Promethean efforts

Nora Unkel on Mary Shelley, the act of creation and A Nightmare Wakes

by Jennie Kermode

A Nightmare Wakes
A Nightmare Wakes Photo: Bettina Stammen

Few novels have had as much impact on the history of modern literature and popular thought as Frankenstein. Nora Unkel’s A Nightmare Wakes is the latest take on its creation, but it’s very different in tone from those that have gone before. Writer/director Nora Unkel joined me to reflect on her own creative process and a pre-pandemic experience of isolation that led her to think about the book in a different way.

“ I started writing this eight years ago,” she tells me. “I had gotten a copy of Frankenstein that I was reading while trapped in my apartment during Hurricane Sandy. All I had was candles and the copy of Frankenstein, and I started reading it. But the first thing, obviously, that I read was Mary's own foreword to it at the beginning of the novel and the foreword in which she basically creates her own myth of this dark and stormy night, and her and Byron, Percy and all of them coming up with these stories. But once I started thinking about, you know, Mary as a separate person from Frankenstein, I started looking into more of her history and learning about her miscarriages and her the death that was surrounding her life throughout her entire existence. Frankenstein became a completely different story, it became a story about motherhood and became a story about a woman trying to find her own voice in a world of men. And I was just beguiled by it. And so I just wanted to kind of put pen to paper and do my best to honour her.”

Dark waters
Dark waters Photo: Bettina Stammen

There were quite a few films on that famous weekend at Lake Geneva already out there. Had she seen many of them?

“I haven't seen some of the more recent ones, because I didn't want them to necessarily affect Nightmare,” she says. “But I have seen, you know, Ken Russell's, and I've seen some of the kind of earlier iterations, of course, Bride Of Frankenstein and the first kind of film version of Mary that we get to see. And I think, while I've seen different versions done, I've not seen any that were really focused on Mary herself, and on Mary's experience in bringing the story to life.

“The fact that I didn't know – as a literary fan, and as somebody who has read Frankenstein many times – the fact that I didn't know until I was 20 years old, that, you know, Mary was suffering from miscarriage, that Mary was suffering from the deaths of children, and a husband that wasn't, you know, being loyal to her... The fact that I didn't know those things until then, I felt was a complete injustice to Mary and to her story. And I felt like somebody needed to kind of put that story down. And while I was doing that, I started to discover more and more pieces of her life that felt like direct reasons for moments in the novel. So I wanted to not only tell Mary's story, but try to tell, you know, Frankenstein, the novel through this, shall I say, bastardised version of Universal’s monster, which is this monster who has no ability to speak, who has no real, ability beyond just ‘Urrrgh, arrgh,’ you know? And I wanted to bring Mary's voice back into the creature, I wanted to bring Mary back in front of her own story, and do it in a way that ideally would be commenting on Mary's own work and how that was influenced by her life.”

I found the film interesting, I tell her, because we haven’t previously seen much focus on Mary’s intellectual life.

Nora nods enthusiastically. “I mean, she's born of two of the greatest writers of that time, you know, a woman who basically was the first feminist, vocally at least, and she came from a world with Percy and all of these other writers of high intellect, and at 19 somehow, she was able to take these traumas that were surrounding her and filter them into one of the most beautifully written books that I've ever read. And and again, that was something that we haven't really gotten to see. It's always made either in this very kind of sex driven way, like edgy and look how sexy she is, or as this woman who's like, you know, like in Bride Of Frankenstein, laughing at herself. It's a little bit cruel. I wanted to go back to the letters, some of her journal entries and more elements of actually who she was, who this 19-year-old girl could have been to create something like this.”

Some enchanted evening
Some enchanted evening Photo: Bettina Stammen

When we look at the achievements of the Romantics at that time, we tend to forget how young they were, I suggest. That's something that that comes across a lot in this film, particularly as how young Percy is and how little clue he has about what's going on in his life. Was that something that she wanted to look at, and the fact that he is struggling to find his roots in life while Mary is consumed by her work?

“Exactly, yeah. I was definitely struggling a lot of the time in, you know, in the research that I was doing on Percy and knowing more about him. And he really was a complex figure, he was somebody that, you know, really said a lot of great things, he was a feminist, he was an atheist, he was really pushing the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable. A lot of that was because of his youth and because of his privilege being born into this high class family. But then he was still a really damaging person who made a lot of mistakes and screwed with Mary a lot, and screwed with a lot of the women in his life. But at the end of the day, we had to see a character that Mary would love, a character that we could still respect, and love Mary for having loved this man. And so I thought it really was in his youth. It was in his kind of naiveté about the actual world that we usually see in Mary's characterisation. From my readings, and from what I see, it really didn't feel like it was malicious. It was just a little clueless, and a little, not thinking beyond his own needs.”

That’s interesting in light of how, at one point in the film, Percy tells Mary that she’s going mad, I say. It was a common way to interpret any kind of non-standard behaviour in women at the time, and this film strikes a very delicate balance between whether she is mad, whether she's going through an intellectual struggle, or whether she's actually seeing something supernatural – an approach that parallels the novel itself.

Mary and Percy
Mary and Percy Photo: Bettina Stammen

“Yeah, absolutely,” says Nora. “I wanted to tie in as much of the themes of the novel as I could, along with Mary's own writing surrounding them. There's a lot of letters that talk about how she was seeing the figures of both the creature and the doctor kind of following her in different realms... Ultimately, I know that that is definitely what a lot of the characters say to Mary is, she's crazy. But Mary does kind of speak against that, and speak to her own sanity. And I think, at least from my intention, it was really about kind of capturing the creative process and the creative expression of taking these traumas of your life and, and regurgitating them into something that for Mary was an escape.

“Weirdly enough, when I sat down to write this, it was a straight period piece biopic of Mary. And as I was writing it, Victor appeared on the page. Suddenly he was talking to Mary, suddenly all these months of planning that I had done, where it's just a biopic, started to unravel as Victor emerged onto the page. And there were moments where it just felt like I would sit down for a day and five hours later, there's 20 pages and, and so not in any way trying to take Mary's power away, but instead to show the power of creative expression and when a story is kind of inside you bursting out, that sometimes you don't have control over that, sometimes it's a part of you and you're along for the ride.”

I note that her star, Alix Wilton Regan, has said they did quite a bit of workshopping together to develop Mary further. Did that happen with the other actors as well?

“Definitely. I like to provide a very open and collaborative set, because I think that the best way to make these stories is to bring as many heads together as possible and see it from different sides and different angles. A lot of the time I was talking with Giullian [Yao Gioiello], our wonderful Percy, about, again, ways that we could not villainise Percy too much, because that wasn't ever the intent, it was to show the complications. And so it was ways to do some of these more delicate scenes in a way that wouldn't destroy our trust for Mary in turn. And so yeah, it was very much all of us putting our heads together.

The young Romantics
The young Romantics Photo: Bettina Stammen

“There's moments where Alix would come on and be like, ‘I think Mary really should say this here, I think she really needs that.’ Or she'd come and be like, ‘Hey, I know we have this as an idea of more of a jumpscare moment, but can we do another version that's more of an intimate, emotional moment?’ And and I was always like, ‘Absolutely, the more options I can have in the cutting, the better.’ And ultimately, we ended up using a lot of Alix's ideas and a lot of Giullian's ideas. So I was very lucky to have them as collaborators.”

There are some ideas that seem to link into previous work that Nora has done in her short films. Certainly around that borderline between the supernatural and the ordinary world. Was that a theme that she feels is carrying through all of her work and that she wants to take forward into the future as well?

“Thank you for noticing that,” she says. “Yes, absolutely. I think of myself as as somebody who's really fascinated by folklore and mythology. by this kind of world of faerie just beyond our reach, just beyond what we can see – that we just can't explain fully. I really felt that Frankenstein itself was its own mythology... I think Frankenstein became something that that is deeply rooted in folklore and mythology. I really like to focus on the magical realism of the world, the idea of something could or could not be real, but is influencing our perception of reality.”

Moving away from that side of things for a moment, I was interested in her racially diverse casting. Was that a deliberate decision from the outset or was it just about finding the right actors?

Alone in a crowd
Alone in a crowd Photo: Bettina Stammen

“A little bit of both,” she says. “It was definitely something I wanted to do, because I'm tired of looking at a lot of period pieces that are just a lot of white people. And, you know, I think, if we can do it on stage, why not be able to do it on film? And ultimately, I wanted to be able to cast whoever was going to show up as the best actor, the people that had the most connection and heart to these characters. I was going based off of personality, basically, in terms of how they were characterising these people, more than visual appearance, I guess.”

I also heard that cast and crew all stayed together in a haunted house when they were making it.

“Oh, my gosh, absolutely that!” she declares, explaining that it was riddled with what seemed to be supernatural beings. “I think we've decided by the end that they were, you know, helpful spirits. They were happy we were there. We actually had a witch on set as well who went through and blessed the house and put crystals around so that the spirits stayed calm, because apparently one of them was actually a nurse who would often be seen carrying a baby or or responding to a baby's call. So it felt very apropos for film.”

So what's next for her?

“Well, going into that folklore realm, I'm actually in the middle of two other horror scripts right now. I'm writing one called Ashes, which is really focused on Scottish mythology, and particularly the banshee. And a second one that I'm writing right now is a Mexican witchcraft film called Bruja.”

A Nightmare Wakes is currently screening on Shudder.

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