By Cleaver Patterson.
This summer the groundbreaking horror film Frankenstien’s Army took Film4 FrightFest by storm, and is now set to do the same on a wider scale with its release on DVD. The film’s Dutch director Richard Raaphorst and its Russian star Alexander Mercury recently explained to Cleaver Patterson what the horror genre means to them, and how their film has given them a new understanding of the horrors of war.
Cleaver Patterson: You’ve directed several short films to date, but Frankenstein’s Army is your first main feature. What was the experience like and how did it differ from making the shorts?
Richard Raaphorst: It’s the difference of day and night. If you do a long movie, you have to catch the focus on the small scale and the large scale. When you do a short movie it is only on the short scale focus. This step up was incredibly difficult for the first time.
You were a visualizer on the 2006 war time drama Black Book. Did that experience help in any way with your work on Frankenstein’s Army?
Not much, really. I wasn’t very engaged in that project. I was just making the drawings for the art director. I was drawing set pieces, which was very nice to do. But it was a different experience from this film.
You produced and wrote this film as well as directing it (and you designed the creatures). What did you personally get from being involved in these various aspects of the film’s production?
It’s extremely large. At certain moments you have to decide what has more priority, the designs or the content of the movie. It’s very difficult to let one go to focus on the other. During the shoot, I tried to escape the part of the artist and really try to get into the role of the actors. That shift was quite new for me because I’d lived at my drawing table for fifteen years, and suddenly you have to be a social person. Which is also very liberating and something that is highly inspiring. With that shift, you also accelerate the quality of the movie because one thing you know will be done right because you’ve been doing it for so many years, you then need to focus on the drama and the acting.
Does the film have a message?
It has a message but I don’t want to preach. It doesn’t have any leads. It’s a round concept. It’s horror, but it’s also about horror.
By its very name your film clearly took inspiration from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What influence, if any, did her book and the various film versions of it have on your film?
I read Mary Shelley’s book, but I didn’t find any interesting bits for my movie. What influenced me tremendously was James Whale’s version, with Boris Karloff’s square head. It all came from the square head. It’s so mechanical, so unnatural. That image kept haunting me for years and took me into the industrial look of the designs. I just wanted to push it further.
The film is done in the ‘found footage’ style? What attracted you to this approach and what do you feel it added to the film?
I hate that term because ‘found footage’ implies that it’s like Blair Witch or something, which is totally not the case. It looks more like a documentary or propaganda, which has slowly morphed into a reportage style. It’s ‘found footage’ if you take it literally, but I don’t like the association with ‘found footage’ movies. I would say its more like a real footage documentary.
The adversaries in the film are created from humans. Would you see them as human or monsters?
They become monsters. The rule in war is that you first need to dehumanise the humans, or it will be very hard to do violent things to them. The premise is monsters creating monsters, creating monsters. I really wanted to dehumanise the humans. They’re more like machines, like monsters.
Where did you get the inspiration for the look of the monsters (there’s a strong Steampunk air about them)?
I’m not really conscious about this, also not about Steampunk. I just got inspired by the techniques of the time, like diesel engines. I would call it Dieselpunk rather than Steampunk. I was limited by those industrial techniques that were available then and just took them as a reference and building blocks, and that inspired me.
The Nazis and the atrocities which they carried out during World War II have been a subject in horror films since the war itself. What attracted you to this as a subject?
The Nazis, from my perspective, were the most evil things there was because of their combination of charisma and glamour mixed with this sadism and their philosophy. That combination is so scary because their charisma was also a little bit attractive, and that feels very dangerous.
Do you feel it’s acceptable to take this as a subject for entertainment, and why do you feel that it’s such a popular sub-genre within the wider field of horror films?
Yes, because culture and entertainment is one of the most important things there is, because it’s liberating you from a taboo. When something is a taboo people don’t speak about it and then it becomes much harder to live with. If you make jokes about it, like entertainment is making a joke about it, it’s a way of digesting a part of history. So yeah, I think it’s okay. As long as you don’t exploit it, that’s a different issue.
What, if anything, do you feel you’ve brought new to the genre?
I brought something to the genre which is old, and that is going back to the practical effects and ignoring CGI. I tried to bring back the illusion of film in its essence.
How did you get involved in the film?
Alexander Mercury: I just went to a casting. I first met the producer and then Richard came over for a recall and asked me to read for a completely different part than the one I’d prepared for. I thought “damn you all” and then one thing led to another and we were all in Prague.
What is your role in the film and how much input did have in your part?
Dimitri is essentially a graduate of an institute of cinematography in Moscow in the late 1930s. He’s like a modern day filmmaker I guess, who was given the task of making a propaganda film commemorating the heroic deeds of the soviet soldiers liberating Nazi occupied Germany. Then the story becomes more personal, and this is something Richard and I worked on beginning immediately before the principle photography started. To me, the shape the script was in before we started filming felt a bit generic. I didn’t feel there was enough sympathy for this guy for the audience to relate and feel for him. So we kind of worked on that a little bit and turned the film into more of a personal drama. Essentially, it also becomes about his survival in the hell he finds himself in.
This is a no holds barred horror film. What attracts you to the genre?
Richard: The movie attracts me, not especially horror. I think the darkness attracts me. I want to investigate the darker side of things. There’s more possibilities there. It just appeals to me, I don’t have a real explanation for it.
Alexander: I’m not a massive fan of the horror genre, I don’t really know that much about it. When I get a script, I see if it resonates with me and where I’m at in this moment in my life, and whether it will resonate with other people, and then I try and make these stories personal. So it depends on whether the moods of the stories work for me. When I met Richard I felt here was a guy who had a vision and I knew we could work well together as there was a rapport. Then you just try and make the best out of it in regards to how much time you’re in front of and behind the camera, and you just put the work in and try to immerse yourself in the role and tell a story, regardless of what story or genre it is. Like I wouldn’t do porn ….. I’m not comparing horror to porn or anything but, like Richard said, this is where it’s uncomfortable when you touch upon the dark things. If anything, when you watch the film closely there is some silliness in it as well and we had some fun doing it, but there is also the really dark, gritty, gory stuff. Also, if it wasn’t for this film, I wouldn’t have read books on what was going on during the Stalin era and the oppression and cleansing of 1937 or the fake trials which were going on. I hadn’t really looked at it in that much depth back when I was going to school in Moscow, so for me that was like, “was that really going on?” With what is going on in Russia today, you can draw quite distinct parallels between the two, so I’m grateful I was part of that project as again it was a massive learning curve.
The monsters are all very individual. Do you each have a favorite?
Richard: Yes, I have a favorite. It’s called the ‘Zompot’. It’s a little boy Hans, who ends up as a walking trash-pot. He’s the most simplified of all the designs.
Alexander: Watch out for it. He’s not in the film for that long, but he steals the show for sure.
What reactions have you both had so far by audiences who have seen the film?
Richard: Very, very positive. I really thought that I was making an obscure, cult movie, but it’s been appreciated broadly by all kinds of people, including ones who don’t really like horror movies. That really surprised me because I thought I was ending up in some kind of niche, and suddenly it does extremely well. Reactions are really positive and only get better, because I notice that first the audience is looking at what’s not in a movie and they criticize you about it – it doesn’t have CGI or a real protagonist in the traditional way, things like that. But later they understand what it’s giving you differently, and then the appreciation begins. So, it’s been really nice to see that happening.
Alexander: We were at the Tribeca Film Festival, at the final screening of the show. The second and third time you watch the film, obviously you notice what is right and what’s wrong with it. We’re sitting at the back row of the auditorium and Richard just sort of went, “so, what do you think?” I was about to say something and I turned round and saw Jodi Foster walking out of the auditorium along with other people, and I was like hey, if Jodi Foster came to see our film we must be doing something right. Then she came up to us and shook our hands and said, “well done guys, I really enjoyed that.” I thought, if Jodi Foster has read the synopsis of the film and then came to see it, and then came up to us to say well done, which she didn’t have to do, it must be all right.
Richard: And fan’s reactions continue to be great. I get mailed pictures of people dressing up in my costumes and asking for advice. Inspiring people is amazing, truly amazing.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.
Frankenstein’s Army showed at London’s Film4 FrightFest in August, 2013 and was released on DVD in the UK on the 30th of September, 2013.