Victorian Horror Story :: Behind Showtime’s ’Penny Dreadful’
Those looking for something to fill the television horror void left vacant when "American Horror Story" left the air this past Spring found a replacement with Showtime’s "Penny Dreadful," John Logan’s imaginative mash-up of Victorian horror memes. In the show, which concludes its first season this Sunday, Logan combines classic monsters from 19th century literature into an original narrative. Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray and Mina Harker (from "Dracula") are supporting characters on the show, whose title is drawn from 19th century episodic stories (appropriate because the series’ story is delivered in episodic parts).
Logan, the three-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter (for "Gladiator," "The Aviator" and "Hugo") and Tony-winner (for "Red"), was first inspired by "Frankenstein."
"About ten years ago I was reading a lot of romantic poetry and I think, like all good TV shows, it started with Wordsworth and it led me to Mary Shelley and I read ’Frankenstein’ again," Logan told the Television Critics Association.
"I was just very provoked by it. I was very disturbed by it, because it’s a deeply disturbing, human book. I started thinking about the themes and why almost 200 years after it was written are we still reading ’Frankenstein’? I think it’s because the monsters break my heart, you know."
Back to Frankenstein
"Frankenstein" remains one of the most popular of all 19th century monsters, most recently in an acclaimed 2011 stage version at London’s Royal National Theatre directed by Danny Boyle that featured Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who alternated the roles of Victor Frankenstein and The Creature.
Metaphors abound in ’Frankenstein,’ as its alternate title was ’The Modern Prometheus.’ Another interpretation is that Victor Frankenstein was trying to claim the gift of childbirth for his gender, with disastrous results. But the out Logan related to ’Frankenstein’ on a different level.
"Personally speaking, growing up as a gay man before it was as socially acceptable as it is now, I knew what it was to feel different, to feel alienated, to feel not like everyone else," Logan continued. "But the very same thing that made me monstrous to some people also empowered me and made me who I was. So I was really just thinking about that theme and gradually I remembered the old Universal horror movies of the ’40s where all of a sudden they would start mixing and matching the Wolfman with Dracula, with Frankenstein. I thought, ’I wonder if there’s a way to do that now and to take the characters seriously.’ That was how it all began."
The characters he created include Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett), a performing cowboy recruited by Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) on behalf of Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) to locate Malcolm’s daughter Mina, who has become a concubine to a vampire. As Chandler spends more time with them, he discovers a world of magic and monsters, which includes Dr. Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) being terrorized by his monster, named Caliban (Rory Kinnear); as well as Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney), a beautiful, ambisexual gentleman open to all kinds of experiences. As the series progressed, Vanessa became the central link between the supernatural and the Victorian world, most notably after being possessed by an ancient spirit that reduces her to a snarling, vicious ghoul.
"I play Vanessa Ives and she’s kind of rebel," Green said. "It’s such a repressed time, the Victorian times, so she’s very hungry for life. All her five senses are very much alive, tingling all the time, but it’s in Victorian time so it’s always the conflict inside her. It’s complicated. They’re conflicted people. That’s what actually drew me to it."
The possession certainly opened up a more primal side of Vanessa, and Green is no stranger to sexual drama. She starred in Bernardo Bertolluci’s "The Dreamers," played the original Bond girl Vesper Lynd in "Casino Royale," and just recently seduced all of ancient Sparta in "300: Rise of an Empire." Logan confirmed that sexuality remains a vital theme of "Penny Dreadful."
An erotic response
"Part of the motivation of what makes us a human being is how we respond erotically to the world around us," Logan said. "It’s just as true for these characters as everything else. One of the reasons that it’s so liberating to work on Showtime and to work in paid cable is my very first discussions with [executive producer] Sam Mendes, we talked about why do we want to tell this story?"
So far the most sexually charged character is Dorian Gray, taken from the Oscar Wilde fantastic novella about a man who never ages, but has a portrait that does. In one episode he has volatile sex with a consumptive prostitute; in another he has a primal encounter with the possessed Vanessa; and, in the show’s most talked-about scene, seduces Ethan in a sequence that ends with the men in a passionate kiss.
"Because we can tell it without gloss of years of television shows and movies and different novelizations. We can go back to those sacred, essential texts and try to treat them with a sort of granular reality. Juan Bayona, our great director for the first two episodes, the very first discussion I had with him, he said, ’For something to be frightening, it has to be true.’ That became my watchcry and that’s just as true for the most exalted and generous acts of the character as for the most monstrous and depraved. That’s true for blood. It’s true for sex. I think we’re trying to really grapple with these characters in all their extremes, sexually as well as in terms of violence, in terms of psychology."
Sexual repression is the buzziest aspect of drama to explore, but there’s more to the world of "Penny Dreadful" that Logan is also incorporating.
"I think that’s good drama," Logan said. "Whether you’re writing a horror show or James Bond film, I think it’s what bubbles beneath is interesting characterization. The colors that emerge through storytelling is what a dramatist does and there’s always got to be something bubbling underneath that will erupt at some point.
"We’re dealing with a very specific era. As Eva said, 1891, the Victorian Era, was a highly specialized era. Why I chose to set the show then was not because it’s sort of a cool visual to bring these characters together, but because there’s something about the Victorian era that reminds me of right now, because they were on the cusp of a modern world. I mean, if you were the agrarian economy has been replaced by industrial economy, they’re looking across the ocean to Germany and America and saying, ’Their navies are bigger than ours.’" They were grappling with the very elemental question of what it is to be human, with Darwinism, with evolution."
A man of few words
Chandler performs in a world of trick shots and artificial showmanship, so a world of real magic is definitely uncomfortable for him. To ground Chandler in the world where he begins, Hartnett studied recordings of the real performer Buffalo Bill.
"There’s only a couple of know recordings of Buffalo Bill you can find," Hartnett said. "It was interesting to try and find an accent for this character because where he grew up is very much a part of who he is. In the end we opted for something that, honestly, I can’t really say that much to this."
Even the origin of Chandler’s accent is a secret "Penny Dreadful" is keeping for now. Perhaps luckily, Chandler is a man of few words so it might not be relevant for a while.
"I’m the only American in the piece, and John’s version of this particular American is not the most verbose," Hartnett said. "There’s not so much that we can say about where the characters go but it is a there’s a sleight of hand trick with most characters. There’s an intriguing side of them that probably isn’t shown initially."
Let’s be honest, at first everyone was tuning in to see Frankenstein’s monster, Dorian Gray, and perhaps Dracula. But as the series continued, audiences became intrigued with Logan’s original characters and how they interact with the famously fictional ones.
"The interweaving of the historic horror characters and our characters is seamless," Hartnett said. "You won’t watch the show and say, ’Oh, well, there’s a character we’ve all seen before.’ Because I think that even the people that are playing characters that you’ve seen before are playing them in a different way. So it just feels unique from beginning to end when you’re on set. You’re not seeing an interpretation that’s been done before."
Some of the secrets the actors are keeping may be their own. Green suggested that they have given input into their characters, but the extent of that specific input is still under wraps.
"For me it’s so well written, we talked so much about it, and it is in the writing," Green said. "The script is very good. It’s there. You do your own homework and what is great with John is that also he’s very open and very sensitive, and it’s so great to have a collaboration. In the mornings we discuss, ’How can we put that back?’ ’What do you think?’ ’I’m not sure about that.’ He’s very open, and it’s his baby, and that’s so great to have somebody so passionate about a project, and it’s just easy."
Much of the first season has centered on finding Mina, who has been kidnapped by a vampire (who may or may not be Dracula - his identity has yet to be fully revealed). At the end the seventh episode, Vanessa announced she knows where Mina is located. Whether these ghoul chasers will find her is one of the numerous plot lines that will be resolved. Will Frankenstein escape his avenging monster? Is Dorian Gray going to reveal his mysterious portrait? And what’s the secret that Harnett has been holding back since the first episode? Tune in on Sunday to find out. And whatever happens, expect the supernatural doings to kick-in again next year when the show returns.
"Penny Dreadful" airs Sunday night at 10 p.m. on Showtime.