to it. The bad part: No time to make the movie and no money. The good part is there's nobody else. That's the return, and I'd take that any day.
SPLICED: The beauty of independent film.
SPLICED: So, Ian McKellen. You must have been thrilled.
Condon: Oh, my god. So thrilled.
SPLICED: Did you have him in mind early on?
Condon: Totally. Because he looks like him. I mean, on top of being a great actor, physically he is just close to what he was like. But for so many other reasons! The fact that he said yes...oh! I just don't know what we would have done (otherwise). And he was so involved with helping us get it made.
SPLICED: Was he a fan as well?
Condon: Of Whale? No.
SPLICED: Is he now?
Condon: Yes, he is. (Laughing.) I think he was surprised at how funny (Whale's movies) are. How camp they are. That really delighted him. I think before that he'd just thought of them as horror movies.
SPLICED: Did he bring anything to movie you didn't expect?
Condon: (Smiling broadly.) Yes. So many moments. So many things that just made it deeper. Things like being offered the martini (in the scene) at Cukor's party and saying "well, just the one." That was his ad lib and it was on the first day (of shooting). It was like "Oh, god. It's gonna work!"
SPLICED: On the topic of Cukor, etc. The casting of the look-alikes was remarkable. The fact that you could go almost directly from "Bride" footage to a behind the scenes episode on the set of "Bride" and it's just so smooth...
Condon: Well, to me the boldest is when she's standing there and they're having their picture taken at Cukor's party and (Whale) is having all those images in his mind. We cut to the bride going "Sssss!" (making the famous face of the Bride of Frankenstein), then we cut right back to her. She was good enough that we could do that.
SPLICED: These look-alikes must have been hard to find.
Condon: Oh, god! There were a lot of people like Barbara Steel, you know "the queen of horror," she was adamant that she had to play this part. She came in three times. She'd march in and say "My fans and her fans are the same."
SPLICED: She went Sean Young on you, huh?
Condon: Very Sean Young! It was horrible.
SPLICED: The guy who did Karloff looked great.
Condon: The thing with him was that Jack Betts, who plays him, is a dead ringer for Clark Gable. But Karloff had made a lot of life masks, so that's actually a lot of makeup put on for him, whereas the others were just look-alikes.
SPLICED: I have to ask you about Lynn Redgrave. She floored me. When I saw her name in the credits, I was awed. I had absolutely no idea it was her.
Condon: She just disappeared in the character. It's funny because people have said she reminded them of Frau Bleuker in "Young Frankenstein." But of course, that comes from "Bride"! We were definitely trying to make her a character out of a Whale movie.
SPLICED: That's exactly what I thought when I saw her. The way her face is all puckered I thought of a Whale monster.
Condon: What was cool about her was that she could do that, but stay real enough that when you saw the emotion underneath it all, it was moving. That's tough to pull off.
SPLICED: The only Whale movie you actually show in this movie is "Bride." Any reason for that?
Condon: What happens in this movie is very close to a lot of the themes in "Bride." But I must say, my first draft of the script I had things from "The Invisible Man," too. The pool sequence was originally much longer, the scene where he goes outside and Clay is by the pool, and I had him sort of unraveling his own head and going over to Clay and almost touching him -- playing with the "Invisible Man" stuff. The only remnant of that left is when he says "Make me invisible" at the end.
SPLICED: I would like to know how the silhouetted transition sequences came about. The parallels in those scenes are so clear, the way Fraser looks like the monster in silhouette.
Condon: When I met (Fraser) he had all his "George of the Jungle" tresses and locks. But he was into, as he called it, becoming a jar head. I had to ask "Will your head look like that?" because you couldn't really tell with all that hair if it would be square enough. He said, "Absolutely."
Then we played with it so much. He is so physical and so in control of his body. Just little, little, little hints of things that he could pick up from the movements of Karloff in that movie.
SPLICED: Yes. Little tiny tics, and suddenly you saw a flash of the monster.
Condon: Exactly. I know. It's true. And there were ideas he had. It was his idea that the first shots you see of him are body parts. A more obvious one I did was when he looks at himself in the water after he's made love. Like the first time Frankenstein sees himself. Throughout the movie there are these little visual references or hints. What I like, first of all, so much of the horror images of Whale's come out of his experience in the first World War. Because that really was the war where medicine had advanced to the point where people could have their limbs cut off and survive. So people were surrounded by grotesques in that decade. And what I was excited by that last scene where they're walking across that cemetery landscape from the "Frankenstein" movies, then they come across the pits and you connect those two ideas.
SPLICED: Are you worried at all about finding an audience?
Condon: I'm not. To me there's so many audiences for this movie. Just Ian McKellen's performance and people talking about that -- that's a traditional art house audience. I think there's a gay audience because they know the novel and they know Ian. And I also think there's a big genre audience. Besides Clive Barker, there's James Whale! I mean, James Whale and the movies he created are just so popular. So I really think there's a substantial audience.