Long before Bram Stoker introduced readers to Count Dracula in 1897, vampire-like creatures have haunted folklore tales across the globe. Tales of soul-sucking demons and blood-thirsty supernatural creatures even terrified the Romans. The monsters evolved throughout the centuries, spiraling off into different mythologies, one of which took hold in the 18th and 19th centuries – as storytellers began to define the “vampire.” Since that time, the Dracula character has become synonymous with Vampire stories and, as a result, the evildoer has been depicted countless times on the big (and small) screen.
Bela Lugosi was the first actor to depict Dracula in a feature production, in Universal Pictures’ 1931 Dracula film, with over a dozen other performers portraying the character (across various adaptations) in the years since. Now, as part of a studio-wide initiative to refresh classic Universal Monsters (such as the Mummy, among others), Universal Pictures is nearing completion on an action-packed Dracula origin tale.
However, days before the studio settled on the title Dracula Untold (formerly Dracula Year Zero), we visited several of the film’s sets and shooting locations around Belfast, Ireland to discover how Universal Pictures intends to reposition Count Dracula in a must-see fantasy-horror saga for modern moviegoers.
In the coming days, we’ll be bringing you full interviews with the film’s cast and crew – most notably Luke Evans (Vlad III Țepeș aka Dracula), Dominic Cooper (Mehmed II), and Sarah Gadon (Mirena), among others.
If you haven’t watched it yet (or want to see it again), check out the trailer for Dracula Untold below to get an idea of what the filmmakers have in store for audiences this fall:
Instead of a dark and brooding adaptation of Stoker’s novel, screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless set out to ground the supernatural fantasy tale within the confines of historical events and real-life people. Certain Count Dracula stories, along with rumored inspirations for the character’s ever-evolving mythology, tied the iconic monster to 15th-century Wallachian Prince Vlad III Țepeș (also known as Vlad the Impaler). As a result, Dracula Untold seeks to explore those connections – and tell the story of a family man and king who embraces a dark power to save his people (and his own son) from annihilation.
According to Dracula Untold, Vlad was conscripted into the army of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed I at a young age – becoming a ruthless soldier, known as Vlad the Impaler, as he fought alongside the Sultan’s son, Mehmed II. In reward for his service, the Ottomans appointed Vlad the King of Wallachia (aka Transylvania/modern day Romania) and he attempted to put his murderous reputation behind him to govern as a kind and honorable ruler. However, when Mehmed II, now Sultan, returns to Wallachia and demands that Vlad hand over all of the kingdom’s boys (including Prince Ingeras) for service in the Ottoman army, Vlad refuses – putting him and his people in grave danger. With only a small defense force to protect his people from the Ottoman war machine, Vlad seeks the aid of supernatural forces beyond his understanding – supernatural forces with horrific long term consequences for Vlad, his family, and the world.
Speaking about this new character-driven approach to their Dracula tale, producer Alissa Phillips (read our full interview) promised, “This isn’t your father or your grandfather’s Dracula. It’s going to be very different“:
Everything else stands around great character and truly, at multiple levels, the themes of this film are father-son, tragedy, love, romance, fate – and all these broader themes […] We felt like there was a cannon of fabulous films that are all vampiric – and Dracula. We weren’t trying to do that, we’re trying to do a hero’s story. We’re trying to do something different, we were trying to let our audience in on the choices that Vlad made – so that we feel sympathy for him. Sometimes we talked about William Wallace in Braveheart and the other side of that dilemma that make people feel very different about William Wallace. We wanted to address how Vlad arrived at his fate.
Speaking with the Dracula Untold team, and observing shooting, it’s clear that Phillips isn’t attempting to ham-fist a frame onto an otherwise shallow Dracula origin tale. Nearly every aspect of the production supports the suggestion that the new film will attempt to combine an emotional story and historical events, with iconic supernatural elements.
Check out four behind-the-scenes images from Dracula Untold below (click to enlarge):
On set, we watched as Vlad returns to Wallachia’s Great Hall (after acquiring his vampiric powers), rallying his men to defend the kingdom and beat back an army of Turkish invaders. Phillips told us that the Turks had laid siege to the castle while Vlad was away, leaving the ornate hall (briefly shown in the trailer at the 0:44 mark) in a state of disarray, and killing many of the city’s soldiers. When Vlad rushes onto the scene, he comforts his wife and son, before stoking his men back into battle with a rousing speech – leading the charge out of the Great Hall. However, before Vlad can make his way onto the battlefield, his second in command, Dimitru (played by Diarmaid Murtagh) calls after him, stopping the king in his tracks, stating “There’s something different about you… I like it!” Vlad only nods, hurrying out of the room, and into the fight.
No doubt, moviegoers have seen similar scenes depicted before on screen but it’s clear that the filmmakers and performers are on the same page. In the scene, Evans isn’t riffing on the classic quirks associated with Dracula, he’s playing an underdog father and king – a man who has just darkened his soul in order to protect his loved ones. It’s a delicate balance and, without question, we’ll have to wait until the complete film reaches theaters but in the scene, Evans, who has honed his craft as both heroes and villains in several blockbuster franchises (most recently Fast & Furious 6 and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), presents Vlad with a mix of desperation, relief, and confidence that sells the core purpose of the film: to explore the man behind the monster.
Finding a balance between Vlad’s heroism and eventual corruption was key in attracting Evans (read our full interview) to the part – and plays a major role in how the actor has positioned his version of Dracula:
I think there’s a lot of Vlad that you see in the beginning, that you see at the end. The important thing that we wanted to do we wanted to impress in the character of Vlad and Dracula, when he becomes the vampire, is that you see the human in the vampire. We don’t want to disassociate the two people we want to keep them the same person, the same emotional drive he has at the beginning of the film and the reasons why he does what he does are still prevalent at the end of the film. So, in a way he’s the same person but in a way he isn’t and he has other things going on.
Far from the comfort of the Great Hall (even after its devastation), we also visited the cliff-side lair of Caligula – who provides the bloody catalyst for Vlad’s transition from man into vampire. As shown in the trailer (starting at the 1:15 mark), the dark cave is modeled after the unique rock formations of Ireland’s famous Giant’s Causeway – the aftermath of a volcanic eruption that turned much of the northeastern coastline into interlocking basalt columns. Inside the lair, Roman statues and pillars surround a central pool – which is instrumental in Vlad’s transformation into Dracula.
Discussing how the filmmakers approached this grounded (but still mysterious) origin tale, production designer Francois Audouy (read our full interview), touted a “timeless” aesthetic – reinforcing Phillips’ claim that Dracula Untold roots its supernatural mythology in a believable historical reality:
It’s an interesting movie. It’s kind of like a journey of myth. It’s very classical in its structure, which I think is really great. It’s kind of timeless that way. And he goes to meet this character, Caligula, who’s in this temple in the heart of Broken Tooth Mountain […] And then the other unique part of the set is the central pool, which is like this 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. That is where Vlad ends up taking a chalice and drinking and setting off the whole thing, the whole legend. This is literally ground zero for where the legend will be born.
Unfortunately, the build team was still in the process of assembling the set and Caligula’s fictionalized backstory was a tightly kept secret – suggesting that the ancient Roman emperor’s role in Dracula Untold could be one of the film’s most interesting plot points as well as establish the rules/origins of this particular vampire mythology.
Still, it’s understandable that moviegoers might be skeptical of Dracula Untold – after years of reboots, remakes, and shallow cash-grabs that tried to print money from recognizable brands. Yet, it’s clear that, for the Shore and the actors, impactful character drama comes first – so much so that Cooper (read our full interview) often forgets he’s actually in a Dracula movie:
I actually have to keep being reminded that it’s a Dracula film. For me, it was very much a film about the history of Vlad The Impaler – and where that story came. It’s a very different take on it and a really clever twist on the story. It’s going to look completely epic and beautiful.
Time will tell if the filmmakers achieve their ambitious goals but, as we wait until Dracula Untold opens this October, moviegoers would be smart to keep an open mind. This Dracula certainly isn’t “your father or grandfather’s Dracula” – this one might be even better.
We’ll post complete interviews with the cast, producer, and behind-the-scenes designers, who shed more light on this “untold” story of Dracula, in the coming days.
However, if you’re eager for more Dracula Untold info right now, make sure to check out our Dracula Untold news archive – which will include the following interviews (as they are posted) along with much more.
- Luke Evans – Vlad III Țepeș
- Alissa Phillips – Producer
- Dominic Cooper – Mehmed II
- Sarah Gadon – Mirena
- Francois Audouy – Production Designer
- Ngila Dickson – Costume Designer
Dracula Untold opens in U.S. theaters on October 17th, 2014.
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for further updates on the Dracula Untold, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.