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As recounted in writer-director Bill Condon’s new film, Gods and Monsters, Frankenstein director James Whale died in 1957, after having lived in Los Angeles but long been estranged from Hollywood. Condon probably has a long career ahead of him, but he and Whale already have some things in common: Like Whale, Condon feels the stigma of having directed horror films, and he shares his predecessor’s skepticism of the movie business. Although Condon talks with enthusiasm about Whale and Gods and Monsters, the conversation keeps drifting back to the subject of how difficult it is to make good movies in Hollywood.
Yet Condon is upbeat. It’s the morning after his film’s local debut at the Reel Affirmations festival, “the best screening we’ve had,” he says. “The audience was so sharp, all over every line.
“The movie sort of needs Prozac,” the director notes. “There are such huge mood swings within moments. Sometimes I’m nervous that an audience can get away from you and be laughing at everything, but they were very sensitive that way.”
Dressed in L.A. casual and speaking with a native New Yorker’s bluntness, Condon hardly resembles the elegantly attired, English-accented Whale depicted by Ian McKellen. Still, Condon says he wanted to make Gods and Monsters primarily because of his “love of James Whale’s movies”Bride of Frankenstein, Invisible Man, Show Boat, The Old Dark House. “They’re amazing to look at now, because they’re so fresh.”
Condon explains that a friend used to know Whale and his lover, David Lewis. “So, for years, I’ve heard stories about Whale. He seemed like an interesting character in Hollywood history, and also gay history. All those things drew me to read Christopher Bram’s Father of Frankenstein,” a novel about Whale’s last days. “When I read it, I really did think it could make a wonderful movie.”
The events in Gods and Monsters are fictionalized, but they’re true to such facts of Whale’s life as his long-standing rivalry with director George Cukor. “I was introduced to Roddy McDowall, who was a great friend of Cukor’s,” Condon recalls. McDowall learned Condon was doing a movie about Whale, “and he said, ‘Oh, nobody liked James Whale.’ It was 40 years later, and he was still taking Cukor’s side! Everybody knew that McDowall was gay, but you didn’t talk about it. That was certainly the Cukor approach as well. Whale’s kind of flamboyance was a little threatening to them. At the same time, Whale was insanely jealous of Cukor. In his career, Cukor sort of had everything that Whale wanted and never really got.”
Condon doesn’t believe, however, that Whale’s departure from filmmaking had much to do with his open gayness. “He had that unique position at Universal in the early to mid-’30s, where he had such complete control over a movie. Every frame of them bears the imprint of his personality. They’re eccentric; they’re incredibly stylishgreat macabre humor, great combination of his identification with the outsider, and this strange wit.”
Then, Condon says, “He did Show Boat, sort of crawling out of horror moviesthen as now considered B-moviesand finally got the right to make The Road Back, a real serious literary production that would cement his position in the ranks of ‘A’ directors. Germany was a huge foreign market then, and Hitler’s government put a lot of pressure on Universal not to make the movie, because it was a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, which had been banned in Germany.”
After Whale’s supporters lost control of the studio, the new bosses “claimed that they were protecting Whale, but they recut the movie, brought in this other director to add these really broad scenes, and then released this complete bastardization under Whale’s name. It bombed, and that more than anything destroyed his career. He had to work off his contract, and so did these horrible B-movies. He’d lost this incredible niche. It was not fun anymore. He was already in his 50s, because he’d started latehe’d made money; he’d invested in real estate. That was taken care of. So he walked away from it.
“The only thing that being gay had to do with it,” Condon supposes, “was that at the other studios there probably weren’t a lot of other people standing in line to help him.”
Whale probably wouldn’t be pleased that his reputation still rests on his horror films, Condon admits. “He resented the fact that it was the first and only thing people wanted to talk about. He loved Bride of Frankenstein, but the ones he wanted to talk about first were One More River, a Galsworthy adaptation that’s pretty dreary, and Show Boat, which is pretty wonderful. I think that’s pretty typical, though.”
Indeed. Condon’s own poorly received 1995 horror film, Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh, isn’t mentioned in the Gods and Monsters press kit.
“Is that true?” He laughs delightedly. “Actually, it wasn’t by design.”
Although Candyman 2 bears little resemblance to Gods and Monsters, one did lead to the other. Clive Barker, who created the Candyman character, is the new film’s executive producer. “He said he’d be happy to come on as godfather and get the deal made, which he did,” recalls Condon. “He does have a certain amount of clout.”
There’s another connection, Condon speculates, between the two films: “One of things I’ve always thought is that there’s an audience, an unexpected audience possibly, of young horror fans that weirdly overlaps with the gay audience. Many of them, from what I’ve been able to tell, are young men who are gay but don’t realize it yet, or aren’t facing it yet. Clive Barker and that sort of stuff is almost a first step for them. I don’t know how exactly, but it is. I’m curious to see who comes, if anybody, to see the movie. I kind of think there are going to be people in the art houses who’ve never been there before.”
Condon’s own career also owes more to the drive-in than the art house. “The first film I wrote, Strange Behavior, was this weird little mad-scientist movie,” he notes. “Actually there’s a scene in it that I’m in’cause we shot in New Zealand and any available American had to play a partthat’s based on a scene in Old Dark House.”
As a philosophy student at Columbia, Condon started writing articles for such film magazines as Millimeter and American Film. A producer saw one of them “and called me up and said, ‘Do you have ideas for movies?’ I said, ‘Of course.’ So I avoided film school, thank God. I wrote Strange Behavior and Strange Invaders for him.”
Then Condon made one movie, Sister Sister, “which was unsuccessful and sent me to movie jail,” he says. “I had to make cable movies. Which was fun for me. It was my [Roger] Corman experience of working in different genres. There are couple of those movies I really like. And Candyman was my opportunity to get out of jail. I loved aspects of it, but it wasn’t a script that I developed. It was a frustrating, interesting experience.”
After all that, Condon considers Gods and Monsters “almost my first movie,” he says. “The experience was so different. I’ll do anything not to go back.”
The director credits McKellen for attracting the other principal actors, notably Lynn Redgrave (as Whale’s maid) and Brendan Fraser (as gardener and sex object Clayton Boone). Ironically, the film’s backers were reluctant to accept the latter. “[T]hings are so driven by overseas sales,” Condon explains. “There’s a cabal of a few guys who tell you who is marketable overseasshocking names that I just don’t believe. Jared Leto is huge. So if I said Jared Leto could play Clayton, which they asked me to do about a thousand times, we could have had the movie financed six months earlier. And Brendan’s stock was actually down then. George of the Jungle [starring Fraser] opened two weeks after we started shooting. It’s crazy. And it’s why so many of these independent movies are sprinkled with these inappropriate stars.”
Getting distribution for Gods and Monsters was almost as complicated as financing it. Although the film created a critical buzz when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, it was not acquired by a distributor there. “It’s not just that it’s gay,” says Condon, “because they do pick up gay movies, although if you look at Miramax they really don’t.”
“My theory about it,” he says, “is that Good Will Hunting has so corrupted the process that [independent distributors are] just like studios now. They knew that there were critics who liked it, and that there was a core audience, so they weren’t going to lose their shirts on it. But that doesn’t interest them. I think they need to know that every movie has the chance to be Good Will Hunting, and it clearly doesn’t have that potential. That’s the only way I could make sense of itthat they all want to have the chance of crossing over to blockbuster land.
“And they’re dumb,” he laughs. “You can’t underestimate how dumb these people are.”Mark Jenkins