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Interview with Sam Ashurst director of Frankenstein's Creature
By James W, Saturday 25th August 2018
HC: Why did you choose to film James Swanton's acclaimed play, Frankenstein's Creature?
SA: I made a music video for Channel 4, and they gave me a small budget to shoot it in a day. The budget was small enough to raise independently, and I looked around me and realised I had all the crew I needed to shoot an actual feature film, not just a music video - if only I could shoot a film in a day! Then my friend Dan Martin, who did the effects for films like Human Centipede II and Freefire, said that he'd been given advice that if you want to shoot a film in a short space of time, you should option a play. I'd worked with James on another, much smaller thing, and was blown away by his talent. I knew he had a one-man Frankenstein play that he'd written and performed, so I asked him to send it to me. It was one of the best pieces of writing I've ever read, it gave me the same feeling as Rutger Hauer's 'Tears In Rain' Blade Runner speech, so I immediately asked to option it. Thankfully James trusted me enough to let me adapt it!
HC: It plays out like a confessional from the creature itself, as if it's pouring its heart out, did you fear this theme would be lost?
SA: This is a great question - I'm not actually concerned the theme will be lost, as I feel like there's a couple of ways to read the film, and I'm open to all of them. The film version has a new narrative as far as I'm concerned, I see it in a different way to the original piece, because of the elements we've added, and the location and so on, but I'm happy for people to experience it however they want. What I am hoping people really appreciate is what a feat of acting this is from James, how complex a performance he delivers in one take - he commands the screen for 90 minutes. I just hope people don't think we've tricked them with hidden edits - it's all James, and it's unreal.
HC: How did you go about transferring it into a piece on cinematic theatre?
SA: We shot it on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's novel, so I thought it would be cool to try to imagine what it would be like if there'd been a feature-length adaptation back then. I thought it would be fun to make my first film in the style of the very first films, which I haven't really seen before. So, I combined the approaches of the two main pioneers of cinema, the Lumiere brothers (who used a fixed camera to make very representative films) and Georges Melies (who used costumes and magic tricks to make fantasy films), and I'm really proud of how it turned out. The cinematic elements - the music, the dissolves, the slow zooms and so on - really add another dimension to James' astonishing play and give it a unique atmosphere.
HC: Its visually striking and James Swanton is magnetic on screen, did he change any of the original script for this cinematic adaptation?
SA: He did, he updated it very slightly - I don't want to give specifics because of spoilers, but he added something I was blown away by. Hopefully people who've seen the play and go on to watch the film will appreciate the addition.
HC: Did you have to give Swanton much direction or change some of his performance for this version of his play?
SA: We did a week of rehearsals, as we had to re-block the piece for the space, and I wanted to make subtle changes for maximum cinematic impact. I wanted to amp up a couple of horror elements, so we really worked on a couple of the silent moments, to add tension. Mike Muncer of the Evolution Of Horror podcast really reacted perfectly to one of those new scary moments, so I'm pleased those elements work.
HC: The constant dripping of water adds a real chill to the piece, seems to fade and then increase as the creature speaks, does it or was it just my imagination?
SA: I'm really glad you picked up on that - the dripping was actually a bit of weird luck. I'm hugely influenced by Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev is one of the big influences on our film, and anyone who's seen Stalker will know about the dripping water in a key sequence in that film. But we didn't artificially create it - the water was dripping at the location on the day of the shoot by pure chance, so we kept the noise in the film. It really adds to the hypnotic atmosphere, and yes, you're not imagining things - we are adjusting it to mess with your head as much as possible! Frankenstein's Creature is intended to be a trance film, in the tradition of stuff like Inland Empire and, more recently, Mandy - so any element we can use to slightly disorientate the audience really helps create that weird feeling that'll hopefully stay with people.
HC: Was it hard to get the right person for the score, which by the way is as atmospheric and hypnotic as Swanton's performance?
SA: Thanks so much for that compliment, I love the music so much. Johnny Jewel, who worked on the score for Drive, Lost River and Twin Peaks: The Return kindly gave us an hour of music, because he loves the book and is a big supporter of independent cinema. It was another weird bit of luck, I emailed him to request a specific song, which turned out to have been inspired by Mary Shelley's novel - I had no idea! - which then led to him giving us all of that perfect music. The score feels like it was written for the film, like they were meant to come together. There's been a lot of that on this project.
HC: How did the legendary Graham Humphreys become involved in the poster creation?
SA: Graham is a friend of James and I, and he's just an astonishing artist - we all grew up on his incredible VHS covers, and he just keeps on outdoing himself. His recent art for the release of The Old Dark House is some of the best work of his career. Graham shares the same taste as James and I, and I had a pretty clear idea for what I wanted from the poster - and Graham didn't just deliver on it, he over-delivered. Seeing his painting for our film was one of the most moving moments of this process for me.
HC: So, what are you working on next?
SA: I'm in very early pre-production on the next thing. It's very different to Frankenstein's Creature in so many ways, but I'm really excited about it. I've talked to James about it, I basically want him in every film I ever do - schedules allowing - and I'm talking to someone else cool to lead it, so we'll see. The plan is to make seven films then stop, so I want them all to be as good as each other!
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