A Nightmare Wakes (2017) is an interesting film, taking a look at the life of gothic writer Mary Shelley through a dark, foggy, ash-filled lens. The film shows how her passionate affair and eventual marriage to poet Percy Shelley, her miscarriages, and her own state of mind lead to the creation of what is considered to be her magnum opus, Frankenstein. I spoke to the director, Nora Unkel, about her new film, influences on it, and Mary Shelley’s writing. It was a rewarding and fun conversation.
Jakob: I just wanted to talk about, at first, your own filmmaking background. I had done some research and had found out you had went to NYU. What inspired you to go to that school?
Nora: I was immediately obsessed with New York, basically the moment I had stepped foot in it. I’m also a singer, I grew up doing a lot of classical music, so I ended up visiting New York with a choir for the first time, and just fell in love with it so much that I knew what I did especially once I decided I wanted to go into filmmaking, particularly screenwriting, NYU was the one and only.
Jakob: You had done classical singing?
Nora: Yes! Well, classical and jazz. So very two different ends of the spectrum.
Jakob: What was the movie that, when you saw it, made you realize, “This is what I have to do”?
Nora: Lord of the Rings.
Jakob: Oh, fuck yes!
Nora: (laughs) I was obsessed — not was, am — obsessed to the point where I watch the trilogy probably three to four times a year. I have all of the extended editions with all of the making-of documentaries, and it was actually [watching] those making-of documentaries that made me realize that you couldn’t just go to Middle-Earth and film it, you actually had to build sets, and bring actors, and do costumes and makeup, and I was like, “Wait, this is a job?! Somebody’s able to do this?! Oh my God, please yes, sign me up!” (laughs)
Jakob: That’s actually a pretty good segue into my next question. I had seen your original short films, and the one that had struck me most was Shall I?, and I had noticed from Shall I? to A Nightmare Wakes and now knowing that your earliest influence was the Lord of the Rings films, it seems that classic literature is a huge motif in your work. What is it that speaks to you about classical literature itself?
Nora: You know, I think that there’s this wonderful haunting feeling to a lot of classical literature, a lot of the gothic elements that I like to lean into, and I’ve always just been fascinated by history, especially with a lot of the classic literature, even though it was written for its time, at this point, it’s historical fiction for us. I love looking at a lot of these different classic novels. Dracula’s one of my favorites, Frankenstein too, obviously. I just love being transported into a completely different world and this world where the veil between mysticism and reality is very, very thin.
Jakob: And there’s a very good amount of that thin veil in A Nightmare Wakes. What was it about Mary and Percy Shelley that spoke to you as well?
Nora: Just how young they were. How they were kids who were really breaking the rules of their time, and shifting what was acceptable and what was not. In a way, Mary picked up the baton from her mother and kept carrying it, seeing all of this groundwork her mother, this incredible feminist, had laid down for her, Mary got to live that life that Mary Wollstonecraft had always envisioned for herself. When I found out Mary was 19 when she wrote Frankenstein and that it was spawned from this horrific late-term miscarriage she had experienced, suddenly the novel itself and the entire story became a completely different thing to me. It blew my mind.
Jakob: I had never picked up on those elements either, and it honestly was A Nightmare Wakes that helped me add another layer to the story itself. Would you call the first two acts of your film a re-telling of Frankenstein in of itself? Another interpretation I had gotten from it was that Frankenstein was a sort of love triangle. You have Shelley who is also jealous of Percy’s wife who had died, and suddenly his focus is on the grief he has over this woman.
Nora: Absolutely. (laughs) Very much, you nailed that. It really is about this dichotomy of Mary figuring out how to cope with the realities of her life by putting them into her own story and novel. I was really inspired by Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which is absolutely one of my favorite movies. What I loved about that is that it’s so incredibly dark, ominous, and scary, yet this fantastical world is this escape from the gruelling reality for both Ofelia and for Mary. I found that out in her own writings and in Frankenstein itself, so I wanted to bring that to life in a new way.
Jakob: Speaking of Shelley’s writing, what about Mathilda? Were you inspired by that novel at all?
Nora: You know, that’s a great question. I actually didn’t turn to Mathilda a lot, I turned to nearly every piece of writing I could find from Mary’s. I was focusing mainly on things from this around this exact era. I had found this incredible copy of a reprinted version of an early manuscript in Mary’s own handwriting with cursive notes on the side. It’s a great step into history. I was referencing the foreword that she had written 15 years after the publication, her letters that she was writing to people like Thomas Hawke and to her father, and some of her own journal entries. Ultimately, every time I had a question, every time I didn’t know where to go, I always went back to the novel. Your perspective of the first two acts being an actual adaptation of Frankenstein is dead on.
Jakob: Well, thank you. Wonderful explanation. What about the dream sequences in the film? Were those particularly inspired by any events in Mary Shelley’s life or her novels? They themselves have an element of horror to them as well.
Nora: They are the first steps into Mary’s psyche that I really took. She wrote these letters about these horrific recurring nightmares she was having where her recently dead child came back to life, and looked up at her with these yellow, watery eyes. Some historians say that those yellow eyes were a symbol of some of the opium that was happening around the group, which I thought was really intriguing. I tried to recreate the best I could some of the actual exact dreams that scared the bejesus out of her.
Jakob: When I was doing research on your career, I went back to your older short films, shot in black and white. What was fascinating in A Nightmare Wakes was, in some shots, the absence of color. Would you say that the intention of the film’s look came from Mary’s own perspective and her depression that she is going through? Or did you intend it as a sort of callback to those old films?
Nora: I like both of those options, but you really nailed it in the first. Firstly, another historical fact that I always lose my mind over was that in this year, in the summer that this was happening, there was a volcano that erupted in Southeast Asia, that covered the entire world in ash for a year. It’s known as “The Year Without Summer” and what’s fascinating is why Byron, Mary, Percy, and all of them, why they were stuck inside with all the rain and all of the horrible weather was this volcano. I wanted to create this very somber, very stark world that would be accurate to what they were actually seeing and perceiving in this summer, which some historians argue is one of the catalysts for gothic literature at all, because the world was covered in darkness for a year, which I love. With that, I wanted to create this stark, awkward world that Mary could never settle into. When we go into these much more comfortable, emotional, musical sequences that are the sequences of her novel, they kind of do feel like this escape, this reprieve from the mundane and tragic world of her reality, in a similar way to Pan’s Labyrinth.
Jakob: I know because you were very immersed in the world of Mary Shelley, are there any certain historical revisions or liberties you took when it came to adapting this story that you thought would be best suited for the film and its themes?
Nora: Yeah, I made a lot of historical changes where I had to, unfortunately. I’m sure I’ll get reamed for it, but what I came down to is, this woman has this incredibly rich, wealthy life, which from literally the first weeks to the end was riddled with death and tragedy, and I had an hour and a half to try and tell her story. And at the same time, I was trying to tell how her story was influencing her writing, and Frankenstein. So what I really ended up doing was that I had to condense the timeline, also for budgetary reasons. I would’ve loved to go from Switzerland to England to all of these incredible journeys that Mary was able to go on. But we had a location, we had the money that we had. What it came down to was what were the moments and experiences in Mary’s life that best were reflected in Frankenstein that were responded to through Frankenstein, and in a way, it was a visual book report of mine to kind of look through how different moments in Mary’s life shaped this story. So yes, particularly through Mary’s children, she had five pregnancies, all resulting in one living child. She had severe miscarriages, very late-term, she had children die under the age of two. I couldn’t tell all of their stories, so I had to combine a few of the children, and a few of these moments from certain writings of Mary’s and Percy’s that might have come later in life that were influenced by Frankenstein.
Jakob: The leads (Alix Wilton Regan & Giullian Yao Gioeillo, who played Mary and Percy) were the performances that impressed me most. How did you meet them? Did they audition? Were they people you wanted to work with for a long time?
Nora: Everyone auditioned for the film. I was very particular in terms of what I was looking for, mostly in how people were interpreting the personalities of them. There’s been many different interpretations of this group, and I wanted a very specific dynamic between them. Giullian and Claire [Glassford] were two actors that I had worked with many times through NYU, and in those black and white films, you’ll see Claire is in them. She was kind of my film school muse, so it was really wonderful to bring her into this, and Giullian and I had done musical pieces in the past as well. I had never heard him do an accent before, I’d never heard him do a deep and serious role before, and he really surprised me every corner. So, that was just lucky, and then, Alix. I can’t tell you how many women I auditioned for the role of Mary. That was, of course, the role I was most particular about. If not done properly, it could destroy the film, it really relies on a strong Mary. I remember seeing Alix’s face for the first time, when she sent it to me, and I was like, “This looks like Mary. Please tell me she’s as good as I think she’s gonna be.” She sent in her tape a few hours later, and it was 20 times better than I was hoping for. Without question, I was like, “That’s her! We found her! That’s Mary!” What an incredible experience it was to have her be a part of this and to have her be the face and voice of the Mary I had been shaping for so long.
Jakob: Without a doubt. I loved their chemistry in the film. I remember the most tender scene being between them was when Percy was kissing Mary after she had suffered that miscarriage.
Nora: That was a hard scene to film. We filmed that after we had filmed the miscarriage scene. I was so impressed by the two of them, they really took it very seriously. Giullian never dropped the accent the entire shoot. The two of them would always be sitting together, going over scripts, talking, and keeping up this boisterous, supportive energy throughout the whole time. We’d look over and they’d be giggling in the corner at their scripts, and then they’d come over, and be like, “Hey, we have an idea. Let’s add a joke! Just kidding!” So they became two peas in a pod, which was really needed to add to the chemistry of the two characters.
Jakob: This film was picked up by Shudder, and in terms of streaming services, I know they have a reputation of allowing full creative control. Was that any different for you?
Nora: Shudder has been one of the most supportive teams throughout this entire process. I wrote the film about 8 years ago, and we started taking it out to try and get it made through my production company (Wild Obscura), and my incredible business partner Devin Shepherd. She and I started taking this out to the world, and I remember the very first meeting we ever had was with our incredible friend Sam at Shudder. I was so nervous because this was the first time I was taking this out and showing the world, and I was very young, and I was like, “Okay! I hope people like it!” And Sam just sat down in front of us and was like, “I love it. This is fantastic.”, and really stayed with the project. Whenever I was feeling a loss of hope, or when the pandemic hit and we weren’t sure what the future was gonna hold, Shudder was always there. They were so supportive, and they always knew what this film was meant to be. They never tried to tell us to make it more horror, they never tried to tell us to add more blood and guts like you’d expect from a horror streaming service. They instead said, “We need to make sure that our trailers, our materials, are accurate to the tone of this film. We don’t want to mislead audiences, we want people to know that this is a very different tone for a horror film.” They’ve been incredible partners, and I feel so privileged to have a film on their platform.
Jakob: How did you and Devin (Shepherd) meet? Tell me about your partnership.
Nora: Devin is, sorry I’m tearing up, because it’s the day we’re releasing this thing that we’ve been carrying for so long. I met Devin at NYU, and we ended up doing a few classes together at NYU, but we didn’t become super tight until my thesis film. We shot my thesis film and she helped produce and assistant direct it. We realized pretty quickly that we were like, “Oh my gosh, why haven’t we been working together this entire time?” I brought her Nightmare, and she read it, and again, she had said, “I wanna see this made”. And there was just no hesitancy in her voice. She just wanted to do it. She’s been my partner throughout this entire experience, and this film would not exist without her. She knew what this film was and what I wanted to do, and she was the loudest advocate for that entire process.
Jakob: One last question for you, what are your future projects that you have planned out?
Nora: Yeah, I’m excited. Devin and I are gonna start taking out a new project, it’s called Ashes, and it is centering more on Scottish folklore, especially a banshee, which is a folklore creature that I’m obsessed with. And I’m also actually in a year-long lab right now for another horror film called Bruja, which centers in the Mexican witchcraft world. Lots of fun creepy stuff coming, once we can start filming things again.