Stephen Sommers Interview
by John Millar
POSTERS of classic Universal horror movies Bela Lugosi sinister as Dracula, a hairy faced Lon Chaney as The Wolf Man and Boris Karloff grabbing stardom as the creature in Frankenstein inspired Stephen Sommers as he dreamed up the action in his latest epic adventure, Van Helsing, which stars Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale and Richard Roxburgh.
The creator of smash hits The Mummy and The Mummy Returns had headed for the apartment in which he writes his knockout scripts with one idea in mind to come up with a small, more intimate movie.
But the idea didn't flow and as Sommers sat there pondering the direction in which his fertile imagination would take up, he began to stare deeper and deeper into the favourite film posters that decorated the room; and that's when he decided to embark upon his most ambitious screen adventure yet. A story in which Van Helsing, the learned vampire hunter who first drew blood in the Bram Stoker novel, Dracula, would find himself embattled not only with that legendary aristocratic bloodsucker but also Frankenstein's monster, The Wolfman and Mr Hyde.
During a break in the final editing process of Van Helsing, Sommers took a break to meet at a seafront hotel in Santa Monica to discuss the story behind his film. Smiling, the talented director, writer and producer explains that the idea blossomed through a process of elimination.
"I was staring at all these old posters of the classic monsters and thinking...well I don't want to do a Dracula movie because it has been done. Francis Ford Coppola did a good one. Frankenstein has also been done before and I didn't want to spend two years of my life on a Wolfman movie.
"So I wondered whether they could all be put together. I thought I'd look at the original classic monster movies all over again. When I watched them one after the other I really fell in love with the characters again. You forget how good they are.
"After seeing the monster DVDs again I thought that Frankenstein's monster was like Lenny in Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men. You feel so sorry for him because he doesn't know what he's doing. He's also like The Elephant Man because he's so scary and then you realise that underneath Frankenstein's monster is a great tragic figure. The Wolfman is like an alcoholic or a drug addict. He could be your brother or best friend during the day. He's nice and noble but at night when the demons - be they alcohol, drugs or the full moon - overtake him he's not comfortable in his own skin. So he rips off his skin and becomes this monster."
So driven by this inspiration, Stephen Sommers was off and running. But he stresses that his film was never going to be a simple case of Van Helsing taking on these much loved characters one after the other.
"If the movie had been about that, the fans should slaughter me because that's so easy - anybody could have come up with that idea. "The story in Van Helsing is much more complex and much more fun. When I figured out the story I came up with the idea of Dracula desperately needing something that he could only get from Frankenstein's monster. So in the movie Dracula has this secret that he desperately needs something and only Frankenstein's monster - in the whole planet - can provide it. So right away these two were connected. Then I interwove The Wolfman into that. So suddenly I had this great story - not just three bad monsters.
"It's a great story that really works and is my bulletproof vest. And when you watch it you'll know that whoever made this movie loves this stuff, so that's my other bulletproof vest."
With the idea of bringing the monsters together, Sommers needed a very special hero and he realised that it should be Van Helsing and as he researched the character he went back and read Bram Stoker's Dracula book and examined some old vampire movies.
"I knew Peter Cushing had played Van Helsing in movies and of course I had seen Anthony Hopkins play him in the Coppola movie. But I knew I had to do something different, to take him to another level. First I had to change his name from Abraham Van Helsing. I called him Gabriel because - no offence to Abraham Lincoln or the Biblical Abraham - it's just not a good hero's name.
"I also loved the fact that Van Helsing was worldly, spiritual and a vampire hunter. The fact that he believes in vampires and is correct about that and knows how to deal with these creatures made him a really interesting character. But I had to develop those ideas and thought that what if my guy was trained from monks and mullahs from Tibet to Istanbul?
"So I thought about the idea that Van Helsing worked for this ancient, secret religious society. I also thought about the fact that all these monsters 'died' at the end of the 19th century - they were all written in the 19th century - because the 20th century became so technical. So if they all 'died' off in literature then who killed them? What if it was this secret society that had decided that their job was to vanquish this type of evil from the Earth! So I figured that Van Helsing worked for these guys and that they were based under the Vatican. That's how my mind works."
The film underlines the great passion that Sommers has for the classic films that provided his inspiration. "The movie opens in black and white," says a beaming Sommers. "It fits because the opening sequence is sort of the climax of the original Frankenstein movie condensed into seven minutes.
"The opening line in my movie is 'It's alive!, It's alive! It's alive!' It's paying honour to the original. For the people who know, remember and love the original monster movies, I'm going to blow their socks off. I kept all the iconography. Frankenstein's monster has the flat head and the bolts in the neck but we went the extra mile - not in a weird way though, he's not flying or anything like that."
For the movie Sommers assembled an impressive bunch of actors Hugh Jackman of X-Men fame is Van Helsing and Kate Beckinsale, fresh from the vampire hit Underworld, is Anna Valerious whose family for 400 years has been trying to kill Dracula. Richard Roxburgh, who was the duke in Moulin Rouge, is Dracula, newcomer Will Kemp plays The Wolfman and theatre actor Shuler Hensley plays Frankenstein's monster.
Hugh Jackman was chosen to star after Sommers went through his usual process with his completed script. "Every time I finish a script I give it to Bob Ducsay who has edited all my films since film school and is producing with me. On The Mummy he said it's Brendan Fraser. When I asked why, Bob said because he is big, strong and handsome; he can take a punch, throw a punch and he has a great sense of humour. When I gave him Van Helsing, Bob said it was Hugh Jackman. At that time I hadn't seen X-Men. I knew who he was but I had only seen him in one movie. But Bob said to trust him so I went out and saw a bunch of Hugh's stuff. I saw X-Men and thought this guy was great! So he was our only choice," says Sommers.