Scottish director Paul McGuigan is best known for Lucky Number Slevin and BBC’s Sherlock, but that may be about to change. His latest film, Victor Frankenstein, which stars James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe, is better than it has any right to be. Why? Because McGuigan took a monster and made it into a plaything, then bashed it through a fully realized vision of Victorian London.
McGuigan sat down with Inverse to talk about directing without writing, resurrecting the past (without being boring), and the importance of working with smart actors.
As a director who doesn’t write, you’re only as good as the script. I’d just come from Sherlock, and it feels like you could drop Benedict [Cumberbatch] and Martin Freeman into it. The relationship between the two men is quite similar; the dynamic between Igor and Victor Frankenstein.
And the science itself is something I’m interested in. Part of the story is about the modernity of the Victorian scientists. It’s very relevant now. Are we helping society or confusing society? These are questions that fit together with an interesting framework that’s similar to Sherlock. There’s a real energy to the film.
With these types of films — old-school monster movies — filmmakers usually either aim for gothic horror or self-conscious camp. Was it hard to chart a middle path?
Sometimes when you think of Victorian times, you think buttoned-up, but that’s not really the truth of Victorian society. They were quite advanced scientifically and at times there was outrageous behavior. We felt that we could take that and use it as a template. More than anything, I wanted it to be colorful. Because there’s always a template for a medieval film, where you go, “Oh, it’s a medieval film, the camera can’t move too much” and if it’s a Victorian film, everyone has to wear black. But, really, you can do whatever you like with the story. We had a really great time.
And I like the physicality of it. James would grab Daniel and throw him around.
A lot of your work involves physical performances like that. Is that a conscious choice, or does it come with the scripts you gravitate towards?
There’s one scene where Victor brings Igor back to his apartment and Igor is a hunchback, and the first thing James does is straighten his back. That was all James. It came out of his desire to make it raw. That was the first scene where it ended and I went, “Okay, we’ve got it.”
Like Sherlock, Victor Frankenstein is a sociopathic kind of person. But they’re very different actors — Benedict is more cerebral and James is much more physical. Still, James is incredibly smart as well. If people are smart, they play smart people. It’s very hard to fake intelligence. You get found out.
You compared Sherlock and Victor Frankenstein as characters — and although Victor Frankenstein, Sherlock, and Lucky Number Slevin are very different films, their leads – James McAvoy’s Victor, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, and Josh Hartnett’s Slevin – are cunning men who know more than the audience knows. What draws you to those kinds of characters?
What I like is the dialogue, smart conversation. If you can have it in an entertaining scene, all the better. Lucky Number Slevin was the smartest script I’d ever read, and it had a very distinctive voice. Same with the script for Victor Frankenstein; it had a voice. It can be funny, but that’s what I’m attracted to: smart writing.
Not everyone can write. I’ve tried it. A lot of people think they can, and they can’t. So I’ve always respected that.
You recycle actors quite a bit: You worked with Josh Hartnett in both Lucky Number Slevin and Wicker Park. You also included several Sherlock actors in Victor Frankenstein, like Andrew Scott, Mark Gatiss, and Louise Brealey….
And my next project, which I’ll announce soon, will be with James McAvoy again. I love actors. One thing I remember with my first job, was that I was like, “okay, I can do this — I can visualize the world — but am I going to be able to work with actors?” I wasn’t sure, at first, how it would be. But I’ve been very lucky in my career that I’ve worked with some fantastic actors. I like to let them go: watch them dissect and come up with ideas. I don’t always tell them what to do. I say, “stand here, the light looks good here,” but I let them shape it.
And you never went to film school, right? How does that affect your style?
I used to be a photographer. And this may sound strange, but I’ve never had a reverence for movies. I’ve always loved watching them and felt passionate about them, but I didn’t used to see a film and say, ‘I want to do that.’ It wasn’t until I got offered to do a film that I fell in love with it. I guess not going to film school has created this sense of no fear with me. Because I always feel that sense of ‘oh, I can always do something else!” I think if I had gone to film school, that sense of no fear would have gotten beaten out of me, a bit.
I don’t have fear, and that’s why, when I was shooting Sherlock, I didn’t want to just shoot it straightforward.
I’m a very visual director. That’s where the words on the screen in Sherlock came from, because if you look at a phone, everyone can text — that’s not visually interesting. And with Frankenstein, I keep trying to evolve and move forward. I’ve been doing this for twenty years. I’ve made mistakes.
Are there any mistakes that stand out?
Occasionally you think you’ve made something, and you find it isn’t what you intended it to be. My last movie, Push, just wasn’t working the way I wanted it to, so that’s why I waited five years for this to come along.
What’s next for you? You mentioned another film with James McAvoy?
I’m filming a pilot right now with Joan Allen, and I’ve got another film coming out with James McAvoy. [Victor Frankenstein] was a bit of a departure, which I enjoyed. This movie will be more of a love story. I did it a little bit with Wicker Park — but I’d like to just do two people in a room talking.