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Wednesday
May232018

Interview: Director Haifaa al-Mansour & Actor Douglas Booth on "Mary Shelley"

by Murtada Elfadl

Douglas Booth and Elle Fanning as the Shelleys in "Mary Shelley"

The new biopic Mary Shelley is about the famous writer, played by Elle Faning, while she’s in the throes of writing the Gothic magnum opus Frankenstein, at only 18 years of age. The film tells the story of the events that led her there. Those include her tempestuous relationships with renowned romantic poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth) who would become her husband, and with her half-sister Claire (Bel Powley). The film takes us to the trio’s fateful stay at Lord Byron's (Tom Sturridge) house at Lake Geneva, where the idea of Frankenstein was conceived.

This is Haifaa al-Mansour’s second directorial project after the 2013 festival hit Wadjda. Wadjda was the first feature shot entirely inside Saudi Arabia, and the first ever directed by a Saudi woman, making al-Mansour a true trailblazer. It''s not surprising then to find her drawn to the story of Mary Shelley, another pioneer. I found a through line, despite the period setting and different locations, between the two films. Both stories of young women determined to chart their own destiny. So that was where I started my conversation with al-Mansour and Booth when they were in New York last month for the Tribeca Film Festival. THE INTERVIEW IS AFTER THE JUMP...

Murtada Elfadl: They might be different in location and period but there is a through line between Wajdja and Mary Shelley, do you see that?

HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR: I see that and I’m glad you see it. I love making films with female protagonists and I know exactly how it feels to be discriminated against or to come from a sexist place. But I don’t want to make a film about women becoming victims. I love making movies about women who are feisty, who are conquering the world, doing exciting things with their lives. That's why I loved Mary Shelley. When they sent me the script -- it was period, it’s about an English woman and I’m from Saudi Arabia so I wasn’t really sure at first -- but I really understood her journey and what it means to assert yourself as a young person.

al-Mansour with her cast at TIFF last year

What ideas did you want to push forward with this fim?

HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR: I wanted to push for women to believe in themselves. One thing I loved about Mary Shelley is that she wrote about her life; losing a child, difficult relationships with her husband, her father and sister. Her life as a woman was is in that book and nobody knows about it, nobody knows the correlation. It’s a science fiction book that challenges the paradigms of the times, questions God and religion and philosophy. It’s amazing that it came from a woman who everybody was pushing to write a romance. Or something that was popular and accepted for a woman to write. I find that very cool and I hope women at this time and age believe in themselves and do things that they are passionate about, not because they want society to accept them.

Is that something that you want to do, sci-fi or supernatural stories?

HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR: Yes I want to make Wonder Woman the sequel! Let’s talk about that. I think it’s time. I’m very proud of female stars who carry the burden of films like that and the female directors who are pushing boundaries and conquering the box office.

You name should be added to that shortlist of female directors that Marvel is meeting with for the Black Widow stand alone film.

DOUGLAS BOOTH: Add your name to the list then cast me.

HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR: Working on it!

You have a writing credit, can you talk about your contribution to the screenplay?

HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR: I read that people dismissed Mary Shelley. I felt that was infuriating and has to be added because women are intellectually being dismissed all the time and you can't make a film about Mary Shelley without mentioning that. I wrote the scene in the church between Mary and Percy, where they come together, because I think that young people should always challenge everything around them if they want to be creative. And I wrote a lot of the of the stuff between Mary and her sister Claire because I wanted it to be more intimate between them and not just about jealousy and who’s sleeping with who. The thread of being with her sister is important to her journey in the film.

I love Bel Powley in the film.

HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR: She’s amazing.

Writer/Director Haiffa al-Mansour

Visually representing writing and writers is hard, can you talk about that challenge.

HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR: It is hard and we wanted to hear their poetry which is why we had voiceover; to hear their voices and what is happening in their minds. We tried not to compete with their writing though because then we would lose. That is why while she’s writing Frankenstein you see the writing on screen and you hear her voice.

DOUGLAS BOOTH: it’s hard to make a movie about an artist because inevitably you lose the art within it. I made a movie about Vincent Van Gogh [last year's Loving Vincent] and we told the whole film through his paintings literally. For this, Frankenstein is such a famous book that people know so you don't need to sit down and read for them. What I didn't know, and what I think the film shows, is the parallels between her life and the book. She was writing about her life and that's how it came out on this incredible book.

Was it daunting playing Shelley or do you just play the scenes as written?

DOUGLAS BOOTH: I've played a lot of real life people, that doesn't really daunt me. I enjoy the wealth of material available for me to draw on. So it was a process of figuring out who he was and how he got to where he was and what made him such a revolutionary and idealist and rebel. I filled my head with thoughts and memories and then had the pleasure of playing and bouncing off Bel Powley and Elle Fanning, brilliant actors. The pleasure was all mine. It wasn't intimidating, it was fun.

Was there a perception or misconception you had about him that playing the part changed?  

DOUGLAS BOOTH: I just didn’t know as much about him. I know some of the poetry and obviously people know about Byron and how they are linked and that he died at 29. Beyond that I didn't know a huge amount. I didn't know that he was one of the first outspoken vegetarians and promoted free love before it was a thing -- stuff that right now we take for granted. He had such ideals that he and people around him suffered for. Even though he’s challenging and troubled I fell in love with him.

  •  

There is a long history and tradition of cinema in Egypt, the Hollywood of the Arab World, as an Arabic speaker did you grow up watching those movies?

HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR: Of course! I love Faten Hamama. Dua al Karawan(1959) is one of my favorite movies ever because it’s a feminist film.

[Haifaa then turns to Douglas to tell him the film’s plot.]

DOUGLAS BOOTH:  I didn’t know Egypt was the Hollywood of the Arab world.

HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR: Yeah they made beautiful movies. It’s beautifully shot and one of the first Arab films to go to Cannes. I also grew up watching Abdel Halim singing in musicals.

What are some other filmmakers or films that influenced you?

HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR: I love the Dardenne Brothers. I stumbled on Rosetta one day. Because we didn’t have movie theaters in Saudi Arabia we only got mainstream movies on video. No arthouse films, it’s not high cinema (laughs). Bruce Lee and what not. So it was amazing to see Rosetta, with filmmaking at that level. The young girl at the heart of the film was amazing. It was a huge discovery for me.

Perhaps an inspiration for Wadjda. What about you, Douglas?

DOUGLAS BOOTH:  As a kid I just wanted to go on adventures. I spent my time running around the garden with a stick thinking I was Gandalf. I had a vast imagination and I wanted to go to those places and to an extent I do. I get to live hundreds of different lifetimes within my own. Recently I have been playing Nikki Sixx in a movie about Mötley Crüe. I learned to play bass, and played in an auditorium full of people, with insane massive pyro flames, rocking out with long hair. I never thought I’d be able to do that or look into the eyes of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and speak poetry to her as we passionately make out in a church. It’s amazing to time travel like that.

Mary Shelley opens Friday in NYC and LA with further expansion later. It will also be available on VOD next week on June 1st.

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Reader Comments (4)

There have been several film versions of this story from Ken Russell's "Gothic" (1986)to "Haunted Summer" (1981)

May 23, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I love how open Douglas Booth is about what he doesnn't know. I enjoy him onscreen. And I can't believe he's playing Nikki Six. wth?

May 24, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I'm looking forward to the film - I will probably watch it via VOD.

May 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

Fun fact — he and Bel Powley are dating. Ran into them at a bagel shop in NYC the other day! Really interested to see this movie as well, of course

May 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCaroline

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