Bill Condon: Bringing a Horror Icon Back to Golden Life

Although Hollywood has a tendency to bombard audiences with overblown movies with budgets bigger than those of certain countries, every once in a while it presents film loving audiences with movies that are a far cry from those megalomanic blockbusters. “Gods And Monsters” was exactly such a film in 1998. Almost unnoticed at first, this film by writer and director Bill Condon eventually grabbed people’s attention and ultimately earned him an Academy Award for the “Best Adaption Of A Screenplay”.

“Gods And Monsters” pays homage to the late James Whale, director of early Hollywood movies that should become the foundation-stones in Universal’s history. Lovingly told by Condon and his incredible cast, “God And Monsters” shows us the last months in the life of the man who made movie history with films like “The Old Dark House”, “Frankenstein”, “The Invisible Man” and ”Bride Of Frankenstein”.

Boone (Brendan Fraser) discovers himself in the monsters and the monsters in himself through the fascinating stories of James Whale (Ian McKellen)

Boone (Brendan Fraser) discovers himself in the monsters and the monsters in himself through the fascinating stories of James Whale (Ian McKellen)

For some reason rumor had it that “Gods And Monsters” took 7 years to make, but Condon denies. “No, no. In 1995 I started working on the script, shooting started in mid 1997, so it took about 2.5 years – 3 years until it was finished. That is a little longer than usual, but in retrospect it doesn’t really seem that long.”

“Gods And Monsters” is based on a novel by Christopher Bram, called “Father Of Frankenstein”. Deeply impressed with the novel and James Whale in general, Condon decided to turn the material into a film. “I had a general interest in Whale for a long time”, he director remembers fondly. “I knew a lot about him and I had heard great stories from my friend, director Curtis Harrington, who actually knew him very well. I read the novel and was fascinated how  he was using life as a springboard to get into some interesting areas that could be nicely explored in the film. Because he was a filmmaker, it just felt right to put it in a film. “Having written numerous feature films, including “F/X2”, “Sister, Sister” and others, over time Condon had become a busy director for TV movies over the past 8 years. Nevertheless he had always kept writing and working on his own projects while delivering films for cable broadcast.

Unfortunately none of the projects got made, but with “Father Of Frankenstein” in hand, Condon knew he wanted to turn this novel into a screenplay himself. “I connected with the book so much on numerous levels and I just wanted to make sure I can control it. So I used my own money to option the book, and started writing the screenplay. At the same time I had been a little frustrated working for cable, because it’s practically impossible to do both there. You either write or you direct. The budgets are too low and the time restraints are too big.” It is a fast-paced world in TV-land and Condon decided it was time for a change and over the course of six months he wrote the screenplay for his remarkable film that should earn him Hollywood laurels.

Certain aspects of “Gods And Monster” remind the viewer of Tim Burton’s recollection of the life story of another interesting Hollywood character, “Ed Wood”. Interestingly it was exactly Tim Burton’s box-office failure that should become a major stepping stone in the early life of “Gods And Monsters”. “It was difficult to get the film made.” Condon recollects. “Ed Wood came up a lot, and studio executives literally told us that they did not want to make a movie like this. They believe audiences do not want to see this kind of movie, and to a degree they shy away from pictures about Hollywood people altogether it seems. Hollywood has bias against Hollywood stories.” Fiercely convinced otherwise, and determined to get the project off the ground, Condon took his screenplay to Regent Entertainment. “Regent Entertainment is a new company owned by Paul Colichman. We showed him the script and he liked it. From there with the help of agents we tried to get it done.” Support for the project also came in shape of another horror icon, British writer and filmmaker Clive Barker. “Clive [Barker] was helping a lot. He was kind of our patron and together we were constantly fighting to keep the project on track.”

Producer Clive Barker and Director Bill Condon confront a temporarily empty-headed Ian McKellen on the set.

Producer Clive Barker and Director Bill Condon confront a temporarily empty-headed Ian McKellen on the set.

In his film, director Bill Condon makes liberal use of the techniques James Whale had established in his own film, creating an atmosphere that adds a haunting, yet enchanting familiarity to the entire movie. It is this pregnant visual and narrative style that intrigues the viewer with all the mysteries surrounding James Whales’ death, and slowly you begin to wonder what is more significant about the story. The mystery, the homosexual aspects or the crumbling glamour surrounding a former Hollywood icon that had hit rock bottom? “The Fall-From-Grace is always interesting to look at.” Condon indicates without hesitation. “Whale was an artist who was losing his powers. It was his last chance to express himself, and I found that very interesting. Of course, the gay issues of the story are interesting, too, especially the way he dealt with them. It was not a very cheerful, positive thing. He was an older gay guy who was very lonely and had other qualities that people wouldn’t find appealing. All that was a real challenge, both in writing the screenplay and later having it acted out appropriately.” Aside from all that, there is also a natural fear of failure within all of us, and to a degree the story has relevance to all successful people. Is there a bit of a fear that the same thing might happen to him some day in Bill Condon? “Oh God, yes! It is something I take for granted. It will happen. Years ago I wrote stories for Tony Richardson, and he was a really successful, well-known figure then. Seeing him struggle was truly hard to watch. I think everyone in Hollywood accepts the fact that it will happen eventually. We are all trying to take advantage of the limited time we have, to do the things we have to make.” After the success of “Gods And Monsters” and his Oscar for the screenplay, Condon now has the chance to make the best use of his time, looking at new projects. “There are more opportunities. It’s somewhat easier now, although it is always a constant struggle in Hollywood. Getting a project off the ground is always hard, no matter, who you are. These days I am mostly approached as a writer/director as a result of the Oscar”. It is a commodity he very much appreciates as it allows him to finally get more of his own material realized.

James Whale and the "Karloff Monster"

James Whale and the “Karloff Monster”

“Gods And Monsters” tells the story of a man who became an icon of horror at the time, and the film wasn’t Condon’s first tête-a-tête with the genre. In 1995 he directed “Candyman 2: Farewell To The Flesh”, a visceral horror film based on a character created by Clive Barker. “I do like the genre a lot.” Condon explains. “I like the operative and visual nature of the genre.” After a moment’s thought he adds. “I do also feel as though it needs some re-inventing. I have been working with Clive Barker recently on the “Books Of Blood”. We’ll do a completely unrated, gay arthouse horror anthology without limits. We are trying to get something really disturbing. It could be great and I hope it works.” Considering that Barker’s publication of the same name is very dark and gory, and that most of his film translations had been watered down considerably by Hollywood studios, it is surely a project that will have horror fans salivating in anticipation.

Having directed a large number of TV movies, Bill Condon is moving in familiar territory when he is working with small budgets and heavy time constraints. But it also had its upsides. “These projects had to be done in 18 days or so, with moderate budgets of $2 million or less, but other than that I was pretty much let alone.” he remembers. These limitations have helped him structuring his work however, which came very handy once “Gods And Monsters” saw the green light. “I am very organized in my approach. I plan a  lot and we rehearsed a lot on this film, mostly because we had only 24 days to shoot the entire picture.” Comparing this to the mammoth shooting schedules of many other Hollywood productions, the result is even more impressive. “I worked everything out with the actors before and I talked to them a lot. There was always a sense that we need things to happen without having to hit certain marks on the floor. We needed to keep moving and we needed to have strong sense of the initial approach when we went into the shoot. The cast we had on this film helped a lot. We couldn’t have done it without those wonderful actors who were always prepared and always on time, remembering all their lines.” 

Curtis Harrington (Director of numerous '60s thrillers), Bill Condon, and Ian McKellen on the "Cukor" set.

Curtis Harrington (Director of numerous ’60s thrillers), Bill Condon, and Ian McKellen on the “Cukor” set.

Not unlike Tom Cruise who turned out to BE the Vampire Lestat against all odds in Neil Jordan’s “Interview With The Vampire”, single-handedly proving all infidels  wrong, Brendan Fraser turned out to be a valuable asset to the production. “I’m  the one  who brought his name up and got a lot of resistance.” Condon remembers vividly and reminds that there is a lot of politicking going on in Hollywood in regards to box office values of certain stars and their recognition within target audiences. “When we were casting the film, a number of other actors were pitched in his stead. Brendan’s box-office recognition was very low at the time – “George Of The Jungle” hadn’t been released yet, and he was mostly cast in these screwball comedies. Against my will they kept pushing us towards bigger names – inappropriate ones. I just felt Brendan was right. He was the monster with the soul. It is him. He has the rough exterior with the soft inside.” Given Fraser recent successes and his great performance in “The Mummy”, it is clear that Condon’s decision was right. “The Mummy is a great movie, isn’t it?” he enthuses. “Brendan holds it all together. It seems we discovered a new guy who can do a lot of different movies now,” he adds with a smirk of pride.

To filmmakers home video is oftentimes like a red rag to a bull – for natural reasons. TV’s inherent 4:3 aspect ratio hardly matches the widescreen and scope ratio of theatrical films, oftentimes resulting in cropped versions for home video and broadcast presentations as a result. Bill Condon remarks “What makes it easier, is DVD.”

Ian McKellen as James Whale shooting ‘Bride of Frankenstein’

Ian McKellen as James Whale shooting ‘Bride of Frankenstein’

Since most films are presented in letterboxed or anamorphic widescreen versions on DVD they maintain and restore the films’ original theatrical aspect ratios, much to the delight of filmmakers like Condon who is full of joy about his upcoming release of “Gods And Monsters” on his format of choice. “The DVD has such a beautiful transfer. It’s a great archival package. I personally own tons of Laserdiscs and DVDs. These media do things for people who care about the films, so it’s really nice to know they exist. The proportion will keep growing [compared to VHS] and more and more people will see the films in their original ratios. [When you get into DVD] you learn to accept that VHS is its own thing, but luckily it’s not the only thing any more.”

Condon has directed a large number of TV movies and it is hardly surprising that he has TV presentations of his films in mind even when he shots a movie like “Gods And Monsters”. “We shot “Gods And Monsters” in Super 35. The image was fully exposed so we could open it up for full frame presentations because I was aware of the fullscreen implications. I felt it was in the best interest of the film to go this route than doing a fully anamorphic movie. One reason to go 2.35:1 was that I was able to play with the compositions and create a theatrical movie that is more visual. Now it’s in VHS in fullframe and for people seeing it on their TV set, it seems like a photograph.” After a moments thought he adds, “Maybe that’s not such a terrible thing, too. As opposed to other movies, I do think it plays very well in that format. I don’t really groan. I prefer the other, but this is the only movie where I feel it doesn’t sacrifice too much.” Interestingly even the TV movies Condon did in the past were religiously framed for a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. “I was hoping they might be released that way some day, even if only for one screening,” he muses. You never know!

Bill Condon was heavily involved in the creation of the DVD of his Academy Award winning movie. “Universal was great!” he remembers. “The lady we were working with was fabulous. She let us in on the packaging, all of it. I am a collector and maybe that’s why it seems to m so important to get all these things right. It’s not just the movie. It’s a collectible.”

"James Whale," "Boris Karloff," and "Elsa Lanchester" on the set.

“James Whale,” “Boris Karloff,” and “Elsa Lanchester” on the set.

Apart from the presentation of the DVD, Condon has also been actively involved creating the transfer for the release. “I have spend a lot of time supervising the transfer. It took about a week for the widescreen transfer to get it right. At first we did it in a place up in Canada but it turned out it wasn’t really that good and we weren’t happy with the results” he explains. “We went up there with Universal’s Vice President, and it turned out that they just didn’t have the capacity to get the results we were looking for. So we decided to do it again, and this time we took the film to Universal where they took the cue from Vancouver and just double checked and fixed it.” Universal’s initial announcements of the Collector’s Edition of “Gods And Monsters” did not contain information about an audio commentary track, the director is quick to  correct that.

“There is a commentary track on the release. I recorded one.” Instead of focussing too much on James Whale and his work in the commentary, Condon decided  to take a different approach. “To a degree I shed more light on Whale as a character and his work of course, but only limited. Actually, the documentary on the DVD does a really good job of that. It is half about Whale and the other half about “Gods And Monsters”, so that took care of it pretty much.”

“I sort of did something I saw before and liked a lot on some other DVD or Laserdisc. It is a 2-tiered commentary. On one hand I am telling the story how the film took shape from the novel all the way to the premiere. It is the story of the movie getting made, the casting process and all those details. Then on the other hand, as I go along, I interrupt myself frequently to talk about the picture and certain specific scenes in the film. I try to give them meaning as I go along. It drives me crazy in some commentary tracks when the commentary is lagging behind and there’s a description of a scene that passed 2 minutes ago. I tried to stay with the picture at all times and as a result, I always interrupted the overall story.”

On June 8, when Universal unleashes Condon’s Gods and Monsters onto unsuspecting DVD audiences, we all will be able to see how all the effort turned out in the final product. It is definitely noticeable how excited the director is about both his films and DVD as the home video format of the future. His carefully crafted films are undoubtedly highlights for DVD collectors, as he is carefully and relentlessly probing deep into people’s psyches, unleashing their own monsters within. With that in mind, it is hardly surprising the writer and director has a degree in philosophy.

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