Inspiration or being inspired is important if you want to create, paint, or write. Writing means books, even a diary or anything that you could pass on to the next generation. All that is good, but what is more interesting is the reason behind that inspiration that causes for something wonderful to be brought to life.
“Mary Shelley” directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, who became the first Saudi female director ever to direct a Hollywood film, is based on the title character Mary Shelley (Elle Fanning) and her love affair with the romantic but radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Their stormy relationship, full of ups and downs, inspired the young woman to write Frankenstein.
Indeed, making such a film was not an easy journey, however, writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour seems to have had no issues bringing up the most fascinating love story between the beauty and the best, Mary and Percy and their love child – Frankenstein.
During the Toronto International Film Festival that took place back in 2017, I had the great pleasure to sit down with Haifaa Al-Mansour who generously answered not only my questions regarding her film, but every other journalist’s in the room leaving nobody’s questions unanswered.
MOVIEMOVESME: Is it surreal? Do you pinch yourself saying, “Yes, I made it!”?
Haifaa Al-Mansour: Oh, yeah. It’s really nice to be working here. It’s really nice to be working here. It’s really nice not to be working out of a van, I have to say. I’ve been on my own side, and it’s really wonderful. It was really nice. It’s moving.
MOVIEMOVESME: And is it a coincidence that this work of yours is also about a very strong woman who had to fight for being acknowledged and accepted?
Haifaa Al-Mansour: I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I really like this character. I think it was like, yeah, I think I tried to make work about woman, and strong women, and I think it is really important for us to celebrate womanhood in that way. We’re survivors. We fight, and we’re sexy.
MOVIEMOVESME: I love that you’re a Saudi Arabian woman making a film about a very British story. How did the whole project come to you?
Haifaa Al-Mansour: Well, when they first talked to me I was exactly like that, I was like, “It’s a period. It’s English. I don’t know the English woman.” Then when I read it, it’s an amazing story about a woman coming of age in this city that was quite traditional where she rebelled against it, and she found her own voice. I kinda related to that, and I think it is very important for us as women to come together regardless to culture or where we’re coming from. I think women’s experiences are very similar all over the world, and we very much sometimes struggle to fulfill a certain image. We need to be the caregivers, and we need to be either teachers or nurses. They expected it from us to be in a certain way. It is amazing for her to come out of that shadow and write something very philosophical questioning God, questioning paradigms. It’s a very masculine area, and she did not care. She went there, and she did it in such an original way. She wasn’t writing poetry like Percy or political essays. She was writing a story about her life, but in that way, she gave us a legacy. It is sad that this Frankenstein is very masculine now. Everybody remember the Frankenstein as something and forget that there’s a young woman who produced it.
MOVIEMOVESME: You are from Saudi Arabia, and that’s a big deal in terms of you being the first female filmmaker to make a feature film and also the first one to make a Hollywood film. Who better to relate with the Mary Shelley story than you and you being in your own way a hero.
Haifaa Al-Mansour: It was very humbling to read Mary Shelley, and I can’t say like nothing I do is like the book she’s done. It’s such a classical and such intelligent and such a smart thing. She contributed to our literature until today, and it was amazing just to be close to that character.
For me as a filmmaker, if I don’t relate to a character in a way or another, I can’t bring it to life fully. Coming from Saudi Arabia, it’s hard for me to express my voice sometimes. It’s hard for me to be accepted. It’s hard for me. Of anywhere in the world, Saudi Arabia is one of the hardest places for a woman. I definitely related to her, to that part of her journey. To be given back accreditation, to be given back acknowledgement.
MOVIEMOVESME: For you to be able to get Elle Fanning, Bel Powley who was amazing in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is so unbelievable. I would like you to ask, how was it for you? How challenging was able to reach them out, talk to them, explain the project, and then get them on board as a woman filmmaker?
Haifaa Al-Mansour: Yeah, no, absolutely. We had very also good producers on board, so they also helped. For me, it was like, coming from Saudi Arabia, we don’t have the huge talent. The talent was very limited with people who work in TV, but when you come here to Hollywood and you want to cast a film, they will give you a list and lists and lists. It’s amazing. It’s a really pleasure for a director just to go. It’s like a candy … This person will bring this. This person will bring that.
For me, Elle was really an obvious choice. She was young, but she has maturity and has this poise and elegance, and for me, it was I wanted people to be struck how young Mary Shelley was when she wrote the book. I met Elle when she was only 17, not even, 16. She was amazing. We had a conversation about the film, and I was really excited that she came aboard. Also, the effortlessness in her acting is something that is very enticing. You can’t get enough of it. She does really slight things which is very moving and very touching. There are so many moments when I was on the screen just watching her performance, and I was really moved. She was just giving me all these kind of subtleties, and she is, I think, the heart of cinema.
MOVIEMOVESME: It’s a shame that we don’t get to see more of Maisie Williams. Did you have to cut some of those scenes?
Haifaa Al-Mansour: No, we didn’t cut a lot of Maisie’s scenes. She really loved the story, and she wanted to come for Isabel. I have to say Maisie Williams was one of the most amazing people to work with. She’s very practical, and she was promoting Game of Thrones in Japan and all over the world. She would land from an airplane, “Where’s my scene?”. She will come, and it was a pure pleasure working with Maisie, and I really look forward to working with her again.
MOVIEMOVESME: What was the best thing that you actually liked about Mary’s relationship with Percy?
Haifaa Al-Mansour: I think it’s a dialectical relationship between Percy. Percy was her mentor. He educated her about policy and stuff when they first got married. As the journey goes, she got deeper in life, and I think her philosophy … Her knowledge of the world, I felt, surpassed his. For me, it was one of the scenes where he was telling her, “Why wouldn’t we write Frankenstein from an angel?” For her, becoming an angel is not to be perfect. Imperfection is becoming an angel, and perfection is perfection. For her to have that deeper knowledge as a woman that experienced loss and had to go with a man who’s sometimes irresponsible and who had affairs and who didn’t really care about money and providing for her still deepened her understanding the world where he stayed in this state of boyhood. You know? It’s amazing.
I loved Douglas. Douglas brought a lot of restlessness into the character, and that is what you want. There’s something you cannot not love Douglas. He’s amazing, perfect, beautiful, handsome, but he’s also like a boy. There is something enticing also about him in that way. He was a great embodiment for Percy.
MOVIEMOVESME: The young boy was vilified for abandoning his child, but he’s practically a child himself when he had that child. One of the things that was most striking about the film, don’t you think?
Haifaa Al-Mansour: Yeah, I think it is. They were all young. She was 18 when she wrote the book, and he was 21. He was 29 when he died, and he liked this poetry. We think of them like figures like they’re old. It’s amazing also how they embraced life. They were doing drugs and doing stuff. They were experimenting with a lot of things beyond their time. It is …
MOVIEMOVESME: They were hippies.
Haifaa Al-Mansour: They were hippies, and they defined what hippies is! They wrote, and they celebrated art. I’m from Saudi Arabia. I find this is very exciting. I haven’t been …
MOVIEMOVESME: Is everything factual in the film, for instance when they go to John barring in Geneva. It is factual? How was your research to get information about her?
Haifaa Al-Mansour: Yeah, there were so many things that happened. When she met Percy, she moved to France, and they took this road trip around Europe. It was like Baby Driver knew for us. We took a lot of … Her older sister killed herself, and Percy actually went on a rage for her older sister to get married. She had another sister. There is a lot of things happened in their life that didn’t make it into the film, but everything made it but fictional in a way. I had to concentrate on Mary’s story and try to construct the narrative around that. Yes, they went on a famous trip to Geneva with Byron, and it is when there she got the idea to write Frankenstein and Polidori wrote The Vampire. It was amazing because both of them did not actually get accredited, Polidori and Mary Shelley.
They’re both under Byron and Percy’s shadows, and that is … It happened. (laughs)
MOVIEMOVESME: Can you tell us what led to this movie? How this came along?
Haifaa Al-Mansour: Well, yeah, I have my agent here. I was looking to make films, to make the transition from not only working in Saudi but also working in the US.
MOVIEMOVESME: Ambition was really to work then on a larger scale already.
Haifaa Al-Mansour: I think I wanted to grow as an artist. I can’t film in a place there are no cinemas. It’s hard for me really to stay in a career. I’m going back to make another film in Saudi Arabia. I’ll always make films from the Middle East. To keep working and becoming … You need to keep working. I have family obligations. I bought a house. This is what I love to make. I wanted to find a project that I can connect with, and they sent me this project, and I met the producers, and we clicked, and we met the stars, and we clicked.
It was a journey to bring the components together. We had money coming from England, from the US, from Luxembourg. We ended up shooting all the interiors in Dublin, and then we had to match it in Luxembourg. Luxembourg doesn’t have a lot to offer like London at the time. We had to build a studio. A lot of the scenes, they will answer from the door in Dublin and carry on the scene in Luxembourg. It’s a tough situation for actors and everybody to wrap your head around that.
We had amazing art department. Patty Smith did wonderful job just matching everything and bringing subtle Gothic to the …
MOVIEMOVESME: Is there already a Haifaa Al-Mansour effect in Saudi Arabia that suddenly other women say, “Hey, I want to go to film school. I want to do like her.”?
Haifaa Al-Mansour: I don’t know. I think there are a lot of women who want to do things that are different, and this is exciting time in Saudi Arabia. There’s progress, slow, but there is progress.
MOVIEMOVESME: What’s your history with Frankenstein? Can you remember when you first read Shelley’s novel?
Haifaa Al-Mansour: I remember very much. I was in college, and I read Frankenstein. I remember also looking for cartoon inside. You get a lot of cartoons like the green one with the bullets (laughs). I kinda had this image, and then I read Frankenstein in college, and we discussed Mary Shelley briefly. Then nothing, just like whoosh, nothing. It was gone after that. It never really had a relationship except in Halloween. It’s just sad. You never get to know the character we did. She’s not celebrated. She doesn’t own that thing yet. People don’t give her the credit fully for Frankenstein. There’s almost disconnect between her and her book. I hope to bring that connection. The book is completely as a result of her struggle and her coming of age and her womanhood and her motherhood, maternity, all together in that book.
MOVIEMOVESME: Mary Shelley captured the way people lived that time, the lifestyle. Percy’s 29 years old when he dies. Was it something that fascinated you?
Haifaa Al-Mansour: Well, it fascinated me how young they died. Medical care was not that great. It was amazing. She lived until she was 53, and I think she had a brain tumor or something. That was how she passed away. It is fascinating how that era was so rich and was written by a lot of young people. It makes me appreciate young people now. I used to take them for granted, like younger, like teenagers. Whatever, they’re annoying, but now I feel like it is very important to empower them. Empower young people to write and to impart. I think if you empower people, if they have this kind of like, they can do things, and we won’t see more the Millennials.