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Director Gary Shore Tells New Version of Vampire Legend in Dracula Untold

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Director Gary Shore on the set of Dracula Untold.
Director Gary Shore on the set of Dracula Untold.

Without question, the moviegoing public, world over, has been fascinated with the fictional character of Count Dracula since the publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, in 1897. Additionally, the general public has been similarly taken with the true-to-life character of Vlad the Impaler who partially inspired the Stoker creation. But rarely have both the true story and the fictional story merged into one project. Until now.

In Universal PicturesDracula Untold, director Gary Shore undertook just that challenge, bringing the legend to the screen yet again after numerous incarnations. Surely, Shore had much to live up to, from the 1922 silent FW Murnau classic, Nosferatu, to the 1927 lost silent MGM Lon Chaney vehicle, London After Midnight, and its remake, 1935’s Mark of the Vampire, where Stoker’s Dracula inspired many early films which have since become iconic horror staples in cinema history. Of course, Béla Lugosi, who starred in Mark of the Vampire, became perhaps the most notable screen Dracula in the Universal Pictures’ masterpiece, Dracula, in 1931.

Even though Lugosi only played that named character once more, in 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, his performance, costume, mannerisms, vocal stylings and onscreen appearance in 1931 all became legendary. From the 1950s until the present, Dracula the character has reappeared scores of times in many films, with Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman and recently Jonathan Rhys Meyers all famously playing the part. In fact, Shore’s film comes right on the heels of Universal’s Dracula TV series, starring Rhys Meyers, and though only one season aired on NBC in the U.S., a DVD collection of those shows is being issued this October. Into that fray, Shore’s film will be released, just in time for Halloween, with an Oct. 17 theatrical debut in the U.S.

Dracula Untold
Dracula Untold

How did Shore approach this material, knowing the history and significance of the character and films? “It’s an origins story,” Shore conveyed, “of how Vlad was able to defend his land from the Turks and how that historical character crossed over into the fictional character of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”

Coming from directing commercials and a notable short film, the horror romp entitled The Draft, Shore stepped into deeper waters with Dracula Untold, though his job of director in many ways did not change. “It’s bigger, but you still don’t have enough time,” Shore said of his first feature film which was shot over 71 days of principal photography. “With the ambitions and scale of the project, that was still really tight. We managed to get it done.”

For Shore to get the assignment of Dracula Untold, a sequence of events occurred. “I had a meeting with Jeff Kirschenbaum,” Shore said about the Universal executive. “He really liked my commercial work. He got the top job there after a shakeup; he’s president of production. Production companies went looking for the guys they wanted to work with. I got the script from Mike De Luca’s company. I really dug it.”

DraculaNaturally, a 2014 Dracula film can be seen by new filmmakers as both a blessing and a curse. “Like everybody else who came onboard the project, you see a Dracula project, you have certain expectations and this mindset of it being the same thing all over again,” Shore confessed. “This script surprised me. It’s based on historical fact. It was cool, different and going back to the original story of Vlad Tepes the Impaler.”

In addition to signing onto the script, Shore completed his own research about the actual Vlad Tepes. “You want to be as up on it as possible,” Shore stated. “I had seen a few documentaries a couple of years before getting the script. This guy was incredibly cruel to his own people and to anyone who got in his way – a staunch patriot of his lands and would torture anyone. Depending on the point-of-view that you have, different stories were told. You never got a clear picture of who he was.”

With Dracula Untold having a story set in 1462 when Vlad fought the Turks who were trying to invade Vlad’s land, the real character’s exploits coincided with the advent of the printing press, which originated in Germany, leading to the first printed and published stories being about Vlad Tepes. “He was quite the media sensation of the day,” Shore claimed. “These were the first sensationalist horror stories being written about this real guy in his time. They sold incredibly well. The same as the tabloid press in today’s society.”

LR-2428_TPI_00025REven with Kirschenbaum and De Luca leaning towards Shore’s involvement, in an age of media conglomeration, no guarantees exist. “You have to win the project,” the director related. “The film had been in development for several years. It had gone through different iterations with different directors. When I came on board, the story and script was there already. Folks saw it as a Braveheart story. That’s not what I saw. I saw it as the building of a legend. It’s the only way I could find my way into a vampirism story.”

With a glut of contemporary vampire stories in film and on television, Shore sought an alternative angle to the material. “I went to present the story as, ‘it has much to do with vampires as the Godfather has to do with the Mafia’ – it’s about family. What does an anti-hero do for his family? We wanted to go back and explore Vlad as a man and not just a myth. To do that, you have to explore his surroundings – his family life and the politics of the time.”

Although Shore liked the script, the inevitable rewrites to suit his needs ensued with two-and-a-half years of development until he started shooting. “The script was about 80% there to what we ended up shooting,” Shore said. “I worked with the two writers [Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless] and carved it up. They were open to working with me. Coming on as a first-time filmmaker, they were interested in my untainted naïve ideas. Ignorance is total bliss. You are shooting out ideas. Pure creativity – bouncing out ideas.”

LR-2428_TPF_00028RAmong the biggest changes to the script was to make Vlad’s son seven-to-eight years older. “They just balked at the idea,” Shore said of the project’s key creative team, “but I talked them through the benefits of focusing on this relationship. We had to rewrite those scenes to fit a character there. You have to have growth. It was a greatest contribution I made to that script. It’s the heart of the story. It’s a story about legacy. We made Vlad’s son older. He was 11.”

Not only did Shore have to work on the script and convince executives of his abilities, he had to create a teaser trailer as well. “I shot that in Prague, so I knew it would be cheaper to go out there,” he explained. “We did it completely from scratch — it had to be original material. It took a year to do about a two-minute trailer, hoping that the project would stay at Universal and that the powers that be will still be in a job a year from that point. In the studio system, you can get it to the end of that process, and the project can get pulled just before shooting. I was always aware. It impressed them enough for them to give me the money to do a feature.”

Ultimately, Shore’s teaser did not actually resemble the finished film. “There was one shot from the teaser that I used in the finished film,” he said. “It was a complicated effects shot — a particular battle in the feature.”

Shore had a particular style and approach to the work, one that is unique in modern production. “The majority of the film was shot on film in real locations,” he described. “Cinematographer John Schwartzman and I didn’t see this period film being done with digital. The particular texture and language I felt was appropriate to the period, and I didn’t want to shoot it on video. We converted scans of the film to HD. When we were shooting, we had to reload film, but with the visual quality of the film, I was more than happy. I hope to do it again. John had just shot the new Jurassic Park film on IMAX film. They [Universal] are more than happy to support the filmmakers’ wishes. At the end of the day, what is going to work to support a vision?”

LR-2428_TPI_00031RChoosing an ideal location became critical to Dracula Untold’s setting, and Shore selected an area near his home country of Ireland though his eventual crew was internationally composed. “We shot in Belfast in Northern Ireland,” he said. “We hired a lot of our crew out of London. We had quite a bit of local hires as well. A lot of people who work on Game of Thrones work there. We hired guys out of the U.K. and the U.S. as well. Our first camera operator and first AD are American and line producer and producers. All of the camera team came out of London. Francois Audouy is from the States who designed production and costume designer Ngila Dickson who had done Lord of the Rings came out of New Zealand. The studio gave me a list of people who they’ve worked with and people who they trust. You get a list of ten of the best in the world. I personally would have viewed their work all of my life. I have a huge amount of admiration and respect for their work.”

Once he ascertained his crew needs, Shore had to objectively evaluate each key crew member’s potential to work on Dracula Untold with him as collaboratively as possible. “You put aside admiration and respect and say, ‘Is this someone who can work with a first time filmmaker?’” he remarked. “Someone with the willingness to be supportive and who brings a lot of ideas to the table. You find out who you can work best with.”

DraculaOnce Dracula Untold went into its active prep period, Shore and his team had 18 weeks to build sets and costumes, wrangle equipment and finalize locations. “It’s decent, but at that same time, us being in Belfast and the studio being here [Los Angeles], it took a lot longer,” Shore commented. “It adds on that extra bit of time. Things can get done faster when everybody is in the same location. The 18 weeks felt like an adequate amount of time, but you can always do with more. By the end of prep, I couldn’t wait to start shooting. Sitting in an office managing all of these separate business elements of the process just isn’t my idea of fun. I had a couple of weeks of rehearsals with the actors. We talked through the script. I didn’t get into technical rehearsals. I wanted to make sure everything was discussed beforehand, so that we wouldn’t waste any time when we started shooting, when we focused on the technical aspects of shooting.”

Almost unheard of in a major studio film is the assignment of the entirety of visual effects to one vendor. On Dracula Untold, the decision was made that Framestore would create all of the project’s visual effects, supervised by Framestore’s Christian Manz. “You are trying to get all of these shots finished,” Shore said of the yearlong process of shooting and posting his film. “There was so much that they had to take care of during shooting. Although it was shot in camera, there were scenes with certain greenscreen – inside of the great hall in Vlad’s castle, the windows had greenscreen. There were some huge challenges where we had to do crowd replication in battle scenes. Creature design as well. “

Dracula UntoldIn point, audiences are well familiar with the visual appearance and movement of vampires in countless films and TV shows, so Shore strove to present his creatures as being wholly original. “Vampires have a particular skin type, muscle structure, bone structure – a certain DNA,” he said of his film’s key creations. “We wanted to find different ways to show vampires that hadn’t been done before. Vlad controls these huge swirls of bats. We had to make it different from any other vampire movie we’ve seen before. Framestore took a lot on their plates and were sure that they were going to manage it.”

One element in the script was not included in the finished film. “At one point, we had a huge set piece with a dragon,” Shore said. “Vlad had the ability to conjure these things in men’s minds for mind control. We had a huge dragon coming out of the ground in the castle. Framestore had to do a lot of creature design. We had to do previz and shot plates, but we never took it past conceptual design.”

“A couple of smaller vendors came on to do cleanup work,” said Shore. “Everybody at Framestore’s office in London and Montreal was working on it. As the edit was going on, we were delivering shots for VFX in the first weeks of the director’s cut. My experience was, during postproduction, it keeps getting shaped in post, so we ended up with a different film that we thought we were making. It’s the nature of the beast. My background in commercials taught me a lot of self-reliance. You are very careful about where you spend. Framestore did 700+ VFX shots and there were 1,300 total shots in the film.”

LR-2428_FP_00001RWhen production in Northern Ireland wrapped, all further postproduction on Dracula Untold took place on the Universal lot. “Myself and editor Rick Pearson started editing the first week in December 2013 on the director’s cut,” Shore said. “Ten weeks for a director’s cut – the standard DGA contractual agreement. The studio was really happy with what we had. There was a lot of shaping that had to go on, but they saw the potential of the film. You begin to see where the holes were in the script. It required some extra days of reshoots. We went to the UK in May or June for reshoots. Most of it was additional photography – we added more scenes for about 10 days of shooting.”

With a secure line at Framestore used to send material to the Universal lot, Shore would be reviewing effects shots every other day, increasingly through the first eight months of 2014, to finalize the 700+ shots. In August, the film’s score was recorded with original music by Ramin Djawadi. “We did the score in London just a few weeks ago,” said Shore. “It was beautiful – the composer did a gorgeous job. You have to do something that feels iconic and, at the same time, something that has its own language. He’s done all of the music for Game of Thrones. He has a gorgeous style.”

Shore hopes that his film offers Dracula fans a new take on the character and story. “It’s different because it focuses on the origins – who this guy was before he was Dracula.” Shore said. “It’s never been explored to the length and breadth that we have on ours. This will be a lot more action-adventure than it would be horror. It’s looking at the man before he became the myth.”

But why, after over 100 years, are audiences still focused on this infamous character, part man, part myth? Shore believes this film might provide one possible answer. “The fascination is within the tale that Bram Stoker spun,” Shore said about Dracula the story and Dracula the man. “[Stoker] isn’t the first writer to focus on vampires, but he was the first to capture the public’s imagination in such a vivid way. There is something in the vampire story – the legacy – that interested me, and it’s about what you are handing down, a passing down of ideas. There’s something incredibly sexy about it which is where the public has focused most of their attention: the suave debonair vampires in stories – the sexualization of vampires. You go back to what vampires were before that – these creatures known in many civilizations. They only became sexy after Bram Stoker. There’s a fantasy element.”

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