frankenstein behind the scenes

Last Halloween, I’d asked a few Nervous Breakdown contributors to share their favorite terrifying movie scenes, and D. R. Haney was among them with his contribution from Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I, on the other hand, had picked the tunnel scene from Willy Wonka, which I explain so you understand why I like collaborating with Duke. My brain grows three sizes bigger by association. He’s like a cinematic moral compass for which true north is James Dean. And this year for Halloween, Duke and I decided to discuss the classic tale that produced another old-school Hollywood icon.

If you know me in the least you know my adoration for Kenneth Branagh runs so deep I even “loved” Thor, and now I can be even more obnoxious in my fandom by insisting that we refer to him as Sir Kenneth Branagh from now on. I say so. The Queen says so. Here he is being all humble (see! he can be humble!) about being knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list:

Because I know you’ll want to join me in celebrating Sir Kenneth by viewing some of his best performances, here are five selections to get you started.

The Joss Whedon-directed The Avengers makes its nationwide U.S. debut May 4th, uniting the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in the first of the summer blockbusters. Early word is it’s not half bad. And because I know there are fans out there with their Fandango-printout tickets of midnight showings in their fists and their knitted Captain America suits ready to step into, I have compiled ten Avengers-related links to help pass the time in these final few days. Stay strong, friends!

My wife once called me at work and said, “Your dad sent you another box.” Bring it inside, I said, I’ll deal with it when I get home. “I can’t lift it,” she told me.

When I got home I found that my elderly, ever-helpful father had shipped me his lifetime collection of force multipliers. I was looking at a box of hammers, and yes, I did feel like a punch line. But I also felt that I was now prepared to drive, join, strip, disassemble, or pulverize any object that displeased me. Of course you can take this preparedness thing too far. My wife needed a hammer to install stakes in her garden. As she reached for the tools hanging on the back wall of our garage I heard myself say, “Use the 30-year-old hammer, not the 70-year-old hammer.”

A well-made tool is a joy forever, but Thor, the story of the hammer-flinging Norse God of Thunder, will not match that record. Director Kenneth Branagh once stood for something and I believe that something was Shakespeare. This, however, is not Othello:

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are half-brothers. One is blond and one is not, so right away you know there’s trouble coming. Thor, heir to the throne of Asgard, approaches life with the swagger and smirk of James T. Kirk and the confidence only a great hair stylist can give you. Loki, unemployed and unemployable, produces bad ideas the way my dog sheds fur – continuously, and without thinking. The plot lurches into first gear once he convinces his idiot brother to invade a kingdom of angry men dressed in Lands’ End swim suits.

I guess we’ve all wanted to do that at one time or another, but this escapade turns out to be the worst foreign-policy mistake in the history of Asgard. Cranky dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who already suspected that Thor was a doofus (takes one to know one), hits the roof and throws Thor out of the house.

The disgraced thug falls with a thud in the Arizona desert where he is promptly run down by Natalie Portman, who plays Tina Fey playing the ditzy scientist. Here I closely identified with our protagonists because this is an almost exact replay of my first date with my wife. Alas, the movie grinds on with the traditional action/adventure formula of emotionally potent moments trampled by visually uninteresting battles. Thor’s hammer kills time buried in a crater. It might as well be hanging in my garage.

We don’t watch superhero movies for the sex scenes
Thor plants a kiss smack on his nerd girlfriend somewhere around the 90-minute mark. Kirk would’ve been in another galaxy by then. He wouldn’t remember her name, either.

Open letter to director Kenneth Branagh
Rene Russo plays Winona Ryder playing Frigga, Odin’s trophy wife. Russo has even less screen time as Thor’s mom than Ryder had playing Spock’s mom, and this includes her three-second battle to defend her comatose husband. Director Kenneth Branagh, you put a sword in Rene Russo’s hand, and then you ran away. Why are you afraid of strong women?

Another open letter to director Kenneth Branagh
A faceless, homicidal robot in chain mail that shoots fire from its empty helmet is not imaginative or even scary. Yul Brynner as a wooden-faced, homicidal robot in a cowboy hat in Westworld is imaginative and scary. Director Michael Crichton didn’t need special effects because Brynner’s face just naturally did that.

Not so fast, director Kenneth Branagh
Did it occur to you to hire a writer? Or did you give up when you couldn’t get Thorton Wilder?

Thunderstruck!
If you’ve been waiting for my point so you can stop reading and get in line for the upcoming Captain America biopic, you’ll be relieved to hear that I’m about to put the hammer down.

I didn’t expect to learn anything from this film, not even the name of the God of Thunder’s shampoo. But then, sitting there with the 14-year-old boy in my charge (who thought Thor was “epic”), director Kenneth Branagh taught me something.

Stellan Skarsgård, who plays William Hurt playing the avuncular scientist, takes Thor to a tavern for some demolition drinking. Thor carries him home. “We drank, we fought, we honored our ancestors,” Thor tells Ms. Portman. Skarsgård announces, before passing out, “I don’t believe you’re the God of Thunder. But you should be.”

And that’s the heart of the thing. We’re all Walter Mitty, walking around with secret lives inside us. We can fly, we have X-ray vision, we’re rich, we’re thin, we’re young, we’re heroes, we’re risk takers, we’re sending intimate photos to inappropriate people. (I’m speaking theoretically.) We want to walk in slow motion toward a desperate battle, with a soundtrack by Tim Burton or Danny Elfman but not Coldplay.

When I go to a movie and see Spider-Man swinging through space, I think, this movie was made in a lab. But when I see Peter Parker trying to win the woman he loves, I think, I know what that’s like. Or Clark Kent trying to hold down a job. At least I had severance. Or Bruce Wayne the lonely billionaire pretending to be happy in stately Wayne Manor. Been there, done that.

Battles in superhero movies are boring and predictable. What attracts me are the moments when the X-Men or The Avengers are trying to live normal, everyday lives; when, at least for one scene, they’re one of us. Just a slob like one of us.

One of my Dad’s hammers was designed to chip through rocks in search of fossils. Dad never used this hammer; it’s a souvenir from one of his superhero selves. It fits well with my legion of hammers, ready to fly to my hand to battle evil. Or drive stakes in a garden. Either way, I’m prepared to answer the call.

Full disclosure.I own an action figure of Gilderoy Lockhart from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for the mere fact that this character was played by Kenneth Branagh.It looks enough like Branagh if you squint, and he’s holding a wand in one hand and a sprung-open cage in the other as if to say nothing can contain my vast love for you, Cynthia Hawkins.Or rather it cannot contain the Cornish Pixie that flies out of said cage when you wrench the figure’s arm a certain way, but, whatever.He’s my very own tiny Kenneth, and I will love him and pet him and where were we?Oh yes.I love Kenneth Branagh.Despite himself.He was so good as Lockhart, in fact, because the character served as a sort of parody for the fantastically arrogant person he himself is rumored to be.

JR: I probably fell in love with Mr. Peanut around page 3, much earlier than I thought I would, when I noticed Adam Ross wasn’t there anymore, and it didn’t seem like writing to me. David Pepin wanted to kill his wife, I wanted him to kill his wife, and then I met his wife, and I really wanted to kill her, but I was only on page 3. At this point I noticed the seamless language and how brilliant it was to read. If you don’t believe me, read the first three pages. Then I didn’t realize how much I’d like David Pepin until he wasn’t around, and Ross introduced me to Ward Hastroll who is investigating David Pepin, because David’s wife Alice has taken a dirt nap. But Ward Hastroll’s wife won’t leave her bed. It was this section where I felt like the book launched itself into to another world, Ross delivers the details of a miserable marriage in ways that remind me of Carver, Cheever and the brilliant Revolutionary Road. And then, Dr. Sam Sheppard, the older investigator who works with Ward Hastroll, is imagined by Mr. Ross, imagined is the wrong word, Ross writes it like he’s standing right next to both Hastroll and Sheppard, and peering into both of their lives, for real. I’d be a fool to tell you how this turns out, or how Ward Hastroll relates to Raymond Burr, I’ll let you work that out for yourself, but lets just say, we never really know what’s happening in a marriage, even if we can see in through the bedroom window. One more thing, it really is that Dr. Sam Sheppard Ross writes about in Mr. Peanut, and it will send shivers up your spine when you figure it out. I’m just giving you broad strokes here, I can’t tell you more, well, okay, there is this trip to Hawaii that Alice and David take together, read it, you’ll see. Mr. Peanut will be a New York Times Top 10 of 2010, take it to the bank. Here is his contribution to the WWFIL series.

When We Fell in Love

From the youngest age my reading and writing were inextricably bound, and I don’t remember a desire to write so much as the act of regularly telling stories, the telling of these intertwined with everything I read, so really this is an exercise in tessellation, recursion, and echolalia. (A favorite book from my childhood is Remy Charlip’s Arm in Arm, a series of circular narratives: It was a dark and stormy night, we were standing on the deck, the ship was sinking, the captain said to me, “Tell me a story, my son,” and so I began. It was a dark and stormy night…the ragged copy of which I read with great pleasure to my daughters now.) The tales I wrote stole all the color, event, and gadgetry from Tom Swift, the intrigue from the Hardy Boys, and the teamwork and faux-science from the Doc Savage series, the narratives that grew out of these in turn amalgamations of movies, age-inappropriate films of action and adventure likeThe Guns of Navarone and The Magnificent Seven, sexy stuff like A Clockwork Orange and Logan’s Run, plus anything I could watch on Channel 11’s The 4 O’clock Movie before mom made it home (Planet of the ApesThe Omega Man, andDamnation Alley, to name a few). I stole the plots of horror films deemed too scary by my parents to watch but reported to me by my father, his re-telling of the ending of Don’t Look Now, with that horrific dwarf in the red raincoat driving a butcher knife into Donald Sutherland, trumped the film when I finally saw it. I confess a deep-seated love for Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and from those ancient superheroes, I graduated to comic books: Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Champions and Uncanny X-MenWalt Simonson’s Thor, with its inspired re-telling of the Ragnarok myth—no primary source material for me—and Bill Sienkiewicz’s The New Mutants. Under the anxiety of those influences, I developed my own universe of superheroes and villains, material liberally hybridized with characters from the Marvel universe, cross-pollinated with Frank Herbert’s Dune series, and melded with Piers Anthony’s Magic of Xanth books. In middle and high school, I passed on nearly everything Trinity’s English curriculum had to offer, falling too far behind in To Kill a Mockingbird,Animal FarmBrave New World, and The Catcher in the Rye ever to catch up, not even interested enough to purchase the Cliffs Notes—why read about reading that bored me in the first place?—though I dug Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, wept at the injustice of The Old Man and the Sea, and immersed myself in The Bible (my school’s reverend was beloved mentor), so that on the rare occasion our teachers let us write “creative” pieces, I did spinoffs of Old Testament stories, being partial, not surprisingly, to the Yahweh-anointed superheroes of Judges. In college, I didn’t fall in love again until I encountered the Romantics junioryear, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell comic books of a kind, Coleridge’s Xanadu in “Kubla Khan” like something out of Xanth, though I did get a kick out ofGulliver’s Travels, the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, and the short stories of Raymond Carver. I was more of a philosophy nut, jazzed on the existentialists and their forefathers: Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Sartre, Levinas, and Foucault. It wasn’t until I was graduated and out in the world that, having decided to become a writer, I changed my reading habits entirely, not only to figure out just what being one required but also to bring a degree of order to all this chaos. I began to read authors in their entirety. Walker Percy was, memorably, the first; I read The Moviegoer and, after reading the last paragraph, started at the beginning again, ultimately making my way through all his work in chronological order. From there I moved on to Italo Calvino, Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Isaac Babel, Don Dellilo, Donald Barthelme, Joseph Conrad, and Richard Ford, which led to a more systematic approach to writing, to routine—three hours at least in the morning, no matter how early it required me to get up, with rewriting done only at night. Flash forward two decades and, with my first novel, Mr. Peanut, publishing in June, I’m adding additional stories to my collection, Ladies and Gentlemen, while making my way through all of Alice Munro—though sometimes when it’s raining and I take my kids to the bookstore to play, I grab the bound edition of either Frank Miller’s Ronin or The Dark Knight graphic novel and read it front to back. All of which is to say, there’s no when to my love. The beginning is for me the end. Or, as the little boy on that boat recalls: It was a dark and stormy night, we were standing on the deck, the ship was sinking, the captain said to me, “Tell me a story, my son,” and so I began…

–Adam Ross