Writer and director Nora Unkel’s newly released debut feature film deals with the familiar subject of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, but with an approach never taken before. The story has been adapted as both a straightforward horror tale and as a metaphor, and Mary Shelley’s life has been the subject of biographical films many times before. Unkel, however, takes a unique approach, focusing entirely on the aspects of Shelley’s life that produced the idea of Frankenstein, and the often painful process of writing it. The new film is approached entirely from Shelley’s point of view, taken up with her thoughts and experiences as she creates the novel for which she is most famous.
From the first scenes, the film establishes a blending of peace and horror, from the opening shot of gentle waves which give way to a suicide, to an introductory scene of a woman who appears to be fleeing in fear, but instead runs into the arms of her lover. Early in the film, the young author experiences a traumatising miscarriage, an event which preys on her mind because of an essential catalyst for her writing. The blending of domestic scenes with fantastical horror is a perfect analogy for Mary Shelley’s work, which, in this director’s view, draws horror imagery from more mundane personal experiences. It is the director’s personal vision which defines the film. The source of that unique concept, Nora Unkel, was good enough to speak with Far Out on the making of A Nightmare Wakes.
Nora Unkel was well established in filmmaking from an early age: she is a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she earned a degree in film production with minors in music and history. She has worked as a screenwriter, director, sound designer, and post-production supervisor. Her directing career began with a series of short films, several including horror themes. She notes that this experience influenced her subject matter somewhat, commenting: “It was actually in stepping into this world and working with my producing partner, Devin Shepherd (a lifelong horror fan) that I was intrigued into continuing down the horror path.” As for the choice of Mary Shelley and Frankenstein for her debut feature, Unkel reveals that it was a lengthy creative process, first inspired by original sources from Mary Shelley herself. “The writing process was a long one,” she allows.
“I started writing A Nightmare Wakes about eight years ago during Hurricane Sandy when I was trapped in my NYC apartment with only a copy of Frankenstein and a few candles. I read Mary’s own forward in which she immortalised her own ‘dark and stormy night’ at Villa Diodati. But it wasn’t until I read that she was suffering from a late-term miscarriage as she was entering the writing process of Frankenstein that I suddenly saw the novel in a whole new light. I immediately pored over the novel with new eyes, seeing the whisperings of a 19-year-old girl suffering from a huge amount of trauma on each page, particularly on the pages in which the Creature tells its story. I found it incredible that after all of this time so few people know about the meanings behind the novel and the traumas that inspired it.”
While straightforward information about Mary Shelley’s life is offered in the film, including her unconventional relationship with Percy Shelley, interactions with fellow writers and with the disapproving outside world, and the practical difficulties of their lifestyle in the mid-19th century, the merely biographical route quickly gives way to a closer study of Mary Shelley’s interior life, her personal fears and traumas, and their expression in her writing. Unkel describes the development of this approach in her script, explaining: “I first wrote the script eight years ago, when I was 20, in a matter of a few weeks. What had first been intended as a straight biopic soon became something more. I found myself getting sucked into Mary’s own head instead, and picturing what she would be picturing as this novel came to life around her.” The film does, in fact, move from more straightforward scenes of Mary Shelley interacting with other writers and with her household, to more subjective images that show us her thoughts and feelings. As Unkel describes it, the character of Frankenstein became an inspiration of sorts, which seemed to direct her scriptwriting: “Victor appeared on the page, talking not just to Mary, but to me as well. The feeling that Mary describes ‘I feel like Michelangelo, chipping away at a block of granite, revealing the life inside,’ was also my own,” she says. “There were days where I would sit down and blink to five hours later where twenty pages were fully written on my screen. It became a question of whether I was writing the script or I was simply a catalyst. This seemed to match a lot of what Mary was writing about in her own experience, and so I set out to tell that story, a story that shows how a writer may use trauma to inspire their work.” Nora Unkel’s experience as a writer parallel’s Mary Shelley’s own portrayal, as she is haunted by images of her fictional monster, driven to produce his story, sometimes mentally changing places with him.
As Mary Shelley descends further into grief, self-blame, and anger, the film becomes more and more surreal, and we see reality blended with the author’s obsessively imagined monster, her own fears brought to life, unhappy memories taking on a nightmarish aspect, and even illusions brought about by the opium she takes to dull her pain. The scenes are meaningful in the way a dream is meaningful, if the dreamer’s own reality is taken into consideration – a delicate process for a filmmaker. Unkel goes well out on a limb in presenting this aspect of Mary Shelley, refusing to take refuge in explanatory narration or a third party’s clarifying perspective, so that the viewer is drawn into the whirlwind of the writer’s own mind, giving us just enough landmarks to provide some idea of what is happening. It is an unusual approach which deeply respects Mary Shelley’s harrowing creative process, but is challenging to the viewer. It is also, appropriately enough, a horrifying process to watch, portraying the production of the novel as similar to a difficult childbirth, making the completion of the novel as much of a relief to the viewer as it would have been to the writer herself.
Asked how she arrived at the decision to take this approach, Unkel described her research process: “While I did a huge amount of research, using anything of Mary’s that I could get my hands on, I tended to use my own interpretations of the novel instead of others’.” Her interpretation, she points out, is not arbitrary, but is based on Mary Shelley’s own expressed outlook. “In her letters, Mary writes that Percy was in fact, her greatest inspiration for Victor – a character that is best described as the antagonist within the novel.” In fact, Unkel does not hesitate to portray the betrayals and abuses in Mary Shelley’s relationship with Percy Shelley, and to parallel Mary Shelley with the ‘creature’ who was brought to life then abandoned. Unkel continues, “Her characterisation of Elizabeth seemed to be a conglomeration of her own idealised mother as well as society’s interpretation of who a woman should be. It’s in the creature, the ‘miscreant’, that I believe Mary sees the most of herself, a character that begs for understanding, respect, and to not be judged by their exterior. It was in those psycho-analytical themes that I wanted to explore the origin behind the novel.”
Nora Unkel commented in a statement that the novel Frankenstein is “a metaphor for motherhood,” and restates her view that the story is “about a miscarriage” – specifically, Mary Shelley’s traumatic miscarriages – and that Shelley saw herself in her fictional monster. Unkel confirms, “That’s the thesis of the film. While many would consider her to be the creator, the parallels between Percy and Victor are too specific and dead-on. The creature, on the other hand, is forced into a world that won’t accept it. Its exterior is seen as monstrous, as different, and as such, should not be heard or seen. Something a highly intelligent woman in the early 1800s might also be feeling.”
The film takes the time to establish Mary Shelley’s limitations as a woman writer of the 19th century, not merely taken less seriously, but seen as being defined and restricted by her own physical differences. The picture clearly expresses the frustrating conflicts between Mary Shelley’s drive to complete her novel, and the constant warnings to avoid such ‘stress’ during pregnancy. “As a mother, Mary was living in a time where doctors believed that anything that goes wrong with pregnancy or birth is the fault of the mother,” Unkel points out, “So it’s not a stretch to think that Mary might subconsciously, or consciously, blame herself for the deaths of her children both born and not. Following the trajectory of the Creature, who accidentally kills a child named William along with several other innocents, I saw a clear correlation between those experiences and the guilt Mary might have felt as the person blamed for the deaths of her children. She may, in turn, feel that she cannot inspire love, so instead chooses to cause fear.” The surreal scenes during her completion of Frankenstein do seem to have Mary Shelley expressing the self-loathing she’s absorbed from her environment, and at the same time finding a way to articulate and conquer it.
Describing the nightmarish scenes of Mary Shelley’s tortured writing process, Unkel comments, “Many of the scenes, especially in the second half of the film are doing two things at once. They have a meaning both for Mary’s life and within the Frankenstein novel. The intention is for us to feel like we’re on this uncontrollable spiral, descending deeper and deeper into Mary’s fantastical world. Following films such as Black Swan and Pan’s Labyrinth, Mary finds her reality to be too traumatic and unliveable and so turns more and more to the fantastical world where she has the control. Of course, on the outside, people choose to call her crazy for that, an oversimplification that many genius women have been associated with. But as she says ‘I am not mad, I choose this’; she’s choosing not to be a victim but instead to be a survivor. She knows the depths to which she is going in order to create her masterpiece, and she is willing to go there…until it’s too late.”
While it often uses fantastical images, the film respects the facts of Mary Shelley’s life, as well as the content of her novel. Unkel feels she gives great respect to Frankenstein, by not treating it as the well-known frightening monster tale. “There’s actually quite a large amount of Frankenstein, the novel, in the film,” she notes. “I intended the film to be equal parts an adaptation of the novel and an adaptation of Mary’s life while writing it. I included everything from full sequences and scenes, narration and dialogue, to full characters and themes. I even went so far as to include Percy and Byron’s poetry within their own dialogue to add an air of authenticity to their words. At every point when I had a question, I would turn back to the novel. It was important to me to bring the heart of the novel back to cinema.” Unkel also sees the significance of Frankenstein being written by a female author and intended to bring that across in her script. “Other than Kenneth Branagh’s, nearly every iteration of Frankenstein on film has bastardised the Creature and thus eliminated the depth of the novel,” she says, before adding: “I wanted to bring those (inherently feminine) themes back to the surface through their female origin. In the end, this is almost my visual book report of how I see Mary’s life and her work intrinsically linked.”
The implications of Mary Shelley struggling to work as a writer while living as a 19th-century woman appears throughout the film. Is A Nightmare Wakes essentially a feminist film? Unkel replies: “My intention wasn’t to go out and make a ‘feminist’ film but instead to recontextualise the origin story behind Frankenstein and centre it back on the young woman suffering traumas only a woman can suffer. Mary’s mother [Mary Wollstonecraft] was basically the original feminist, and her work greatly inspired Mary. But feminism was still very new at that time, and just like today, there were different ways of interpreting it. Mary knew herself to be smart, educated, capable, but those around her might not have seen that. Even Percy, who always encouraged her writing and freedom, was a womaniser who abandoned her time and time again. I think ultimately, the story is about a female writer living before her time, surrounded by the most lauded men of Europe, trying to find her voice and not be ignored simply due to her sex. Just like many feminists today, in order to do that, Mary has to fight against everything – her society, her lover, and even herself.”
The technical aspects of the film are also interesting; the look and sound of A Nightmare Wakes is unusual. Unkel comments on one small aspect of the visual choices: the recurring images of water, which range from frightening to soothing, including a suicide by drowning, Mary Shelley’s fantasies involving water, and the concluding image of peaceful, sunlit waves after her writing is successfully concluded. Unkel remarks, “In researching Mary, I found that water was often associated with the deaths in her life. Many people drowned, a miscarriage was in a bath of ice, and even Percy’s fate was quite waterlogged. I found that interesting when then looking at the novel and seeing that we both open and close on a boat, much of the action takes place around large bodies of water, and rain is ever-present. It seemed that Mary experienced water as a catalyst for death. I wanted to lean into that as water is most often seen as a life force, but in Mary’s upside-down world, water only brings death. For the film, everything comes back to the miscarriage for Mary. The water, ink, and blood that follow her all start from that one horrific day,” referring to Mary Shelley’s dark fantasies, inventively brought to life in the film, of being blood-stained, or shedding black ink instead of blood.
Equally striking is the film’s slightly offbeat but effective soundtrack. Some scenes have no background sound of any kind; some use conventional, classical music; others use non-musical noises as background, or very minimalist, single-instrument music that quietly accents the scene. Nora Unkel reveals that this was through careful planning. She recalls, “We wanted to use the score as another layer of describing Mary’s mental state and to telegraph our location within reality or fantasy throughout the film. The score has distinct themes, as most film scores would, for love, death, and specific characters. But it’s in weaving the different leitmotifs and themes together that we were able to build the chaotic climax where the music itself tells much of the story.
“I’ve worked with my wonderful composer Jon Cziner several times in the past, and it was a true delight sitting down with him and poring over works by Dario Marianelli, Wagner, and English opera where we found our sound. As a sound designer myself, the layering of sound within the music was very important to me. The sound, similar to the music, tells a lot of the psychological layers hiding just beneath the surface of the narrative. The subtext, if you will. Our fabulous team at Eggplant [Eggplant Picture & Sound, a post-production studio] worked tirelessly with me to create those layers and that depth in order to give a viewer a new experience with every watch.”
Nora Unkel took an additional, uncommon step in seeing the film through: founding, along with the film’s producer Devin Shepherd, New York City-based Wild Obscura Films, a production company self-described as “by, for, and about women.” Unkel explains the rationale: “Early on into taking this film out, Devin and I learned that there was a specific type of female character that the film industry was willing to support. At the same time, we were not being taken very seriously as creators due to our youth and gender. We decided to stop trying to bark up the wrong trees and to simply plant a new one of our own. Through that, we’ve supported female filmmakers both behind and in front of the camera. We want to continue to bring new female narratives out that complicate and explore what a woman can be in this world. Showcasing darker female characters as well as the society that helps to create them.” Asked about the experience of working with an all-female crew, she says, “I was so honoured to have such a supportive crew on Nightmare. We knew from the beginning, based on the male responses we’d been getting on the script, that we needed to surround ourselves with other female voices to ensure authenticity to Mary’s experience on screen. It was also important to me that Alix [Alix Wilton Reagan, who plays Mary Shelley] not be staring up at a room full of men while doing some of those incredibly difficult (and inherently feminine) scenes. It worked out splendidly, and every person on the team was supportive, thoughtful, and respectful.”
A Nightmare Wakes was released February 4, to coincide with the 170th anniversary of the death of Mary Shelley in February of 1851. Nora Unkel says of her work, “My hope is that the film will inspire people to know who Mary is and to read more about her. It’s not meant to be a definitive biopic but instead an emotional, visual poem of what might have gone through the mind of the 19-year-old girl channelling her pain and loss into one of the deepest, most heartfelt, and universal stories of all time.”