I interviewed Mark Kruger, writer of the Hallmark Frankenstein mini-series, by phone in September 2003.
How did you get the job to write Frankenstein?
"It was pretty simple. Most jobs you have to do your audition and go through endless meetings. The nice thing was they came to me. They had read some screenplays I had written and liked, I guess, what I brought to those stories. So we met and we talked about the script in relation to the novel, and what they were looking for. They wanted to do not just a two-hour movie but they wanted to do a four-hour mini-series which meant that you could incorporate a lot more of the subplots and scenes that sometimes, just because of time, you’re not able to incorporate. So that was a creative meeting of the minds, with Mike Moran and those guys. It was very useful, it wasn’t an ordeal, so I don’t have any horror stories."
It must be daunting to take on a story like Frankenstein which is not only very well known, but very well known wrong.
"Absolutely, very much so. But it was also thrilling. It is certainly one of the icons of western literature over the past 200 years and it has been done so often, you might think: who wants another Frankenstein? But I guess what I was looking for, my approach if you wanted to say that, was that I was looking for the humanity in it. In rereading Mary Shelley’s novel - I had read it several times over the years - I was struck by how much she had left out of the story. There’s so much that is implied, and things that happen off-screen, that we don’t see, that we’re told about. It’s a lot of people telling people. It’s Victor recounting his story to Walton, it’s the monster recounting his story to Victor, so there’s a lot of that; it’s not your typical novel. It’s a lot of telling events.
"So the challenge for me was constructing, though there’s a great structure in the book, but constructing full-blooded characters. And taking things that we’ve seen a million times before in every Frankenstein movie, and hopefully trying to just give it maybe a little bit of a different spin, so that I’m not doing what’s already been done. For me, what I wanted to bring out was the humanity of the creature. The full notion of Mary Shelley, at least what I got from Mary Shelley, was that science has consequences. There is no pure science that does not have repercussions, unintended repercussions. So our actions, everything that we do, even in the best intentions, sometimes have unintended repercussions. Another thing that I gleaned from it was that monsters are created by human beings, they’re not born. Victor’s work, in and of itself, was not really something horrible. Yes, maybe from a certain religious point of view it was immoral to do what he did. But science, in terms of what his pursuit was, the pure science, it was kind of a noble idea. He really wanted to try to help people, and the idea that maybe this could help cure diseases.
"It was at the dawn of the industrial age, the enlightenment in Europe when all these ideas were floating around, and she put them all into this one story, this incredible mythic story. For me what was so important was that idea about parents’ responsibilities to their children, how what we raise goes out there in the world and there are consequences and repercussions, and that this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. So that Victor, being younger than most of the characters we’ve seen portrayed on the screen. the times we’ve seen him portrayed he’s been little bit more mature, in his thirties. We’ve tried to make him faithful to the book, which is that he was late teens, early twenties, and he was full of the folly and the grandiosity of youth. But it’s not until he sees in the light of day what he’s done that he realises the consequences and that it’s too late to stop it. So that’s a long-winded answer."
The book has this concentric structure which is like five acts. How have you turned that into something that fits a mini-series with ad breaks and a big climax halfway through.
"Actually Mary Shelley did all the heavy lifting for me. What I did was: my first task was to go through the book and I basically extracted every scene in the book that I thought was important, that should be in the movie. I put it on file cards and I just laid it out in an outline and looked at it. And what was surprising to me was that the first act, which in traditional movie is the first 30-some pages of the script, kind of laid out nicely. I put this wrap-around, starting on Walton’s boat, and there’s maybe seven or eight minutes of that with the adult Victor right before his climactic meeting with the monster. Then flashing back to Victor as a child, bringing in members of his family, his relationship with his mother which is so important, his father and this idyllic world that they lived in. Then the death of his mother is a nice ending point of that first act, and his leaving to go to university. So that was a beautiful transition to go into your traditional; second act of a movie.
"Fortunately for me, Mike and all those guys said to me: don’t write this as a traditional mini-series, which means that there are seven acts per night. They said just write it as a movie, don’t worry about the acts, just let the story unfold in a natural way. And in doing so we found certain natural points. The midpoint of the first night is the creation of the monster, Victor realising what he’s done, and the monster taking off and Victor being left sick, when Elizabeth comes to him. So that’s a nice mid-point of the first night. And then the end of night one is Justine’s - the serving girl - trial and execution for the murder of Victor’s little brother. Then Victor’s leaving the family once again to go to track the monster. So that’s another turning point in the story, and that seemed to be a natural night one break.
"Then night two, the meeting of the monster in the beginning, where Victor really comes face to face with his creation that has now learned, has been out in the world and had experiences of love and hate and violence, and has been really wounded by it. So that sets Victor off on another task, which is the monster says: make me a mate. So Victor goes to do that and then can’t go through with it. Then there’s another nice bit which is when Victor’s friend Henry is murdered, and Victor is brought in for questioning. Clearly he’s not responsible but clearly the monster has accelerated his revenge and then there’s Elizabeth’s death. So all of that fits nicely into those natural breakpoints we want in the story. Fortunately they were in Mary Shelley’s story. I just laid them out and they seemed to me to make a nice structure for four hours."
One scene that’s not in the book is the creation scene. How did you deal with that?
"I read up a lot about science and medicine, and a lot of the experiments that were done somewhere between 1795 and 1805. the book takes place somewhere around the turn into the 19th century. So I looked at what was happening. The advent and discovery of batteries and electricity. So I took from that the idea of creating a giant battery. We’ve seen bits of that done before in other Frankensteins, but I really went to the source of what was happening in science and medicine at that point and just constructed that would be realistic, that would kind of fit into what hopefully would have been Mary Shelley’s conception of it.
"In a way, she cheats the audience because she doesn’t fill that in. It’s a line: he does it. You obviously want to visualise it because that’s a lot of the fun: setting up the laboratory, what it would have looked like back then. So my intent was to make it as realistic as possible, and I know that Kevin Connor the director and the producers wanted to give it that reality, so that it was true to the time. We were trying to be true to the spirit of the book. So that’s what I did, was try to do a little research, envision what would have been likely scenarios if someone wanted to do that back then."
It must be tricky to write because it’s a monologue, and also we’ve seen it parodied so many times.
"That’s true because I kept on thinking of Young Frankenstein and laughing. ‘Oh my God, let’s just get Peter Boyle...!’ I guess what I did was I laid in few precursor scenes that weren’t in the book that I thought were important to Victor’s development and science. I gave him a dog when he and Elizabeth are growing up. The dog has a horrible accident and he tries to revive it, first by the hocus pocus magic that he’s been studying. All the ancient stuff. He realises that that’s a sham and that’s what compels him to go to university. Then there’s a sort of parallel theme in that part of the university when he’s studying and learning, that there’s another dog, a stray dog in the streets of Ingoldstadt that gets run over by a carriage. He now tries to revive it by a medical procedure, using electricity and wires. He kind of animates it for a moment and then it doesn’t survive, so he realises that there is at least merit in what he’s doing. So I try to underplay it.
"We wanted to make it a big scene but not make it overly hysterical and manic. The fact that he does it and he thinks it’s not going to work, and then the monster moves and he totally unravels. When you take something on and you think it’s not going to work and you’re hopeful it will work but you really believe in your heart that it won’t work - and then it does and that freaks you out. I think that’s what I was aiming for: that innocence that Victor had, that fever that engulfs him to accomplish something. that sense of when you’re really young and inspired. So putting him in that place and making him young will hopefully undercut the comedy that could come out of it. I tried not to play into those iconic scenes too much because there is that danger that people will look at it and laugh. So I was trying to hit those notes but without duplicating or playing the hysteria that would make them silly. That was my intention."
How many drafts did the script go through?
"I would say there were three full drafts. The first draft was a pretty tight draft. I really tried to keep the story lean. I didn’t want to over-write it. There were things that we expanded upon when we saw how it laid out in terms of timing of the story, because things can seem short on the page but then play longer, especially action. Fortunately we were able to fill in a little more of the scenes between Elizabeth and Victor and expand that. Then the third draft was really location stuff. We were going to shoot in a morgue but could we do it in a cemetery; things like that were predicated on what they had scouted locations for over in Slovakia and Austria.
"There were a number of interstitial little scenes. Kevin would say: okay, we just cast Donald Sutherland. He’s obviously a more mature Walton, so we need to just rewrite some of his lines. So it was tailored to the actors that we cast and just time, but really I would say it was close to the first draft in spirit. It was just clarification, bringing up the emotional stuff a little bit more. What I really wanted to focus on also was Victor and Elizabeth, their relationship and their love affair. And also the creature’s learning sequence. We were able to give it a little bit more breathing room than happens normally in the movies because you don’t have much time.
"One scene that I really wanted to put in there because I felt it was psychologically important for the creature, was that he witnesses the farm family that he is hiding out and learning from, which is in the book. But I wanted him to witness the husband and wife making love, to get that emotional thing that he’s missing, that sense of closeness and connection with people. that’s obviously something that’s not in the novel. But to me it really felt important to hear Victor’s story, that he’s in love with Elizabeth and he’s going to get married and so on, and to then contrast that with the creature who has this same yearning, to want that which is truly denied him because of what he looks like and who he is. It’s an important emotional point for the creature, the tragic nature of it, I just thought that was crucial. So that was a sequence that I brought in that wasn’t in the book."
What about the dialogue? Have you had to update it?
"There’s a lot of stuff that I take from the book, a lot of lines that are really good, really strong, especially for the creature. Then what I try to do is just put it through the updating blender and do that thing that writers do: make it a little more fluid and conversational. I’ve tried to give it a little more of a contemporary feel but not too much because then it would be silly. So I’ve tried to keep the spirit of it but make it hopefully play a little more naturally."
There have been previous Frankenstein films touted as ‘faithful to the book’ but you can’t be completely faithful. Is this version ‘faithful to the book’?
"I would say it’s pretty faithful. If you’ve read the book in the past and vaguely remember it, this movie will feel pretty faithful. Certainly the major beats in the story are faithful to the book. So I would say it’s semi-faithful! It’s pretty faithful; I would not say it’s a hundred per cent faithful because it’s just not. There is stuff that’s been brought in. Obviously there are things that don’t make sense in the book in terms of the logic of it. It takes place in the Arctic: okay, realistically, coming from Switzerland, how did Victor make it there? He supposedly treks through Russia? Finland? It kind of defies logic. We play with that, but the logic of it, we try to make the story work logically and emotionally.
"There’s a lot in Mary Shelley’s book that she fudges. I’m not going to interpret for her, but my impression is that she was going to make a point. Reading the letters that she left about the story, the various writings that remain, she was writing a Big Story and was concerned about the Big Ideas, not the little nuances. It’s only about 210 pages. It’s not filled with huge sweeping character scenes. There are the scenes between Victor and the monster, those are the biggest character scenes, that whole sequence where the monster’s relaying to Victor relaying to Walton.
"I’m a structuralist as a writer. To me, that’s what’s important about storytelling, is to create the structure. So Mary Shelley gave me a really great structure, and I tried to build that house, and then shade it a little bit differently because a lot of it’s not in the book. A lot of it’s there and yet a lot of it isn’t. To me, what would make me happy is if people say, ‘Oh, it’s pretty faithful.’ To feel like it’s in the spirit of the story. I didn’t intend to do a literal adaptation because as you say, it just would not be that exciting."
What’s your own background. I know you write Candyman 2 and worked on a couple of unmade Wes Craven projects.
"I’ve been writing for a number of years out here, mostly I guess in the horror/supernatural genre. I really love it, those are the things I grew up with. I grew up in New York and moved out here in the late 1980s. I worked a little bit in the development side of the business, as an executive working for various producers. Doing that work of reading dozens of scripts a week, meeting with writers, developing projects, trying to set them up with the studios. Then I transitioned and wrote a script, and that set me off on the writing career and took me to here. Right now I’m working on a movie for CBS, a sort of supernatural thriller/love story. I’m also adapting Blade as an animated series for MTV and Marvel. I’ve written the pilot and now we’re going through some rewrites. We have animators now doing the first sketches for the series of characters. that’s been a lot of fun."
Will that happen before Blade 3?
"Blade 3, I think they’re going to start shooting pretty soon. This is kind of on its own track. The lead time with animation is pretty long. I would say Blade 3 probably will be out before the series. This is like a companion piece. MTV this year did Spider-Man as an animated series, it’s on around ten o’clock in the evening here, and that’s been very successful for them. So Blade is the next piece they wanted to do. That’s been a lot of fun because it’s a great story and great characters, but also for an animated piece you can do a lot with it. We have diverged from the movies. The movies created their own vision; David Goyer and those people created their own world. I’ve taken it in slightly another direction. It won’t just be a retread of the movie, hopefully it will be something different and fresh. Just the conception and the look of it. We want to give it its own look. There’ll be new characters; there’ll be Blade and Deacon Frost but there’ll be other characters that were not in the movies that come from the original comic book series."
Will Wesley Snipes do the voice?
"We don’t know, but I doubt it. I would be surprised if he did. Because obviously Wesley is a grown man and the MTV audience is skewed younger. So I think what we’re going to do is try to make Blade just a little bit younger. They want to keep the edginess and the sexiness and the violence in it, because what are vampires without violence and a little blood? Especially in an animated series where you can do a lot. So they want to give it an interesting look, influenced by Japanese anime, something fresh. So anyway that’s been a lot of fun. I’ve worked with Clive Barker obviously: Candyman 2, and Bill Condon was the director of that. Then Wes Craven, I did a TV pilot for him and then adapted this novel, Drowning Ruth, which is a little bit of a departure. It’s about three generations of women, kind of a suspense mystery. It was an Oprah Book Club title, much more of a female-driven story. Wes is going to direct it himself. So I’ve done a lot of stuff in this genre but I also do a little bit more dramatic stuff, and comic too. So that’s how I’ve come to it."
Have you been out to Slovakia?
"No, I didn’t make it out. I communicated a lot with Kevin on the phone and I’ve seen dailies. I’ve just had a very busy summer and their schedule was such that, the times I could have gone, they were off. The first two weeks were moving every day or two and it would have been hard to be there and tag along, so unfortunately I didn’t make it out there. I‘m thrilled with the dailies, I have to say. It’s visually stunning and I thought that Alec Newman is really good as Victor. He really has the youth and the passion. And also with people like William Hurt and Donald Sutherland and Julie Delpy, it’s an interesting cast. I’m excited to see the first cut and how it all comes together. I feel that Kevin was really faithful to my script and really took it upon himself to protect it and to protect everything that was important in it, that we felt was important storywise and emotionally. So for better or for worse, I can say that they shot my script. You hear lots of people say, ‘Oh, I blame the director.’ But I’m really thrilled. It was a wonderful experience and I feel really fortunate."