For decades, Dracula has been associated with gothic dress and architecture. A pale world of carved stone, black and white – with a splash of red. Of course, there have been significant departures over the years but creators across all forms of popular storytelling mediums (comic books, novels, film, and TV, among others) have been tasked with walking a fine line between depicting their version of Dracula while also staying true to the fundamental elements that make a character distinctly Dracula – as opposed to an otherwise generic bloodsucker.
When Univeral Pictures decided to unleash Dracula Untold, an origin story of Dracula-inspiration Vlad the Impaler, Hollywood creatives were once again challenged with designing a new but distinct variation of Dracula - with added hurdles that require the character appeal to modern moviegoer sensibilities while remaining grounded in a historically accurate 15th century world. To achieve this ambitious vision, the studio turned to industry veterans, Production Designer Francois Audouy (The Wolverine and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) as well as Costume Designer Ngila Dickson (Green Lantern and The Lord of the Rings series) – who were charged with developing a visual language for Dracula Untold that could both immerse viewers in the land and people of Wallachia (aka Transylvania/modern day Romania) in the 1450s while also hinting at the dark future in store for the titular character.
Back in November 2013, we visited the set of Dracula Untold in Belfast, Ireland to find out what Universal Pictures and director Gary Shore have planned for Dracula’s origin story. During our time on set, we had a chance to speak with Audouy and Dickson about their designs for Dracula Untold - specifically the challenge of blending horror, history, and the supernatural into a single movie, as well as how they refreshed the King of the Vampires for modern audiences.
We’ve already posted our full set visit report and will be publishing further interviews in the coming days but, in the meantime, check out the trailer for Dracula Untold followed by our interviews with Francois Audouy and Ngila Dickson below.
NOTE: Both interviews occurred on set and do to the visual nature of production and costume design, certain segments of these conversations refer to behind-the-scenes images and designs that could not be included here. Nevertheless, we felt it made sense to include the interviews in full because both Audouy and Dickson reveal interesting details about the production – even when they are directly referring to an object that our readers won’t be able to see.
Francois Audouy, Production Designer
Francois Audouy: We’re halfway through so we’ve actually scaled down quite a bit since the beginning because we’re kind of like, really full in a period in the beginning when we were kind of 12 weeks out, 13 weeks out, but we’ve got this little area here which has just imagery of the film on the walls. I’ll take you through just quickly the visual the landscape of the film and sort of story order.
We started with Vlad’s castle and sort of the world of Wallachia and what that could be, and this went through many, many iterations. But I wanted to create a world that was optimistic, could be photographed in an optimistic way in the beginning and then transition as the narrative transitions to a more sort of dynamic and kind of impactful perspective and the way we’re doing this is with lights and also with perspective, angles and the composition of the building. Later in the third act, you’ve got this whole battlefield sequence where you see the building from the front in a very angular way and it’s very, very powerful.
What we wanted to do was stay away from Western European architecture and sort of the cliché look of things, and we were going more orthodox and more exotic Eastern European detailing in the architecture, so we started with lots of research down here. We’ve got much more research, but this is sort of the foreign language that inspired the surfacing of the building.
This is how we started with the Great Hall. The Great Hall designed in 3D and then we designed a lot of the key shots in 3D and then that went into the exterior. This is the Great Hall exterior. It has an open ceiling, which is very unique to the building. And then, the opening of the film opens up in a garden setting, which is kind of unusual for a Dracula movie, but the most important parts of this film for me are the family scenes and to establish the relationship between the wife and the son, the father and that sort of is the emotional core of the movie. So, the opening scene in the garden was really important to get right tonally. We also built their bedroom, which is quite a few scenes that sort of create a foundation for their relationship.
The movie kicks off when Mehmet’s army comes to town basically and Vlad goes to have an audience with his old friend at the center of this army of 100,000, and what I tried to do is really imagine what 100,000 troops would look like, so I looked at pictures of Burning Man actually [laughs], because it was the only example I could think of of such a big campsite. And it’s actually modeled on the circular sort of layout of Burning Man. That was kind of the inspiration that kicked it off for me.
And then this is actually a rendering of a 3D model of 7,000 tents of different sizes, so it’s totally plausible. And looking at history, this is the size of his army, of what really happened as he was conquering Europe.
And then this is the centerpiece for his tent, is this massive golden table that we built at the prop shop in Pinewood that is basically the map of his campaign through Europe and this river system where he sends his ships is meant to echo kind of a mercurial, veiny motif, you know? We’re really using the imagery of veins in this movie, veins and roots and rivers as a kind of a graphic iconic theme that we keep going back to in this movie.
So this has been really great. Actually, Friday we’re shooting this whole camp. We’re putting the whole camp up at Mount Stewart, so we’re in the middle of dressing this camp, which is gonna be pretty cool.
Then, another big set piece is the scene in Broken Tooth Mountain where Vlad goes to meet Caligula. 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. Just by being here in Northern Ireland, we’re inspired by what we saw on these scouts, and we went to Giant’s Causeway and we were blown away by that basalt formation, and Gary and I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t it be cool if there was a whole mountain made up of basalt?’ Like, the entire thing was made up of that basalt material, and so this is sort of the view of, this is kind of a work in progress, but the view of Broken Tooth Mountain and what that could be.
That language really inspired sort of the architecture of the interior, which is a blend of sort of Roman architecture and the basalt rock, and then the third thing that we put in here was, we thought about the idea that this place kicked off the entire – vampirism. It was sort of like the seed that caused Caligula to have some of the powers of being a vampire, but not all of them. So we created this cancerous spikey growth that we’re infusing into all the architecture as if it were infected, which makes it into something that is more than just an architectural sort of cave. It gives it sort of an alien quality, which is never really directly alluded to, but hopefully is unsettling enough to be kind of like, mysterious and odd and unique.
So coming up with this alien material has been really a big challenge because you can do a rending like this and then it’s like, ‘Well, how do I actually make that?’ The way I’m doing it is I bought literally a ton of plastic pigeon spikes. You know those pigeon spikes you put on ledges of buildings so pigeons don’t land? So I bought like all the pigeon spikes in Europe and they’re in the corner of the stage and we’re gluing them all together – it sounds terrible, but it’s actually been really cool – and then throwing regrind, which is like plastic shards, like a plastic that’s gone through a grinder, and gluing it to it with spray foam and them painting the whole thing. [Laughs] It’s weird, but it’s gonna be great. It’s gonna look just like this. It looks like some undersea sort of weird cancerous growth, and it’ll be shimmery and magical and interesting.
And very sharp and dangerous.
FE: Well, it’s really good if you have – you know, you can itch your back on it. [Laughs]
So there won’t be a pigeon to be found on set.
FE: No, there won’t. They will keep away. They will stay away.
I think it’s really interesting when you work on a movie and you get to take chances, and I’m always looking for opportunities to do something a little different and a little unique that’s not so safe, you know?
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.
What’d you use to create thousands of gallons of diseased blood on set?
FE: Well, we’re using our special effects supervisor, Uli [Nefzer], is coming up with, it’s kind of standard movie blood. You know, for a hundred years Hollywood has been refining movie blood and we’re getting pretty good at it now so it’s totally inert, just water with food thickener and food coloring.
How much of these sets are you building and how much are animated?
FE: It’s actually what we call a “build heavy” film in that we’re trying to build as much as possible, and we’re really trying to make a movie that doesn’t lean too heavily on CGI. The DP, John Schwartzman and I, believe that the more that we can own at the end of the day and achieve in camera, you get a better and more immersive sort of film experience. It comes through in the performances. So, the CGI is really for extending or for adding, but the majority of the scenes, all of the coverage is in camera, which I think is really great. When you look at dallies, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ You know, that way you can cut together the scene and you see right away if it’s working or not.
Using Caligula’s place as an example, you start with the existing architecture of Giant’s Causeway and then build those textures up and up?
FE: Yeah, that’s exactly right. We actually shot for a day at Giant’s Causeway early in the morning before all the tourists showed up. We shot with our backs to the ocean, imagining as if we were 4,000 feet up on a mountaintop and then that gets extended where we scanned that texture and we’re using that texture to create a whole mountain. So within a series of cuts where you go through a couple matte paintings and then we’re building this long sort of hallway down into the sets, and then into our giant space. You know, movies are wonderful because they’re a series of cuts, a series of stills and your mind fills in what’s outside of the frame and what’s in between the cuts, you know? It’s kind of magical that way so we’re really trying to manipulate people with the kind of cleverness with the way it’ll work.
How much are you filming on location by the way?
FE: We’re probably doing two-thirds of the movie on location and a third on stage, I’d say, about that. We’ve got four stages, warehouses, really nice actually, really large spaces that we turn into build spaces for the film. The Great Hall’s in one of them right now, and we’ve got Caligula’s on another and we’ve been doing the interior of the tent work on stage. But we’re doing a lot of interiors and really taking advantage of the landscapes of Northern Ireland and the skies. We’ve got good cloudy, stormy skies here! [Laughs]
So what else? Last week we also did the peasant village. This is a great opportunity. It’s just a scene that helps fill out the world of Dracula, and after Vlad escapes from Caligula’s temple, he jumps off the cliff and lands in the river and is swept away and he comes across this burning village that the Turks just ransacked, and he was too late, you know? He was just too late. He’s filled with incredible grief and sort of responsibility. So this was actually shot an hour and a half away, quite a distant location. It’s a closed down museum where they had a reproduction of an old village that we turned into our own version of a Transylvanian village and then set fire to it.
[Laughs] What Gary really loved is that everywhere we went scouting, the conversation was like, ‘Well, we’ll just burn all of this and we’ll torch this and these trees will be burnt.’ We’re making like a 15th century Apocalypse Now in Northern Ireland, which is really fun to do. I mean, we just torched the shit out of it and burnt a huge fire through this church that we built and it’s really impressive to see.
Does it hurt to see something you’ve designed get burned down?
FE: I love it. Because they all go to god at the end anyway. I’d rather burn them than put them in the dumpster.
The painting on the left there. Is that one of yours?
FE: This was the very very first illustration that we did in the art department. The illustrator who worked on this is a guy named Rob Bliss who’s really wonderful who worked on the Harry Potter films, and he’s just an incredible talent.
One thing that we’re doing is we’re looking at history as a jumping off point and then it’s become stylized and tweaked, but in a plausible way. We really wanted to make a world that felt plausible and grounded, but if you look at the Great Hall, the Great Hall is this fantasy interior with giant stalactite in the middle of it, but it’s done in an architecturally plausible way that has weight and it’s real materials and real proportions. If you look at all of these designs, everything’s ramped up. I mean, real life is boring [laughs], in my opinion. And this is Dracula! But at the same time, we don’t want to take the audience out of the narrative by having the backgrounds sort of like pop out at you too much, you know? So all of this, it helps create a foundation for the story, but not distract you.
Does that also translate to the color palettes that you use because you can have something that’s standard, historical reality, but if it’s in really outrageous colors, it sort of pops it up.
FE: Absolutely. I’m always trying to find that balance. The colors are all kind of ramped up in this film, but we don’t want anything to be gaudy or poppy. But also, keep it fun and light and interesting and beautiful. So yeah, it’s trying to find the balance and you’re doing it all the time.
Has the director had to scale you back ever?
FE: You know, it’s funny; I’m scaling him back and he’s scaling me back, and then other days he’s like, ‘Give me more. Let’s go for it! Let’s have some fun with this.’ I think that we’ve got a creative trinity of Gary and Schwartzman and myself. I’ve never worked on a movie where there’s such a tight collaboration where we’re constantly sort of feeding off of each other and our creativity which has really been fun.
So let’s just jump right over here, to the end of the movie…
How does it end? Oh, no. I’m sorry. [Laughs]
FE: [Laughs] Have you guys read the script?
No. Do you have a copy of it?
FE: Yeah, I’ll just e-mail you.
FE: The Turks attack the castle and that’s a very big set piece that we’re shooting over the course of about a week, plus second unit, and it’s pretty spectacular, but it’s different than what you would expect because Vlad really uses his powers as Dracula to trick and manipulate the Turks with his new powers. I won’t give too much away with that. But this is what I was talking to you about how the castle looks from the battlefield, which is very different from the optimistic view at the beginning of the movie. Then our hero’s journey to a mountain fort, this monastery at the mouth of Borgo Pass, which is a place that we made up …
Borgo Pass is from the novel.
FE: Oh, from the novel! Right, right, but this is not a place that exists really in Transylvania. It’s a fantasy place. But this monastery has been a real challenge because we built a partial set and then it has quite a bit of set extension. This sequence is really a big collaboration with visual effects because Borgo Pass, we’re shooting that in a rock quarry near Belfast with lots of set extension, lots of extension of our cast, you know, as to make it feel like it’s a huge army, and then the architecture of the monastery is a big set extension set as well. The goal with this sequence is that when you see the film, you won’t really know what we built and what’s set extensions so that has to be a really tight collaboration for it to be successful. We went and shot the interior of this chapel in an old barn an hour from here. We turned it into the interior of the monastery and that was a lot of fun. And a big effort has been going into all of these painted frescos that are all on the exterior and the interior of the monastery. It’s been like months and months of work, but this is cool what we’re working on right now. We’re in the process of building the monetary.
This is not a very long shoot and you made a point of saying before that a lot of this is being built physically. Did that then become a challenge for you and your people when you have a limited amount of time to basically get most of this done within that timeframe?
FE: It’s hugely challenging. I find that the biggest enabler is fear [laughs], because you’ve got this juggernaut nipping at your heels and it has a big appetite for big set pieces and big builds in a place like Northern Ireland, that isn’t typically sort of what you think of as a hub for big Hollywood movies, so you’re trying to make a film like Gladiator or one of these big summer epic-type films and with the same finishes, the same sort of sophistication and scenery in a reduced time period. It’s quite the challenge.
Are a lot of the big builds behind you now?
FE: I think we’re right in the middle. Next week we open our second biggest set, which is Caligula’s lair on stage two. Our third biggest is at the end of the schedule, which is our monastery, so it’s an unusual project in that all of the builds are spread out over the 70-day schedule. Usually, in my experience, you’ll have the big builds at the beginning or at the end of the schedule, but this one’s just kind of like nicely spread throughout the entire project.
When I think Dracula, I think gothic imagery. Was “gothic” kind of a banned word?
FE: You know, Gary really didn’t want to do a cliché sort of genre picture and you’ll see that as you walk around that it’s a very unique take on the Dracula mythology. We’ve really tried from the beginning to create our own world that hadn’t really been seen before, and what really struck me is that as you look at this idea of looking at the Vlad myth as the origin story for Dracula, it’s sort of like a no-brainer. It’s amazing that it hasn’t actually been done before. It seems so obvious, like such a great classic story in a way. The story, you read it and it could have been done 50 years ago or 40 years ago or in the Golden Age of the Universal Horror movies. It’s that sort of archetypical in structure and it’s got that sort of mythological structure to it. So yeah, I think you think of gothic because of some of the great Dracula movies that have been done. But yeah, 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 and that’s what’s really quite fascinating about this world is that it’s something that we’re creating that’s not just based on history, that’s unique and totally linked to this story of Vlad the Impaler and his take on it.
Between Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Wolverine, you keep taking on these jobs that seem daunting. Is this the biggest show that you’ve had so far?
FE: They’re all challenging. I like to take on movies that scare me a little bit or that I think I’ll learn the most from and certainly Wolverine was one that was really a thrill because of the opportunity to learn about Japanese culture. I went to Japan seven times and became an expert in all things Japanese. It was really an amazing, amazing experience. And then Abraham Lincoln, you know, you get to become kind of an expert on that in order to break the rules. [Laughs] But this one, you know, this one had its own challenges in that the amount of build and the amount of world to design in relatively condensed time period was a big challenge, but, you know, the greatest opportunities are those for a designer where you get to build a world, and those projects don’t come along very often. What really turns me on is when you get a chance to design a world that has interior logic, it all sort of makes sense within itself. I started out with a map, building a map of Wallachia and figuring out what the geography was between the Borgo Pass and the Danube River and the castle and all these places, and that’s the one thing that I’m always draw to is those opportunities where you get to do that and they’re few and far between. I’ve been lucky.
Can I ask a stupid question? Why are the different sections of your office marked off in meters?
FE: It’s funny; here in the UK, some art departments work in metric and some work in feet and inches, and coming from LA, we work in feet and inches, so I made everyone work in feet and inches, but there’s still half of the art department who prefers metric, so it’s just a good way to visualize what scale we’re talking about.
It made me curious because I saw the metric down there and up this way.
FE: I like to put this up every time just because it’s really nice to say, ‘I think the room should be 40 feet wide.’ It’s a good way for everyone to sort of step back and go, ‘Oh, okay.’ It’s a cheat scale.