From Candyman to Frankenstein, Bill Condon Talks "Gods and
by Anthony Kaufman
One of the dark horse distribution winners from last year’s Sundance
Film Festival, was “Gods and Monsters,” Bill Condon’s rendering of the
last days of “Frankenstein” director James Whale. Hardly a blip on
distributors’ radars during the festival, good reviews and positive
screenings eventually propelled the film into the jaws of Lions Gate
Releasing, who released the film last week. A dream-finally-come-true
for a debuting director, you might say? But Condon, although he doesn’t
readily admit it, is far from a newcomer to the movie industry. In
1987, he directed a horror-thriller starring Jennifer Jason Leigh called
“Sister, Sister” from a script he wrote with Joel Cohen. In 1991, he
wrote “F/X2: The Deadly Art of Illusion” and four years later directed
“Candyman II: Farewell to the Flesh” (1995) for popular horror writer,
Clive Barker (who served as exec producer on “Gods and Monsters”).
Condon turns to a much more intimate and independent horror with his new
film, but it wasn’t so easy to get there. indieWIRE caught up with
Condon during the New York Film Festival, and spoke with the
writer-director about distribution, marketing, production, his distaste
for the Hollywood system and his ace-in-the-hole, British acting legend
Sir Ian McKellan.
indieWIRE: Can you talk about going from Sundance to distribution?
Bill Condon: First of all, I should say that I was totally grateful
about getting into Sundance, and that it was a first, great step to
expose the movie. And I have to say, too, that it was only because of
Sundance, because of the people that wrote about the movie, like Peter
Travers and Kenneth Turan and Owen Gleiberman, that we ever even got
distribution. So, for that reason, it was great. But it was a
nerve-racking experience. I remember there was this panel of everybody
in the American Spectrum, and they went around and everyone would say,
“It’s so nice to be here this time, because the movie is sold and I
don’t have to worry about that.” And I was like [makes nervous
giggles]. So, it was really, really, nerve-racking. We didn’t show
until the second week at a midnight screening. . . . By that time, we
did our first major screening, so many people were gone. We got really
good response from the second or third people in command, but it wasn’t
until the next two weeks, that it got shipped to New York and shown to
all the heads of companies. Obviously then, they knew we were in a
weaker position, because everyone had turned it down on the first
go-around, which was kind of disappointing and scary.
What was interesting to me was the people that finally came in to bid on
the movie, and there were like 4 companies, they were all companies that
didn’t exist a year ago. It was this really great learning experience
that the independent companies, the major ones, are not that independent
anymore. All of them used the same word that they thought it would be a
difficult sale, even though I didn’t necessarily agree with it either,
especially, because they knew they already had major critics who liked
the movie. But my reading of it, having gone through it with each
company, is that I do think that they’re all in this different business
now. “Good Will Hunting” is this earthquake that’s happened. I think
they all look at any movie and say, “Could it make a $100 million?” And
if it could do very, very well, and even if it could break out and be a
cross over, that’s still not enough. And there’s no way that this movie
could ever be a blockbuster, and so they’re not interested in putting
all the time and effort into it. I do think there [are] these new
companies, like Lions Gate, and Stratosphere and hopefully, Paramount
[Classics], for a little bit who are willing to do that sort of more
traditional independent art house release.
iW: Can you talk more about this idea of it being a “tough sale”? In
particular, the idea of marketing it as a “gay film” or as something
else, and the problems that arise with that?
Condon: I don’t think that Lions Gate thinks of it as a tough sale,
necessarily, I don’t think the approach is that we have a tough sale,
but I do think that there are three audiences for the movie. There’s
the biggest audience, the mainstream art house audience, that supports
“Wings of the Dove” and “Mrs. Brown” and if you get that audience, it’s
substantial. There’s a second audience, which is the gay audience,
which is probably part of that first audience, but then there’s probably
some place where they don’t intersect, but we all know that if you just
go for a gay audience, there’s a real ceiling to that. I do think that
some of the people who thought it was difficult put it in that ghetto,
but I don’t see it as a gay movie and it’s not being marketed it as a
gay movie. Here’s the third audience which I think is so interesting,
and I don’t know of a case where this audience intersected with the
others, and that is the fantasy genre audience, the Clive Barker/James
Whale/Frankenstein crowd. It’s not small, either. It doesn’t intersect
that much with art house. Magazines like CineFantastique [are] devoting
a huge chunk of space to us…and Fangoria. Even on Clive’s
unsuccessful movies, there is still a big crowd that goes. So what I’m
so curious about, because it’s what I kept insisting, was that
everyone’s ignoring the fact that a lot of those people are rabid fans
of the genre, and they’re going to come out to see a story about James
Whale. This is going to be an interesting test to see whether that’s
iW: Two questions about your link to that last audience — you already
did some cult movies. . .
Condon: “Strange Invaders” and “Strange Behavior” — they’re fantasy
movies, yeah. I did them in the beginning of my career in 1983. The
first one was done by Hemdale, and was released by an independent
company long forgotten and the second one was done by Orion, as a small,
low-budget movie. And the first one, actually, has references to James
Whales’s “Old Dark House” so it’s kind of coming full circle. So, yeah,
I have real roots in that.
iW: And Clive Barker, he’s an executive producer. How did that
relationship come about?
Condon: I had done a movie for him and we had talked about doing
another, then I optioned this book and started writing it. And I asked
him whether he wanted to be our, sort of, patron, our Coppola figure.
And that’s something that he’s been interested in doing. He was very
helpful, at various steps along the way. The financing is always so
delicate, so apt to fall apart at any moment, so he was always there. At
one point, he almost put up some interim financing, but luckily he
didn’t have to do that.
iW: What was the movie you did with him before?
Condon: [Laughs.] It was “Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh”.
[Condon laughs again.]
iW: It’s not in your bio?
Condon: It’s not in there, oh my God? [Takes a drink.] Is “Sister,
Sister” in there?
iW: Yes. So this isn’t your first film, at all. You’ve been in this
business for awhile?
Condon: Those other movies, the “Strange” movies I only wrote. So I’ve
only directed three features. And I do feel in a way that it is my
first film, the first one that I’ve gotten to do right from the
beginning. I find that I’m taking this opposite career path, out of a
more mainstream into something that’s been such a wonderful experience,
for the last three years, writing this and getting it made and pinching
myself everyday because of the amount of pleasure of it. And also, just
the fact that there was no other voice saying anything at any time,
about the script, about editing, about anything. That’s where I want to
say. I don’t ever want to go back to that other place.
iW: Where and when was it that the shift took place?
Condon: It was actually before I started this, I realized that it was a
system that I hated working in. I hated it. It just seems to get worse
and worse every year. That sense that so many people, sort of, creating
what’s become a product. It’s a cliche, but it’s true. It’s as bad as
it was during the studio system. It really is hideous. So I think I’ve
been really turned off from that. I was hoping that I could make my way
into this different area. The feeling is, everything I’ve done has been
a way to learn how to do it. I felt like I really could direct now,
that I could really write a script, that I could take this and move into
this area. If it hadn’t work or it doesn’t work, I just know that I
didn’t want to go to that other place.
iW: I think it works. What kind of budget did you have on the movie? The
production values are excellent.
Condon: $3 million. 24 days of shooting. We really planned it.
iW: Including the flashbacks? And the Frankenstein recreation scene?
Condon: It was intense. It was that early Merchant Ivory trick that you
save all your money for one or two scenes. If you look at the rest of
the movie, it’s just the house and three characters sitting around. And
we had to rehearse that so carefully, and just race through it. The
visual approach, the acting, all that stuff. Luckily, I had these
actors, and that’s what those scenes are about.
iW: What was the breakdown on how much time you spent on those big
scenes verses the rest of the script?
Condon: I would say those big scenes only take up like 10 minutes of the
movie and were at least a quarter of the schedule.
iW: Because you were on such a limited schedule, did having experienced
actors like Ian McKellan and Lynn Redgrave make these easier?
Condon: Oh my God, it could not have happened. The movie would have
fallen apart. Because you knew you still had 3 pages to shoot and it
was already lunch time. You knew the one thing you wouldn’t be waiting
on is Ian or any of these actors forgetting their lines or something. It
was a shame, in fact, because I do feel, as though, Ian deserved to
always have that extra take, where it’s like just do something else, but
often, we didn’t get to do that. That was very frustrating, painful in
that way, to know he’s earned and deserves that and actually have to say
iW: Was getting Ian McKellan difficult to get on board?
Condon: He read the script and agreed to do it. He came out here. Once
he agreed to do it, the amazing thing about him, so many people in
independent film ‘attach’ themselves to something, but he would come and
be trotted out to bankers’ meetings and investors’ meetings. He was
that actively involved, once he decided to do it. And of course, he
hadn’t seen anything I’d done and we didn’t have any financing, so he
really attached himself early on.
iW: And that was essential in getting financing?
Condon: It wasn’t enough to get the financing, but he was enough to be a
magnet for the other actors. If Ian McKellan’s agreed to do it, who is
somebody else to say. . . And there was so many people that wanted to
work with him. So, yeah, he was the biggest piece of the puzzle, no