This film is a vignette of a famous key moment in the writer’s life, brought to the screen by first-time director Nora Unkel. The drama opens with a lively candle-lit retreat at Lake Geneva with her husband-to-be, Percy Shelley, his friend, the loquacious bon vivant Lord Byron, and Dr. John Polidori.
What happens is the beginning of Shelley’s vivid premise and storytelling for a new creature, one that will persevere in literature forever, immortalized and dramatized, over and again. On a particularly stormy night, fueled by drink and boredom, Byron puts forth a fun challenge, to create a frightening story to tell in this naturally moody environment that was perfectly wrought for a proper ghost or horror tale.
Mary will certainly win the prize, as we know that her Dr. Frankenstein will stand the test of time. This story apparently has been inside of her mind for more than a minute, and the creative process to get it down the way she wants to tell it is the grist for this chilling tale.
A Nightmare Wakes presents a visual journey of Mary’s writing process, replete with demonic and disturbing visions and extraneous personal drama that adds to her overall melancholia. Director Nora Unkel reveals the nightmare that inspired Mary, a failed pregnancy; a complex love affair with Percy and a blending of her reality with dreamt possession and bloody imagery where we are unsure at times of what we are witnessing.
Shelley’s life was large and an interesting one for the times that she lived, yet this film does not go beyond the moment of the monster’s inception and creation on paper. But it is both in sound and vision, a haunting film that is drenched in candlelight and the short, cold, grey days and dead of night muted tones of the fall and winter.
We spoke to Nora Unkel about directing her first feature and her fascinating subject, Mary Shelley.
April Neale: What drew you to write this script, was Mary’s real life too interesting to pass up? I feel like I have never seen anything about her, certainly we have all seen Frankenstein…
Nora Unkel: When I started writing this script—8 years ago—there had been no iterations of Mary’s story yet shown on screen. Reading about her, I was blown away by that because not only was she a truly fascinating and powerful woman, but she had one of the most cinematic lives in the worst ways possible. But it was ultimately when I learned about her miscarriage and the nightmares it caused that I started to understand her and her novel in a completely different way.
Suddenly, this story about a monster and its creator was actually a story about motherhood, trauma, and other inherent female themes. I felt I needed to recontextualize those elements and remind audiences of the universally feminine aspects of the first horror and sci-fi story ever written.
Neale: Talk about sound + vision, you came up in the sound department and it’s evident in the score, talk about how you envisioned the score and the sound of this film and to the effect you wanted?
Unkel: Firstly, thank you so much for asking about that! Sound and music are absolutely where I come from and more often than not, I hear a script before I see it. My composer Jon and I referenced a lot of amazing scores including work by Dario Marianelli and even Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
We wanted the music to tell a story in and of itself. For instance, some of our characters have their own distinctive instruments to represent them, the novel itself has its own theme, and water as death has its own leitmotif. Our incredible sound team at Eggplant then brought in the additional layers of Mary’s mind, all weaving in through sound even when we don’t know it. The goal was to leave the audience unsettled, longing, haunted, the same feelings the Creature experiences throughout the novel and Mary experiences throughout her life.
Neale: The camera angles were anxiety producing for me, you captured the fervent possession part of the story and how Shelley finally got it down after that fateful dinner party, talk about what you discussed with your DP, the effects you were aiming for?
Unkel: I always turned to the novel itself in making decisions about atmosphere, tone, and visual style. The way that Mary writes is so visual and paints such a picture, I wanted to steal some of those images and place them within her own life. We also looked at a lot of classic paintings that Mary would have used as inspiration, some of which we even recreated within the film such as The Nightmare.
We wanted to explore images with the stillness of Lady Macbeth, the atmosphere of Jane Eyre (2011), and the fantastical world of Pan’s Labyrinth. Everything had to be centered on Mary as it’s her mind we are seeing this story from. I wanted us to feel her separation and anxiety in her reality and thus chose stillness, wides, and a somber color palette to keep us from ever being settled in that world.
But as she turned to writing and as we emerged into that world, I wanted us to feel her exhilaration and freedom by bringing in color, movement, and hidden shadows still to be explored.
Neale: The life for women at this time was one that was pretty hemmed in, except it seemed for the richer classes, yet Shelley was seemingly competing with her poet husband, talk about the research you did for Shelley’s time, and if anything caught you off guard and surprised you?
Unkel: I read anything and everything that I could get my hands on. I studied history in college along with film and so historical accuracy is very important to me. I read biographies of Mary and the group, Mary’s letters, journals, Percy and Byron’s poetry, Frankenstein dozens of times, and Mary’s introduction. I even found a republished copy of an early manuscript in Mary’s handwriting with Percy’s notes along the side.
I ended up having to make some creative liberties in trying to fit such a complex and wide-ranging life into a 90-minute film, but each change I made was very deliberate and intentional, never from a lack of understanding or care. Frankly, every step along the way it was Mary who surprised me. Similar to her mother, Mary was a complex woman who stood for many things and yet didn’t abide by all of them.
She was such a modern woman, contradicting the rules of the time, and yet she was devoted entirely to her husband even into death. She was a woman surrounded by death but who dreamed of a doctor who could create life from the dead. Her strength, perseverance, and incredible talent to make literary gold from deep trauma just astounded me and I wanted to make a story that did her justice.
Neale: Who was your film mentor? Who helped you get in?
Unkel: I wrote the film while I was at NYU under the guidance of Danny Strong. Danny has been such a wonderful and caring mentor throughout the years. He really helped me to shape my version of Mary’s narrative from the beginning while also helping the project professionally where he could. I remember one time when he told me “Nora, no one is going to want to watch a writer writing for 2 hours… how can you make this something we want to see?” And somewhere in the recesses of my mind, Victor stepped out of the shadows.
Neale: Geek talk, your production design was authentic in that the use of candles and natural lighting was key to selling this story, talk about what you wanted when you hired and met the art department for this film?
Unkel: Thank you so much for noticing those details! My art and locations departments were just as dedicated as myself to upholding historical accuracy as much as possible. I was lucky to have worked with my production designer Maddie [Madeline Wall] before on several other productions, including my NYU thesis film. She and I instantly bonded over the ideas of candles, accurate birthing details, and ways to bring Frankenstein’s world to life.
We got an incredible art director on board, Deidra Catero, who actually is a witch and historical magic consultant who was able to bring in an even deeper wealth of knowledge in some of the more magical and fantastical elements of the film. Together with folks from our insanely amazing location, Hyde Hall, we used a lot of what was already there and from personal collections to put together a 360 degrees 1815-1820 accurate set.
Neale: As ardent a feminist as she was for her time, Shelley became devoted to her husband Percy after his death even, editing his works. After all your research, what do you think it was about Percy that drew her to him?
Unkel: You know that was a question I was asking myself every day of this 8-year journey. There are things that Percy did that were pretty awful and ways in which he treated women that were downright cruel. But he was also someone who encouraged a 19-year-old Mary to write Frankenstein and even devoted himself to helping her edit it. I think much of Mary’s life was her trying to recreate her mother’s.
I think she saw a lot of her father in Percy, a man she idolized and yet never got full acceptance from. After all, she met Percy when he was her father’s pupil. Beyond that, he was attractive, intelligent, emotional, deep, breaking all the rules, and challenged Mary. I see them almost as a Romeo and Juliet, or a Cobain and Love, destined for their love to burn so bright, it can only last so long before it burns them away. A little easter egg, Mary’s souvenir of Percy from after his death can be seen wrapped in pages of his notebook, tied with a ribbon on Mary’s desk in the final scene.
Neale: Your cast who portrayed Lord Byron, John Polidori and Claire Claremont, as well as Mary and Percy, talk about that process for you, were there actors in mind that you knew you wanted to work with?
Unkel: I had very clear ideas in my mind for the personalities of these characters. I’d lived with them for a long time. I didn’t have anyone in mind and wanted to see everyone I could to find the exact right matches. I ended up being very lucky with my cast.
The first time I ever saw Alix’s [Alix Wilton Regan] face, I knew it was her. I was crossing fingers and toes that she would be as good as I wanted her to be… and she was better. Giullian and Claire were two actors I had worked with countless times at NYU and brought such fresh and interesting perspectives to these roles that I was so excited to be able to work with them again. Philippe brought this fun, engaging, confident energy to the role that felt was so very Byron. All in all, everyone cast auditioned and really wowed me with each of their tapes.
Neale: The overall patina of the film is gothic in its cool and nearly sepia toned exterior shots- this Georgian and Regency English time period is rich with many great poets and writers, why do you think that was?
Unkel: A fun fact some folks don’t know is that there is actually a scientific event that some historians (and myself) think actually created the backdrop and potentially influenced the gothic movement during this time. In southeast Asia, a huge volcano went off covering the entire world in ash for a year. It became known as the “year without summer” and it was that very summer when Mary and the group met up in Geneva and were trapped inside by the horrible weather. I wanted to do justice to that dark summer and also provide a world in which Mary felt the need to escape. Very little of her life and those around her was pleasant, which makes the adventure into Frankenstein that much more appealing.
Neale: What have you planned for your next project film?
Unkel: The pandemic has given me a lot of time to really dig into several new projects. Most are horror based, with a few oddities in there as well. Primarily I’m working on Ashes, a historical horror piece in the world of Scottish mythology which centers around a banshee. With some writing partners, we’re packaging this fun, brutal, horror action film Out Come The Wolves. And I’m participating in the year-long Attagirl Lab to develop and prepare Bruja, a Mexican witchcraft horror film.
Editor’s Note: Shudder debuted the psychological thriller on February 4th, days after the anniversary of her death, across all territories, the U.S., here in Canada, and over in the U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.