bill condon Interview

07 January 2009

Writer-director Bill Condon passionately praises the subject of his biopic

Writer-director Bill Condon passionately praises the subject of his biopic

"Gods and Monsters" is the epitome of a cinematichomage. A semi-fictional biography of the last weeks of "Frankenstein"director James Whale, it is clearly a labor of love from writer-directorBill Condon, who sees beyond the camp of Whale's most memorable works andinto the soul of a man whose films often reflected at once his inner discordand his dark sense of humor.

Condon -- a spry fellow in his late thirties with the enthusiasmof a kid climbing a tree -- has been a fan of Whale's work since his earlyinterest in film, although it was another horror movie that is his firstmemory of how powerful a medium motion pictures can be. When he was fiveyears old, he says, he saw "House on Haunted Hill" during a moveto new house, then wen't home to his first night in new bedroom. "Istill remember the terror of that night!"

A $3 million picture shot in only 24 days, "Gods andMonsters" -- which Condon adapted from Christopher Bram's novel "Fatherof Frankenstein" (and since this interview he has won an Oscar forhis screenplay) -- borrows freely and deftly from Whale's visual and narrativestyle as he envisions one conceivable scenario for events leading up todirector's drowning suicide in his own swimming pool in 1957, many yearsafter his career had bottomed out.

In San Francisco on a publicity tour in October, I metCondon at the Prescott Hotel to talk about the movie. 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 veryfaithful adaptation. The biggest things were just, you know novels arerich in the interior lives of these characters, and we're externalizingit. So that took a more dramatic shape. And taking the opportunity -- becausewe were making a story about Whale in the style of Whale -- to do thingsfrom his movies, visually. It's such an interesting ideato take the private life of a legendary director and fictionalize in thespirit 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 charactersand use them (just) as archetypes. Whale's series of strokes gaveyou great freedom to...

Condon: Oh, I know. What a great device! In thefilm I wanted to give a sense of these stabs of memory. Where in like atypical 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 howhe called me a sissy. Stuff like that. Emotional memories that get to theheart of what made him the way he was. I really think the biopic thingso rarely works, because people's lives don't have a dramatic shape thatcan be satisfying. Some of them obviously have worked. But I think it doestake some kind of bold idea -- like the one in the novel, to just dealwith 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 andpain. 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 witha gay figure, it can be seen as an addition to the necrology of gay suicidesin movies. But it had nothing to do with being gay. That was nothing todo with his suicide. It was really just this ailment he had. How did you first get involvedwith this project? Was it when you read the book?

Condon: I have been a big fan of James Whale. Ihad a friend, an older director, Curtis Harrington, who knew him. I'd heardlots of stories about him. Then I heard that Christopher Bram, whose novelsI'd read, had written about this and I got a hold of it, and as soon asI started reading it, I thought this is one that wouldn't be hurt by beingmade into a film. I thought it could make a great movie. There had beensome interest in it from big people in Hollywood, because the book hadbeen 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. And "Ed Wood" is agreat, 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 forthis movie because it wasn't successful. If we made the $4 million that"Ed Wood" made, I think everyone would be very happy. But, ofcourse, "Ed Wood" cost whatever huge amount of money. It's aweird comparison. There's Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and I guess thatthat'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. 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 whowork in that genre, and even he fought it, to try to get himself out ofthat with "Show Boat" and "The Road Back." Whale hadcomplete control (in his early movies at Universal), starting with "DarkHouse," "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, bankershad taken over (the studio) and ... to get out of his contract he had tomake three bad, horrible movies in a row. Then he went to studios and madesome good movies like "The Man in the Iron Mask," but they didn'thit. He didn't like working in the traditional studio system with peoplelooking over your shoulder all the time. He'd made enough money and itjust wasn't worth it to him. Was your "Candyman"connection how you got Clive Barker to produce?

Condon: I went to Clive (Barker) and asked him tobe involved as kind of our patron. There's somebody who has beentrying to move on from the genre as well.

Condon: Exactly. And gay, and a painter, and anexpatriate living in Hollywood, and started in theater in London. WhenI brought my cut of the movie up to his house to show it to him, I toldhim "If you don't watch it, Clive, that's how you're going to turnout!" (Condon winks ironically.) Anything changed from your cutbefore the final release?

Condon: No, no. And straight from the script. Afew changes for budget and anything great the actors brought to it. Thebad part: No time to make the movie and no money. The good part is there'snobody else. That's the return, and I'd take that any day. The beauty of independent film.

Condon: Exactly. So, Ian McKellen. You must havebeen thrilled.

Condon: Oh, my god. So thrilled. Did you have him in mind earlyon?

Condon: Totally. Because he looks like him. I mean,on top of being a great actor, physically he is just close to what he waslike. But for so many other reasons! The fact that he said yes...oh! Ijust don't know what we would have done (otherwise). And he was so involvedwith helping us get it made. Was he a fan as well?

Condon: Of Whale? No. Is he now?

Condon: Yes, he is. (Laughing.) I think he was surprisedat how funny (Whale's movies) are. How camp they are. That really delightedhim. I think before that he'd just thought of them as horror movies. Did he bring anything to movieyou didn't expect?

Condon: (Smiling broadly.) Yes. So many moments.So many things that just made it deeper. Things like being offered themartini (in the scene) at Cukor's party and saying "well, just theone." That was his ad lib and it was on the first day (of shooting).It was like "Oh, god. It's gonna work!" On the topic of Cukor, etc. Thecasting of the look-alikes was remarkable. The fact that you could go almostdirectly from "Bride" footage to a behind the scenes episodeon the set of "Bride" and it's just so smooth...

Condon: Well, to me the boldest is when she's standingthere 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 rightback to her. She was good enough that we could do that. These look-alikes must have beenhard to find.

Condon: Oh, god! There were a lot of people likeBarbara Steel, you know "the queen of horror," she was adamantthat she had to play this part. She came in three times. She'd march inand say "My fans and her fans are the same." She went Sean Young on you, huh?

Condon: Very Sean Young! It was horrible. The guy who did Karloff lookedgreat.

Condon: The thing with him was that Jack Betts,who plays him, is a dead ringer for Clark Gable. But Karloff had made alot of life masks, so that's actually a lot of makeup put on for him, whereasthe others were just look-alikes. I have to ask you about LynnRedgrave. 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'sfunny because people have said she reminded them of Frau Bleuker in "YoungFrankenstein." But of course, that comes from "Bride"! Wewere definitely trying to make her a character out of a Whale movie. That's exactly what I thoughtwhen 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 coulddo that, but stay real enough that when you saw the emotion underneathit all, it was moving. That's tough to pull off. The only Whale movie you actuallyshow in this movie is "Bride." Any reason for that?

Condon: What happens in this movie is very closeto a lot of the themes in "Bride." But I must say, my first draftof the script I had things from "The Invisible Man," too. Thepool sequence was originally much longer, the scene where he goes outsideand Clay is by the pool, and I had him sort of unraveling his own headand going over to Clay and almost touching him -- playing with the "InvisibleMan" stuff. The only remnant of that left is when he says "Makeme invisible" at the end. I would like to know how thesilhouetted transition sequences came about. The parallels in those scenesare so clear, the way Fraser looks like the monster in silhouette.

Condon: When I met (Fraser) he had all his "Georgeof 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 squareenough. He said, "Absolutely." Then we played with it so much.He is so physical and so in control of his body. Just little, little, littlehints of things that he could pick up from the movements of Karloff inthat movie. Yes. Little tiny tics, and suddenlyyou saw a flash of the monster.

Condon: Exactly. I know. It's true. And there wereideas he had. It was his idea that the first shots you see of him are bodyparts. A more obvious one I did was when he looks at himself in the waterafter he's made love. Like the first time Frankenstein sees himself. Throughoutthe 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 experiencein the first World War. Because that really was the war where medicinehad advanced to the point where people could have their limbs cut off andsurvive. So people were surrounded by grotesques in that decade. And whatI was excited by that last scene where they're walking across that cemeterylandscape from the "Frankenstein" movies, then they come acrossthe pits and you connect those two ideas. Are you worried at all aboutfinding an audience?

Condon: I'm not. To me there's so many audiencesfor this movie. Just Ian McKellen's performance and people talking aboutthat -- that's a traditional art house audience. I think there's a gayaudience because they know the novel and they know Ian. And I also thinkthere'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 Ireally think there's a substantial audience.


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