Like Dr. Victor Frankenstein before him, writer/director Stuart Beattie has given life to a monster — several of them, really — in I, Frankenstein, the action thriller that arrives in theaters on Friday.
Based on a graphic novel and original screenplay by Kevin Grevioux (Underworld), the film takes the creature from Mary Shelley’s classic novel, here portrayed by Aaron Eckhart, and drops him into the modern world, where he’s caught in an ancient war between heavenly gargoyles and hellish demons over the fate of humanity.
I, Frankenstein marks Beattie’s second directorial effort, following the 2010 Australian drama Tomorrow, When the War Began. Spinoff Online spoke with the veteran screenwriter – his other credits include Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and 30 Days of Night — about his budding career as a director, why I, Frankenstein appealed to him, and more.
Spinoff Online: Are these numbers right? You made I, Frankenstein on a $36 million budget, with nine weeks to shoot?
Stuart Beattie: Yeah, that’s right.
How on Earth did you survive that?
With a great deal of difficulty. [Laughs] Without a lot of sleep, and with a whole lot of planning. A lot — a lot — of planning. I’m one of those guys who believes you direct a film before you actually direct it. You direct it in prep. I did a shitload of prep, where I boarded 90 percent of the film, and it was up on the walls around the production. Everybody could look at any scene and go, “OK, that’s what we’re doing.” I had six or seven sequences done in pre-viz. When everyone got to the set, they knew exactly what they were doing.
With the actors, I went through the entire script with them, one on one, for days on end if needed. Just to be, “OK, how do you say this line? What are you thinking here? What are you thinking there? How do you play this?” So that when everyone gets there, they know exactly what they’re doing, and you’re done in four, five or six takes. For the simpler shots, it’s one or two takes. It’s a discipline. You have to a) know what you want, and b) know when you’ve got it. You have to be OK to move on.
Did you also have to identify what would be OK to lose? With such a fast production, did you have to pinpoint certain stories or sequences that you would be OK with cutting if needed?
Yeah. Gregor Jordan is a great Australian filmmaker. When I went to direct my first film, I asked a lot of directors a lot of questions. He had this great piece of advice: “You have to know the difference between a sneaker and a beard.” He made a film called Ned Kelly, and in real life, Ned Kelly was famous for this big beard. And the studio said, “No fucking way is Heath Ledger going to be in that beard.” And Gregor went, “OK,” and he regretted it every day since. Because Ned Kelly is the beard. He said, “I should have walked away.”
Then there was another film he made called Buffalo Soldiers. There was supposed to be a gigantic car chase, but it turned out they didn’t have the money or the time. So they turned it into a foot chase, and they had their character wear these red sneakers. It became this very cool thing. That’s why he told me, “You have to ask yourself if it’s a sneaker or a beard.”
You have to know when something is worth fighting for or not. You can fight and fight, but at a certain point, you have to make a decision. There were some things here in I, Frankenstein where I just dug my heels in. Other things had to go. It’s the nature of filmmaking. I mean, look: $36 million or $136 million, it doesn’t matter. You will never have enough money and you will never have enough time. [Laughs] It’s the rule of cinema. We certainly didn’t have either on this. We averaged, I think, 33 set-ups a day, just main unit. We were flying for nine weeks straight. It was a nine-week sprint. But it was all done in prep, and I believe that’s the best way to do it.
You’re best known for your screenwriting. I, Frankenstein marks your second film as a director. Was this always where you wanted to take your career, or is it just a natural progression?
I always wanted to be a filmmaker. That was always the goal, to be a director. But when I got to Hollywood, people weren’t just handing out directing jobs. But they were handing out writing jobs. [Laughs] I’ve always loved writing. I’ve written novels … I love writing. I always wanted to write what I directed. So I started learning the writing process, and I was fortunate enough to have some of the best filmmakers in the world direct my scripts: Michael Mann, James Mangold, Baz Luhrman. I was able to go on set with these guys and watch these maestros direct my scripts. There’s no better way to learn. There’s no film school in the world that can rival that.
I guess I just got on this great wave and I didn’t want to get off, because I was learning so much from these guys and having so much fun. But it got to the point where I kind of felt the fire within me and being lit under me. I felt like I could do the job now, that I’d learned enough, that I was ready. When Tomorrow, When the War Began came along, they just wanted me to write it. And I said, “I’ll write it if you let me direct it.” I basically blackmailed them. [Laughs] They said OK, and I had a great experience doing that. I thought it was what I was meant to do.
But it’s a very consuming job. I wanted my kids to be older [when I started directing], so I could be around. Writing, you’re always home. It’s great for raising kids. It’s great for those first five, six or seven years when kids just need you all the time, when they’re not in school. It’s a great job for that. So I waited until they were six, seven or eight before I started directing. When I’m directing, I’m away for six months.
Given how much of a commitment directing is for you, then, what was it about I, Frankenstein that spoke to you? What made this project worthy of making that commitment?
It was the opportunity to really make a character-driven action movie, because it was called I, Frankenstein. That was one of the studio’s two things: It had to be called I, Frankenstein. So if your movie is called I, Frankenstein, it has to be about the monster, that character. That’s a very rich and complex character. When you start to whittle that down, you can’t call it Frankenstein any more. And that happened, several times throughout development.
In so many action movies these days, character is the first thing that gets sacrificed. I just felt that this was a chance to fix that. You literally can’t sacrifice the character here. So I wanted to try it.
Can you talk about the use of gargoyles and demons in the movie? Was that your idea, or was that another studio note?
No, they wanted me to use vampires and werewolves. [Laughs] I said, “Guys, you’ve done vampires and werewolves four times [in the Underworld franchise], very successfully. I’m very happy for you, but we need to do something different.” I always loved gargoyles. When you’re trying to introduce new supernatural beings, you start with a place where people kind of know what that is. I think people kind of know what gargoyles are, and what demons are.
As a kid, I remember the one thing I knew about gargoyles is that they were up there on the lookout for demons. The idea came from there. I just started writing a huge mythology about them, with histories and biographies and backstories and everything else. I spent a good several months just creating the world, thinking through the weapons, all of that stuff. I love all of that stuff.
For example, all of the actors had to learn the “gargoyle creed,” the sacred oath. In the movie, Gideon talks about his “sacred duty,” and that’s the duty he’s talking about. I had pronunciations for all of the names, bios for every character … that, to me, is part of the job, but it’s also so much fun, becoming an expert and an authority on how gargoyles and demons do what they do. People would come to me and ask, “Can a demon do this?” And I’d distribute this information to all of the department heads, so it was there on paper, so everyone knew what we were doing. It involved a huge, huge, huge amount of writing and development.
If you’re trying to sell a fantasy world, you have to have that stuff figured out. That’s what Tolkien did. That’s why those worlds feel so real, because he came up with this stuff that made you feel like it’s a real world. So, that was always huge for me. I’m into gargoyles, I’m into demons, I’m into Frankenstein. I’m into rich characters. I’m into character-driven films. If you look at the plot of I, Frankenstein, well, there really is no plot. [Laughs] It’s a series of choices that the characters make. If they don’t make those choices, the movie ends. I think that’s cool, because then the characters are really driving it. So many movies these days are so plot-oriented, that I just tune out. I want characters to make the plot.
That’s really why I took the gig. I thought you could make a really good character-driven action movie out of this. And what I pitched three years ago is what the film is today. It took me three times to convince them. They kept saying no. I kept saying, “It’s about a monster who becomes a man,” and they would say, “No.” They’d call me a week later. “What’s the movie about again?” “It’s about a monster who becomes a man.” “No.” [Laughs] And they called again. “Well, it’s an action movie, right?” And I said, “Well, yeah — an action movie about a monster who becomes a man.” And they went, “Oh, OK.”
You said you learned a lot from watching directors work with your material. What have you learned from yourself, directing your own material? Has your process changed?
Oh, God, yeah, absolutely. There’s nothing like having a script produced to let you know how to actually write a script. [Laughs] And now, writing for directing … you get a sense of what scenes are going to make, and what scenes aren’t. What scenes are going to slow things down? One-location scenes will always be moved somewhere else, so move them now, and have them really make sense before you have to jerry-rig it later. There’s a thousand things you pick up and learn. You learn that something won’t be clear unless you really do something to make people remember, using the language of cinema.
Writing screenplays is a blueprint for something else. It can be very clear on the page, but wait until the day [of shooting] comes. A lot of the time, writers tell you something in the script. How am I going to know that watching the film? That bullshit detector starts to come out. “You just told me he goes to Yale — how am I supposed to know? Tell me he wears a Yale sweatshirt.” Stuff like that. A thousand things like that. I think it’s a mark of inexperienced writing when you’re telling me. Show, don’t tell. I could go on all day about that.