The Devil’s In The Details: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

It is the year 1990. Francis Ford Coppola has just released The Godfather: Part III to universal critical shrugging. His studio, Zoetrope, is in financial straits, incurring at least $27 million in liabilities over the past three years. At the same time, a young Winona Ryder, who was forced to back out of a role in Coppola’s third Godfather film, finds an interesting script handed to her by her agent, entitled Dracula: The Untold Story. It was going to be a TV movie directed by Michael Apted. Having never read anything to do with Dracula before, Ryder decides to bring it to Francis Ford Coppola as a way to rebuild bridges. What would follow would be one of the most daring, star-studded, and genuinely artistic vampire films to ever be made. It may have its detractors, but there is no denying the artistic vision and power of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (Kinda wish they’d billed it as such, eh?)

But before we begin, an interesting note: Francis Ford Coppola – who would end bringing in Michael Apted as executive producer – would be the third in the Coppola family to be involved in a vampire movie: Marc Coppola starred in Vampire’s Kiss in 1988, and Christopher Coppola would direct Dracula’s Widow, also in 1988. On top of that, Bram’s Stoker’s Dracula actually features three Coppolas on the project: Francis Ford Coppola directing, Anton Coppola conducting, and Roman Coppola as visual effects director. Talk about your blood ties!

Once the FFC (as he’s sometimes referred (mostly by the author)) was on board, casting began. Coppola wanted his actors to be “the jewels” of his film, so he wanted actors and actresses with a magnetic presence. Winona Ryder was immediately cast as Mina Harker, the love interest of the Count; for Dracula, there was much more deliberation. Andy Garcia, Gabriel Byrne, Armand Assante, even Antonio Banderas and Viggo Mortensen were all considered for the role before Coppola settled on Gary Oldman, just off the set of Henry & June. Soon to follow would be Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, the legendary vampire hunter (the role almost went to Liam Neeson) and others, such as Cary Elwes, Monica Bellucci, and Tom Waits (having just worked on the soundtrack for Coppola’s One From The Heart, where he met his future wife) to round out the supporting cast.

Which leads us, four paragraphs in, to probably one of the most controversial decisions of the entire production: to cast Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker, the ill-fated real estate acquisitionist. Originally, Charlie Sheen and Johnny Depp were considered for role, but Columbia Pictures wanted more of a “heartthrob,” one that would connect with and attract the “young female” demographic. However, while Keanu certainly had the look going for him, his output was another thing entirely. His accent in the film is often cited as one of, if not the worst accent ever put to celluloid; and achieving this “feat” while acting alongside the likes of Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins only highlights the poor guy’s foibles. In fact, Keanu Reeves himself said years later that he wasn’t happy with his work in it, stating he had been exhausted from making several films right on the heels of signing on for Dracula, and that he tried to raise his energy for the role, but “just didn’t have anything left to give”. On the plus side, at least he got to be seduced by Monica Bellucci (and was apparently so into it that he got to do it again nearly eleven years later!)


Francis Ford Coppola was known to take great measures to ensure that his film would be true to the original novel – to the point of having the entire cast read it out loud during their first meeting, a feat which according to Anthony Hopkins took two days to complete. Indeed, there were several more stories that echoed this dedication to the source material: Richard E Grant, Cary Elwes and Billy Campbell were sent on various “adventures,” from horseback riding to hot air ballooning to build their camaraderie on set; Gary Oldman hired a singing coach to help him lower his voice by an octave to help him give Dracula a more sinister quality; even the blue flames leading up to Dracula’s abode are accurate according to the novel (more on those later).

That’s not to say that the movie isn’t without its departures from the book: in the novel, Harker and Renfield are unrelated, whereas in the film Renfield is Harker’s colleague; Dracula’s transformations in the novel are that of a regular wolf and bat, as opposed to the monstrous forms in the movie; and, as perhaps the biggest difference, the subplot about Mina being the reincarnation of Dracula’s wife are specific only to the film. The novel never explicitly identifies Dracula as Vlad the Impaler and Mina has no personal connection to Dracula; this alters later scenes taken from the novel, such as when Mina asks Dracula to turn her into a vampire and willingly drinks his blood. (In the novel Dracula forces Mina to drink his blood and she is traumatized by the incident).


However, attention to detail is something that Francis Ford Coppola is known for, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula is no exception. During production, he was insistent that he didn’t want to use any kind of special effects (computer or non-practical). He initially was given a standard visual effects team, but when they told him that the things he wanted to achieve were impossible without using modern digital technology, Coppola fired them, replacing them with his 29-year-old son Roman Coppola, who set out to almost all of the effects in the movie by using old-school cinematic tricks. For example, the shot on the train involving a close up of Harker’s journal with the train appearing to travel along the top of the book was a forced perspective shot using a huge book and a tiny miniature train model. In fact, the blue flames outside of Dracula’s castle the only optical effect in the film; every other effect was achieved completely “in-camera” on the set with no post-production effects work.

Think about that for a second. The eyes appearing in the sky during the train scene? A combination of three separate shots, superimposed. The map that appears on Jonathan Harker’s face in the same scene? Literally a live projection of the image of the map onto Keanu Reeves‘ face on set. Hell, Francis Ford Coppola and his son consulted with a professional magician to achieve the effect of Dracula’s brides rising up from the bed. There was no messing around on the set of Dracula; this was old-school, by-the-books practical effects work. That’s not to say there wasn’t some post-production work (that scream when Vlad stabs the cross at the beginning is actually Cramps singer Lux Interior dubbed in), but the dedication to craft is pretty mind-blowing.

So how did all of this hard work and effort reflect for opening day sales? Try a record-setting 1992 premiere, leading to a stunning $215.9 million box office total, almost five times the film’s budget. (As a hilarious side-note, Sony had just undergone new Japan-based leadership; upon the film’s premiere weekend, they allegedly asked the American executives if the over $30 million box office tally was considered a good result. I would say so!) Suffice to say, it was enough to save Zoetrope Studio and put Francis Ford Coppola’s name back into the world of horror; he would go on to direct Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein two years later.

All in all, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a fantastic film, not only reviving the interest in vampire films in the early 1990’s (leading to a number of other films, including Interview With A Vampire, From Dusk Till Dawn, and probably also Blade) but cementing Francis Ford Coppola’s relevance in a waning artistic period. It gets its fair share of hate (almost entirely based on Keanu Reeves’ acting) but it would be a mistake to overlook this classic tale of blood/lust. It features many of its actor’s most famous roles, many amazing technical effects, and a compelling and exciting story. What more could you ask for in a vampire flick?

About Seth Hansen

Seth is a writer and musician living in Los Angeles. When not explaining to strangers why John Carpenter's The Thing is the greatest horror movie ever made (trust me, it is), he's usually playing violin or hanging out in record store clearance sections. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook!

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