The Dark Truth Behind 1994’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
It’s been more than 25 years since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein hit the big screen, sparking controversy amongst audiences and critics alike. Starring Robert De Niro and Kenneth Branagh, this was the highest budgeted adaptation of the novel, and is generally considered to be the version most faithful to the original story.
However, tension and secrets on set threatened to pull production to a screeching halt, with the producer going so far as to publicly denounce the movie.
Join us as we put the rumours to bed, and discover just what actually happened on the set of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
20. Francis Ford Coppola was originally supposed to direct the film
Initially, producer Francis Ford Coppola planned to direct this movie as a companion piece to his adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Dracula had been a huge hit two years prior, with performances being cited as ‘terrific’.
It had opened number one at the Box Office, grossing $215 million on a $40 million budget, and Coppola hoped Frankenstein would follow in its footsteps.
However, he later decided to step back and allow Sir Kenneth Branagh to direct the movie instead.
This was a decision he would soon come to regret after the pair had several long-running feuds during filming.
19. Coppola denounced the movie when Branagh wouldn’t cut the first half-hour
There was already tension between Coppola and Branagh but things soon came to a head when Coppola saw the first cut of the film.
After the viewing, Coppola insisted that Branagh removed the first half-hour from the film, complaining that it was over-dramatised.
Branagh refused to comply which lead to a bitter argument between the pair.
After the incident, Coppola publicly denounced the movie, claiming that he was embarrassed to be associated with it.
He felt that Branagh had relied too heavily on the use of metaphor, and the extravagant set and costumes only served to disguise the lack of depth.
18. Screenwriter Frank Darabont said it was the ‘worst movie I’ve ever seen’
Sadly, Coppola was not the only one to express their displeasure of the film.
Screenplay writer Frank Darabont also came forward following the movie’s release, stating that he was not happy with the final product.
According to interviews, he felt that Branagh had mishandled the project throughout.
Not one to hold back, Darabont stated that it was ‘the best script I ever wrote and the worst movie I’ve ever seen’.
He felt that there was no subtlety in the production, and agreed with critics that it was ‘overly melodramatic’.
17. John Cleese was given a prosthetic chin and teeth to make him appear less comical
Producers were initially reluctant to cast Cleese as he was usually considered a comic actor and his appearance conveyed this.
Nevertheless, they decided to give him a shot. But on one condition.
To make Cleese appear more ‘serious’, they decked him out in a full prosthetic chin and teeth.
Producers felt this would make him more of an authoritative figure to audiences, and he would be viewed as more ‘grave and sharp’.
The actor clearly couldn’t wait to rid himself of the new additions to his look and completed filming his scenes in just two weeks.
16. Nobody on-set was allowed to refer to De Niro’s Monster as ‘monster’
According to legend, Branagh banned the cast from referring to De Niro’s character as ‘the monster’.
Instead, he insisted that people refer to him as ‘The Sharp-Featured Man’, which is obviously far more catchy.
In the credits, the character is referred to by the same name.
Throughout the movie, Frankenstein’s creation is, quite aptly, called ‘the Creation’ or the ‘Creature’.
De Niro received a mixed reception for his performance, with some claiming he relied too much on special effects and hid behind his gruesome mask.
15. Arnold Schwarzenegger could have played the Monster
Before directorial reins were handed over to Branagh, Columbia Pictures were considering asking Tim Burton to direct the film.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was also being touted for The Sharp-Featured Man, which would have seen the role handled very differently.
Another contender for the part was Andy Garcia, who I think we can all agree would have brought a much-needed edge to the character.
Branagh also considered casting Gerard Depardieu, but ultimately decided he did not have a strong enough box office appeal.
However, he was impressed by the actor’s audition and would later go on to cast him the 1996 production of Hamlet, in which he played Reynaldo.
14. One prop caused some problems on-set
The ‘amniotic fluid’ used in the scenes in which The Creature was brought to life was actually boiling gelatine.
However, its slippery nature caused some serious disruption on the set.
During filming, De Niro and Branagh kept slipping and falling over in the gelatinous mess.
This happened so often in fact, that a split ended up appearing in De Niro’s prosthetic suit.
In order to keep production moving along sufficiently, the crew chose not to replace the suit, instead relying on devious camera angles to hide the damage.
13. De Niro studied stroke victims to play the Monster
De Niro was determined to fully immerse himself in the role, and decided to do his own research in order to make his character as convincing as possible.
He arranged to study stroke victims and their speech patterns to try develop his own insight into how one might approach re-learning a language.
He noticed that victims would speak very deliberately and often struggle to get words to emerge, even when they knew what they wanted to say.
He then attempted to emulate these speech patterns in his own performance.
It seems his efforts were not in vain, with Robert Ebert stating that ‘The Creature is on target, but the rest of the film is so frantic, so manic’.
12. Helena Bonham Carter replaced Emma Thompson as Elizabeth
The role of Elizabeth was originally set to go to Emma Thompson, who was married to Branagh at the time.
However, she had been offered the lead role in Carrington (1995), to which the pair decided she was better suited.
Kate Winslet was also in the running, but was ultimately turned down for the part.
This was not for lack of talent, and in fact her audition was so impressive that Branagh would later decide to cast her as Ophelia in his version of Hamlet (1996).
In a strange coincidence, Carter had played the same part six years prior in Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet.
11. Frankenstein is based on a true story
Frankenstein, otherwise known as The Modern Prometheus, was first published in 1818, when the author, Mary Shelley, was just 21 years old. And like all the greatest novels of our time, there seems to be an inkling of truth behind the horror of this fictional story.
Shelley had a morbid fascination with death, perhaps prompted by her indirectly causing the death of two people close to her, the first being her mother who died in childbirth.
Old wounds came back to haunt her after Shelley began a relationship with Percy Shelley, whose pregnant wife subsequently killed herself after hearing of the pair’s union.
During the couple’s travels around Europe, its speculated that Shelley may have heard rumours surrounding an eccentric local who claimed to have discovered the ‘elixir of life’.
By this time, both Shelleys had become preoccupied with the idea of using electricity to animate limbs, which was only exacerbated when they were recounted tales of alchemist Johann Konrad Dippel, who allegedly robbed graves and experimented on them in the confines of Frankenstein’s castle.
10. Mary Shelley’s name is in the title because another studio had the rights to ‘Frankenstein’
It could be considered strange, and certainly confusing, that Mary Shelley’s name appears in the film’s title.
There has been much speculation over the reasons behind this, although a clear answer has never fully emerged.
Coppola claimed Mary Shelley’s name was in the title because he had a habit of implementing author’s names into his novel adaptations.
This can be substantiated, with examples such as Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Meanwhile, others have claimed that producers were forced to include the name in the title as Universal Studios held the rights to the title ‘Frankenstein’.
9. 1950s Frankenstein actor Christopher Lee was not a fan of the film
The story of Frankenstein has inspired many filmmakers, and there have been quite literally dozens of Frankenstein films produced.
One of these was the 1957 movie The Curse of Frankenstein, which was also based on the novel by Mary Shelley.
The screenplay was written by Jimmy Sangster and the film was directed by the legendary Terence Fisher.
Christopher Lee, who starred as The Creature in the The Curse of Frankenstein, was asked how he felt about the 1994 version at the film’s premiere, to which he replied: “about 40 years and 40 million dollars”.
However, it seems his bitterness was uncalled for, as the 1957 film was a huge financial success, grossing more than 70 times its production cost in its original theatrical run.
8. Many of the actors subsequently appeared in harry potter
Let’s face it, Voldemort and The Creature would probably have quite a lot in common, both having been created as a result of evil, and both somewhat lacking in the hair department. But that’s not all Frankenstein and the Harry Potter franchise have in common.
Five of the actors in the movie also appear in at least on Harry Potter film, and whilst some of these might be obvious, there are some that might just surprise you.
We all know Helena Bonham Carter made an appearance as deceitful death-eater Bellatrix Lestrange, and of course, Branagh stars as Gilderoy Lockhart in the Chamber of Secrets.
But what you might not have realised is that John Cleese plays the role of Nearly Neadless Nick (to perfection, might we add), whilst Robert Hardy takes on the part of Cornelius Fudge.
Not only this, but Imelda Staunton stars in the Order as the Phoenix as everyone’s favourite villain, Professor Umbridge.
7. Branagh broke up his marriage by having an affair with Carter on-set
If you’ve been paying attention, you might recall how Sir Kenneth Branagh was married to fellow actress Emma Thompson at the time of filming.
After all, it was he who was keen to cast her in the lead role, which ultimately ended up being played by Helena Bonham Carter after Thompson decided to focus on another project.
However, this was a decision Thompson would soon come to regret. Sparks started to fly on the set of Frankenstein, but this was no faulty engineering job.
Branagh claims it was during filming for the movie that he fell in love with Bonham Carter, essentially spelling the end of his six-year marriage.
Branagh and Bonham Carter would go on to date for several years after this initial rendezvous, a relationship which was well documented in the press.
6. Emma Thompson chose not to hold a grudge over the affair
If you’ve ever been cheated on, you’ll know that commonly you will feel bitterness, anger and hostility towards the guilty party for a long time after the fact.
But not Emma Thompson! It seems Thompson has risen above the depths of despair, and has put the experience to good use.
Let’s face it, would her performance in Love Actually have been quite so authentic had Thompson not suffered a similar heartbreak?
Although initially thrust into a crippling depression with the demise of her marriage, these days Thompson claims she considers Bonham Carter a ‘close friend’.
She also speculates that hers and Bonham Carter’s shared personality traits could have been what drew Branagh to her, describing them both as being ‘slightly mad and a bit fashion-challenged’.
5. It received mixed reviews from critics
Despite its sizeable budget, the film struggled to make a splash amongst critics and audiences alike.
According to the general consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is ambitious and visually striking, but the overwrought tone and lack of scares make for a tonally inconsistent experience’.
Roger Ebert agreed, believing that De Niro was the film’s only saving grace: ‘The Creature is on target, but the rest of the film is so frantic, so manic, it doesn’t pause to be sure its effects are registered.’
However, some critics weren’t quite so enamoured with De Niro’s performance, rather scathingly stating that ‘even the Creature (Robert De Niro), an aesthetically challenged loner with a father who rejected him, would make a dandy guest on any daytime television talk show.’
It seems that generally, audiences felt the film had little substance, relying too heavily on special effects and lacking in focus.
4. it was a box office flop
If you think the critics’ reactions were bad, you’ll be shocked to hear that the movie flopped quite spectacularly at the box office.
Widely considered to be the most faithful film adaptation of the novel, the generous $45 million budget also proved a hindrance when the film hit cinemas.
It could be said that it was this that led to its downfall. The film was expected to be a smash hit, following in the footsteps of the likes of Dracula.
However, it was sadly not to be, with the movie grossing just $22 million domestically, half of which was garnered on its opening weekend.
Luckily, the film received a much warmer welcome overseas, and ended up grossing more than $112 million worldwide.
3. There are some revealing gaffes in the film
Producing a film is clearly no easy feat. It takes an eye for detail and strong precision in order to ensure all scenes are as accurate as possible.
And whilst the crew are professionals, even the best of the best make mistakes sometimes.
This is no more apparent than in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which the film buffs amongst us have spotted some serious continuity errors, as well as some downright idiotic blunders.
One of these mistakes can be seen in the scene in which William is carried in Elizabeth’s arms, appearing to bed either dead or unconscious.
However, if you look closely you can actually see his hand reach out to grab the blanket thrown over his body.
2. Frankenstein wasn’t as much of an expert as he thought
When it comes to building strange creatures from body parts, Frankenstein is clearly your go-to guy.
However, despite his many years of practice, it seems that Baron Frankenstein wasn’t quite the expert you might expect.
In one scene, he states that hair and nails continue to grow after death.
Whilst this is a commonly believed myth, the science behind it has been debunked in various studies and research trials.
While it might appear that the nails and hair of a recently deceased person continue to grow, this is actually caused by the skin receding, revealing the hair and nail tissue underneath.
1. It was Hugh Bonneville’s theatrical movie debut
Now perhaps best known for his role as Robert Crawley in the popular British historical drama, Downtown Abbey, Bonneville made his film debut in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
He played the part of the bullying medical student, Schiller, and after his appearance in the film he soon found himself being thrust him into the limelight.
He would go onto appear in many popular films, including Notting Hill and more recently, Paddington (which is rather ironic, seeing as he was actually born in Paddington, London).
Another prominent actor involved in the movie was Fay Ripley, who actually filmed a small role.
In the scene, she was bitten by De Niro, but her character was ultimately edited out of the final cut.