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Whale Redux

by Sean Axmaker
Posted 20 November 1998

I had the honor to meet Bill Condon when he appeared at the 1998 Seattle International Film Festival with his recently completed Gods And Monsters. Surprisingly boyish looking, he was also notably modest and friendly while we chatted about James Whale, mysterious Hollywood deaths (when will that William Desmond Taylor mystery be filmed?), and festival experiences as the sold-out house grabbed their seats taking no notice of a small pocket of film buffs deep in conversation. "I edited the film on Avid and didn’t get to see it on the big screen until the cut was finished," he confessed to the small group that had gathered. "There’s a shot of Ian McKellan in the beginning where he’s out of focus. It was too late to do anything about it, so when the shot comes up during film festival screenings I like to shout ‘Focus!’"

He needn’t have been nervous. The audience gave it a vigorous ovation and peppered him with questions and praise in the Q&A that followed, but the ultimate honor followed on the last day of the festival: Bill Condon took home the "Best Director" award as voted by the SIFF filmgoers.

Bill Condon began his love affair with filmmaking in 1981, co-writing the screenplay to Strange Behavior with director Michael Laughlin. The story of a teenagers transformed into murderous zombies in a small American town (though shot in New Zealand) became a cult classic and led to the follow-up Strange Invaders, a loving tribute to 1950s science fiction invasion films. Ready to strike out on his own, Condon wrote and directed Sister Sister with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judith Ivey, and Eric Stoltz, a 1987 moody psychological thriller steeped in southern gothic about family secrets and deadly repercussions. After a period of TV movies (and the screenplay to Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, where he made an important friendship with horror-punk legend Clive Barker. Barker became a godfather to Condon’s labor of love Gods and Monsters and by attaching his name helped Condon find the financing to produce his film on a tight budget. Those limitations never show in Condon’s rich, assured finished film, which is easily one of the best American films of the year.

We spoke on the phone Friday, November 6, two days after its New York opening.

SA: I just saw Gods And Monsters a second time and I was very glad I did. It’s a better film than I had thought after the first viewing, and I loved it the first time through. What amazes me is how much information you get about the characters in a short amount of screen time. I read a biography ("James Whale" by Mark Gattis) between the two viewings and I could see the characters that I knew from the history up on the screen. In the first scene, when David Lewis (played by David Dukes) comes to meet James Whale in his home there’s a real tentativeness to them, a real discomfort, until they kiss and it’s so familiar it’s the only time they are not uncomfortable with one another.

BC: Exactly, exactly, for that one moment, and then they retreat into their separateness.

SA: I haven’t read the novel "Father of Frankenstein" (which Condon adapted), but how much of the film is from the book and how much did you bring to it from other histories?

BC: Stuff like that was not so much in the book but it was me and I’d also say it was the actors because we did read, and Ian and I met as many people as we could who knew Whale and certainly a lot of people knew David Lewis and had great stories to tell about him. So it was a lot of just trying to bring that to life as truly as we could.

SA: How did you work with Ian McKellan to develop the character of James Whale?

BC: It was a lot of talking through the reality of every scene and it’s wonderful to work with somebody who is trained that way. It starts with props and costumes and sort of figuring what they do and then it just goes deeper and deeper and deeper, circling around the same ideas. Ian, as I said, spent a lot of time researching. We went to Whale’s house, we talked to anyone we could meet who knew him, and then at a certain point, about a week before shooting, we both said "Okay, that’s enough. We’ve now got to create our own character." Because even though he is of Whale, you can never capture the real person and we had things to say in this movie that went beyond the issues of his life. So it was fun to be kind of investigators for a while and then put it all aside and create our own thing.

SA: So where did Ian McKellan’s sly, sometimes coy, sometimes a tad pushy, always very debonair and witty characterization of James Whale come from? Was it from the conversations or was something you just went with?

BC: That’s right from the very initial conception, both in the novel and in the script, and it is I think very close to Whale. If you look at his movies that slyness is in there in so many different moments in just the way that he treats silly people and never takes anything too seriously. What I think Ian brought especially to it is that there are always a darker shade to each one of those moments. The slyness can then be seen as manipulation at certain points and there’s a certain kind of cruelty involved sometimes. He is this amazing actor who doesn’t put some kind of distance between himself and those not so nice parts of his own personality. When you see that, when you see the kind of cruelty for cruelty’s sake, almost, that comes out in certain flashes, that’s his own that’s coming out. He’s letting you see an ugly part of himself. It was wonderful when I realized that was going to happen and not that kind of editorializing I think that sometimes goes on with movie actors.

SA: It’s interesting that I consider myself quite a film buff but I knew almost nothing of James Whale’s life when I went into that film for the first time. His private life I mean, I knew his films, but it encouraged me to learn more about his life. Particularly the references to the war (WWI) and growing up a working class kid in London. There is a scene when he’s sketching Clay’s face and he’s talking about "dripping," and for a moment he stops talking in the Queen’s English and he says "Yes, I et dripping."

BC: Actually he says "I et drippin" (drop the g), it’s a regional accent. Suddenly he drops this cultivated upper class accent. And that was quite true of Whale. He did cultivate an upper class demeanor and accent. If you know the movies at all, Ernest Thesiger, who plays Dr. Pretorious, we see him give the toast to the new role of gods and monsters (the flashback to the set of Bride of Frankenstein), he was the real thing, he was an aristocrat who was then involved in the theater and actually had served as an officer in the war. Whale really looked up to him and treated him as a bit of a model. So that’s him letting down the veil and letting Clay, because he doesn’t really care anymore, see the real thing and again be ironic with it at the same time because it’s a performance he’s putting on, obviously. It’s not like he’s forgotten his accent all of a sudden, he’s constantly dredging it up to show what it was like back then.

SA: He’s constantly performing throughout the film. He always seems to be taking on one role or another, except in a few brief moments with Clay.

BC: That’s right, that’s really accurate. We shot it very quickly. We’d shoot these very long days and we’d all go home with our dailies on tape, low budget you know, and then I would have these long conversations at home with Ian at night and he was sort of amazed at everything Brendan did, the naturalism and the things he could convey with the slightest little moves of the head, and maybe a little concerned that he was being too theatrical. The conversation would always start that way and we would both wind up saying the same thing, though sometimes I had to remind him, which is Whale is a performer in the movie, he’s a host to his own story, and he is a former actor so there is that element of the former entertainer in him. So that that difference in style was absolutely right for the difference between the two men.

SA: Yes, Brendan Fraser has a completely different kind of acting style. In a lot of ways he’s almost the fifties style, sort of Marlon Brando-ish, not exactly the Actor’s Studio but someone who comes from within and is a lot more subtle. Which is not to say that Ian McKellan is not a subtle actor, but he gives a very physical kind of performance that comes from within and comes out, whereas James Whale’s character is someone who seems to have a lot of affectation.

BC: That’s right. That’s a great description of it. That could be a problem in a different movie, but in this movie it’s such a culture clash that it seems so appropriate.

SA: In a lot of ways I think it helps, on a character level, it helps James Whale let his guard down because he is with someone whose guard is always down.

BC: Exactly, someone who has no guard, who as he says doesn’t know how to tell stories, doesn’t have any big story about his life. It’s because he’s unformed, because when people tell stories they’re also embroidering and that’s nothing Clay knows how to do.

SA: I haven’t read the book "Father of Frankenstein" but one of the things I come across whenever I do see a film and read the novel it was based on, so much has to be condensed and cut out to get it down to feature film level. How did you go about adapting the novel?

BC: It was both cutting and it was also that process of taking these characters’ rich internal lives and making them dramatic, putting them into the words people actually say to one another, or visualizing them. For example, early on in the book Whale is thinking about suicide and that turns in the movie into a fantasy where the maid comes in finds him dead and he sloughs it off, so that gives you it’s bit of humor but it also gives you the notion that this is on his mind to some degree. So that’s the kind of thing where long paragraphs about thinking about what it would be like to kill himself turns into a short scene. In terms of the other stuff the book had a structure of one chapter in the past, one chapter in the present, and I really felt that I wanted to take advantage of this ailment that Whale had, the stabs of memory, to just not do too many full flashbacks to the past but just have these things intrude in very kind of violent ways. So that immediately cut out such a good chunk of the book. Then it was really just picking the best bits and hoping you get it right.

SA: Your movie has generated a lot of interest, in me, in delving a little more into Whale.

BC: Do you know this new James Curtis biography? Did you read that?

SA: It’s called "A World of Gods and Monsters"?

BC: Yes, that I would read.

SA: I read a very short monograph by Mark Gattis which didn’t give a lot of detail but did give a feeling for people like Ernest Thesiger. Watching him onscreen in the Bride of Frankenstein flashback was terrific. Colin Clive also. In one aside as he comes onset you get across all this insecurity and uncomfortableness he has with these two guys making jokes about the homosexual undercurrent of the characters.

BC: That’s right, and it’s fun to see the movie and see the hysteria of the performance, and then also to realize he drank himself to death two years later. He was dead by 1937 or 1938, you know.

SA: I was there for the Q&A you did at the Seattle Film Festival screening of the film and you talked about using widescreen color to evoke the period of 1950s America even though you’re making a film about a guy who made his films in the 1930s (which makes a nice contrast to the B&W flashback of shooting Bride of Frankenstein, and then the nightmare sequence that that spins around that), but used such a muted, un-Technicolor color scheme.

BC: It could have been more saturated, I just think that would have been… Whale was an aesthete and, for example his studio really was based on a painting of the studio that a friend of mine bought at a garage sale. It had to have it’s own beauty too, know, and there’s just something about those very saturated colors I think that to our eye, or to my eye maybe, that just seems so overwhelming now.

SA: It does tend to evoke a different type of response, like a musical or a Douglas Sirk melodrama.

BC: Yeah, exactly, which I love, I do love it, but if you take it that far I feel as though you’re putting a little bit of a filter between the emotion of the story and the audience. You know what I mean? That was a worry there of stylizing it that much. But obviously Fassbinder did it and other people have done that and it’s beautiful. I think I was just concerned with the shape more than anything else, that kind of Jackson Pollock, Cadillac car, that real sort of invention, that new wide American post-war shape, and making sure we had that and played with that and making him a little figure in it so often.

SA: You also use a shallow field of focus. Even in two shots you would have the foreground person be in focus and the background person out, and then you’d rack back to that person even though they were only a couple feet away.

BC: Yeah, it’s true. That doesn’t actually happen that much. We more often used that split diapter thing (a lens with a split focus allowing two halves of the frame to keep two separate fields in focus), of whenever they’re making connections then the faces are in focus at the same time. I did want to create this sense of them being separate and then together. The whole thing is such a see-saw for them and then to play with it visually and keep them on the same field or not depending on how they were connecting with each other and then having that idea come together toward the end.

SA: In those first modeling sessions they are rarely together in two shots, it’s a back and forth cutting between the two of them, and then in their last scene together they’re pretty much together in same shot all the time.

BC: Exactly.

SA: Where did you wind up shooting this film?

BC: We shot it a little bit on the outskirts because we were non-union, so we were sort of racing from that all the time. But we shot it in Arcadia, which is out past Pasadena, we shot some in Pasadena, and then we shot it in this little studio called the Occidental Studios, where actually the stage that we built the Bride set on. Robert Aldrich owned the stage and that’s where What Ever Happened to Baby Jane was shot, so even though we couldn’t do it on the original Bride stage it felt like we had some connection to camp horror history. We were always racing around town, we did a little in Hancock Park. Mostly we shot on the outskirts of Los Angeles and then to give a sense of Santa Monica before it was all built up we went down to San Pedro, and that’s where that last shot is. All those twinkling lights are actually the power plant where he (Clay) probably works.

SA: I know that a lot of the film was fiction. Was Whale’s invitation and appearance at George Cukor’s party history or fiction?

BC: That’s fiction. The dislike that they had for each other and the rivalry was real, but the actual meeting was fictional.

SA: In the very opening, and then picked up in moments through the film, you have these B&W shots of a desolate landscape and then the Frankenstein monster silhouette walking across. Did you use leaded boots like they did in the original film to give that stumbling quality?

BC: Yes, they’re four to six inches high and they are leaded.

SA: Is it Brendan Fraser?

BC: It is. There are three shots like that in the movie. The first is him moving across the landscape, the second is Whale moving alone across the landscape in the beginning of his dream, his nightmare, and the third is Clay leading Whale.

SA: They walk into the light at that point and you see their faces.

BC: Exactly.

SA: And is also reveals it to be not the Frankenstein background, which is evokes so nicely, but a battlefield in WWI.

BC: Right, which is a connection that the writer David J. Skal, who has always written such interesting stuff about movies and especially about horror movie, made that I think is so true. WWI medical advances meant that men could be mutilated and maimed but still survive, so that people for the first time after that war were surrounded by all these kind of grotesques, and he draws a direct line between that and the obsession with horror in the twenties and thirties, some of those horror images. I certainly think there’s a connection between that and Whale’s interest in horror because if you look at his movies it’s a combination of Frankenstein, obviously, that grotesque stitched up body, but also this amazing, ironic gallows humor. Gallows humor really came out of that war too because it was the most intensely horrible experience, years and years in the trenches and all that, so I was really eager to make that connection visually in a shot where you see the way that the war and those experiences would have affected his interest in expressionism and the way he treated the monster.

SA: There’s a scene in film where he talks about that gallows humor in story of the soldier he loved who got hung up on the wire and died. There’s a Howard Hawks movie called "Road to Glory" that uses that same story where a guy gets hung up on barbed wire and the soldiers see him slowly die on there and just hang on the wire. I saw it years ago but it sticks in my mind, it’s a pretty powerful image. Hearing that story in your film really evoked that for me. It’s something you don’t see in WWII movies.

BC: It’s true, it’s very true.

SA: Whale says, and I think he’s performing again, in the scene where he talks about Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein with Clay, who is not really a fan of those films but knows of them, and Whale just tosses them off and says, "Oh, I much prefer Showboat and The Invisible Man." Did that comment come from your research, an interview with Whale?

BC: Yeah, it’s a few things. A friend of mine, Curtis Harrington, knew him well and Whale refused to take anything about the horror movies seriously, he just called them trifles, and he didn’t take himself seriously. I mean he’d be horrified to hear himself described as an artist, he always pretended that they were just fun little things, but The Invisible Man was H.G. Wells and that excited him and Showboat was this big Broadway hit that he got to adapt so he held them in higher regard because they seemed to have better pedigree. It just ran through his life, that sense of snobbery. And his desire. That’s why he had this intense dislike and jealousy of George Cukor because he obviously got all the important literary properties to work on them where Whale had to fight for them, and when he finally got The Road Back it all went so bad that it wrecked his career.

SA: You sort of play with that when Bride Of Frankestein is on TV and he’s watching it with Hannah (Lynn Redgrave) and you get the sense while he’s watching it that he’s really enjoying it, that he’s actually very proud of that work.

BC: I think you get the sense that he’s enjoying all the bits of humor he’s put into it and he’s sort of poo-pooing her when she’s taking it seriously, but obviously he is taking it more seriously than that. That scene was separate in the book, but that was what made me want to do it. When I came to that bit in the novel I though ‘God, I’ve never seen this before,’ a lot of people watching a famous movie and seeing how different people’s reactions can be. She watches it like a child would and Lolita (Davidovitch, who plays the bartender Betty) watches it like a hipster would and feels superior to it and Brendan gets something in it that he can’t put his finger on it just quite yet. I love that sense of movies being only what you can find in them.

SA: After that scene when Clay is asking Whale about working in Hollywood, Whale for the first time doesn’t just repeat his old line of "Oh I’m glad to be out," he says "Yes, I suppose I miss it." Clay is the only person he’s able to open up to. So what is it in the relationship that opens him up so much?

BC: I think it’s really complicated. First of all it’s the sense that he’s a working class man, so that all those airs he puts on don’t mean anything anymore. And so I think he sees a connection to his former self and I think in a weird way that’s why the soldier keeps getting dredged by Clay. Clays sort of triggers this because there’s a sense of him at a kind of time before he invented himself that is in a nice way putting Whale back in touch with some more basic stuff. I also think there’s a real father-son thing going on. I mean it might be obvious with Clay and Whale but I think it’s in that one shot when Whale suddenly sees his father sitting there instead of Clay. I do think Clay is, again, the disapproving straight brute who Whale still kind of wants to play with and toy with and also probably desperately needs his approval so I think it’s very complicated.

SA: It’s not something that the film offers any easy answers to, which I like. It’s unexplainable in verbal terms but it’s real natural when you see it on the screen. When they go to George Cukor’s party there is a really easy byplay between the two of them and it’s really nice in the scene after the picture is taken when Whale sees Clay and sees that he’s uncomfortable, he goes over to him and Clay says "I really don’t fit here" and Whale doesn’t put on airs, he quite honestly responds "I don’t really either, do you want to go?" Whale has the opportunity to show off but instead commiserates with him and understands completely where Clay is coming from.

BC: I think that’s the real turning point in their relationship, actually, and in a way if you look at Whale’s movies it’s a nod to that because Whale had this amazing identification with the outcasts, you know, and it’s great when they both recognize that they have this thing in common that’s so basic that it helps them leap over everything that keeps them apart, that I think that recognition between the two is really when that relationship is cemented. But if you look at Whale, I mean even the way he treated Showboat, the way that he photographs Paul Robeson, he finds the emotional center of the story in that character, in the outcast, rather than in the silly goings on with Gaylord Ravenol and all of them.

SA: How long had you been trying to make this film?

BC: Three years, I guess. I started in early 1995, so actually 2 years, which is not that long. It seemed endless when we were doing it and frustrating but I guess when you really look at it it’s not that long to get from writing it to shooting it.

SA: Not at all, particularly for a film that’s not going to be an easy sell like this.

BC: That’s what’s going to be interesting to see, if people go.

SA: Did you meet Clive Barker for the first time when you made Candyman: Farewell To The Flesh?

BC: That’s right.

SA: How did you wind up landing that picture? That was your first theatrical film in quite a while.

BC: I know, exactly, out of movie jail. He’s actually seen Sister Sister and a couple of the cable movies I’d done and he’d liked them so I went to meet with him and he picked me, which was nice, very nice, and we had a really great relationship. He wasn’t around much when we shot it because he was shooting his own movie at the exact same time.

SA: Was that Lords Of Illusion?

BC: Yes, but we really got to know each other well when it was done. It’s interesting, it’s like a wartime experience itself. It’s amazing how revealing the experience of going through a movie that’s unsuccessful can be, a movie that comes out and is badly reviewed and doesn’t do well, it’s amazing how many people suddenly flee and are invisible, and I have to say I’d always liked Clive but I sort of developed a bit of a devotion to him during that process because he was so supportive.

SA: Did you show him the script or talk to him about the idea around that time?

BC: He’d been sending me stuff and we’d talked about stuff and I’d started adapting it and I didn’t think that he’d ever have any interest in anything that wasn’t his own. He had known about the novel and said absolutely he would be involved as our patron, helping us get the deal together. And then I showed him the script when it was done and we talked about it.

SA: So his involvement was mostly putting his name on it and introducing you to people, though that in itself is a big help.

BC: It’s a huge, huge thing. And I mean he’s a great person to talk to so he’s a good sounding board. He wasn’t around or anything, but it was amazing what he helped with. He has big deal agents who he could call and get them to do what they do to keep things in place when the financing looked like it was shaky.

SA: Did you design Whale’s studio based on what his real studio looked like?

BC: Yes, but it’s not a slavish imitation. That and the exterior of the house are the closest to the real things. The interior is pretty different from what his was like.

SA: You got a terrific look for the movie on what I understand was a very low budget. How did you marshal your resources to make the most of it?

BC: A few things. First of all, I think it’s the old Merchant-Ivory trick of saving all your money for a couple of scenes and then doing them the way any normal movie would, so most of the budget goes to the Cukor party, which I shot first knowing that if I didn’t shoot it first it would be scaled way down by the time we got there because of the budget, and the Bride of Frankenstein set, and everything else is just having this amazing design and photography team that I’ve worked with over and over again. Richard Sherman, who designed it, has the most incredible eye. We’re in that house for 60 percent of the movie and to create something that was so pleasing and interesting doesn’t cost money, it just takes having a great eye. The same with the costumes. Bruce Finlayson, an Australian who did all the early Schepisi movies, is wonderful designer who’s always worked on a small budget and was there doing his own patterns for Ian’s suits. It’s just having people with great taste, which seemed appropriate in this case because that was Whale.

Bill Condon filmography (as director, unless noted otherwise)

  • Gods and Monsters (1998) (also screenplay)
  • Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995)
  • The Man Who Wouldn't Die (1995, TVM)
  • Deadly Relations (1993, TVM)
  • Dead in the Water (1991, TVM)
  • White Lie (1991, TVM)
  • Murder 101 (1991, TVM)
  • F/X2 (1991) (screenplay only)
  • Sister, Sister (1987) (also screenplay)
  • Strange Invaders (1983) (screenplay only)
  • Strange Behavior (aka Dead Kids) (1981) (screenplay only)

Be sure to read the full review, Elias Savada's interview, and the coverage of the film at the Seattle International Film Festival ...

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