Dracula Untold is perhaps the most complete narrative merger of the real-life 15th century Wallachian ruler Vlad Dracula — known as the Impaler for his grisly method of dealing with his enemies — and the fictional vampire created by Bram Stoker in his classic novel written more than 400 years later. Luke Evans portrays Vlad, who has defeated his enemies and put aside his cruel ways to rule his people peacefully and enjoy life with his wife and son. Threatened by the Ottoman Empire, he discovers an ancient vampire (Charles Dance) in a forbidden cave and is given the chance to assume the vampire’s powers himself and use them to fight the Turks. But he can only do so for three days and must not drink blood, or else he will become a creature of darkness for all eternity.
Stepping behind the camera to capture this hybrid of history and horror is Irish filmmaker Gary Shore, making his feature directorial debut after years of doing commercials along with a striking short film called The Cup of Tears. Not only was Shore tasked with bringing this new version of Dracula to life, but his film is now the potential first entry in a “shared universe” series based around Universal Studios’ trove of classic monsters like the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man — provided, of course, that Dracula Untold finds an audience.
We got on the phone with Shore earlier this week to discuss re-inventing the world’s most famous vampire, balancing fact and fiction and launching a potential franchise.
Den of Geek: Give us a little bit of your background and then how you got approached with Dracula Untold.
Gary Shore: I kind of got on the radar to studios and agencies about five years ago. I did a short film called The Cup of Tears and that short was actually a trailer for a film that I wanted to make. And so they had seen it and I kind of got on the radar and started pitching away. I was doing commercials for a while and then Dracula Untold got sent out to me from (producer) Mike De Luca’s offices and I read it. When I first got it I was a little bit skeptical, you know. I’d seen so many different kind of iterations of Dracula and I was just saying to myself, you know, do we really need to do another one of these? But then I started reading it and there was a lot of good left field stuff in there that got my attention and got me really, really interested in it. And then I just went to the studio and I pitched the story being much more kind of about the idea of this father and son story. It felt a lot more personal to me. It felt like, you know, to do this for two years — and it ended up being three and a half — if I can make a film of this scale and still try and make a much smaller film in there, a much more kind of personal story, I’ll be happy. I’ll have done something worthwhile. It was just incremental steps from there.
It seems like every generation has its own film Dracula — its own actor playing that character. Which one had the biggest impression on you?
I think the gold standard was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It was so bold and operatic and it perfectly tapped into the romanticism of the novel. It took a lot of chances just as a throwback to filmmaking from the 1920s and I thought it was absolutely phenomenal. It’s not a perfect film by any means but it had a lot of heart. And I think, you know, it’s not strictly a Dracula movie but Interview With the Vampire is also a masterpiece. Neil Jordan has excelled in that particular genre.
The historical figure Vlad Dracula and the fictional character Dracula have sort of merged together in the public consciousness What did you consider the right balance of actual historical details and creative license?
It’s difficult because, you know, you have your act one of the story in which really you need to set up a lot of things and need to just find the time to be able to show Vlad as this real guy in history. Most people are not aware of that, I don’t think. And you have this opportunity to be able to see just this guy in his own environment, you know, this warrior and this husband and this father and this leader to these people. But you can’t get bogged down too much in the politics. I would have loved to spend more time exploring what all the politics at the time were, because the real Vlad in history was this linchpin of that entire Baltic area. The rest of Europe was consumed by infighting and civil wars at the time so he was the only one situated on the Danube that was able to stop the Ottoman Empire from invading Europe, and he was able to do it as a war of attrition. And he was able to do it through brutal tactics on his own people — he was just as brutal on his own people as he was to the invaders coming in.
But this isn’t that film that gets to explore all of those aspects. What we have to do is try and set him up as the Impaler, which is certainly pivotal to his character. It’s the bridge between Vlad having this history and being a monster underneath. The way I was always looking at it and try to frame it was, you know, like Unforgiven with Clint Eastwood’s character, where he’s the old gunslinger and he’s put it behind him and, you know, at some point he’s gonna have to crack open the bottle of whiskey, take out the six shooter and the duster. It’s the same thing with Vlad. He’s put this behind him, but there’s something lurking underneath, there’s a psychological monster there as well that makes him stand apart. That’s why when he’s given this opportunity, this Faustian bargain, it’s not because he’s the same as everybody else who’s ventured into that cave. He’s very, very different. He has an instinct to kill.
I went to Romania a few years ago and he’s kind of a hero there. They sell souvenirs with his face on them and there are landmarks where he lived in the city of Bucharest. It’s very interesting how his history is viewed there.
History is spoken by men in different positions, with different points of view. It’s those who were able to control the storytelling at the time. You look at the Germans, they’ll have a very different point of view to the Romanians. The German merchants were basically kicked out of the country, you know, killed and chased out because they were doing a lot of business there and Vlad didn’t quite like that. But the German printing press came at the same time when Vlad was around and committing these atrocities. So the first horror stories that went to print were actually about Vlad Tepes, and they were the first kind of sensationalized stories. So there was always a hunger there to be able to hear these stories. But the Russians also had a very different point of view. They saw him as a very fair but tough leader. If you look at modern day politics and social mentality, I don’t think a lot of that has changed.
What made Luke Evans the man for you and what did he bring to the table?
Starting off just by physical appearance, I thought he was going to be perfect for the role. But I had to talk to him first and just see what his ideas were for the character. It’s a great luxury when you can talk to an actor. You do a lot of meetings where an actor doesn’t quite come with ideas or the kind of information that you want — the sort of stuff that you want to latch onto and just get a discussion going.
But when I met with Luke, he was so prepared and he had done all his homework and we could start off by discussing the real Vlad and history and how would you make this guy any different. He had a great work ethic. I’d seen him in a couple of films that I thought he was brilliant in. They were only small supporting parts but he was so committed. I saw him in Immortals and Clash of the Titans and you could see potential, you know. You tap into it and say, “Well, what will that look like over the course of an entire movie?” I was absolutely blessed to have the guy and have the opportunity to work with him.
You almost filmed in Romania, which might have made sense on a historic perspective, but you ended up in your own home country, Ireland.
Well I didn’t have any say in it. For any film going through development and being born through the studio system, a lot of things have to line up and budget is right up there. And with the budget that was coming in, the tax incentive –- that’s why so many films are being shot in the UK. All of the huge studio films, all the big Marvel films, Star Wars as well. They’ve all been done out of London. But the same tax incentive that’s in the UK is also in Northern Ireland. So it was just a lot more competitive and it was hitting the number that the studio wanted. I just wanted to be able to make the film. Like any filmmaker, you try and find the best ways of making the budget work and just get more anxious to get on the ground and start making the film and start shooting and doing all the kind of physical work needed to get it up and running.
It was reported last week that a little bit of material was added to the film to kind of link it to this larger Universal Monsters universe that the studio is laying out. Are you involved in that?
First of all, Dracula Untold was always viewed by the studio and marketing department as having the potential to make a franchise, if an audience likes it and if an audience wants to see it again and they want to continue that story. Like any modern studio film, they look at it as “Can we tell the story longer?” The interesting thing is that just in the last few years, cinema has taken this new turn where it’s going to be serialized and it’s actually looking back at the way TV has done that, with these big arcs that happen over multiple seasons. And they were smart enough to see what Marvel and Joss Whedon did and that they can play these arcs over what could be maybe 20 years of making these films. For studios that’s a lot of real estate to be able to weave in characters and make multiple different storylines and adventures and all that stuff that they think about.
So when we were in pre-production, the studio was already mooting this idea of, you know, with our back catalog of monster movies maybe it’s time to develop our own monster universe. So I was well aware that it was there but all I can do, like any filmmaker when you’re in the thick of it, is just focus on the one job, you know. It’s not my job to start thinking outside of what I need to do in the most immediate future. So I was only focused on what we were doing.
Do you have your next project lined up after this? Would you like to finally make The Cup of Tears into a feature?
Cup was one of those things that, I mean, that was my baby. That was the one that I started out with. And I did write a script in the UK. It’s something maybe down the line that I’d like to do. This has been such an exhausting process. I would like to be able to take off the rest of the year. I’m getting married at the end of the month so I’d like to take off the rest of the year and then just come back with fresh eyes. I’d like to take a little bit more time. I have a couple of projects in development with my own production company that I’d love to do but, you know, I’ll just wait and see. It’s all a frame of mind. I have to be excited about something. I have to look at it and say, “Will this get me up every morning for the next two years,” or whatever it might become. I might feel different about what project that will be in the new year.