VideoInk Halloween Special: ‘Frankenstein, MD’ Roundtable
In honor of Halloween, VideoInk’s Michael Varrati sat down with the cast and crew of “Frankenstein, MD” for a roundtable about the show’s goals, science, and what it’s like to live in the shadow of a monster. Those gathered included cast members Anna Lore, Brendan Bradley, Sara Fletcher, and Steve Zaragoza, as well as creative team members Lon Harris, Brett Register, Jon Hanson, and Bernie Su.
(Further accounts of Michael’s adventures on the set of “Frankenstein, MD” can be found here.)
…and now: The Roundtable!
“Frankenstein” is obviously a huge part of the pop culture zeitgeist, and it’s been adapted many times. However, this incarnation is unique. Not only is it a partnership between PBS and Pemberley, but you’re also taking a fresh approach with the digital space. What challenges are present in adapting this work, and what does it mean to you as performers to step into this legendary story?
Anna Lore (Victoria Frankenstein): I think our job is made really easy for us, because the story is adapted so well in the writing. It’s partially Lon Harris, Brett Register…the writers and creators of “Frankenstein, MD” They adapted the story so well, it almost makes our jobs effortless. That’s where I think a lot of the work is done. Character-wise, we really have a lot of freedom. The story has been updated, and there really hasn’t been a contemporary “Frankenstein,” of which I’m really aware. The gender reversal also gives us our own spin.
Steve Zaragoza (Iggy DeLacey): I play Iggy, who’s sort of like the Igor character…who wasn’t really present in the original Mary Shelley novel. Igor came in as Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant with the movie versions. So, the legacy and its roots are honored in different ways. I feel with Pemberley Digital being behind this, it really lends itself to the vlog way they tell stories, and I think the Frankenstein mythos fitting into the YouTube generation/format really works very well. It translates well, but it wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the writing. The writing is what shines through, for sure.
Brendan Bradley (Eli Lavenza): I think the challenge and success of what Pemberley is doing with this version really speaks to what Brett and Lon envisioned for this universe. You’re talking about a really dark, dramatic world. Online video, so far, has been mostly known for a comedic sketch take on things. A lot of things are done in this space on the cheap and for an easy laugh. What we’re trying to do is not only adapt a really dark text, but bring a new audience to a much grittier universe than just a few easy jokes.
Sara Fletcher (Rory Clerval): Also, I think for the generation that is growing up with YouTube that has to read the classics in school, this is fun. When I was growing up, there was nothing that really supplemented the material. It was merely, “Read the classics and try and understand them!” To me, what the writers really did was take material that may be difficult for some, and entice the audience with the story. We’re showing people that these stories are classics because the material is still relevant and happening now. The stories and themes that happened then are also parallel to things that are happening in present day. It works.
Anna Lore: I agree. I feel our first goal here is to appeal to fans of the book. That’s what Pemberley really does, they catch all the little inside nuances that make the books so special to readers. The thing about “Frankenstein, MD” in particular is that there’s something for everyone. If you like comedy, science, scary things, it’s there.
Speaking of the science, I know that one of the provisions of working with PBS was that you had to include actual science. Were there challenges integrating science into the videos, and do you feel you learned a thing or two in the process?
Anna Lore: I think it’s primarily adapting the literature. I think it’s awesome that there’s science in the story, and what science exists is as accurate as can be. But, yes, it’s about the story. The first eight episodes though, you’re learning science. The writers may want to take this one.
Sara Fletcher: We did have a science advisor!
Brett Register (writer/director): All of my scripts were story-based, and whenever they involved science, I would just write “SCIENCE!” in brackets. Literally…”SCIENCE!” So, I learned a lot, but not by my own research. Like I said, I handled the story elements. I made sure we used the science, I’m just not science-forward enough to have done that on my own.
Lon Harris (writer): Science already has a long tradition on YouTube. There’s a huge audience for educational-based programming in the digital realm. Joe, our scientific advisor, actually hosts “It’s Okay to be Smart” on PBS already. It’s a great advantage, because it is, in essence, the reason Victoria has this show. If she wasn’t doing science, there would be this question about why she’s making videos in the first place. That made it easier for us, in some ways. Granted, what wasn’t easy was having to learn all the science stuff that I did. But, it immediately answers the question “why does this exist?” It’s because she’s making a science show.
Bernie Su (Pemberley Digital showrunner): PBS and the source material demand science, but I think we do it ourselves, too. It’s just our kind of brand. The “Emma Approved” series, although not science-based, tries to give you real life and fashion advice. With “Lizzie Bennett Diaries,” we often connected with real-world things. It’s not unusual for us. Even if PBS didn’t have that mandate, we would probably push for that anyway. We’d want to make it as real as possible, with the asterisk that we’re “making a monster.”
What do you want the audience to take away from this show? When the credits of the last episode of the season are rolling, what do you hope the viewers will have gained from the experience?
Brett Register: This show is built upon what the audience can take away from a lot of different perspectives. There’s genuine science. Everything is medically accurate until we get into theoretical science, and even then we’re doing our best. The story of Frankenstein is more pop culture than literature at this point. People know so many different versions of this story, from books to movies to TV to comics. We’re telling the story from the book, with a few tips of the hat to the pop culture identity of Frankenstein. Lon and I discussed that from the beginning. It’s a very dark book, but we wanted to present it in a fashion that was versatile and allow us to have fun. We wanted to watch the audience live through some of these events that they may not know are coming.
Lon Harris: One of the things we talked about a lot early on is that this show has to be a balance of all these specific zones and ideas. For the Pemberley audience, based on things like “Lizzie Bennet,” you’ve got a good romance. You’ve got characters they’re gonna like and want to see get together and “ship.” You have the educational element, where you’ll maybe learn something. But, you also have the dramatic, weighty themes that are present in the original book. There’s also a horror movie tradition that we wanted to work in there. All of this is happening in one package, which makes it fun. We’re hoping it’s consistently entertaining and engaging because we have all these different things with which to play around.
Anna Lore: I want people to just take it on its own, as its own show. It’s funny, it’s dark, and hopefully something where you can become attached to the characters. I would like it to be its own thing, but maybe also inspire people to revisit the original text and gain a better understanding of that material, too.
Steve Zaragoza: I also think it’s great that the lead is a female scientist, because in pop culture, we haven’t really had a female scientist lead…at least not in a prominent way…and I feel it would be good to have her as a role model character for a younger audience to check out.
Joe Hanson (science advisor): Following on that idea, having a female scientist that’s not victimized and gets to play the hero is so overdue. It’s been too long. This is, at its core, a story about how science impacts life. Strangely enough, a lot of the issues in the series are on our minds in current events. “Frankenstein” is nearly 200 years old, but its big questions still apply, just with newer words and terms.Tags: Anne Lore, Bernie Su, Brendan Bradley, Brett Register, Frankenstein MD, Interview, Joe Hanson, Lon Harris, PBS Digital Studios, Pemberley Digital, Sara Fletcher, Steve Zaragoza, Youtube Space LA