“We’re not going to try and tell a his torical tale”
Drac’s back and he’s bringing an origin story with him. Jordan Farley reports from the Belfast set of Dracula Untold
If New Zealand is synonymous with traditional Tolkien fantasy, Northern Ireland is fast becoming its subversive counterpart – a place where the unwavering line between good and evil is more of a translucent squiggle. Following Game
Of Thrones’ successful mix of bloodshed and backstabbing, Dracula Untold is the latest slice of insidious fantasy to take advantage of Northern Ireland’s picturesque countryside, this time for the unusual origin story of the bloodsucker supreme. Say hello to Prince Vlad – part family man, part demon, all antihero.
On a damp September day SFX is hidden away from rolling hills and idyllic coastlines while visiting Dracula Untold’s Belfast set – a sound stage housing Vlad’s ornate Transylvanian castle. Days before this was a room fit for royalty, but now it’s in disarray. Terrified citizens and soldiers are crammed in, the walls left in tatters after a barrage of cannon fire from the 100,000- strong Ottoman forces currently besieging Vlad’s land. Having returned from a mysterious quest, we witness Vlad’s Braveheart moment – a rousing rallying cry to his people. But with less than 40,000 troops they’re hopelessly outnumbered. The ace up Vlad’s sleeve? He’s the Prince of Darkness, of course.
“There’s a parallel between modern superheroes and the abilities of Dracula,” director Gary Shore tells SFX. “Certainly it was something the studio had wished for because they’re building this monster universe of their own, they’re taking the model there. At first I thought it was a bit of a knee- jerk reaction, but looking back at the abilities Dracula actually has between strength and sight and sound and being able to control weather and control people’s minds and turn into bats… he’s got more mutant abilities than Wolverine and the Hulk put together! It was already there in the mythology so this was an interesting chance to explore it.”
Superpowers, Ottomans, Braveheart… if it wasn’t already clear, the Vlad of Dracula Untold is a far cry from Bram Stoker’s icon. Universal’s ambitious Dracula reboot is a film that aims to explore the man behind the monster by blending horror and epic fantasy with the reallife history of 15th century Wallachian Prince Vlad III ( later dubbed Vlad the Impaler), in a way that’s yet to be seen on film.
“I was always interested in the historical story of this man and the difficult relationship he had with his people and the Ottoman Empire,” Shore explains. “This is a guy who committed a massive amount of atrocities. He’s attributed to killing anywhere between 40,000 and 100,000 people. The key challenge for me was how do you make a mass murderer likeable? We’re very much informed by Vlad the Impaler. It’s not something we shy away from. He’s a guy who’s gone back to his family after committing these atrocities, but there’s this monster sitting underneath the skin. I was interested in exploring that line between the two and trying to make the bridge between the historical figure and this character of fiction created by Bram Stoker.”
For Prince Vlad ( Luke Evans) this massmurdering past is a distant memory. He has a loving wife, Mirena ( Sarah Gadon), and his land is at peace. It’s a tenuous peace, however, and one day Ottoman sultan Mehmed II ( Dominic Cooper) comes calling, demanding 1,000 Transylvanian boys to serve in his army, including Vlad’s son Ingeras ( Art Parkinson). Desperate to save his people, but powerless to do so, Vlad goes in search of dark forces to even the odds. After a lengthy trek he finds this power in a cave at the heart of Broken Tooth Mountain, where the monstrous Master Of Vampires ( Charles Dance) resides.
During SFX’s tour of the art department we learn that this journey was once significantly more fantastical, with Vlad encountering shape- shifting Slavic witch Baba Yaga and her chicken- legged cottage along the way
“how exactly do you make a mass murderer likeable?”
and eventually earning his fangs from longdead Roman Emperor Caligula. Shore tells us these scenes “created more questions than anything ” and were simplified with reshoots, but reassures us that the Master of Vampires is now “one of my favourite scenes in the film”.
Caligula or no, for Shore Dracula Untold was always about character first, the supernatural second. “There’s a great push to make this as character- based as possible. We’re making a big film where a lot has to happen, so to stay focused on character was a great challenge for me. We’re trying to tap into this idea of legacy and responsibility and what you need to do for the next generation. For me the best way to take the idea of legacy was to put it in an emotional context by creating a father and son story. What is Vlad leaving behind for his son?”
The relationship between fathers and sons drives the drama. As a child Vlad was handed over to Ottoman sultan Mehmed I as a political hostage and raised as a janissary – an elite soldier serving as the sultan’s household guard. Brought up alongside Mehmed II, Vlad quickly rose up the ranks, even earning favour over Mehmed Jr in the sultan’s eyes – the start of a bitter rivalry that culminates in war.
“Like a lot of things we’ve done it’s fiction peppered with facts. We’re not going out to try and tell a historical tale here,” Shore explains. “In terms of the relationship between Mehmed and Vlad, that’s based on fact. Vlad had gone to live with the Turks as a child and the hope was he’d become a puppet on the throne and would allow them to pass into Europe when the time came. So Vlad already had this relationship with Mehmed when they did battle.”
There’s little question that Dracula Untold is a risky proposition for Universal – a radical reboot of a revered character from first- time writers ( Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless) with a first- time feature director at the helm. Even Evans, currently starring as heroic dragon- slayer Bard the Bowman in The Hobbit movies, features in his first blockbuster lead. But Evans was always the right man for fiction’s first vamp, according to Shore.
“When we went through the process of looking for somebody he had all the things – the gentlemanly quality, the dark and brooding looks, the ability to play the light, the empathy, the humanity. But the big thing for me was I love ’ 60s and ’ 70s cinema where you had men’s men, the Charles Bronsons of the world as leading men. Luke for me is like that.’”
The Bite St uff
Dracula Untold is a film that not only carries the weight of cinematic history on its shoulders but a potentially lucrative future too. With Universal planning an Avengersstyle shared universe for its classic monsters ( starting officially with The Mummy in 2016, though expect Dracula Untold to be part of the same “cohesive strategy” if it’s a hit) all eyes will be on Drac’s big comeback. After all, it’s a film that has a lot to prove following 2010’ s failed Wolfman remake. But Shore isn’t worried about the past or the future, only the here and now.
“For me I can only focus on what’s on the page. It’s different to many of the other Draculas and that goes a long way because there are some extremely eccentric variations on the old myth and the old films, to say the least. I just tried to make a good character story and I think it’s going to appeal to a lot of people.”
Dracula Untold is released on Friday 3 October.
“What do you mean you want me to go inside?”
Someone missed the memo about what colour to wear.