Movies - Mary Shelley : Q&A with Director Haifaa Al-Mansour

By Mulder, Los Angeles, 22 april 2018

Q : Tell us about the story behind MARY SHELLEY. How did you get involved in this project?

Haifaa al-Mansour : The producers sent me the script and I have to admit, I was skeptical at first. I thought her story would feel very foreign to me, as the period and the setting were so far from what I felt comfortable with. But when I read Mary Shelley’s story, I felt an instant connection with it. She grew up in this very conservative culture, where women’s roles were much more rigid and opportunities were extremely limited. But she rose above it, and wrote a story that continues to capture the imagination of readers to this day. What I love is that she chose to write a book that was so outside of the “acceptable” realms of literature for women, and created a genre (science fiction) that continues to be dominated by male voices. She wrote a book that challenged religious doctrine and raised new ethical questions about the impact of uninhibited scientific experimentation would have on a society.

Q: What, if any, parallels do you see between Mary Shelley’s story and Wajdja?

Haifaa al-Mansour : Although they are set in two different times and worlds, Mary’s story does have some very interesting parallels to Wadjda’s. Both young women were struggling against conservative social structures in order to pursue the lives they wanted to live. They are both women who unapologetically follow their hearts, against the norms and expectations of their societies, without compromise to achieve a personal triumph.

Q: Can you talk about your experience working on this film?

Haifaa al-Mansour : After working previously within systems that are much more rigid, where we have to be very careful about sensitive issues and the way we say things, it was very freeing to work on a project where there were no limitations. It was so great to work with such a professional and experienced crew, who could truly bring to life anything the script required. The scale and beauty of the production design was breathtaking.

Q: How does MARY SHELLEY set itself apart?

Haifaa al-Mansour : MARY SHELLEY is the remarkable true story of a woman who railed against the constraints of her society to create a story that would outlive the work of her contemporaries, including her brilliant parents and husband, to influence generations of writers and dreamers with an entirely new genre: science fiction. Her own story feels so strangely familiar because so much of it ended up allegorically in Frankenstein. We all know the basic story, but her journey reveals so many layers and deeper philosophical elements that help explain the work’s appeal.

Q: Do you feel things have progressed for women since the time of Mary Shelley? A modern-day example is J.K. Rowling…

Haifaa al-Mansour : Many of the problem’s that Mary Shelley faced continue to challenge women today. Philosophically the way in which Mary went after what she wanted in her life, without regard to moral or societal limitations, was extremely shocking to the public in her time. Whereas the same behavior would perhaps be more acceptable for a man, public pressure to be chaste and morally pure is still something that women struggle with today. Sadly, even her struggles to publish her book under her own name show a societal reluctance to embrace works of science, horror, or other traditionally ‘masculine’ themes from a female writer that continue to this day. Look at a book like “The Outsiders.” Sarah Hinton had to abbreviate her name to S.E. Hinton so readers wouldn't know her gender just by looking at the cover. I don’t think most people think about it, but it was clearly something her publishers felt (and still feel) is important in selling the book. Whenever women write something out-side of the realm of acceptable topics for the gender- romance, cook books, children’s books, etc.- we see that there is still a long way to go in unrestricting the potential of the female voice in our society.

Q: Why do you think the story of MARY SHELLEY will resonate with modern audiences, and what makes her life so interesting to explore in a biopic?

Haifaa al-Mansour : I felt a big responsibility to be accurate and honor Mary Shelley’s legacy in a way that mod-ern audiences could relate to. Her life story is an important aspect of the Frankenstein legacy, and it is a beloved work to so many people for so many different reasons. So I really wanted to focus on aspects of her personal journey that may not be that well known but are key to truly understanding everything that went into her writing. It was a wonderful challenge, and we had an amazing cast and crew that helped bring her story to life in a beautiful, touching story.

Q: In researching for the project did you learn anything which surprised you about Mary Shelley’s life and work?

Haifaa al-Mansour : I was surprised by so much of Mary Shelley’s life ended up in Frankenstein. I chose to focus on the relationships she had with her parents and her tumultuous relationship with Percy Shelley. All of these influences found a way into the book, and are much clearer in their symbolism when you know everything that she went through. She fought to live an uncompromising life, to emerge from the shadow of her remarkable parents, and experienced in-credible loss and sorrow. When I reread Frankenstein again, I was so touched by how much the journey of Frankenstein’s monster reflects many of the tragic events of her own life.

Q: How familiar were you with the story of Frankenstein prior to signing on to this project?

Haifaa al-Mansour : I knew quite a bit about the basic story, and the iconic imagery we all have of the green, neck-bolted monster that has become a cornerstone of modern pop-culture horror stories. I had read the novel in college as well, but hadn’t ever spent much time studying or thinking about the work. It means so much more to me now.

Q : What is your relationship like with writer Emma Jensen?

Haifaa al-Mansour : I loved the core story that Emma was able to develop in the screenplay. It led me into a much deeper study of the material and of the different works that surround the plot. I was really surprised when I read the introduction to Frankenstein, because it reveals so much in so few pages about what led Mary Shelley to write the book. Her love for Percy and her father, who each influenced the creation of Victor Frankenstein, are clear in those pages. I read a lot of Percy’s work as well, as their conversations and shared ideas were very much a part of her overall work as well. Finally, I read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Right’s of Women, which had a clearly feminist influence on her daughter Mary’s life, even though she died 10 days after giving birth to her.

Q : Can you talk about the casting process?

Haifaa al-Mansour : Elle embodies all of the qualities we were looking for in casting Mary. Mary Shelley was only 18 when she wrote Frankenstein, so I wanted someone fresh and young to emphasize her youthfulness and seeming innocence. But at the same time, we needed someone who could bring out the fire of Mary’s soul, and the surprising strength, defiance and intellect that are the hallmarks of her life story. Elle was able to embody this mixture of youth and inner power perfectly. Douglas Booth will also surprise a lot of people with his performance in this film. Percy Shelley is a complex character, a strange blend of charismatic genius, romantic poet, scandalous rebel and wildly irresponsible maverick. Douglas was able to take all of these bub-bling, explosive emotions and create a wonderfully nuanced character. Bel Powley was also the perfect find for Claire, Mary’s sister. She is such an important character in Mary’s life, and in influencing the emotional heart of Mary’s story. Bel’s performance is heart-breaking. And wait until you see Tom Sturridge as Lord Byron! He brought an energy and enthusiasm to the set that elevated the energy level of everyone around him. I feel blessed to have worked with such an amazing ensemble. Every actor surprised and impressed me. It was such a pleasure to work with actors from the very highest levels of the profession.

Q : Can you describe working with Costume Designer Caroline Koener?

Haifaa al-Mansour : Caroline’s work on this film is extraordinary. I wanted a look that was period and believable, yet fashionable and elegant enough to be appealing to modern sensibilities. She captured this look perfectly! Every costume in the film is gorgeous. I wanted the film to feel current, despite the period setting, so costumes with modern sensibilities were key to achieving that goal.

Q : What is your favorite memory from set?

Haifaa al-Mansour : There is one epic scene, where Elle is walking to the bookshop down Skinner street, and it is just such an awe-inspiring set. Everything just came together so well, and it was just beautiful to watch.

Q : What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

Haifaa al-Mansour : I hope audiences see in Mary a hero they can see themselves in. She is not perfect, and makes questionable choices and mistakes throughout her journey. But she does not give in to disappointment or the agony of loss, she just pushes forward. She is an example of someone who takes the weight of misery and transforms it into a personal and profound work of art. It would have been very easy for her to give up at any point along the way, or to defer to her accomplished parents or brilliant husband, but she decided ultimately to find her own voice.

Q : Do you have any favorite films or filmmakers that influence your work?

Haifaa al-Mansour : I’ve always loved the way Iranian filmmakers can say so much in their work without being too overt. It is a style that has had a deep impact on me and the way I approach my work. I have so many role models and films I look to for inspiration. I was really inspired by the films of the Dardeene brothers, particularly “Rosetta.” That film really made a strong impression on me- both in the seeming simplicity of the story and the emotional intensity of the young protagonist. I also love the Cohen brothers, and learned a lot about balancing out serious subjects with humor to deepen a film's emotional impact.

Q : What are you working on next?

Haifaa al-Mansour : I am working on an adaptation of the novel Be Safe I Love You. It is the story of a female American soldier returning from Iraq and struggling to keep her family safe. I’m also developing a Saudi film called THE PERFECT CANDIDATE, about a young Saudi female physician who maneuvers through her conservative, male dominated society to run in the municipal council elections. Frustrated after being turned around at the airport because her travel permission from her male guardian wasn't up to date, she embarks on an absurd campaign, balancing strict social norms, gender segregation and the influence of her eccentric family.

Haifaa al-Mansour is the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia and is regarded as one of its most significant cinematic figures. She studied comparative literature at the American University in Cairo and completed a Master’s degree from the University of Sydney. The success of her 2005 documentary “Women Without Shadows” influenced a new wave of Saudi filmmakers and made the issue of opening cinemas in the Kingdom front-page news. “Wadjda”, Al-Mansour’s feature debut, is the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first by a female director. The film received wide critical acclaim after its premiere at the 2012 Venice Film Festival. She is currently working on post-production on her latest film, "Nappily Ever After,' starring Sanaa Lathan. Her film MARY SHELLEY starring Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth will also come out later this year. Al Mansour is the first artist from the Arabian Gulf region to be invited to join the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science.

MARY SHELLEY tells the story of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning) - author of one of the world’s most famous Gothic novels ‘Frankenstein’ - and her fiery, tempestuous relationship with renowned romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth.) The pair are two outsiders constrained by polite society but bound together by a natural chemistry and progressive ideas that are beyond the boundaries of their age and time. Mary and Percy declare their love for each other and much to her family's horror they run away together, joined by Mary's half-sister Claire (Bel Powley.) In the midst of growing tension within their relationship during their stay at Lord Byron's (Tom Sturridge) house at Lake Geneva, the idea of Frankenstein is conceived when a challenge is put to all houseguests to write a ghost story. An incredible character is created, which will loom large in popular culture for centuries to come, but society at the time puts little value in female authors. At the tender age of 18, Mary is forced to challenge these preconceptions, to protect her work and to forge her own identity.

Mary Shelley
Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour
Produced by Amy Baer, Ruth Coady, David Grumbach Alan Moloney
Written by Emma Jensen
Starring Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Ben Hardy, Tom Sturridge, Maisie Williams, Stephen Dillane, Joanne Froggatt
Music by Amelia Warner
Cinematography : David Ungaro
Edited by : Alex Mackie
Production company : Gidden Media, HanWay Films, Parallel Films
Distributed by IFC Films, Curzon Artificial Eye
Release date : September 9, 2017 (TIFF), May 25, 2018 (United States), On-Demand starting Friday, June 1, 2018, July 6, 2018 (United Kingdom)
Running time : 121 minutes

Photos : Copyright Haifaa al-Mansour ‘s Portrait by Brigitte Lacombe
Photos: Copyright IFC Films

(Source: US press release)