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CONDON, BILL: Gods and Monsters

EXPUNGING HIS OWN MONSTERS
Before he won the Oscar for Best Screenplay (Adaptation) earlier this year, Bill Condon would have seemed the least likely recipient of that particular statuette. Beginning his career as a horror director, Condon appears to have found new credibility as the writer/director of the critically acclaimed Gods and Monsters. But it wasn't an easy transition to make, as he explained to PAUL FISCHER on his recent visit to Sydney.

Bill Condon is the least likely person to have helmed a serious work such as Gods and Monsters. It's as if he has inhabited two unique worlds of American cinema. It was Condon's determination to bridge the gap between these two worlds that led the director on his journey to Gods and Monsters. "I'd got frustrated with where I was in my career with the movies I was able to get made."

"I was kinda stuck in that genre"

The native New Yorker had been a film buff since childhood. After earning a degree in philosophy, he began contributing to such publications as American Film And Millimeter. In the early 1980s, he teamed with director Michael Laughlin as co-scenarist on a pair of cult thrillers, Dead Kids/Strange Behavior (1981), based on the mysterious murders of teenagers in a midwestern town, which were shot in New Zealand and completed in Australia. "Because they were goofy horror movies, I was kinda stuck in that genre for so long, and you obviously outgrow those things."

But it took while. He also made Strange Invaders (1983), a spoof of 50s sci-fi films that received generally positive notices, and moving fully to the director's chair, Condon steered the atmospheric, Sister, Sister (1987), a Southern gothic tale about two siblings who converted their family's Louisiana plantation into a bed-and-breakfast. While many critics carped over the story (deemed too derivative of Hitchcock's work), there was grudging admiration for the lead performances of Judith Ivey and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

As Sister, Sister was a critical and box-office disappointment, Condon retreated to cable TV, helming a trio of 1991 films for the USA Network, which is where the writer-director says he learned to make movies. "You have to do them in 20 days, you have $2.5 million, including the money they spend on stars, and so you don't have much money to make them. Other than that, they leave you alone. I worked in all these different genres and put together a team. I got to learn how to do it all."

Indeed; Murder 101 focused on a mystery author and college professor (Pierce Brosnan) who finds himself framed for a murder. White Lie was a provocative story about a contemporary political aide (Gregory Hines) who returns to the South and looks into the 1961 lynching of his father. Dead in the Water was a taut thriller featuring a murder plan than goes awry.

Moving to network television, Condon helmed the fact-based Deadly Relations (1993), about an abusive and controlling father, as well as the unsold pilot The Man Who Wouldn't Die (1995) which teamed a crime writer (Roger Moore) with a psychic waitress (Nancy Allen) in the search for a master criminal (Malcolm McDowell). Having served his apprenticeship, Condon returned to feature films first as one of the screenwriters on FX2 (1991) and later as director of the middling sequel Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995), which he's now happy to concede "was not a very good movie."

None of Condon's previous work prepared audiences and reviewers for what proved to be the triumph that is Gods and Monsters (1998). It was while shooting the Candyman sequel that Condon met Clive Barker, and various others who would be in a position to finance more serious films. "Because this was about a horror film director, it was a way for me to make the transition into stuff that would be more richer, interesting and serious, but still make sense. It would still be fundable, with me directing, because there was this foot that had been in horror movies. It was a very lucky piece of material that allowed me to make that transition."

"I like the way he's been able to combine a macabre wit with a great sense of style, along with poetry and genre-based suspense. " on James Whale

Gods and Monsters is based on the last years of James Whale, the British director working in Hollywood who was responsible for two of the greatest commercial successes of the 1930's, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, as well as Showboat and The Invisible Man. Condon's film, based on Christopher Bram's novel, Father of Frankenstein, introduces us to Whale in the final days of his life, following a mild stroke which has left the retired filmmaker highly medicated and somewhat impaired.

Although he is zealously looked after by his Hungarian mother-hen of a housekeeper, Hannah (Lynn Redgrave), Whale is still a bit frail for gardening on the grounds of his Pacific Palisades home. Help arrives in the person of Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), a handsome young ex-Marine, who signs on as a gardener despite some reservations about Whale's apparent homosexuality.

Condon had always been a fan of horror, and says that well before this project came his way, he'd also been a fan of James Whale. "I like the way he's been able to combine a macabre wit with a great sense of style, along with poetry and genre-based suspense. The idea that movies culled a lot is one thing I liked about him, as well the specific sense of camp, which you just can't get away from. It really is there. Clive Barker said that if anyone doubts the existence of a gay sensibility, all they have to do is look at a movie like Bride of Frankenstein."

At the centre of Gods and Monsters is the extraordinary performance of Ian McKellen. One can't imagine any other actor in the role and Condon always knew he'd found the perfect Whale. "He looks like him. I mean, on top of being a great actor, physically he is just close to what he was like." McKellen's involvement was instrumental in Condon getting the film made. "I don't know what we would have done had he turned us down." McKellen, says Condon, added so much to the film. "He contributed so many things that just made it deeper. Things like being offered the martini [in the scene] at Cukor's party and saying "Well, just the one." That was his ad lib and it was on the first day [of shooting]. It was like 'Oh, God. It's gonna work!' "

"he's got this stuff raging inside." on Brendan Fraser's character

Casting the hunky gardener, Condon ended up going with Brendan Fraser, now popularised through mainstream Hollywood hits such as George of the Jungle and The Mummy. "George hadn't come out at the time, and the money people were really unwilling for me to cast him because he didn't have an international exposure, which was so absurd. Fortunately, we changed their minds. He has a tough role in the film, very reactive. Brendan listens a lot, and I love the way he does it. If he didn't have that equal weight in the scenes, I don't think it would come off. By definition, that character he plays is so unformed and inarticulate but he's got this stuff raging inside."

While there were many movers and shakers in the critical community supporting Gods and Monsters, including the lead critics of Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone, distribution was still a question mark in the months that followed. "It was a nerve-wracking experience." Gods and Monsters premiered late in the Sundance festival in January 1998, after many of the most powerful acquisitions people had gone back to sunnier climes. "What was interesting to me was that the people who finally bid on the movie were all companies that didn't exist a year ago," he says. "The major ones are just not that independent anymore." Condon knew he had critical support, but the larger "independents" all considered the movie a hard sell, falling between the audiences for horror, the audiences for classy acting, and a gay audience.

"There's no way this movie could ever clear $100 million, it's no Good Will Hunting." Condon sees the mix of audiences to be a bonus for his movie, with the substantial mainstream art house audience appreciating McKellen's work, and the gay audience that doesn't overlap with the first group. Although some distributors saw the movie only as a gay entry, Condon says, "I don't see it as a gay movie and it's not being marketed it as such."

"That was sweet victory" on winning an Oscar

After Sundance, selling the movie may have been tough, but Condon's tenacity paid off - and an Oscar ensued. "That was sweet victory, though Ian should have won the Oscar by a long way."

Condon's Oscar doesn't mean he's chomping at the bit to work for mainstream Hollywood. "I don't think there's a place for me there. I think I've found my calling." In some ways, he now says exhausted, he's been able to expunge his own monsters making this film, and he's "ready to put it to rest."

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...receiving the Oscar


...with Ian McKellen

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