How James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe became a double act

TEAMING James McAvoy with Daniel Radcliffe in a monster movie wasn’t a bolt from the blue for Paul McGuigan

James McAvoy filming on the set of Victor Frankenstein
James McAvoy filming on the set of Victor Frankenstein

‘YOU know the story,” begins Victor Frankenstein, but this is merely marking your card that you probably don’t know this one. For a start, the monster isn’t Mary Shelley’s well-spoken reanimated cut-and-stitch, or Boris Karloff’s solid flathead, or Young Frankenstein’s Peter Boyle putting on the Ritz, although Paul McGuigan’s new film gives playful nods to all of these predecessors. The day he shot James McAvoy insisting that his last name was FrankenSTEIN not FrankenSTEEN set the crew sniggering, but as you might expect from the lead director of Sherlock, this Frankenstein jolts new electricity into the veins of the tale.

This origins story is less about the creature, and more about his creator as seen through the eyes of former hunchback Igor (Daniel Radcliffe). Rest assured, there are body parts, lightning, and a cry of “It’s alive!”, but it’s the friendship between kindred spirits Igor and Victor that brings two men to life.

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Frankenstein is the first time Radcliffe and McAvoy had met, let alone worked together, but both of them owe screen breaks to McGuigan. Radcliffe was ten when his dad Alan, McGuigan’s agent, brought him over to say hello at the theatre one night. In turn, McGuigan introduced them to his Gangster No. 1 partner Norma Heyman and her son, David, a film producer who was scouting for a boy to play Harry Potter. “Afterwards, David was going ‘Who was that kid?’” says McGuigan. “So I take full credit for discovering Daniel.”

Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy with director Paul McGuigan. Picture: Imagenet

The Scots director gave McAvoy one of his first screen appearances playing a Hibs supporter in Irvine Welsh’s Acid House, but McAvoy had to turn down a role in his 2003 medieval murder mystery The Reckoning five years later. “He came to me and said, ‘I can’t do your movie because I’m seriously allergic to horses’,” says McGuigan.

It’s taken them more than a decade to find a suitable, equine-free project, but after Victor Frankenstein, they are already planning another project together. “I love James. He’s funny and smart, and I know he’ll hate me for saying that,” says the director.

However, their first day together horrified the producers. McAvoy was set to shoot a scene where he drains Radcliffe’s “hunch” with an enormous hypodermic needle. But McAvoy was keen to improvise a more visceral approach, drawing out the flow of the pus in the manner of a man siphoning petrol from a car. “I remember seeing the faces of the American producers, and saying to James, ‘You know they’re phoning LA and saying ‘McAvoy’s just sucked pus out of a hump. Can’t we tell Paul to shoot it another way?’’”

Frankenstein wouldn’t be Frankenstein without a castle and McGuigan toured Scotland before choosing to kit out Dunnottar with a 100ft tower and an assortment of Victorian life-rejuvenating equipment. Confident that Scotland would provide a stormy backdrop, he told the crew to prepare for wind and rain, “and then we had the two most beautiful days of the movie,” he says. “I have photographs of the crew sunbathing and getting sunburnt during a Frankenstein movie.”

McGuigan divides his time between projects in the UK and the US, and he was keen to shoot much of Victor Frankenstein in Scotland, including building a studio. Fox were supportive, so McGuigan asked for a meeting with Creative Scotland. “First of all, the Creative Scotland guy was late for the meeting because he was buying suntan lotion before heading abroad,” says McGuigan. “I said, ‘I’ve got a $40 million or thereabouts movie to make, and I want to bring it to Scotland – but obviously you have no studios. So I want to find a space and build a studio, or at least start to build that infrastructure’. The deal would be to leave it here for everyone so they can use it.

“I said, ‘What do you think?’ and they were like, ‘No, you don’t understand. It’s a very political situation. There’s people want to build a studio in Glasgow and people wanting to build in Edinburgh and it’s been going on for years. And I’ve got to go to a film festival now.’”

That was the last McGuigan heard from Creative Scotland. “To be fair, it might not have worked out, but it wasn’t very creative of Creative Scotland,” he says.

McGuigan spent just three weeks in Scotland this year. Much of his time is taken up with TV commitments, especially in America where he’s just finished working on a Marvel project, rumoured to centre on bulletproof Harlem superhero Luke Cage. The US is keen on McGuigan as a pilot director, the creative force who sets the tone and visual style for the long haul of a series. Scandal, a political drama he kicked off in 2012, is now into its fifth season.

This new twist in his career stems from the success of Sherlock. In 2010, Steven Moffat and his partner, Sue Vertue, approached McGuigan and asked him to take a look at a project taking Sherlock Holmes into the modern day. McGuigan was nonplussed. He had never done TV before, and after the bruising response to his last film, Push, he was considering giving up directing all together. Nevertheless, he was intrigued by what he saw.

“There was nothing exactly wrong with it, but it wasn’t quite there. The potential was shouting that it could be brilliant – for a start Benedict [Cumberbatch] leapt off the screen. So I went for a meeting and said first of all, it has to be longer than an hour, there was too much to fit in. And when I had the visualisations idea, they got very excited.”

McGuigan’s treatment of Sherlock’s deductive processes turned lengthy exposition into punchy, quicksilver visuals. In particular, his reinterpretation of incoming text messages as floating, dancing script in Sherlock’s mind’s eye got Moffat so excited he retooled chunks of the script to bring in more of it.

“Sherlock completely invigorated me, because they listened to me,” says McGuigan. Yet no-one anticipated a global hit. “Before it came out, Sherlock fans were telling us we were assholes for doing a modern Sherlock. I got an email from one girl which said, ‘I used to like you!’ Then when it came out, that all changed.”

Filming Victor Frankenstein meant McGuigan was unable to take the reins on this year’s Sherlock Christmas special (“which broke my heart”), but he’ll be back with the show in the New Year. And if you are tempted to make a connection between Holmes and Frankenstein, McGuigan is ahead of you; McAvoy’s Frankenstein sees anatomical detail in a manner similar to Holmes’ forensic eye, and three of Holmes’ familiars pop up in the film’s cast, including Andrew Scott, Sherlock’s Jim Moriarty. “And at one point, me and Benedict talked about him playing Victor,” says McGuigan. “He thought about it for quite a while, and then eventually he said, ‘I’m probably interested for the wrong reasons!’”

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

• Victor Frankenstein is on general release