A Nightmare Wakes, written and directed by Nora Unkel, is an arresting period piece that retells the famous story behind Frankenstein. In doing so, it places Mary Shelley at the forefront, specifically the tragedies she endured and the difficulties she faced as a female author in the 19th Century. We chatted with Unkel about making the film, Percy Shelley and Mary’s turbulent love affair, and the obstacles that female creatives still face.
What attracted you to Mary Shelley’s story? Did you feel a personal connection to it?
Very much. I was 20 years old when I started writing this, so I was only a year older than when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. There was immediately a bond and a connection that I felt. I read about her miscarriages and the loss of her children. She was plagued by death her entire life. It was those incidents that really seemed to affect Frankenstein and the writing of it. I wanted to highlight that because I thought it was preposterous that I knew this incredible Creature, this doctor, and this creation story, but for so long, while I knew Mary Shelley as a name, I knew nothing about the fact that this was rooted in very feminine issues and motherhood. I wanted to explore those elements in a way that hadn’t really been done before.
In a director’s statement for the film, you said, “I realize Mary’s life and my own, as a modern woman, are not dissimilar.” Can you comment on that?
I saw her living a life that wasn’t very normal for her time. She was surrounded by some of the most intellectual and forward-thinking people for her era, and yet, still, they did not take her seriously. They didn’t see her as a real contender. Yet, it is her work that has transcended the test of time the most, I would say. I wanted to see why that was. I felt that in looking deeper at Frankenstein, and especially in looking at the Monster, there was lot of longing and this desperation for acceptance that was in tune with Mary’s own writing in her journals and in her letters about what she was experiencing.
It also felt similar to what I was going through while writing this. People came up to me and said I should write about Percy Shelley. People also told me I don’t need to do a story about Mary Shelley, but instead, I should do a story about Frankenstein itself. It felt so bizarre. I thought, wait, I’m even being silenced in how I’m trying to tell her story about how her own persona was silenced through history by the shadow of the Monster.
How much research did you do for the film, especially while writing it?
So much research. I also studied history in college along with film. While some may not agree after having seen the film, historical accuracy is incredibly important to me. I wanted to approach this with as much attention to detail as I could while still trying to highlight this incredibly vast life in a matter of an hour and a half.
I went to anything and everything that I could find. I went to journals and to letters. I looked at Mary’s forward that she wrote about 15 years after the novel [was published]. I also looked at Percy’s poetry and Byron’s poetry. Those two quote their own poetry throughout the film as dialogue. I tried to bring as much of their voices and their hearts into this as I could, while acknowledging that I had to make some changes to fit it all in.
At the end of the day, what I always returned to as my main point of reference was the novel Frankenstein. I was really lucky to find a printed version of a very, very early manuscript in Mary’s own handwriting that has Percy’s handwriting and notes all over it. So I would often go to that, as much as I could decipher, and try to find moments that were almost autobiographical for Mary.
This is not a movie about the men, but I was fascinated by the way Percy is portrayed. We tend to think of Percy as a radical. He was an atheist and an anarchist. Your film makes him a complicated character, however. In one scene, he gives Mary the floor at Byron’s cottage, but later, he forces himself upon her sexually. He also tells her to take bedrest instead of writing. Can you talk about adapting Percy for film and writing him as a character?
He was honestly one of the biggest challenges I had. Yes, he was this incredible radical. He was an atheist. He was a feminist. He really pushed society at the time forward into new modes of thinking. That’s brilliant and wonderful. I think that’s why Mary had the room to create something like this.
At the same time, he was also a womanizer. He said a lot of great stuff, but then he was always with other women. He tried to convince Mary to sleep with some of his friends and He often abandoned her and left her to sort a lot of these messes on her own. And again, at the same time, he was married when he ran away with her. He was her father’s own pupil. Her father [philosopher William Godwin] didn’t speak to them for ages because of this and disowned Mary for running away with him.
In approaching this, I really wanted to bring in that nuance. I wanted to show that both of these people were complex. They were this almost tragic, destined couple who burned each other with love until there was nothing left. At the same time, I needed him to be someone we loved and cared about so we didn’t judge Mary for being with him.
There are two rape scenes in the film. The first one that’s perpetrated against Mary is not based off of historical written literature of the time, but because it was sex between a couple, it would not have even been considered non-consensual at the time. Regardless, it’s a moment to show both Mary’s utter betrayal and inability to be fully accepted by Percy, while also being a metaphor for the moment when Victor abandons the Creature for the first time.
It’s a feeling of being alone and isolated and having to pick up the pieces of yourself after that without being able to talk about it. I wanted to capture what the Creature was experiencing in the moment [of abandonment] within Mary’s life.
During the time period, if a woman was outspoken, she was called mad. It was a way to remove her agency. Can you comment on the portrayal of madness in the film?
There was that element during the time. Unfortunately, I’m seeing reactions to the film now that paint her [Mary] as a hysterical woman, which I find to be an abhorrent word. I wasn’t trying to create crazy, or make it seem like this woman was out of her mind. It was about making an honest portrayal of creative expression and what it feels like to have a story inside of you that you have no control over and you’re just a vessel to bring it into the world.
A lot of that was pulled from my own experiences writing this film. The first time I sat down to write this, I was writing a biopic. I was going to write a straight, cut and dry biopic of Mary. I started getting a little bored as I was writing. Suddenly, I looked down at the page and Victor was talking. I pulled on that string a little bit, and suddenly, it became this other world.
I would sit down, look at my computer five hours later, and find 20 pages that I didn’t even remember writing. They were just kind of there. I was trying to bring in pieces of my own experience because they seemed similar to what Mary wrote about regarding her writing process in her letters and journals. I didn’t want to show her as a crazy woman but show how people around her saw this creative chaos as insanity.
But as Mary says in the end, “I’m not mad. I chose this. I chose to step into my novel because my novel is the only place that’s safe. It’s the only place I can find reprieve.”
Why do you think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein still resonates so much in the 21st Century?
It’s such a universal story in terms of its humanity. It’s in the Creature’s words of being abandoned and being isolated, of not being accepted, even though he so desperately wants to be. Ultimately, that turn of, “If I cannot inspire love, then I should cause fear,” is something every one of us can connect to and understand. It’s that feeling of not fitting in, of not being accepted for who we are, that something about us, be it our exterior or the way we express ourselves, is not acceptable.
I also hope to recontextualize this for women so they can see this story about a young woman trying to find her place in the world, a young mother trying to deal and cope with the loss of her children. I was hoping to inspire some of those feminine themes and bring Mary’s own experiences back into that story of Frankenstein.
What projects are you working on next?
I’ve been chomping at the bit for the next thing. Currently, I’m in the middle of two pretty big projects. One is another horror period piece called Ashes. It centers around some Scottish folklore, including a banshee. Another one is a modern horror film that’s about Mexican witchcraft.
Thank you again, Nora, for taking the time to talk to us, and congrats again on A Nightmare Wakes.
Stream A Nightmare Wakes on Shudder.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.