Film Scouts Interviews

Bill Condon on "Gods and Monsters"

by Karen Jaehne

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How often have you heard somebody recall the old horror flicks with a giggle? Why do we smile or even break out laughing, even though they are very, very scary? Even scarier than their later, grimmer successors?

Bill Condon delves into this in a biography as impressive for its sensitivity to Hollywood history as to its independent value as a work of art. This is not scandal mongering among our icons; it's an hommage to James Whale, the man who created Frankenstein - the man who was kind enough to give Frankenstein a bride.

When Condon set out to adapt the biography-based novel, Father of Frankenstein, about the inner life of the retired James Whale, he faced more gods and monsters than he anticipated. First, there was the truly divine Mr. Whale, an English esthete beloved by anybody who's ever seen his films, Frankenstein and its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein - or the swashbuckling The Man in the Iron Mask or even Showboat, his musical. Condon also had to deal with the monstrous background of Mr. Whale's impoverished youth and miserable stint in the trenches of WWI that all the glamour of Hollywood could not relieve. Finally, Condon needed a character worthy of the aging Whale reminescences about his long and well-lived life, and that character had to be someone with whom we could identify as typical of American kids washing up on the California beaches circa 1957.

"Most of the dialogue is from the novel," says Condon, "but I had to bring things to the surface, because it's an interior novel. For example, sometimes Whale wished he could scrub his brain clean, so instead of a banal wish, I worked in a visual image of what happens when he imagines Brendan cuts his head open."

Was there a Brendan, a gardener, who unlocked the secretive director in his last days?

"Yes," confirms Condon, "but this particular character, Brendan Fraser, is invented - of course. The man who was actually Whale's lover was not as interesting. Not as pleasant - obviously, because Brendan is invented for dramatic purposes!

"I liked the idea of someone like Brendan, someone very strong and confirmed in his heterosexuality and masculinity and yet attractive and sensitive enough to respond to Whale, but not so sensitive that he's not confused when all these things come at him from this Englishman. It's all too much for Brendan. He's from nowhere and doesn't have much education...well, you get it, don't you?"

"Yes, it's very, very clear in the film. Is the party sequence at the home of director George Cukor true? Did they know each other?"

"Everybody in Hollywood still knew everybody else in the Fifties. And Cukor was gay, but not openly, as Whale certainly was. With Cukor, it was bad form. He was more discreet about it, and that rift between them was not only about their competitive careers; it was also about their openness about their relationships with all these beautiful boys. Cukor did have that party for Princess Margaret; other people confirm that."

"You show Princess Margaret as amazingly dotty. And Whale as fairly outrageous!"

"Oh, it's a parody, of course, but there are people who think of Margaret as that daft. On the other hand, the gay community in Hollywood was very split about public behavior, so it was rather surprising that Whale was invited to the party. When I was researching the film, I asked Roddy McDowell about it, and he had this instant response when I mentioned Whale - 'Oh, nobody liked him,' he said. Totally dismissed him, whereas the man has so many fans among people who love his movies. I'm not sure how many people know - or care - that he was gay."

The casting of Ian McKellan seems so unimpeachable, the film almost feels as if it were tailored for him. When was he cast?

"Well, it's that true for all the characters. You know how it works in Hollywood: you draw up lists of possible actors for every role, but as you get closer and think hard about it, the lists get much shorter. With McKellan, we were lucky that he agreed to do it, because he understood the role perfectly as someone who has worked in California. I sent it to his agent, just as any normal person with no inside connection, and he took six months to read it - but then he agreed to meet with me. And after 5 minutes of meeting, he agreed to do the picture, even though we didn't yet have the financing together.

"The most generous thing about McKellan was the way he let himself be trotted out to bankers' meetings or to backers. Whenever he was in California, he got together with me and he really campaigned for this film. It was clearly something important to him."

Condon juggles his gods and monsters by juggling time and sexuality. He directs Brendan Fraser as a man defined by his physical strength and capable of using it, when he feels violated by James Whale's homosexual overtures. And yet there's a sensitivity about Brendan Fraser that also marks his potential as the type who hangs out in the gym, showing off his trapezoids to the other guys.

Condon lets a broad grin open up his face, as he laughs at the idea. "Brendan also has comic instincts and he had a lot of fun with all that gray area between hetero and homosexuality. Part of his character is locked in the confusion he feels about his own reactions to Whale. He doesn't really know why he keeps going back - they're both lonely, Whale treats him well and tells him stories, but no single thing explains it. It's the most important thing to happen in his life up to that point. During production, Ian McKellan called me once in the middle of the night and said, that kid is blowing me off the screen, but I don't mind, I guess. I kind of like myself better for letting it happen. I thought that was really generous."

Condon is also generous with his memories of the production, an exceptionally smooth and pleasant process, from all accounts. "This was a movie," he says, "that was about movies, but it's also about the way we experience movies. They change us, and when that happens, we're beholden to that film in a way that is hard to define.

"Movies are only what you bring to them, really. But if what is important to you changes, then they've done something more than just entertain us. That's what Whale did with his work in a way that people forget. These movies are about man and creativity, and he deserves credit for it."

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