'Mary Shelley': The First Female Saudi Arabian Filmmaker Brings 'Frankenstein' Back to Life
Haifaa al-Mansour, the first Saudi-Arabian female director, tells the story of the mother of sci-fi.
Science fiction is often regarded as a male-dominated genre. But as history would have it, the first science-fiction novel was written by a woman—and a very young woman at that. Her name was Mary Shelley, and at age 21, she wrote Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).
200 years later, Shelley's story is now being told by another pioneering feminist: Haifaa al-Mansour, the first female Saudi-Arabian filmmaker. Her 2012 film, Wadjda, about a young girl who wants to buy a bicycle even though it is illegal for women to do so, was also the first feature shot entirely inside Saudi Arabia.
Mary Shelley, played in the film by Elle Fanning, was born into an intellectual family in England. Her father, William Godwin, was a philosopher; her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died just months after giving birth to her daughter, is widely regarded as Britain's first feminist. The young Shelley was raised in the shadow of her parents' nonconformism; she chose to disregard the strict social norms of the time at nearly every juncture in her life. The film chronicles her romance with Percy Bysshe Shelley, a poet who is already married with children when Mary meets him. To nearly everyone's chagrin, they run away together. Later, they will suffer the deaths of three children—tragedies that will come to inspire Frankenstein.
No Film School caught up with al-Mansour after Mary Shelley's premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival to discuss how she accidentally made history, the challenges of shooting a period piece, how she made the most of European tax incentives, and more. Mary Shelley opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.
No Film School: Until very recently, there were no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, and certainly no female filmmakers. How did you first get into film?
Haifaa al-Mansour: When I was a kid, I used to do plays in school. I really enjoyed working with girls and directing them and having a voice. Sometimes I put jokes in there about everyday life. Women—mothers or teachers—would laugh. It made me happy.
After I finished college, I went back to work in Saudi Arabia for an oil company. I was passed [up] for every promotion. I worked really hard—it's just that there is always a man who has a family to support, and I'm a single woman. I felt so frustrated, so sad.
I started making shorts and sending them out to festivals around the region. I got accepted in the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. It was divine. So that is how I started making films—just to find a voice of my own, and find a space where I can [exist] without feeling like I have to fit into something.
"I love that people think I'm brave. I was just crazy."
NFS: And then you were the first female Saudi Arabian director— and the first person to ever shoot a film entirely inside the country.
al-Mansour: Yes, I made history! I really didn't know that I would be the first woman. I wasn't really [trying] to make history. I just started making films, and when [the media] started writing about me, they said, "Oh, I think she's the first one! There are no other women!"
I didn't try to be the first female filmmaker. I think it's important for people not to try to do things to get praise or criticism. It is very important to concentrate on your passion and what you really want to do. Especially for a woman—and especially where I come from—there is a lot of social pressure on us to do things in a certain way. I think now with modern age we should rebel. We should do whatever we want.
I love that people think I'm brave. I was just crazy. I did not anticipate [the reaction I got]—I didn't really think people would even care, to be quite honest. When one of my short films went viral, a lot of people started sending me hate mail and stuff. [In my previous job] I always went to meetings and nobody listened to me. So I thought nobody would listen. The power of film is amazing.
"[My agent] sent me the Mary Shelley script. I was like, 'I don't know if they know I'm from Saudi Arabia.'"
NFS: After you made your first feature, Wadjda, a big international success, did it seem a bit easier to make a second feature? What was the bridge to Mary Shelley?
al-Mansour: It wasn't that easy. I wanted to make an English-speaking film. I wanted to bridge the new world. It was very important to me not to only make films in Saudi Arabia. For me as a filmmaker, I wanted to be part of a bigger world—a bigger industry—and we didn't have that industry in Saudi. Now, there is film in the cinema in Saudi Arabia. The first cinema opened, I think, last week.
al-Mansour: I was reading scripts, and [my agent] sent me the Mary Shelley script. I was like, "I don't know if they know I'm from Saudi Arabia." Mary Shelley was British; it's a period piece. Not exactly my expertise. But when I read it, it was amazing to see the life of Mary Shelley. She grew up in a time when she was expected to be a certain way as a woman. It's not like Saudi Arabia, really, but very similar.
I sympathize with Mary Shelley's story. I really like that she made something very masculine, about philosophy. [Frankenstein] is not about love in the traditional sense—it's not about jealousy and marriage and social climbing, like Jane Austen was doing, who was the contemporary star writer in Mary Shelley's time. Mary Shelley carved her own voice. She didn't know that she would be big. People were dismissing her intellectually. Her book was published, but not with the prestigious publishing houses. Everybody thought Frankenstein was a silly story.
I wanted to tell her story because she created that legacy. A lot of people don't know that a young girl wrote Frankenstein. And for us, as women, we should stick together and celebrate figures like this. We have to bring [this story] back.
NFS: It is pretty unbelievable that so many people don't know that a woman wrote Frankenstein.
al-Mansour: I know, right? People don't understand that she is the mother of all nerds—the mother of the Comic-Con people. We need to assert [women's] existence in that world.
"Everybody knows Frankenstein, the monster, but nobody knows Mary Shelley—the little girl who wrote it."
NFS: In the research process, did you read a lot of Mary Shelley's work?
al-Mansour: Yeah. For me, it was amazing how much her life is almost a mirror of the book, and nobody knows that. Everybody knows Frankenstein, the monster, but nobody knows Mary Shelley—the little girl who wrote it. The book is all about her sense of loss and struggle with love and being accepted. If you read [about] her life, it is so eerily [similar] that sometimes you get like, "I can't believe it!"
I felt very sad that people did not acknowledge her struggles that led to the book. And there was so much happening in her life that we could not put in the script because films have to be concise. I think if it this were a TV show, we would have a lot of material to cover. And I think now they are doing a TV show about her, which is really amazing.
NFS: So, once you read the script, what were the next steps?
al-Mansour: We wanted a star, of course. We wanted someone to bring Marry Shelley to life. I loved Elle [Fanning] since she was a kid, from Super 8. When we started talking to her, she had just finished Maleficent, and she was breaking away from kid's roles into more adult roles.
We wanted to shock people with how young Mary Shelley was when she wrote the book. Elle has this elegance and effortless in her acting, and she's such a gracious person. We approached her and she loved the script and things fell into place after that.
NFS: Did you work with the screenwriter to make changes to the script at all?
al-Mansour: Yeah, we worked a lot on the script to get it where it needs to be. I did additional writing. For example, when [Mary Shelley] went to publishers, she was dismissed. I discovered things like that when I was doing research and I felt it was very important [to include]. Like, if you're making a movie about a woman writer and someone tells her, "We cannot put your name on the book," it definitely has to be [in the movie].
"Sometimes I watch the film and I cannot believe how we pulled it off."
NFS: What were some of the challenges associated with building out the world of a period piece?
al-Mansour: There are so many challenges with building a period piece. Caroline [Koener], who did the costumes, is from Luxembourg, and she did a really wonderful job going around Europe and getting all of those pieces. All of those pieces are actual vintage pieces. She picked every piece with heart and with love.
Production design was really difficult. As an independent film, we have money coming from different places. We got a lot of money from Luxembourg [tax incentives]. Luxembourg is in the middle of Europe; it's different from England in architecture and history.
al-Mansour: We shot many exterior scenes in Dublin, but we didn't have enough money to shoot interiors in Dublin because we had to spend the money in Luxembourg. So we built a studio in Luxembourg. We would have to [shoot a character] opening a door in Dublin and the rest of the scene would take place inside Luxembourg. It was challenging matching all of that. Paki Smith [the production designer] did an amazing job building that world and making it seem coherent. Sometimes I watch the film and I cannot believe how we pulled it off.
NFS: Many American filmmakers don't have a great conception of the co-production market and the opportunities associated with tax incentives. What did you learn, if anything, about that process that you think that American filmmakers should know?
al-Mansour: I think American producers should know about this. I don't know much about tax-incentives! I do know that we were in Waterpik in Canada, which has an amazing tax incentive, and Atlanta has amazing tax incentives. But I would say it is not the filmmaker's job, really, to worry about that. I think their job is really to find a good producer who knows about it.
NFS: So how did you find your producer?
al-Mansour: For my first film [Wadjda], I worked with Razor Film from Germany. I sent an email to everybody in the world: "My name is Haifaa al-Mansour I am making a film about a little girl on a bike." Razor Film answered. They did Waltz with Bashir and Paradise Now, which are really good films coming from the Middle East.
After that film, I had an agent and manager, so it was easier to find producers.
NFS: Definitely. Did you have any hand in assembling the people that you worked with on Mary Shelley?
al-Mansour: As director, you pick your department heads. You have to have the creative team with [your vision], so I chose them carefully. I was very fortunate to be able to work with amazing people.
NFS: What was important to you about picking each person?
al-Mansour: That they understand the story. That our vision is similar. You to tell someone, "I want this to be like that," and then they take your idea and just build on it and surprise you. I'm not an art department person; I don't know how to carry the creator role. But I can judge it. You want someone who can just have fun and give you something that is beautiful and their own, and you can see that it was created from the [collaboration] between the two of you.
NFS: You come from a literature background. How do you think that literature can inform modern cinema?
al-Mansour: I think studying literature makes you appreciate good stories. I have studied a lot of classics for sure. It makes you appreciate characters and character development. And, like great philosophy, [when you read literature] you understand more about life. It makes you deeper. Your ideas become more complex.
Where I come from, things are simple—black and white—so just reading literature gave me more depth. I think it helped a lot to be exposed to that, especially because I come from a place where we don't get a lot of good literature. Philosophy was forbidden to read [in Saudi]. I went to college at the American University in Cairo.
NFS: As a director, do you feel like you were able to grow without having to deal with the pressures of shooting a smaller film in Saudi Arabia? What did you find the differences were for you in the creative process between Wadjda and Mary Shelley?
al-Mansour: It was very difficult to shoot in Saudi, not only because it was a small budget, but also because of the culture. You always fear what might happen: "I can't go outside, I can't do that."
What I really appreciated in this film was freedom. Nobody told me what to do. I was only engaging with my art. I think that people who grew up [in America] take that for granted. We had a lot of restrictions to work with, for sure—like the weather, and even budget sometimes. But it is amazing not to have to censor yourself.