Frankenstein unbound

Richard Raaphorst on Frankestein's Army.

by Jennie Kermode

“It's way, way beyond my expectations,” says Richard Raaphorst, the Dutch director whose monstrous movie Frankenstein's Army is proving popular with film festivals around the world. “I though it would only be picked up by horror festivals... I never dared to dream about anything like this.”

Frankenstein's Army
Frankenstein's Army

Frankenstein's Army has screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and is now showing in Karlovy Vary as well as being selected by the UK's biggest horror festival, Film4 Frightfest. This success has thrown Richard in at the deep end. He admits that he has little experience of interviews and finds the whole experience disorientating. “It's great to stand in the spotlight but it makes me feel that I almost cannot handle it. All this attention makes me look like an important person but I've only made a movie, meant to entertain people.”

It's his first feature after a career that has mostly been focused on art. Richard's drawings are well worth seeking out in themselves and he's contributed design work to the likes of Black Book and Beyond Re-Animator. He's also directed a few shorts but taking on a feature, he says, was a very different experience.

“My last short was 35 minutes long but the difference between short and long is that with a feature there's just no way to look at the details of the whole thing. It's just too big. It's very difficult and needs a lot of focus. With short films it's a very easy time frame but working on a feature can take years. I worked hard to prepare everything in detail so I knew I was doing a good thing but when you are going into a project and you don't know when or where it will end, it can swallow you up totally.”

Given his work as an artist, Richard acknowledges, he's a very detail-focused person. “As a movie maker you have to be a bit of a perfectionist or you can never raise the bar, you can never force yourself to get there. In the end what is driving us is not only inspiration but perfectionism combined with obsession. I can never settle until the design is convincing. It's very important to me, it's a key element, that it has to be visually perfect. The next 50% is dealing with the dramatic side.”

Frankenstein's Army certainly has an impressive look. “I chose a visual language based on what was around in 1945,” says Richard of how he achieved it. “What I did was to start by building limitations. For instance, I couldn't use any CGI because there was none in that time frame. I kept to movie-making as it was done in the early days. It meant that I had to keep finding alternatives that often led to much more creative solutions than I'd thought of in the first place. Everything in that supports the story but also supports the look of it.

“I wanted to get into Frankenstein's way of thinking by only using second hand materials and combining things that are not normally combined. In every design and location there's a weird mix of elements that belong to the same time frame but are not normally combined, so for instance there's the propeller-head zombie, that's a good example, because you don't expect to see a spitfire engine emerging from the top of a robotic monster but it still works.”

The film's locations contribute a lot to this. How did he find them?

“We knew we wanted to shoot in Eastern Europe,” he says, “but we were looking at all these ghost towns and they weren't really very interesting.” So he instructed his location scouts to think outside of the box “and they came up with his huge mining complex and abattoir-looking stuff and we thought, this is it! We went in all the tunnels and the places where you're not allowed to go. We ended up writing the script around the location and it turned out much better than what we had thought up before. It influenced the visual style as well as the story.”

The story focuses on a mad scientist who is determined to create an army of semi-mechanical, unkillable soldiers for the Nazis. It's no secret that the real life Nazis engaged in some bizarre experiments – were those an influence?

“I studied a lot about that but I did so because I wanted to stay away from that area,” says Richard. “It's just too horrible. I don't want to go into that territory because it has nothing to do with entertainment. What makes war even more horrible than the business behind it, the trade in weapons, is the way it makes people become monsters. They forget what normality is and end up infecting other people and turning them into monsters, so in the end you have monsters creating monsters. I wanted to make something that was more about fiction, about fantasy. That's partly why I wanted it to be in English because then it's not as realistic. If you want to see the horror of what really happened you can watch a documentary.”

Fantasy horror directors have been a big influence on Richard. One of his favourites is Peter Jackson. “I just watched his first film again recently. He's so creative! I'm a big fan of Terry Gilliam too; he uses locations in the same way I do, especially in Brazil. I'm a huge fan of David Cronenberg and also the Italian horror directors of the Eighties like Fulci and Argento. In a different way I'm a fan of animation and Manga. Akira is still one of my favourite animated movies ever. And I love David Lynch's work, especially Eraserhead.”

Making his first feature a horror film wasn't deliberate, he says, but just happened that way. Still, he acknowledges that he's attracted to the darker side of things. “It's more interesting because it's unknown and that makes it more challenging to do something with it. It's mysterious and a little bit evil in an attractive way.”

Despite finding his first feature hard work, he admits he also found it addictive. Would he do it again? “I'd jump into it straight away! That's because when you make a feature you do it with a lot of other people and you share the same focus and the same passion. It's hard to find that anywhere else. It's also much more intensive than making a short because on a short you only have a few days to hang out with each other. With this it's more like a way of living.”

In fact, Richard currently has two projects on the go, for which he hopes to release trailers by the end of the summer. One is about the discovery of the Higgs boson, he says, and the other “Is called Children Of The Moor. It's written by my wife and based on a Dutch legend about how, in the Middle Ages, evil kids were buried alive. In the legend mushrooms grow above the graves and it's a horror story about that.” It resembles, he says, the sketches he did for previous project Worst Case Scenario, with beautiful Dutch landscapes contrasting with horror.

Does he have any final message for readers about Frankenstein's Army?

“They must see my film!” he says, laughing. Then, with a hint of his earlier shyness, “What is really striking me is the way that it has sold out. People are making time free, buying tickets and going to the cinema to watch my film! That thought is amazing. It's the biggest award I can get. How can I wish for more?”

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