Inspired by Mary Shelley's classic novel, the Max Landis-scripted "Victor Frankenstein" imagines the backstory to the mad scientist and his long-maligned assistant Igor. With the film finally primed to unleash its manic blend of moxie and madness, SPINOFF participated in a press conference with stars James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe and director Paul McGuigan.
The enthusiastic trio was eager to share the inner workings of the monster movie, including how it relates to Facebook, what it was like working with a Frankensteined ape, the scene that had studio executives quaking in their shoes, and what "South Park" has to do with it.
Here's what we learned:
Don't call "Victor Frankenstein" a remake
"It's not just an adaptation of the book," McAvoy, who plays the eponymous doctor, said of Landis' script, "It's not just a remake of the adaptation of previous films, cartoons, comic books, Halloween costumes. It's a combination of the entire zeitgeist-driven collective consciousness perception we have of what the word "Frankenstein" means. That's why there's an Igor in it, when he was never in the book."
As the film's Igor, Radcliffe added, "You have to find a way of honoring all those clichés, like we do in the beginning of the film. Then you can have some real fun subverting the other ideas."
What makes this Dr. Frankenstein different from those that came before?
"I think Victor's always been maniacally obsessional, way back from Mary Shelley's original," McAvoy said. "We went for that in a true sense, in a real post-Freudian world, and not just go, 'Oh, well he's a bit energetic. He's a bit obsessed.' And then halfway through the book he goes away on vacation for a year, and comes back completely healthy and sane, and it's like, 'Oh, what? The monster's alive? Oh, thank goodness, I'm really healthy now. I can go kill it.'
"What we tried to do is stay in a post-Freudian world: Why is he maniacal? Why is he so hyper-bipolar? It's not just because he is. It's not just because he is a mad scientist. So we find the reason for that run with that through the whole movie. Don't let him off the hook halfway through the movie, so when he has to go do the bad thing at the end -- which is kill his own creation -- we're suddenly on the same side as him because he's the good guy. Try to keep him discomforting, and as a sort of quixotic mercurial character all the way through."
How about Igor?
For one thing, Igor's brilliant in his own right in this version, working more as a partner than dehumanized hunchback. He and Victor meet while the former is working (and being abused) at a circus, an angle that attracted Radcliffe.
"The thing I liked about the script so much was as that it took a lot of preconceptions of Frankenstein and the story and things people think they know, and sort of twists with them and plays around with them and has real fun with that," he explained. "Part of that was obviously giving Igor a backstory and more depth than we've seen in terms of that character before, and finding out why he would have this incredible loyalty to Victor, why -- despite how badly he's treated a lot of that time -- that never wavers at all. So to have him be this little creature living this abject horrible life at the beginning of the film, then he's saved from that and pulled into this world where he's empowered and he's got a say, and a purpose. For me that was key into how you can understand the insane devotion to this man, even as it's being tested."
Of monsters and men
"Max's script starts off in a very interesting place," McGuigan shared, "because we don't actually get to the place people are familiar with until late on in the film. So, it's interesting to give Victor Frankenstein back his name a little bit. Because when you think of 'Frankenstein' you think of the monster. So it was nice to play with that a bit. Of course at some points in the film Victor does become the monster of the movie. … It's not just a monster movie. It's a relationship film about two men who have commonality in their passion for anatomy and science."
Radcliffe agreed, saying, "It's this big bold unapologetically entertaining cinematic action-adventure movie that also had at the heart of it this great relationship story about these two guys."
The bromance is real, the abuse is not
Asked whether their own working relationship mirrored that of Igor and Victor, Radcliffe said with a smile, "Thankfully it didn't mirror the relationship [in the film] at all, as that's quite an abusive relationship." However, as in "Victor Frankenstein," he and McAvoy were a mutual-appreciation society of sorts, raining praise on each other's exuberance, diligence and professionalism. "We love each other," McAvoy proclaimed.
"James is the heartbeat, and Daniel is the soul of the film," McGuigan said.
What does "Victor Frankenstein" have to do with Facebook and stem cell research?
McAvoy explained, "Max had said the reason he was inspired to write this was because of the advent of Facebook. Like, people at the forefront of technological capability, using that to implement a massive change in the way we live our lives. That's why he was inspired to write "Victor Frankenstein." It's about two guys with the keys of the kingdom, or the fire of the gods in their hands, really doing stuff that could be terrible or could change the world for the better. And how they've always been vilified, and then five years later, we do stem cell research anyway. You know what I mean? It's about those people, rather than just the monster. Though the movie still has cool monster shit as well!"
McAvoy believes his job here is to shock and entertain
For the Scottish star, staying true to Shelley meant, "It has to be dicey at times, and controversial. ... We still want people to be a little bit shocked sometimes and a little bit grossed out, and make it a solid piece of entertainment at the theater. " Tying "Victor Frankenstein"s more outrageous elements in to its emotional origin story was important to McAvoy, or as he put it "Trying to marry up the manic energy that was needed for the entertainment value of the film along with the stuff that fueled it."
What it was like working with Gordon?
Before there was Frankenstein's monster, there was Gordon, a creature cobbled together from bits of chimpanzee, hyena and deer. In the film, Gordon is created through a combination of practical puppetry, digital effects and a stunt woman in a motion-capture leotard. "In the script he was just called Gordon," McGuigan recalled, "So I went to the London Zoo and went, 'I'll have a bit of you, a bit of that, and a bit of this!'" He said in some sense, he got to be Dr. Frankenstein in this gnarled monster's creation. "Gordon became a metaphor for how the film was."
Despite the grisly appearance of this doomed beast, Radcliffe admitted warming to the curious creature. "When you hear about people who work with the Muppets, you don't talk to the puppeteers; you talk to the Muppets after a while," he said. "It was sort of similar for me with Gordon. Like I'd go up to him and like do something to him. The guys operating him, would see that I was doing something, so they'd make him respond. At which point, you completely forget that there's three guys in a box operating this. And you start interacting with it. It was one of my favorite animatronic creature effects I've ever seen."
All about the "pus-in-the-mouth" scene
There's one particularly bonkers scene that Radcliffe and McAvoy have been teasing for months now. They talked about it at Comic-Con International, and referred to it on "Today," causing host Savannah Guthrie to blush. So we wanted to know how a scene as gross, graphic and suggestive as this one developed in a studio movie. "It developed a lot," Radcliffe said with a giggle. "To the horror of our producers," McAvoy concurred.
To set the stage, Victor welcomes a ragged Igor into his grand but decaying London home, and almost immediately tackles him to destroy the hunchback's hump with the use of a giant needle, much wrestling and some rubber hosing. "James kept asking for something that looked like pus that he could put in his mouth," McGuigan began. "I was like, 'Really?'"
"I will also say, this was James' first day on the film," Radcliffe interjected, to which McAvoy nodded with a broad grin.
"He came on set," McGuigan continued, "and he looks at Dan like he does in the film, where he looks and goes, 'OK, you ready?!' It was a bit like that, and I was like, 'Oh, my God. He's going to kill him.' And James is a very physical guy as well. So it was an interesting day. That scene to me sums up the movie in a sense. The physicality, the smart dialogue, the interaction between the two, and the grossness!"
McAvoy added, "For me all the other scenes between Daniel and I seemed really physical on paper. I don't know if it's what Max intended or … whether we brought that. I feel we brought it a bit. I feel like the film needed energy and pace. And you can do that with editing, music and crash-bang-wallop. But I felt like we needed to provide that energy as well, physically. … The siphoning off of his hump, that was in the script. But the actual idea of siphoning off what the hump contained -- in terms of what people sometimes do with gasoline -- that was something that I think I mentioned to you [McGuigan] in New York. I was like, 'I want to do this! I got this idea.' And you were like, 'All right, cool.' And then I got there the day before for rehearsal, and went to the prop table and was like, 'We need some rubber hosing.' And everyone was like, 'What the fuck is he talking about?' And then everybody kept thinking this is not going to work. And arguably I thought the audience might think, 'Whoa. That didn't work for me.' But we managed to get it to work. And I'm really proud of myself."
And the line where Victor bellows to the panting Igor, "I'm about to pull out!" McAvoy said, "Oh, that was all me. There's a lot of made-up shit in every movie. You don't necessarily talk about it. … For every one line you make up that gets in it, there's like 15 that get cut because they'd be terribly over-egging the pudding. But sometimes you need to add those things -- even if they're wrong -- to kind of land what is right about the script."
"It's also a good day for me when you make all of the Fox producers very nervous. They were great by the way," McGuigan admitted, "but they did pull me aside and say, 'Is he going to do that the whole time?' Yeah. That's the way we're going to do it. Because, you know, he's quite literally humping Dan at one point. It was like, 'OK, this is an interesting dynamic.'"
"It was so great," Radcliffe agreed., "I just remember the paling faces of producers as I walked on set. ... here's a making-of featurette about "South Park" with a line where Trey Parker said, 'We always know we're doing really well when our producers look terrified.' That's a good rule of thumb!"
"Victor Frankenstein" opens Wednesday nationwide.