Frankenstein’s Army was one of FrightFest’s biggest crowdpleasers; a barking mad tale of a Red Army squadron making a propaganda film who stumble upon a Nazi bunker containing grotesque steampunk zombie creatures.
Director Richard Raaphorst and star Alexander Mercury spoke exclusively to SciFiNow before the film’s FrightFest screening to discuss the project’s genesis, the creation of the creatures, and the problems of first person shooting.
So where did the idea come from?
Richard Raaphorst: First it was worst case scenario, because the producers were not able to sell [the idea for his film], but they were still owning the rights. So they left it for dead and I would not be able, because I didn’t own the rights, to continue. So the only option was to reinvent it as something very vague, as a kind of emotion I had which I wanted to express. So when I restarted I asked myself the question: “What is it that you wanted to make, can you describe it?” And I said “Well, I just want to make a Frankenstein movie with just a lot of them, like in an army.” So then I thought “Well, why don’t you call it Frankenstein’s Army?” I was literally having this dialogue myself.
Alexander Mercury: Have you ever been in the army?
RR: Yeah I have, in the Dutch Army, so that’s not a real army, it’s more like the Scouts. And so I realised “Yeah, that’s a great title, Frankenstein’s Army.” And then I based the idea on the title.
It looks like it was pretty tough to shoot.
AM: He had a nightmare, he nearly passed out on the last day.
RR: It was intense but it was also, you have a love/hate affair with the shoot. Because you stumble upon so many problems but at the same time those problems are also reasons to do something differently or better. You’re constantly being challenged to think about impossible achievements and it’s just a matter of how do you have enough energy for this? Because you’re going in such a rush that you do think that you normally would pass out.
RR: It is not that serious, is it? Well, you know the concept is already so bizarre that I don’t need to be funny. It’s already grotesque, so I don’t need to be grotesque all the time. It’s like a joke but seriously told. I hate those movies where it supposed to be a scary movie and then it becomes tongue in cheek, I don’t like that. You stay consistent to the genre you are working in. And there are still a lot of jokes, visual jokes.
Karel Roden [Dr Frankenstein] definitely adds some dark humour.
RR: He just got the right tone, and he needed to because it’s all about him and his army. We were looking for the actor playing the baron and it was just really until the last month that I got convinced that we found the right one. Because when someone thinks about Frankenstein, I mean the man Frankenstein, the Doctor, they think about this distinguished gentleman, they think about Peter Cushing. Well now we just leave it, we are going to invent a new baron just from scratch. We thought about who is going to be able to create a new Doctor Frankenstein and it wasn’t until I met Karel that I got convinced. We had a kind of chemistry, that you only use a few words and you understand. He is a dark man with a lot of humour on top of it. A very inspiring man.
Was it difficult working with those live-action creatures?
RR: No. It was complicated because we did everything in one take but I think doing it with CGI is way more complicated because you have to animate everything into an artificial background and blah blah blah. So we just did actors in suits, and you only have to brief them and instruct them and you see what you get. So it was not that hard, it was more like having a lot of fun, like playing with toys as large as yourself. It was playing around with live action figures.
Did you have a list of designs? We loved the one with the metal jaws.
RR: The Razorteeth? Well, it was this way, I really knew what I wanted but the scriptwriters didn’t know what I wanted to design so they just wrote “A zombie with a metal jaw.” But a zombie with a metal jaw is quite cliché, it’s something I’ve seen a lot before so it was my job to take what they wrote and then change it into something I never saw before. So I thought what if I just change this jaw vertically? And I just make the head like a giant jaw. So I just worked that way, just chose what was in the script but just changed it through a Frankenstein filter and the output was something completely different. And they also wrote down a ‘zombot’ with four arms. And I was making designs and designs and it just didn’t work, with four arms it just looked silly. But it was in the script so I needed to use it. So finally I changed it and this zombot became the mosquito.
AM: It was a challenge in terms of being behind the camera but still being in the moment. The intention was always to try, because you spend 70-80% of the film behind a camera, filming them so you’re behind the DOP, behind the grip, behind the focus puller. The only tool you had ultimately was your voice, so you had to stay on the ball and be there for the other actors. It was quite a challenge because when we rehearsed it we could make eye contact, when we were on set they said to the other actors “You can’t look at Alexander.”
I think in a way that I also felt, because visually I won’t be in the film as much as I wish I was, it kind of makes you work harder because you still want to be part of the film and you just have to create your inner world, larger and richer, so you have to have everything going on and be just as rich for the other actors. And I think if I was in front of the camera more, I’d just allow myself to react off other actors and live in the moment which is fine but in a way it’s just a different experience, and as they say there are no small parts. There are small actors. It makes you really appreciate the moments where you are in front of the camera and working off other actors. It was an experience, a learning curve.
And Richard, as a director, was it a challenge shooting found footage-style?
RR: It’s not really found footage like in [REC], I tried to get into the skin of a propaganda maker so we start subjective because we’re making propaganda and you’re objective because you just film what happens. And I really like that process. I really like the idea to invite the audience into a picture rather than just observing it. I like to be part of it and I have this feeling from games more than films, so I tried to make it a little bit like a game for very lazy people because you don’t have to push the buttons! And most found footage films I saw, or the bad ones, they constantly explain that they need to film this because it’s so important! “We need to film it, keep filming!” Just shut up, shut your mouth. There must be a reason to film. And I also like the idea that the audience is witnessing something which is not really OK. Quite bad. So you become part of it, you become part of the evil, I like that thought. I don’t want to film heroes. There are no heroes in war. It’s a lie, everyone kills. There’s only madness.
Do you have a sequel planned?
RR: Absolutely. Before I started filming I already planned out a possible sequel and a third sequel, not more than that, but in a way that it keeps refreshing and renewing. But let’s see how this plays out.
Frankenstein’s Army is available to buy on DVD for £8 at Amazon.co.uk.