Toronto: 'Mary Shelley' Director Haifaa Al-Mansour Talks Women Defying Expectations

Christopher Patey
Haifaa Al-Mansour

The Saudi Arabian director's much-anticipated follow-up to her acclaimed debut, 'Wadjda,' stars Elle Fanning and bows in Toronto on Saturday.

In 2013, an exciting new filmmaking voice burst onto the international scene from an unexpected part of the world.

Not only was Haifaa Al-Mansour a female director from Saudi Arabia, a country with no cinemas and where women aren’t allowed to drive, but in her debut, Wadjda, she had created a film almost universally adored, telling the heartstring-tugging story of a young, rebellious Saudi girl and her quest to buy herself a bicycle.

The film — which earned an astonishing $14.5 million worldwide (including $1.3 million in the U.S.) — didn’t just smash glass ceilings; it helped open a window into a society largely unknown beyond newspaper headlines — and without any attempt at provocation. Many thought Wadjda should have been rewarded with an Oscar nomination (it was Saudi Arabia’s first-ever Academy entry).

Four years on, and Al-Mansour is back with her hotly anticipated second feature — and her first in English. Mary Shelley — which bows in Toronto on Saturday — chronicles the teenage years of the gothic literary icon and Frankenstein novelist (being played by Elle Fanning) in the early 19th century and her blossoming romance with poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth). Maisie Williams, Joanne Froggatt, Bel Powley and Tom Sturridge also star in the coming-of-age period piece, which HanWay is selling internationally (it's looking for a domestic distributor).

Speaking to THR from Atlanta, where’s she prepping her next feature, the Netflix rom-com Nappily Ever After (“a funny take on race — it has real heart”), Al-Mansour talks about finding inspiration in how Shelley defied what was expected of her, the joy of working outside of Saudi restrictions (i.e., getting to leave the van) and how the young star of Wadjda has now become an Instagram celebrity.

After Wadjda, which was hugely well-received internationally, did you get a lot of offers?

It’s harder than you think. I got some scripts, but it’s hard to find the right one, and it’s a totally different system. So you need to learn how the system works. It’s not like you make a film, and all the scripts suddenly start appearing. You have to really work to find something that you can add to. But I really want to make something different and take the next step, make a film that has a bigger audience, and I think it’s very important for my journey as a filmmaker.

And what was it about Mary Shelley that made you think: This is the one?

I was a literature major, so I studied her work. But I never knew about her life. So when they sent me the script, I started studying it and getting to know more about her. And for me, it was amazing to hear about this young girl who wrote Frankenstein when she was only 18. And also how she was influenced by the heritage of her mother and father and husband — they were all big figures — but she was the black sheep. People didn’t even want to publish it and didn’t consider it high literature. For me, it’s amazing when a young girl finds her voice in that way. England was very conservative, and the Middle East is still too, in a way. They expect women to write in a certain way, and for me, that she defied that was amazing. And the tomboyish thing — she wrote in a very masculine genre, questioning God and writing about philosophy. I think it is such an inspiring story for young girls, and for women in general, to embrace that we can be out of our comfort zone and write about things that aren’t only female literature.

Do you think there’s quite a lot about Mary Shelley that isn’t understood?

I think a lot of people know Frankenstein, and, of course, all know the green monster, everybody knows that. But they never know her. I don’t want to suggest that she’s overshadowed by the book, but the book is certainly bigger.

Like Wadjda, this is a film with a strong female lead. Is that something you look for?

I guess I’m not intentionally looking for them, but I’m just fascinated with strong women. My mum is a very strong woman, and I feel like I’m surrounded by a lot of strong women in my life. Maybe that is why I’m drawn to that. But the truth is that it’s wonderful to read a story about a woman that succeeds at the end. Maybe it’s because I’m coming from Saudi Arabia, and growing up there has also affected my choices!

When Wadjda came out, there was much talk about the restrictions you faced while making it, like how you had to shoot certain outdoor scenes while directing from inside a van so you weren’t seen with your male stars. Was making Mary Shelley a wholly new experience?

Oh, it was so refreshing! I have to tell you, it’s really nice to be out of the van! It’s so much fun. And it’s so nice to be working with people where all you have to worry about is your craft.

Speaking of which, you’ve got some amazing talent in Mary Shelley, especially in the lead, Elle Fanning.

It was a real pleasure working with Elle, who takes her craft to the next level, and she really gives a lot to this project. And I enjoyed working with Douglas Booth. I think he’ll surprise a lot of people with his performance — he brought a lot of restlessness to the character. You cannot help but like him, even though he makes a lot of mistakes. It was a really wonderful experience.

In Berlin this year, I was told off for writing that Mary Shelley was a biopic. If it’s not a biopic, what is it?

I think it’s a coming-of-age story, mixed with a love story. Mary’s relationship with Percy is at the heart of the film, starting with when she ran away with him and began writing Frankenstein.

What’s happened to the amazing young Saudi star of Wadjda, Waad Mohammed?

Waad is amazing — she’s a fashionista now! She does a lot of modeling and has 1 million followers on Instagram. She’s a leader among her peer group. It’s amazing to see her breaking out of her shell. Her page is fun — and it’s nice to see Saudi girls having fun. When I see the teenagers in my American family, it’s amazing how similar they are. They’re always grumpy, they always have their phones and are always upstairs in their rooms locking the door. American teenagers and Saudi teenagers are exactly the same. It’s nice to see that universality of growing up.

And what happened to the all-important bicycle? Do you have it?

I have one of them. The original one is still with the production company. But the bike company gave me the same one. It’s in my garage. It’s big! I don’t allow anyone to ride it. But it’s just there, next to my husband’s pinball table.

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