There are a lot of vampire films out there, perhaps too many, but the team behind Dracula Untold is out defy that by doing something different, combining historical facts with the fantastical. Bram Stoker’s Dracula may haven been inspired by Vlad the Impaler, but first-time feature writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless decided to take the connection literally. In Dracula Untold, Dracula is Vlad the Impaler.
Back in September 2013, we got the chance to visit the film’s Belfast, Ireland set where stars Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon and Dominic Cooper as well as producer Alissa Phillips, production designer Francois Audouy and costume designer Ngila Dickson were all on hand to talk about what’s going to make their vampire movie a standout. Hit the jump for over 50 must-know facts about Dracula Untold.
Click here to check out the trailer for Dracula Untold.
- At the start of the film, Vlad’s (Evan) in a good place. He’s got a beautiful wife, a great kid and the people of Transylvania are happy. But then, Mehmet (Cooper) and the warriors of the Ottoman Empire move in.
- Back when Vlad was just a boy, he was taken in by the Turks and raised alongside Mehmet II in the court of Sultan Mehmet I.
- Mehmet becomes incredibly jealous of his adopted brother. Vlad is stronger of mind and a better fighter, and Mehmet’s father knew it. In fact, while on his deathbed, Mehmet’s father chose to speak with Vlad over his own son because, as Cooper explained, “I think he trusted him more as a warrior and as a future leader.”
- Back in the present, the way Vlad manages to keep the peace in Transylvania is by paying tribute to Mehmet II, but that becomes a problem when Mehmet ups his demands.
- In an effort to get back at Vlad, Mehmet and his troops storm towards Transylvania and demand that Vlad gives up 1,000 boys for Mehmet’s army, including his own son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson).
- Giving Ingeras to Mehmet would ultimately put him on the same exact path as Vlad. Vlad was taken into the Turkish court as a young prisoner and trained to be a killer called a Janissary . Vlad’s violent past is what he hates most about himself, so he just can’t bear to put Ingeras through the same situation.
- Vlad’s a strong leader, but Mehmet’s threat makes him so vulnerable, he does something desperate; he chooses to become a vampire.
- And it’s no wonder Vlad went to such an extreme to save his people; they don’t really have a shot against the Turks. Phillips pointed out that according to historical record, Vlad’s army had about 40,000 troops while Mehmet boasted a couple hundred thousand.
- After drinking the blood, Vlad gets more confident, but his wife, Mirena (Gadon), isn’t happy about it. Mirena acts as a moral compass of sorts for Vlad throughout the film.
- Vlad’s also afraid that his people won’t approve of what he’s done, so keeps his new abilities a secret as best he can. He needs his people to trust him and believe that he can lead them through these dark times, but without ever revealing how.
- This is the origin story of Dracula, but the heart of this film is family. As Gadon described, “I think it’s a film that is accessible to families because it’s really, in my opinion, about strong family values.”
- Phillips called the film “an epic, sweeping, action, fantasy film. It’s much more in the land of The Lord of The Rings tonally.”
- Don’t expect Dracula Untold to be loaded with carnage. Phillips also noted, “We want kids to enjoy this … Blood is an omnipresent iconic story point of vampirism. We can’t deny that, but gore doesn’t have to be. If you want to see a film about Vlad the Impaler, this is probably not it.”
Meet Our New Dracula
- Vlad is based on Vlad III or Vlad Tepes, which translates to Vlad the Impaler.
- Sazama and Sharpless knew Vlad Tepes inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but they still wondered how Stoker’s Dracula became what he is to begin with. They then decided to write an origin story and what better place to start than with what inspired the character of Dracula to begin with? Vlad in the 1400s.
- There won’t be any actual impaling, but Evans and Shore honor Vlad’s history in two ways, by talking about Vlad’s dark past and, as Evans teased, “There are a couple of moments where we honor the impaling techniques in very clever ways.”
- Vlad isn’t proud of his impaling past. In fact, he’s ashamed of it and grows very uncomfortable when people mention it, and that’s something Mehmet tries to use to his advantage.
- There are a lot of biased history books out there, but Evans insisted that Vlad wasn’t such a bad guy. He wasn’t a terrifying warlord, but rather, a revered leader. His tombstone even says, “He was a great ruler and respected by his enemies.”
- In the movie, Vlad willingly becomes a vampire by drinking blood from a chalice in Caligula’s cave. Yes, Caligula.
- Caligula was a Roman emperor who ruled from 37 AD to 41 AD. Sazama and Sharpless decided to play with the mystery surrounding Caligula’s death and where he was buried. Because Caligula would have made his way into what Bram Stoker dubbed the Transylvania territory at some point during his exploits, they wondered, what if he’s still there and what if there’s a reason he’s still alive?
- The abilities Vlad gains after visiting Caligula include speaking without opening his mouth, flying, jumping, immortality, healing capabilities and also a lot of confidence.
- Vlad clearly changes after drinking the blood, but Evans also stressed that even when Vlad becomes a vampire, you can still see the human in him. Both Vlad and Dracula will have the same emotional drive from beginning to end.
- Even though Vlad does feel the need to drink human blood, he does everything he can to resist it out of his love for his family and for his people.
- We will see other people turn into vampires in this movie.
- When Dracula goes to bite someone, we will see a physical transformation and, as Evans described, it’s one that’s “unique to this film.”
- Fun Fact: Evans wears fangs at times in the movie, but he actually has his very own set naturally.
- According to Evans, this is what a day on the set of Dracula Untold might be like for him – picked up at 5am, on set by 8am, about 14 hours on set, hopefully eating dinner by 9:30pm and in bed by 10:30pm with whatever time he can squeeze in for the gym in between.
First Time Feature Director Gary Shore
- This is actually Shore’s very first feature film.
- Phillips was very taken by Shore’s short film, A Cup of Tears. (You can check out the trailer right here.) She pointed out, “It’s incredibly stylized and there’s such an aesthetic and a vision there. I wanted to meet him.”
- During their very first meeting, the moment Shore described Dracula Untold as a “father-son story,” Phillips was sold. There’s a lot of spectacle in the script and while most directors might have gone straight to ideas for shooting “the hand of bats,” Shore focused on character.
- Another thing Phillips found particularly appealing about Shore was his aversion to making this a gore-heavy vampire film. She noted, “We didn’t want to make an R-rated gory horror film. We say a lot, this isn’t your father or your grandfather’s Dracula. It’s going to be very different.”
- Gadon called Shore a “baby Spielberg.” She added, “He’s got all this kind of youthful zest and zeal for romance and love, and it’s like really kind of early Spielberg stuff.”
- Gadon wasn’t particularly into the idea of making a Dracula movie until she met with Shore. She recalled, “He had a lot of visual imagery with him and he showed me that he really wanted to make a timeless love story and that, to me, was refreshing because Dracula and vampire stories are always about sexual repression and female sexuality … and it seemed to me at the time like such a different take on the material.”
- Dickson did begin by doing extensive historical research, but then “played about with it a bit, but always kind of kept everything rooted in some kind of historical vernacular.” She added, “I think we’ve stuck more to reality on this one. It just seems to have suited it. Having said that, we’re certainly amplifying.”
- However, Dickson did note that at the start, she did some designs that totally adhered to the true 14th century world and they were “freaking everybody out.” She pointed out, “Real history is full of so many more bizarre things than anything fantastical that you can come up with.” When assessing this from the perspective of an average moviegoer, Dickson admitted that it probably would have been too much.
- There’s going to be a lot of color in Dracula Untold, specifically while in Mehmet’s world. Vlad’s people aren’t particularly wealthy, especially compared to Mehmet’s army, so Dickson is using color to highlight the gap.
- For the armor, Dickson is using repoussé, a type of metalwork where you sculpt or hammer the design into the inside of the armor so it pops out on the outside. Dickson added, “I’m trying to work between quite a sort of classic version of it with Mehmet and an incredibly organic version of it with Vlad.”
- Having just come off Belle, Gadon requested a no-corset policy and Dickson honored it.
- Gadon has two types of outfits in the film, some rather elaborate costumes and then some simpler ones that they called “day glam.”
- One of Gadon’s more uncomfortable yet stunning pieces is a crown made of pearls and lace that comes down and tends to cut her forehead a bit.
- In general, Dickson designed Gadon’s costumes with a light and dark theme in mind. If Vlad is the one stepping into the dark world, Mirena is the light.
- Overall, the goal is to deliver a very unique take on the Dracula mythology. Audouy noted, “We’ve been architecturally trying to do something that’s more unique than just going to the library and getting all the gothic architecture books.”
- In designing Transylvania, Audouy aimed to create a world that would have an optimistic tenor at first, but then change right along with the narrative using lighting, angles and the composition of the buildings.
- Audouy’s team stayed away from a more cliché look with Western European architecture and instead, embraced an orthodox and exotic style using Eastern European detailing.
- At a point, Vlad visits Mehmet’s enormous army camp. To help him figure out what a camp of 100,000 troops might look like, Audouy turned to the Burning Man festival. In fact, Mehmet’s campsite is modeled off of the Burning Man’s circular setup.
- At that camp, Mehmet’s got a tent with an enormous golden table in it that Audouy built at the Propshop in Pinewood. It’s got a map of Mehmet’s campaign through Europe on it that includes a river system bearing a veiny motif, something that will pop up in a lot of Audouy’s work throughout the film.
- Audouy drew inspiration from Giant’s Causeway for Caligula’s lair, Broken Tooth Mountain, and specifically from the area’s bath salt formations.
- While designing the interior of Broken Tooth Mountain, Audouy committed to the idea that this is where vampirism started. He explained, “We created this cancerous spikey growth that we’re infusing into all the architecture as if it were infected … It gives it sort of an alien quality.”
- In order to create this alien-like material, Audouy purchased an enormous amount of pigeon spikes, glued them together, covered them in regrind using spray foam and then painted the entire thing.
- That set also has a central pool, which Audouy described as a “Romanesque mosaic pool that collects all of the blood from the generations of hanging bodies, like a Roman abattoir that collects and sort of channels the blood that’s infected now to a central sort of reservoir.” This is where Vlad drinks the blood that turns him into a vampire.
- At a point, Vlad stumbles upon the ruins of a village the Turks have just ransacked. That material was shot in a closed down museum where they happened to have had a reproduction of an old village that Audouy and co. turned into a Transylvanian village and then set on fire.
- Dracula Untold will also feature Borgo Pass. That portion of the film was shot in a rock quarry and will involve a significant amount of set extension work.
- The same goes for the monastery, which has been a particularly big challenge for the art department. Audouy used an old barn for the interior of the monastery and did extensive fresco work on the building.
- Roughly two thirds of this film is shot on location and a third of it is shot on a stage. They’ve got four stages and during our visit, the Great Hall was on one of them, Caligula’s cave was on another and Audouy’s team was busy doing some interior tent work for Mehmet’s camp on a third.
- Dracula Untold is a build heavy film. Audouy and cinematographer John Schwartzman set out to get as much as possible in camera versus leaving visuals for post-production. Audouy noted, “The CGI is really for extending or for adding, but the majority of the scenes, all of the coverage is in camera.”
- Based on Audouy’s past experiences, typically, productions do their big builds first, but on Dracula Untold, some of their biggest, like Caligula’s lair and the monastery, are spread all throughout the shoot.
- There is some historical fact in Dracula Untold, but Audouy is only using it as a starting point for his sets. “We’re looking at history as a jumping off point and then it’s become stylized and tweaked, but in a plausible way.” For example, the Great Hall has a fantasy-like interior, but it’s constructed in an architecturally sound way with real materials and real proportions.
- Fun Fact: Audouy’s office is lined with a ruler so that those who prefer metric measurements and those who’d rather use feet and inches can quickly get on the same page when discussing scale. He uses this “cheat scale” on all of his films.
Aside from our interviews, the bulk of our time was spent in The Great Hall. The space did have a regal quality to it, but most lavish adornments were either caked in dust or destroyed because at the time, they were busy shooting a scene during which Mehmet and the Turks are pummeling the building with cannonballs. Vlad’s just returned from Broken Tooth Mountain so at this point, he is a vampire, but no one knows. Mehmet’s already come to town and taken those 1,000 boys he’s demanded, but he’s busy destroying the area anyway. The people of Transylvania need a serious pep talk to say the least, and Vlad’s about to give it to them.
While watching on monitors, we caught our first shot, which covered Evans as he professed, “They wanted my son. A good prince would have given him up. A good prince would have paid that price for peace. I’m sorry I failed you. But I give you my word, we will not be defeated!” While watching that same moment play out on set, we got a much better sense of the geography of the scene and what’s happening around Vlad while he attempts to boost morale.
Almost immediately after calling action, a group of peasants rush into the room. People are hurt, someone’s being carried on a stretcher, strobe lights are igniting, there are mock cannonball sounds; it’s chaotic. Amidst all that madness is Vlad. He struts through the crowd and destruction up and towards his wife and son who are standing on a staircase in the middle of the room. Before heading up to him, he turns to his people and delivers his speech. Then, he makes his way toward Mirena and Ingeras to embrace them both. She asks, “Where were you?” He replies, “Searching for the strength I needed.”
A little later on, during some downtime in between interviews, some of the group made our way back to set and caught the team working on another moment within that sequence, one featuring Vlad’s right-hand man, Captain Petru played by Noah Huntley. As Vlad makes his way out of the war-torn room, Petru calls to him, “There’s something different about you.” He pauses, looks Vlad dead in the eye and adds, “I like it.” It sounds simple, a little cheesy and like the least exciting thing you could possibly see on the set of a film called Dracula Untold, but it wound up being one of the most memorable moments of the day because, one, the process of nailing those lines was downright hilarious and two, it really put into perspective how tough it can be to finish mere seconds of a film.
Poor Huntley must have delivered that line at least a dozen times in just 30 minutes, but he did it with a smile on his face each and every time – that is, unless he opted to switch it up a bit and use a more serious tenor. If this set visit came with an audio component, I’d gladly run through the impressively wide array of variations he came up with. There was a more somber delivery, a hopeful one, a slight goofy version, and many more. Really, almost every single one was useable depending on the tone Shore was going for, but about halfway through Huntley, Evans and the entire crew for that matter, couldn’t help, but to sneak in quick laugh between takes. Clearly only one take will make its way into the final feature, but I’ve got my fingers crossed for an “I like it” montage on the Blu-ray special features menu.
For more from my Dracula Untold set visit:
- Luke Evans Talks Vampire Powers, Dracula’s Fangs, His Own Fangs, Vlad the Impaler, Months of Prep, Intense Training and More on the Set of DRACULA UNTOLD
- Sarah Gadon Talks Making a Timeless Love Story, Comfy Costumes, Working with Auteurs, Standout Lighting Techniques and More on the Set of DRACULA UNTOLD
- Dominic Cooper Talks Playing the Villain, Vlad & Mehmet’s Rivalry, Their Shared Darkness, Heavy Armor and More on the Set of DRACULA UNTOLD
- 4 New DRACULA UNTOLD Images Featuring Luke Evans as Vlad/Dracula