Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a beautiful, sumptuous feast for the eyes, full of visual imagery and grand costumery. While some of the performances are lacking (Reeves) and some purposefully over-the-top (Hopkins), I always find myself drawn in by Oldman’s magic. Even Winona Ryder, whose presence sometimes inexplicably annoys me, is made better by being in Oldman’s presence (though by some accounts the two actors clashed in real life). Though vampires are an overabundance in both television and film, Coppola’s attention to detail and all the little tricks he employed make this film an enjoyable re-watch. Loosen your fangs from that Twilight nonsense for a moment and feast on these trivial droplets…
As a young man, Director Francis Ford Coppola had come to know Stoker’s novel well; while working as a camp counselor he read the book to his charges. He knew that historical character Vlad the Impaler had been “misappropriated” and been turned into a vampire.
The origins of both Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can be traced to a weekend hosted by the poet, Lord Byron. Visited by friends Percy Shelley and soon-to-be-wife Mary, the writers began a writing challenge to create their own ghost stories. From that weekend emerged Mary’s monster and Byron’s tale of a man who plans to be brought back from death. Byron’s initial work was carried on by his own doctor and colleague, John Polidori, who based the protagonist on Byron and added the need for blood drinking to keep the character “alive/undead.”
This was Gary Oldman’s idea:
Coppola wanted to incorporate some of the historical background with the prologue. Because the prologue was created after the film was completed, there was little money left, so Roman Coppola and Gary Gutierrez did it with puppets and shadows in a way they could afford.
Francis’ son, Roman, also filmed “in camera,” the visual effects shots such as the train moving over the diary pages and Dracula’s eyes in the train window. Each portion of the scene was shot and then put together on film.
Coppola feels that much of the film is theatrical illusion, which was his goal. Because the story of Dracula has been told so many times, he wanted to do it in a new way. BSD was made using glass shots—for instance, where a real coach is shot in conjunction with a part of a scene that has been painted on glass—used before such things could be accomplished with digital/other effects.
The shadow theme was intended to add to the supernatural aspect of the movie. Coppola felt that in the metaphysical presence of vampires, the laws of nature wouldn’t work correctly. Therefore, shadows seem to be liberated from the things which cast them. Dracula’s shadow was seen moving independently from the vampire, an effect created by using a second actor’s shadow. According to the director, Harker (Keanu Reeves) set himself in harm’s way by choosing to deal with vampires and he should have known he was in the world of supernatural because things weren’t happening as they should.
The director was told about the mafia by The Godfather author Mario Puzo, “Never meet anyone, never willingly know them, let them know your phone number.” Coppola felt the same rules applied to vampires; do not invite them into your life or accept a gift and they would not intrude into your life. If Harker had not voluntarily walked over Dracula’s threshold, he would not have been in danger.
Coppola’s favorite actor who played Dracula was John Carradine. The way Gary Oldman lifted his cloak was in homage to Carradine.
The director also acknowledged paying tribute to The Shining with the wedding/blood scene and to Snow White’s glass coffin; the window in Lucy’s bedroom came from a window he’d seen in The Bitter Tea of General Yen and Dracula rising from the coffin was a salute to Nosferatu.
Winona Ryder brought the script to Coppola in their first meeting since she had dropped out of The Godfather, Part III. She had been ill and left the director in a tight spot by leaving, but they talked it out and he agreed to make the film. He felt, in a way, that the film was never his; Winona suggested the actors and the studio cared only about finances.
To keep to budget, BSD was filmed almost entirely on the MGM soundstage; only the wedding was filmed on location at a Greek Orthodox Church. The wedding was completely authentic, leading Coppola to realize that Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves were actually married.
The garden was built into the MGM pool where actress Esther Williams made all her aquamusicals.
Having a musical background (Coppola was an accomplished tuba player, his father was a composer and musician, grandparents composers), the director wanted an original classical score. Polish composer Wojciech Kilar agreed to write the score, but provided only three cues/compositions, which wasn’t enough, so pieces of the three were modified to make them sound different.
In his commentary, the director expressed disappointment in evolution of the film industry from creative art to a heavily budgeted and controlled machine, saying that “the only reason to make a movie is to create something that has never been made before…something you must get out of your soul.”
Coppola says this was Monica Bellucci’s first film, but in fact, she had minor roles in a couple of other movies. Perhaps he meant first American film?
The director loaned his own copy of Richard Burton’s Arabian Nights (seen being perused by Lucy and Mina) for use in the movie; he never got it back.
Coppola and Anthony Hopkins (Van Helsing) experienced “frustration” with each other during the making of the film. The director wanted the actors to read and follow the book, something in which Hopkins had no interest. Hopkins resisted rehearsals, preferring instead to just show up and shoot a scene. Coppola said that he later realized Hopkins’ spontaneous approach was probably more authentic.
The director said that although all the actresses had agreed to nudity in their contracts, “no one wanted to take off their clothes.” At different points during filming, Coppola had his son, Gary Oldman and an acting coach speak with the women about the sexual scenes, as he, himself was uncomfortable discussing such things.
Coppola hired a hot-air balloon to provide a nice bonding experience for a few of the actors (Grant, Elwes, Campbell), but because it was too windy, they could only go up while it was still tethered.
The Cramps lead singer, Lux Interior (self-named after a car commercial) performed Dracula’s screaming with these directions from Coppola: ”Just remember, you’re back from the war, you’re horrified, but you still have feelings of romance. Oh, yes, and you also have a feeling of despair. Now, the scream lasts one second. Okay, go!” Tom Waits and Diamanda Galas also provided added vocal effects.