Stauart Beattie makes his blockbuster directing debut with I, Frankenstein, but if you’re a fan of popular genre fare and mythos, then you probably know Beattie’s writing credits, which include giving rise to the Pirates of the Carribbean and G.I. Joe movie franchises, as well as some cult-favorite genre flicks of the last few years like Derailed and Collateral.
In I, Frankenstein Beattie takes a mix of Mary Shelly’s iconic gothic horror novel and Underworld star Kevin Grevioux’s supernatural action graphic novel adaptation and transforms them into an expansive and immersive blockbuster universe that will likely leave viewers intrigued and probing for deeper mythology even after the movie is over.
We took the opportunity to speak with Beattie at the NYC junket for I, Frankenstein, touching on what it takes to build a good movie universe, the deeper mythology of the I, Frankenstein world, and what direction the story and character could take if given a franchise opportunity:
Screen Rant: You are kind of a universe builder – cynical people might say franchise starter – you are actually very good about building these universes that are so immersive. Right now universe-building is what blockbuster franchises are all about, so what makes a great universe – especially a genre universe – to draw people in?
Stuart Beattie: For me it’s authenticity. Three words; author, authentic and authenticity, they all come from the same Latin root, and I think they are all connected in cement; you can’t have one without the other. In any story you tell you have to make it all absolutely believable, even if it’s a real day modern-day cop story in the streets of New York, it’s got to feel absolutely real. There is a mythology that you’re building there to make it feel real and it applies to fantasy films just as much. These worlds don’t exist in our world; you got to make sure that it is a completely realized world and that just comes from tons and tons and tons of work.
Writing, writing, writing and thinking, thinking, thinking, developing, designing and redesigning and having enough time — I spent a good year and a half creating this world before we shot it. There was even a lot more design after we shot it. We were getting into all the visual effects work, so I mean in three years of the development of the film, two and a half years of the film was purely world building, just making it feel real.
Screen Rant: When I was watching it, I was like, “Okay there’s going to be a premise and a set up,” and then I was like, “Oh my god there’s like a whole [world] here!” and then I leave and I still have questions…
Stuart Beattie: Well good! Well hopefully you do. If you have questions then I think that means there’s more to explore and you believe it. There’s no way you can answer all the questions about a world in two hours, it’s impossible. I think that hopefully means that you’re interested and that you’re involved, and that you believe that the world actually exists.
Screen Rant: Is there a strategy to kind of building a really rich mythology? Or do you just have to go slug through the mess and fog and find your way out?
Stuart Beattie: It’s a little bit like that; it’s figuring it out. It’s writing, writing, writing for me. Best way for me to be able to get my head into someone else’s head is to put it down on paper – that’s what I found anyway, because it’s there and they can look at it and refer back to it. Obviously I’ve done a lot of writing in my life, so I just write, write, write backstory, rules, histories, famous battles – all sorts of stuff. How weapons work and how this works or that works. Just tons and tons of pages of material about all that kind of stuff so that everyone who is working on the film can get a sense of how this world operates.
I wrote the gargoyle creed. All the actors playing gargoyles had to learn the gargoyle creed which was the sacred oath, the sacred duty that Gideon (Jai Courtney) talks about, all that kind of stuff I think helps make the whole world feel real and rich and feel vibrant. If I don’t sell that then I’ve lost you. And then actors have to sell that and that’s the hardest part, you know? Some of the things you get actors to say, and say it in such a convincing manner that they believe it, and that makes you believe it and then you’re in.
Screen Rant: When you’re working with genre – especially a genre that has so many icons in it – do you find that freeing because there’s material to work with? Or is it constricting because there are such limitations on how far you can push it and how far you can change it?
Stuart Beattie: It’s a little of both, but you can make it work for you, the constrictions, that allows you to defend what’s good about it.
When I came onto ‘G.I. Joe’ it was all about terrorism in Pakistan and a suitcase nuke and I was like, ‘that’s not G.I. Joe’ that’s real, that’s “Lone survivor,” “Zero Dark Thirty.” This is G.I. Joe, come over here, this is G.I. Joe: nano technology and all these characters. And the same thing with Frankenstein; [they said] ‘let’s take away the whole thing about him wanting a companion, we don’t need that!’ Then I was like ‘oh ok well then that’s not Frankenstein’.
You use those trappings to actually protect what’s great about it; the reason why they are making stories about them is because it’s so good. You can use that, like I said, to defend it and keep that integrity to it. ‘Pirates’ well that was more freeing in a way because there were no real characters and there was no real story. So that was more making stuff up and having bits from the ride thrown in there. There was never anything in there that they said ‘no’ to. It’s different for every project. It doesn’t frighten me; I don’t shy away from it. The reason why I took this gig is because here’s a chance to do a real character-driven action movie, an action film with a real deep character to go on.
When I pitched it to them three years ago, I said that ‘it’s about a monster that becomes a man,’ and they said “no.” Then they called me back a week later, ‘what’s it again?’ [I said] ‘a monster that becomes a man,’ and they said “nah.” And they called me back a third time, and they said, ‘but it’s an action movie right?’ and I said, ‘yeah, an action movie about a monster that becomes a man,’ and they were like ‘ok great.’ That’s still the film today; it’s very much the journey that this guy goes on. It’s the human story: that’s what gets me the chance to do different types of action [films]: having it all hanging off this growth, this journey, this arc that this guy goes on. To me when I look at ‘I, Frankenstein’ it has more in common with films like “Casablanca” then whatever else. It’s a story of a guy who is set in his ways, is a monster, and gives up the one thing he wants for the greater good, for a higher purpose, the good of mankind.
Screen Rant: I was surprised about how this is in some ways a more interesting exploration of the monster than we’ve seen before. I was really interested in Frankenstein… So I wanted to ask: going forward, if you have another chance, what are some other monster twists you’ve been dreaming up? Because I figure you must be dreaming up some…
Stuart Beattie: Oh yeah well there’s a whole…there are so many demonic monsters and I really want to get into monsters. There are some big f*cking gigantic monsters. That’s why I deliberately had Leonore (Miranda Otto) say in the beginning, “the six hundred and sixty-six legion creatures” – I never said demons, I said creatures, it could be anything.
We were a 36 million-dollar budget, we had nine weeks to shoot the film; we just didn’t have the time or the money to make gigantic creatures and really go “Lord of The Rings.” In a way we were a very small film for this kind of scope and this kind of ambition. So the most we could do was get cool prosthetics on these guys, but there’s a whole hierarchy the more you think up as you develop [them] – the whole hierarchy of demons from the warriors to the dukes to the lords to the princes. The higher up in the ranks you go, the more horns you get; the more you change into a demon-looking thing. So the demon prince has the biggest horn so below him there are Zuriel (Socratis Otto) and Dekar (Kevin Grevioux) with smaller horns, but they are are still pretty big. He has a rank below that, and a rank before that, you know that kind of stuff.
So again, that’s about all we could get into in this film with the time we had and the money we had. So I would love to get into all that kind of stuff and get into ‘where’s the gargoyle king?’ There’s a gargoyle king…there’s a whole back story where he advocated the throne, all this kind of stuff that I would love to get into. Like I said, I think the trick, to get back to your original question, the real trick in building worlds is to have enough in there where it feels complete, but still can be expanded into so much more. I remember when I saw ‘Star Wars’ I thought that was great, they won, but then there was another movie and then it was like no that was just this small f*cking thing; the Death Star was just a little part of it, there’s a whole other empire that they have to fight. So it’s like, ‘oh cool, so it’s bigger than I thought,’ I think that was that genius of that world that George Lucas created there, it felt so real and it felt so complete but it actually was a tiny tip of the iceberg and I think that’s the secret to good world-building and that’s what I’ve tried to do with ‘I, Frankenstein.’
Screen Rant: How did the Shelly mythology help you get a foundation for that world – a character-based foundation?
…What’s great about the story and why it’s endured for so long is because that’s always going to be a relevant feeling, “I’m alone in the world, there’s no one out there for me, and I’m pissed off about it, and I’m a monster and I’m going to act like a monster”; and then realizing you’re only a monster if you behave like one. There is someone out there for you, it will come. Maybe in the most unexpected ways, but it’s a choice and that kind of stuff we’re always struggling with.
You see people acting like monsters and it’s always that choice, don’t be such an asshole, choose to be nice, choose to do something for others. Choose to serve a purpose higher than yourself. It’s a choice and there are a lot of people that make that choice all those fire-fighters all those soldiers – people who serve that higher purpose, that’s what they’re doing. They’re choosing to act like that and it’s a noble thing.
[WARNING – MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW!]
Screen Rant: Last but not least: You’re a Star Wars kid so you know that nowadays you always have to deliver that Empire Strikes Back sequel; for Frankenstein, considering where we leave him in this first arc, where would this character go in the next chapter?
Stuart Beattie: and that’s exactly it, it would be great to do one, but I would only do it if I had that complexity. And what I have been thinking about in the last year or so is when you take up a mantel like he does in the end of the film, you say, “Okay, I’m going to give up what I want and I’m going to go and protect mankind – even though mankind is being sh*t to me – that’s my mantel.”
To me the interesting thing there is: I don’t think that’s a choice that you’ve made it and you’re done. I think it’s a choice that on Monday you’ve made it and you feel good about it; on Tuesday you feel ok about it; Wednesday you start to doubt it; Thursday you’re like why the f*ck did I do that for? And Friday, you’re really flirting with the other side. I think it’d be kind of interesting to have him struggle with that choice that he’s made and really ask the question, “Is mankind worth this? Are they worth my sacrifice? Are they worth me giving up what I want?”
…I would love to have a police like character after him just because he looks like a monster and he’s always around this trouble. This policeman would be a Javier-type character who has this prejudice and [Frankenstein is] like, “why the f*ck am I doing this for if you people don’t appreciate it? If you people don’t care let them take over mankind, let them kill you all, see if I fucking care!” and let him go into that really dark place. “Maybe I’ll even join them, join their side,” and really take him into that dark area and make him figure out why he’s doing it and why he made that choice. What it was that made him do that – I think there’s a lot of good stuff in there, should we be so lucky.
We have more great stuff from our talk with Beattie and the cast of I, Frankenstein (Aaron Eckhart and Yvonne Strahovski). For more of that, be sure to stay tuned to our I, Frankenstein coverage all week.
I, Frankenstein will be in theaters on Jaunary 24, 2014.
Follow me and talk movies & celeb interviews @ppnkof