There is a scene early on in Victor Frankenstein that director Paul McGuigan thinks sums up the movie. And he’s not wrong. Before the film has even toyed with concepts like gods or monsters, James McAvoy as the titular Victor Frankenstein reveals himself to be a complete and total madman. Indeed, he has been alone with Daniel Radcliffe’s sympathetic and nameless hunchback (the christening of “Igor” comes later) for all of five minutes when he tackles the sad sack like a Victorian linebacker, pinning him against the wall and thrusting a drill into his hump. Ostensibly, he is actually removing an overabundance of puss in order to help the young lad. But if that’s the case why is McAvoy laughing so maniacally as he literally slurps the liquid out with his mouth?
According to both actors and McGuigan, it was the product of both Max Landis’ script and improvisation on the day. It also crystallizes the mania that informs this very different take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story.
“James came on set and asks for some of the puss he could put in his mouth,” McGuigan recalled during a Victor Frankenstein press conference earlier this week. “He came on set and he looked at Daniel like [his character] looks in the film… and I was just like, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to kill him!’”
It should also be pointed out that this was McAvoy’s first day on the shoot.
“When I read the first scene at the circus, which is a bit of a cheesy action kind of scene, that was there and kind of set the tone,” McAvoy explained after the laughter died down. “But for me all the other scenes between Daniel and I seemed really physical… and I felt the movie needed energy and pace, and you could do that with editing and music, and things—I felt like we needed to provide that energy as well, physically.” McAvoy is keen to point out that the “siphoning of the hump” was always in Max Landis’ revisionist script. However he admittedly takes credit for turning it into the equivalent of emptying a gas tank and adding comedic beat about “pulling out” the drill.
As aforementioned, this is not what is traditionally considered to be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Indeed, as all three collaborators gathered in a Lower Manhattan hotel, the emphasis was on trying to find a new dimension of humanity in the familiar tropes associated with Frankenstein’s mythology—from Shelley or Hollywood. And that goes back to the title itself.
“What was interesting was to give Victor Frankenstein back his name a little bit,” McGuigan said. “Because every time you’re told ‘Frankenstein,’ you think of the Monster. So, it’s nice to kind of play with that a little bit.”
In fact, the film experiments with plenty of the mythology, including Victor’s iconic hunchbacked lab assistant, Igor. And by casting Igor as the main protagonist in the film (as it is through his eyes that we play witness to Victor’s simultaneous genius and lunacy), Victor Frankenstein makes a shrewd choice since Igor is not in Mary Shelley’s novel—he is derived from Bela Lugosi’s “Ygor,” who appears in Son of Frankenstein (1939), one generation removed from the Monster’s original onscreen creator, and over a century separated from his actual author.
Yet that iconography is so ubiquitous that Max Landis’ screenplay subversively places him at the heart of the narrative, which is indeed what piqued Daniel Radcliffe’s interest in the film.
“The thing I liked about the script so much is that it took a lot of preconceptions of Frankenstein and sort ideas people had about the story they think they know, and twisted them and played around with them, and had great fun with that,” Radcliffe said. “You have to sort of find ways of honoring all of those clichés, like beginning it the way we do, and then you can have some real fun kind of subverting the other ideas.”
For this film, it truly begins with a scene where Frankenstein finds a likeminded physician working at a traveling circus, universally ignored due to his curable “deformity.” He then takes it on himself to force that cure on Igor and create a sort of buddy film partner-in-crime.
Says Radcliffe, “Part of that was obviously giving Igor a back story and giving it more depth than we’ve seen in terms of that character before, and finding out why he would have this incredible loyalty to Victor and why that despite how bad he is treated all of the time, why that never wavers at all. So to have him as this sort of little creature living this abject horrible life at the beginning of the film—that he’s saved from that and brought into this world where he is empowered in terms of he’s got a say, and he’s got a purpose in life. For me that was very key in how you could understand his insane devotion to this man, even when it’s being tested.”
Similarly, McAvoy seemed most interested in exploring the root cause for Victor’s supposed madness. While Victor is certainly driven in Mary Shelley’s novel, the actual origin of that obsession is never as fully explained as in this film.
“We tried to say in a, I suppose, post-Freudian world, why is he so maniacal?” McAvoy said. “Why is he so hyper, bipolar, sort of—it’s not just because he is. It’s not just because he’s a mad scientist. [We] find a reason for that and run with it the whole movie.”
McAvoy and Radcliffe, however, seemed very happy to run alongside one another for the course of the film. During the press conference, they displayed a clearly developed, easygoing, and professionally amicable rapport. Since they were each now sporting matching buzz cuts—McAvoy had shaved his head for next summer’s X-Men: Apocalypse where Charles Xavier presumably meets his destiny, and Radcliffe is cleanly bald for Imperium, a movie where he plays an FBI agent who goes undercover as a skinhead—they even looked quite alike while trading gleeful barbs with McGuigan in the middle.
“I’ve heard lots of wonderful, bloody things about James beforehand, and they all transpired to be true,” Radcliffe said. “Across the board, whenever I said I was working with James, everyone was like, ‘Oh you’re really going to enjoy that.’ People thought of us as being kind of similar and we do have a similar work ethic, so it wasn’t so much as being surprised as discovering all the pleasant things I heard were true.”
McAvoy, conversely, summed up their relationship by amusingly recalling that same serendipitous day that he humped the hunch out of Radcliffe’s back.
“My first day on set, they tapped on my trailer door and said, ‘James, we need you on set.’ And I was like, ‘Well done me.’ I’m straight out of my trailer, I never keep anybody waiting, and I’m actually kind of quietly proud of myself. And I’m walking to set, and I just hear Daniel literally running to set. And I thought, ‘Dude are you going to do that every day?’ Otherwise, I’m going to lose weight by trying to get there before him!”
Pleasantries aside though, all three talents appear aware at the daunting task of reinventing Shelley’s classic for a saturated 21st century audience. In fact, McAvoy especially wanted to stress the entertainment value and sideways glance they were taking to material traditionally associated with horror.
“It has to be slightly dicey at times and controversial,” McAvoy said. “And that’s harder to do these days, people aren’t as disturbed as easily. We’re not disturbed by a movie that shows two guys trying to become God as much as when [Mary Shelley] wrote that book and there was massive public outcry, and you know revolutionary. Part of the fact was that it was a fucking woman writing the book. That was another level of like ‘WHAT?!’ That was a controversy back then, it’s going to be hard for us now to be controversial, because [people] can be a little shocked sometimes and a little grossed out, and [it makes for] a piece of entertainment, a piece of fun at the theater.”
For McAvoy, it would seem the key is indeed in that energy Victor brings to his creation, as well as how it effects not just the Monster he births on an operating table, but in the man he helps build in Igor’s visage.
“Max [Landis] said what really inspired him to write this is the advent of Facebook—like people have been using technology to implement massive change in the way that we live our lives, and that’s why he was inspired to write Frankenstein,” McAvoy said. “Because it was about two guys with the keys of the kingdom, the fire of the gods in their hands, really doing stuff that could be terrible or could change the world for the better. You never know. And they always vilify [them], and then five years later, we’re doing stem cell research, aren’t we?
“That’s what it’s about, those people, rather than just the Monster.”
But everyone near that Manhattan stage was aware that the appeal of Victor Frankenstein is how monstrous these characters can be without ever a trace of lightning nearby.
Victor Frankenstein quickens to life in movie theaters everywhere on Nov. 25.