Interview: Julian David Stone on “It’s Alive,” the Novel About the Making of “Frankenstein”

Posted on May 17, 2022 at 8:00 am

Copyright Universal 1931
The 1931 James Whale film about Dr. Frankenstein’s re-animated monster still thrills us today. In It’s Alive, a new novel with a title taken from one of the film’s most memorable lines, author Julian David Stone takes us behind the scenes as producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. struggles, negotiates, manipulates, and promises to get the film made. The stores behind the iconic details that have inspired dozens of remakes and spin-offs are told with as much suspense as you might hope to find in a movie. In an interview, Stone talked about doing enojugh research to immerse himself in the era, about Laemmle’s conflicts with his father, the founder of Universal Studios, and about how “Dracula” and “Frankenstein became the foundation for the genre of horror movies.

Frankenstein has been one of the most re-told stories in movie history. Why do we keep coming back to it?

I think the theme of bringing the dead back to life is one of the most universal, if not the most universal, that you find in every culture. And the theme is just as prescient today as it was 200 years ago when the original book of Frankenstein was first written. Separately, the 1931 film adaptation explores other themes that are also still very relevant today — man’s relationship to technology, the concept of ‘just because we have the ability to do something, should we do it?’, The unexpected consequences of our actions in the blind pursuit of technological advance, etc.

Copyright 2022 Greenleaf

Tell me about your research. First, where did you go to find out about all of the day-by-day details and the thoughts of the key figures.

Research is one of my absolute favorite parts of writing. I particularly love doing research from sources from the actual time period that the story takes place — contemporaneous magazines, newspapers, books, etc. This is where a lot of the great details about the lives of the three main characters in my novel were found — scouring any and all media sources from the early 1930s. Additionally, interviews with the main characters were also very helpful. In the case of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, they were both famous for a very good portion of their lives, so there are many great interviews with them and they were very helpful.

Junior Laemmle was another story. There are a lot of interviews with him up to 1936, when the Laemmle family lost the studio. After that, almost nothing. So a lot of Junior’s story was pieced together from whatever tidbits I could find. Researching him was a great detective story on its own!

I’m particularly interested in some of the 1930s slang. Where did you find it and how did you balance the authenticity with the need to make it accessible?

Once again, it was all the contemporaneous media sources that were very helpful. Also, since my story takes place in 1931, I was fortunate that the sound era of motion pictures was in full swing, so watching them — and particularly newsreels with interviews — were a great source of slang and the vernacular of the time.

You have a lot of very clever metaphors that feel true to the period. How did you think about them?

Research, research, research. As I said, I love to research and I like to say, “I want to be able to ‘wear’ an era” before I start writing about it. In the case of It’s Alive! I was well into my research, but I was still struggling with the story when I realized I was making a big mistake. I was focusing my research to specifically on the Universal Monster movies and Universal itself. That’s when I forced myself to take a step back and dive into all of Hollywood in 1931. I started watching as many films as possible from the era — not just Universal’s films — and I read as many of the trade publications as I could get my hands on sequentially, staring in January, 1931. This was so valuable as you could watch the progression of trends in the movie business, as well as the rise and fall of certain stars. After about a year of deep research into the period was when the story really started to fall into place.

Copyright Universal 1931

A lot of the suspense in the story comes from who would play the monster. What would the movie have been like with Bela Lugosi in the role?

That’s one of the great questions that fans of the Universal Monsters, and classic film fans in general, endlessly bandy about. I think Karloff’s performance in Frankenstein is one of the greatest and most iconic in cinema history, so I truly can’t imagine anyone else in the role. But interestingly, Lugosi did eventually play the Monster years later in one of the later films of the Universal Monster cycle and his performance is quite different — to say the least — than Karloff’s. But I don’t think it’s really fair to compare the two as it was many, many years after Karloff, and the way the Monster acted had already been established, and had gone through a lot of changes as different writers and directors tackled the material.

As an interesting side note, before the original 1931 Frankensteinfilm was made and well before Karloff was cast as the Monster, a screen test was shot of Lugosi in the role. Sadly, it has been lost, as it would be an absolutely fascinating piece of film to see — How Lugosi approached the role before there were any preconceived notions of how the Monster should look or act. One can only hope and dream that someday this footage may be discovered!

Copyright 1931 Universal

What were the biggest differences of perspective and between Laemmle senior and junior? How did that reflect the changes in culture and technology and the difference between creating the business and keeping an established business vital? Do you see any parallel conflicts today?

The relationship between Laemmle Senior and Junior was one of the main things that drew me to the story in the first place. It had some very typical elements with the father being more conservative in his approach to business and the type of material he wanted to put on the screen, and the son being more liberal and daring in what films he wanted the studio to make. But then there were some very unusual elements in that their conflict centered around the operations of a movie studio, and that Junior had a dark side that went well beyond the desire to present new and forward leaning material on screen.

How did you find out about the turn of events in filming The Guilty Generation that made it possible for Karloff to play the monster?

That particular detail came up in a couple of different sources and interviews. If you watch The Guilty Generation, Karloff has a big part in the beginning of the film and then sort of disappears until the end. And the way his final scene is shot — a very simple single close-up of Karloff talking into a phone — very much leans into the idea that the director, Rowland Lee, was trying to help Karloff finish his work early. And an interesting bit of trivia is, the very same Rowland Lee would go on to direct Karloff in Son of Frankenstein almost ten years later — Karloff’s third and last appearance as Frankenstein’s Monster.

How were the father/son conflicts between the Laemmles reflected in the Frankenstein story?

Ultimately the movie Frankenstein is a father and son story. Dr. Frankenstein, in the end, is disappointed by his creation — The Monster. To a similar extant, Carl Laemmle, Sr. was disappointed in his son, his creation, Junior Laemmle. And the two fought quite a bit over the direction of Universal Studious after Junior was made Head of Production and wanted to make very different films than his father made. Frankenstein — and the entire Universal Monster Cycle for that matter — being chief among them.

Was Karloff’s name really misspelled on the studio’s entry list?

It may have happened, but there was no specific incident that I was referencing. It was more a nod to where Karloff was in his career before the role of the Monster made him a huge star. He was a working actor, getting by, but it was still a day to day struggle. To give you an example, the first film to be released after he shot Frankenstein — but filmed before Frankenstein was made — in the credits his role is “Waiter”. His character didn’t even have a name.

What do the struggles over Whale’s Frankenstein tell us?

That it is important to stay true to your original vision.

The 1931 film Frankenstein is a great film and an absolute classic because it is the combined effort of several great artists. But it would never have existed in the first place if not for the drive and desire of one man: Junior Laemmle, who, despite no one else wanting to make the film, or for him to make it, stayed true to his vision and pushed the project forward. And all of Hollywood was never the same.

One of the ways I like to put it is: I would never claim that Junior invented the horror film, but I think you can make a pretty strong argument that he is the single person most responsible for it becoming a genre. When no one else in the entire movie business wanted to make Frankenstein, and Dracula before it, he did. And he made sure they got made. From there the entire Universal cycle of horror films was launched and all of what we call horror today grew out of these classics from the 1930s.

What are you going to write about next?

I have my next novel about half written. It’s about the 1960s space race and the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to land the first man on the moon. The era and the Apollo program specially are big passions of mine, so I am very excited about this story — as well as immensely enjoying doing the research!

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Interview: Brigham Taylor, Producer of “Christopher Robin”

Posted on August 10, 2018 at 8:00 am

For The Credits I interviewed “Christopher Robin” producer Bringham Taylor, who talked to me about bringing together the old (Disney legends Jim Cummings returning to voice Pooh and Tigger and Richard Sherman writing new songs) and the new — a grown-up Christopher Robin, some new voice talent, to tell a story for all ages.

I think you have to respect not just the intelligence of the kids, but also the adults’ intelligence as you are approaching that material. It’s not easy. You need to try to have a multilayered kind of story that way. I think it’s one of the greater challenges. Having worked at Disney virtually my whole career, it’s always been a challenge. You don’t always nail it, but you always want to strive for something that feels universal, both at the idea and thematic level, but also in the visual. Something with enough visual sophistication and enough charm — visual sophistication for the adults in the audience, but also the appropriate amount of color and charm and whimsy for the younger kids.

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Interview

Interview: Andre Borschberg of “Planet Power” and Solar Impulse

Posted on March 29, 2018 at 2:54 pm

“Planet Power,” is a stunning documentary about the round-the-world flight of the Solar Impulse, the first-ever plane completely powered by sunlight to circle the globe. It is now in IMAX theaters across the country. It was developed and piloted by two Frenchmen, Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard.

What did you learn about the world by flying over it that way that you didn’t know before?

Lots of things! But first of all it’s an incredible experience when you look about the airplane and you see the sun and you see the sun rays and then you start thinking that these rays and this radiation is sufficient to make the airplane fly, to climb and fly through the night. It’s absolutely incredible. Normally you always have an eye on the fuel gauge and then you know you only have a few minutes to go and then you have to land. So to think that you have an indefinite unlimited endurance, it’s a totally different world. Of course the entire project was incredible in the sense that we were told by the aviation industry that to build such an airplane was not possible. We were convinced on our side that there was a solution so we decided to do it ourselves. These fifteen years were a sequence of hurdles, of success, of difficulties and all this done with a fantastic team; so it’s a life experience.

I imagine that it was very quiet there because you didn’t have the humming of the engines. Is that right?

It is. If you have a chance to fly in an electric airplane, you will see how quiet it is because you don’t hear much, there’s no vibration. It’s like being in a glider which suddenly can climb like a normal plane. And in this plane I was alone. We will have a two-seater flying this summer in Switzerland and my goal is really to take lots of people in this airplane just to see the difference. The experience is something else.

One of the things that really captured my attention in the movie was that while a passenger plane can tip to a degree of 30 degrees this plane because of the size of its wings was much more limited. Did that make it difficult to maneuver?

What was tricky was the sensitivity of the airplane towards turbulence and this is why we also always try to take off very early and land late at night so we’re away from the turbulences created by the sun during the day. So that is certainly one characteristic of the airplane. On the other side, as I said, we have this freedom to be away from the clock and having the possibility if necessary to be one more day in the air when I flew across the Pacific from Japan to Hawaii, we thought it would take 5 days than have taken 6; I would say even so much the better because of the incredible experience but to have this feeling of no limit on the energy, of course, it’s a major plus.

The movie explains that you come from a family with a history of innovation. What did they do to influence you to become an innovator yourself?

When I was a really young kid I was taken by the books I read about the aviation pioneers, about what they did, about their lives, about the way they went about trying, exploring, building something that nobody did and then flying without having been coached by a flight instructor on how to do that. For me this created a strong dream and appeal in fact to be part of this world as well; so when I met in fact Bertrand a few years later, it was like getting into this world I’ve been dreaming about when I was a young boy.

Tell me a little bit about more about the partnership with Mr. Piccard, what is it that each of you contribute to that partnership?

Bertrand and I basically had different educations; we have different backgrounds and skills and at the end we were extremely complementary as a partnership through these differences. It’s one plus one equals three; one for each and one when we’re together. In that sense we are truly different but we understood that this difference was a source of creativity so very early we gave up basically the tendency to argue and to try to defend own ideas and we were more interested when we were not having basically the same understanding of a situation. I think we were always interested to understand what the other was thinking, knowing that at the end the solutions would be neither his solution nor mine. So regularly once every two weeks, once every month we would sit down and expose our feelings to the other one to try to find a common ground. We had a clear understanding that it’s only by sticking together that we could have a chance to succeed.

What of the innovations in the plane do you think will be most useful to consumers?

I think very simply electric propulsion. It is not just that solar energy is renewable. It is also much more efficient than a combustion engine. If you take your car, two liters or two gallons out of three that you put in the tank are lost for heat so it’s a totally inefficient technology. With electric propulsion we’ve changed the world of aviation for a lot of reasons but it will make aviation quieter, cleaner, safer and more affordable and you can use it not only for propulsion but also to stabilize the airplane. There are few moving parts, it’s only software, it’s only electronics, which are (things we know how to produce very cheaply and very safe today, so you can start imagining that you will have new ways to transport people, for example from one side of Los Angeles to the other side. There are many projects aiming in fact to provide this added value that will all use electric propulsion. I didn’t want basically to do a commercial project after flying around the world but I couldn’t resist to continue and develop this technology because I think it will be a game changer.

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Documentary Interview

John Hanlon Interviews the Producer of “A Wrinkle in Time”

Posted on March 15, 2018 at 2:48 pm

Copyright Disney 2018
My friend and fellow critic John Hanlon spoke to Catherine Hand, who decided when she read A Wrinkle in Time at age 10 that she wanted to make it into a movie and has devoted her life to that one goal. Perhaps the most remarkable part of the story is that she actually did get the movie made once, for television, which everyone agreed was inadequate, and true to the spirit of the book, she did not give up. She produced the new version directed by Ava Duvernay as well. Here’s a look at the earlier version:

You’ve been working to adapt this novel for the big screen for a long time. What was the greatest challenge you faced?

I’ve been asked that question and there’s so many different answers but I will tell you A Wrinkle in Time is the quintessential heroine’s journey — which is different than a hero’s journey — and the industry was just not as open to telling that story. It was really when a whole new generation of executive producers, writers, directors rose up and the book —while it may have seemed daunting for many years for a lot of people — I think this new generation of creative individuals in the industry embraced it and I think that at the end of the day, it’s so much about timing and I think as you said earlier its themes are universal and timeless.

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Behind the Scenes Books Interview

Interview: Armando Iannucci of “The Death of Stalin”

Posted on March 15, 2018 at 2:29 pm

“The Death of Stalin,” based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury, is a scorching satire about the flurry for succession following the unexpected totalitarian leader of the Soviet Union. For rogerebert.com I spoke to co-writer/director Armando Iannuci about the parallels between this film and his HBO series, “Veep,” about the accents of this actors and the only one to change his accent to suit the character, and about what the movie has to say about today’s politics.

Do you see the story as something like “Veep” with guns? I get the feeling that if the characters in “Veep” had the chance to kill people, they would.

You might think that at the start, but once there’s a threat of being killed, it just turns into something else. The comedy is more based in paranoia, craziness. In “Veep,” the characters’ biggest worry is being found out. The worst that can happen to you is maybe they will be embarrassed or you may lose your job and go into lobbying. It’s temporary. But for these characters it is “if you are found out, you will be dead,” and it turns them into gibbering, frozen with fear, paranoiacs, every one of them. It turns them into stories that are timeless like ancient Rome or Shakespeare’s history plays or “Game of Thrones” or “The Godfather.” It’s the war for succession, kill or be killed. You have characters who tell themselves, “I’m good, but I may have to kill people so that my goodness can survive.”

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