This castle is under siege and there’s little I can do about it. I’m standing on the outskirts of a scene that is filled with panic. Dust hangs heavy in the air of the castle’s Great Hall. Its people – dressed in period garb courtesy of renown costume designer Ngila Dickson (the Lord of the Rings trilogy) – scramble for safety, dodging the bits of stone that fall to the floor. At any moment, one of the many spires that hang upside-down from the ceiling, like stalactites in a cave, could snap crushing anyone below.
The Ottomans are attacking the castle, I’m told. And these frightened people – including Mirena (Sarah Gadon of Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral) – are awaiting the return of Vlad Tepes (Luke Evans, Fast & Furious 6). On cue, the doors to the Great Hall swing open and Tepes makes his entrance. Mirena greets him.
“You came back,” she says to her husband. His response is prophetic, “I always will.”
He takes determined strides to a nearby staircase where he delivers an impassioned speech about not failing his people and not giving up his son (played by Art Parkinson). Evans does this while the sounds of cannon blasts rock the castle’s foundation. Nearby, director Gary Shore controls a lightbox that triggers a strobing effect to give the impression of lighting or explosions (I’m not told which). The first assistant director calls “Cut!” and Shore, adorned in a Jaws t-shirt, talks to his crew about making some adjustments to the scene.
Welcome to the set of Dracula Untold, Universal’s big fall 2014 release that’s due to hit theaters on October 17th.
ShockTillYouDrop.com was called to make the trek to Belfast, Ireland to see how the legend is being updated in the wake of re-imaginings of The Mummy and The Wolfman. (Dracula received an extravagant redo in the early ‘90s, but that was under Sony’s guidance.)
And my, how things have changed.
What Dracula Untold promises is a stark contrast to the legendary bloodsucker’s quiet, black and white origins at Universal – a studio that has such a rich history steeped in cinema’s “classic movie monsters.” Dracula Untold’s production design may be just as ambitious and baroque as the sets featured in Tod Browning’s 1931 film for Universal, Dracula, but the tone and approach is radically different. Shore’s feature directorial debut is more in line with an action-drama carrying heavy supernatural overtones as it tells the story of Vlad Tepes before he became the fanged threat that feeds on blood and can transform into various creatures of the night.
Dracula Untold began as Dracula: Year Zero, a film initially developed with director Alex Proyas (Dark City, I, Robot) attached. Proyas departed the project allowing the producers to find new blood in Shore, a young Irish filmmaker who had been dabbling in commercials. He took on the script which was penned by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless.
“Matt and Burk thought, we know Bram Stoker wrote this wonderful Victorian England gothic story of Dracula,” explains executive producer Alissa Phillips. “Six years ago they asked, How did he become that? How did he get to Dracula in the 1800s, so they decided to do an origins tale. They went back to the reign of Vlad the Third and that’s where our story starts- in the 1400s. When you meet [Vlad], he’s a good king, a good ruler and married to a wonderful woman and he has a loving son. His land is at peace. But that peace, as we learn in act one, is tenuous. He’s been able to keep his land and his people safe by paying tribute to the Ottomans, the Turks – Sultan Mehmed II. This is all based on history, our writers did a ton of research.”
Vlad happens to have a dark past, however. You know that ol’ moniker “Vlad the Impaler”? Well, he’s trying to put that all behind him. He had been raised “in the port of Sultan Mehmed the First, the father of the character playing by Dominic Cooper Mehmed II,” adds Phillips. “He had been taken as a royal hostage, raised in this port and raised very violently. Trained to kill. Vlad is trying to hide that past, he wants to be the good king. But Mehmed II comes calling asking for tribute to maintain the peace.”
Mehmed II needs more than tribute, he needs a thousand boys to raise as fighters. Vlad, naturally, doesn’t want to give up his kingdom’s boys, moreover, his son. And so, he goes to drastic measures to protect them.In an effort to gain more power, Vlad unwillingly goes on a journey that will carry him Broken Tooth Mountain where he will meet Caligula (Charles Dance) and, well, things take a transformative turn. (And yes…I said Caligula, the Roman emperor who was “assassinated” in 41 A.D.)
“I saw [Shore’s] short Cup of Tears, which is online and is incredibly stylized – there’s such an aesthetic and a vision there,” Phillips says, explaining how Shore came aboard. “When I met him, the first thing he said after reading the script for this was, ‘It’s a father/son story.’ And that’s exactly what we wanted to hear, because he went right for character. There’s a lot of spectacle in this script and tons of cool stuff. A lot of directors would be like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait to shoot the hand of bats.’ But [Shore], smartly, went for what makes a film great: Character.”
“The second thing he said was, If you want to do a gory, bloody vampire film, I don’t want to do that,” Phillips continues. “There’s a fabulous canon of films that are all vampiric. We weren’t trying to do that, we’re trying to do a hero story. We’re trying to let our audience in on the choices Vlad made so we feel sympathy for him. Blood is an omnipresent, iconic story point of vampirism, but gore doesn’t have to be. If you want to see the story of Vlad the Impaler, this is not it.”
On finding Evans for Vlad, Phillips says she was allowed to see some early footage of Fast & Furious 6. “He immediately was interested in the role,” she says. “He just understood it. Everything he’s done on camera has been the right choice.”
Part of Shock’s visit to Ireland included a trip to the verdant and rainy Giant’s Causeway, which is apropos because its rocky formations served as an inspiration to Dracula Untold’s production designer Francois Audouy (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). This is apparent as Audouy guides us through the production’s art department. Here, the walls are a tapestry of production art and photographs.
Giant’s Causeway’s influence is most present in the depictions of the aforementioned Broken Tooth Mountain. A temple can be found in the heart of this mountain and that’s where Vlad encounters not only Caligula, but finds a giant pool of blood.
In a nearby soundstage, Audouy and his team are building this cave practically and it’s a beast of a set. Crew members layer pigeon spikes over the walls giving the surroundings an “alien” and “cancerous” quality, says Audouy. Later, these will spikes are going to be coated in a material to make the texture appear stony. On this production, they’re admirably trying to build as many sets as possible and then relying on CGI to enhance and extend the environments.
The art department doesn’t yield any detailed looks at Vlad when he’s in full vampiric Dracula mode, but I’m told “there will definitely be fangs” and that his final transformation is still being developed. Instead, however, a chilling look at Caligula’s visage when he first appears to Vlad that delivers and iconic feel.
Stay tuned for part 2 of our visit as we talk to the films stars Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon and Dominic Cooper.
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