01 Master of the Undead: Dracula Returns Home

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“There are far worse things awaiting man than death.” —Count Dracula, Dracula (1931)

Since the publication of Bram Stoker’s definitive “Dracula” in 1897, one of the most enduring literary and popular characters of our time has been explored in film, animation, literature and music, and is as relevant today as he was when his creator spawned a cultural phenomenon almost 120 years ago. Although Dracula’s presence remains ubiquitous in culture, it is surprising that the origins of this undead icon have never been explored on film.

While the man history calls Dracula, for all intents and purposes, was actually a real historical figure, just as terrifying to millions of people are the vampires of ancient myth. Found in almost every culture and language on Earth—from the Babylonians’ Lilitu, a succubus who thrived on babies, to the iron-toothed Asasabonsam of the Ashanti peoples of Ghana1—the legend of bloodsucking creatures of the night may be traced back thousands of years. But it was not until the 10th century, in Slavic Europe, that the word “vampire” first appeared in modern language.

Producer Michael De Luca, who has brought to the screen blockbusters from The Social Network and Ghost Rider to Moneyball and Captain Phillips, shares what brought him to the journey of uncovering the monster’s origins: “As a kid, I always wanted to know who turned Dracula into a vampire. I wondered, ‘Was he the first? Were there others?’ It was a delicious, unanswered question that’s not been covered, even in Bram Stoker’s novel.”

When a script by the up-and-coming writing team of Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless landed on De Luca’s desk, it ignited the filmmaker’s imagination. “I thought it was ingenious,” he commends, “the untold origin story and an unknown chapter of an archetypal character we all know.”

Naturally, our story delves into the mysterious powers bestowed by centuries of superstitious peoples, but this tale of Dracula begins with and borrows from the real-life story of an actual historical figure:

Vlad III of Wallachia, aka Kaziglu Bey (The Impaler Prince). Indeed, the writers took many basic facts about the dark ruler and extrapolated them into a fantastic saga.

Vlad III was born in 1431 in Transylvania. As a child, he and his younger brother were sent by their father, Vlad II, as hostages of Sultan Murad II to Constantinople, where they were held for six years and trained in warfare.3 As Transylvania was located between two empires—the Ottoman Turks and the Austrian Hapsburgs—the young noblemen lived in a time of constant war, and certain sacrifices had to be made.

Vlad III grew to become a ruthless conqueror whose favored method of meting out torture was to impale people and leave them writhing in agony for days. This terrifying fact is what earned him the posthumous nickname of Vlad the Impaler (aka Vlad Tepes). Because his father belonged to the Order of the Dragon—a secretive organization of Christian knights—that fought the Muslim Ottoman Empire, Vlad II took to the name Dracul, which is roughly translated from Romanian into “dragon/devil.”

After his father’s death, Vlad III ruled Wallachia, south of Transylvania, from 1448 until his own death in 1476. Following in his father’s footsteps, Vlad III was also inducted into the Order of the Dragon. It was then that he instructed his men to call him “Dracula,” which means “son of the dragon/devil” in Romanian.5 Reportedly killed in 1476 fighting the Turks, Vlad III’s head was cut off and displayed in Constantinople…for the entire city to see and fear.

Having agreed to take on the writers’ revisionist story of Vlad III’s transformation, the next step in the process for De Luca was to find a home for the film and explore financing and production options. Historically, Universal Pictures was the first studio to adapt the character for screen in 1931, and De Luca explains that this Dracula would finally be coming home: “Universal just seemed like a natural fit. The studio has this storied pedigree with monster movies, and Dracula Untold pays homage to all the beloved films that have come before.”

It would take a few years for the right package to assemble, but when it did, it pulled in a wildly creative behind-the-scenes team whose work collectively encompasses some of the biggest filmic spectacles in recent years, including Batman Begins, Gladiator, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as the films in the Spider-Man and Harry Potter series. But first, the action-adventure would need a director at its helm who could navigate not only the intricacies of the writers’ story, but offer an innovative visual perspective on history’s most popular (and feared) monster.

Finessing an iconic property such as Dracula required a director who could cut through the clutter of everything that had gone before, someone who could extrapolate the story and had the vision to deliver an innovative look at the master of all undead. After all, this was a fresh take on the storied monster, bringing the tale back to the beginning to reveal the man behind the mythology.

Upon reading the screenplay, Gary Shore, who had made a name for himself as a striking visualist in commercials and directed a stunning short titled The Cup of Tears, responded immediately. “It wasn’t what I expected at all,” the director recalls. “What I found interesting about the script was that it was able to take the idea of the Impaler and bridge that as an origin story into Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula.’ I’d never seen that done before.”

Both director and producer knew that morphing Vlad the Impaler into Dracula on screen made it difficult to conceive of a human element that felt natural; after all, recorded history has not been kind to the warlord who slaughtered anyone in his path. But Shore’s compassionate take on the narrative impressed De Luca. He suggested that they dispatch with the sensational elements shown many times before on screens big and small and look at its core: one man’s struggle to protect his family. Shore’s articulation of the film as a father/son saga struck the right note with the producer. De Luca commends: “Gary’s vision for what this film should encompass convinced us that he was the right person to do the movie.”

Shore appreciates the trust and elaborates upon that idea: “It’s a coming-of-age story, but it’s really an exploration of the idea of legacy. Vampire mythology is about legacy, about handing something down to the next person, whether it is DNA, memories or responsibility. I felt people would be able to relate and respond to the father/son idea. It continues to be the most inspiring part of the story.”

Grounding the character in the real world was also an important element to getting that balance right. Shore continues: “For this movie to work, you have to care about Vlad’s inner life, as well as his emotional ties to his son and his wife.”

Vlad’s difficult choices drive him toward his destiny, and his struggle to save his son from the life forced upon him leads the prince to make the ultimate sacrifice. De Luca offers: “There’s a lot of humanity in this story, which you wouldn’t expect from a story about Dracula; emotion drives him. From the second you meet Vlad, you see an emotional human being, a man with care and love as well as violence and power. There’s a lot driving him, and he has to use all of this in equal measure throughout the film.” This desire to take the character of Dracula to unexplored territory became the hallmark of the production.

Shore says: “We wanted to find new ways of exploring vampire mythology that wasn’t slavish to its roots. This is an adventure story; we see how the character of Vlad reacts to certain situations based on decisions he makes at that time. We are observing Vlad having to make difficult decisions that affect his wife and son, while trying to maintain his family and his people.”