05 Costumes of the Action-Adventure

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Working on a period movie demands closer collaboration with all the different visual departments, and with Dracula Untold, there was a high degree of cross-pollination between different divisions. This was especially true in the costume department, overseen by the Academy Award®-winning Dickson.

“I’ve known Ngila for years,” shares Audouy. “So we just hit the ground running. She had started before me and had these amazing designs that were a great source of inspiration for the production design. I’m constantly inspired by what she’s doing with costumes.”

The admiration was mutual, as Dickson acknowledges she would draw inspiration from the spaces Audouy and his team developed. She gives: “I would get designs from the art department, such as the interior of the castle, and we would pursue the spaces together to make sure our palettes were going to match up. For example, we needed to see that our banquet costumes were going to work in that environment and there wasn’t going to be any design clashes. It was a brilliant and easy relationship, and it was an extraordinary collaboration. We worked with people who have a strong, creative need to do the best work that they possibly can.”

Having Dickson join the project was a major win for Shore. As one of the most highly respected costume designers in the industry, her work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy earned her an Academy Award® and a slew of other nominations. The director beams: “She brought to the film an elegance that is very specifically her style.”

For Dickson, there were multiple elements that drew her to the project, including her appreciation of Francis Ford Coppola’s groundbreaking film and the opportunity to work on the re-conceptualizing of a franchise. She shares: “Gary and I are both fans of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s an impeccable piece of filmmaking. For a designer, it is always an amazing opportunity to reinvent effectively a famous franchise such as Dracula. It’s such a known brand, so in conceptualizing, you are automatically thinking, ‘What can I bring to the table?’”

When Shore and Dickson discussed how to approach the look of the film, the historical element was intrinsic. Deciding the color palette, Dickson and her team researched the Ottoman Empire and Wallachia, working their way through the material associated with the 15th century.

Dickson explains the process: “Once you’ve gathered this vast amount of information, you begin to look for an attitude for the film, and one of the things that became important to us was not to make the film dark. What we wanted was an incredibly rich and colorful look. So, once I had the building blocks and the understanding of what people were historically wearing, we then started looking at color and how we could bring something new to the audience.”

Every costume tells its own story, imparting subliminal messages about the character and the narrative. When we meet Vlad for the first time in the castle’s garden, his costume conveys a different, happy person who’s let go of a violent past. By the time we are halfway into the film, we move rapidly back toward Vlad the Impaler, a true warrior, until finally he fully commits to the mercy of his fate.

Dickson began her work with the costumes at the end of the film. She shares her rationale: “For me to get a handle on the biggest and most complex piece of the film was a way of being able to enter the whole of it. I always feel I have to tackle the hardest first, and then it becomes part of a large series of building blocks.”

As she crafted Vlad’s armor, Dickson looked back to 1452 and began to use the reds and blacks of the real prince’s armor, combining that with the dragon motif that the production design team had developed. Dickson says: “If you are going to define a character like Vlad, the reds and the blacks are a good place to start and, of course, Dracula…well, it’s the dragon, isn’t it? Those were the three pieces of the building blocks.”

Because the dragon armor represented the period of Vlad’s life that he spent with the Turks, it needed to work with Mehmed’s armor in such a way that the relationship between the two could be felt. Dickson explains: “I thought that the two needed to be very yin and yang, with Mehmed so immaculate, polished and perfectly sculpted. Vlad’s version of the armor needed to be a lot more visceral, rawer and more chiseled.”

Shore shares that Dickson’s design influenced much of the way he thought of the story: “Vlad and Mehmed only meet twice in the film, the first time in Mehmed’s tent when Vlad attempts to reason with Mehmed, and then at the end when Vlad goes into battle with him. So you have this challenging relationship between the protagonist and antagonist where they don’t meet for the majority of the film, and yet it is a chess game. As a consequence, you are in danger of it becoming episodic, so it was important that there is a design DNA that connects the two. That was a basis for Ngila’s designs, and that extends to music and tone.”

Mehmed’s armor presented Dickson with the opportunity to go to town. With the sacking of Constantinople, Mehmed II had transformed the Ottoman state into an empire, laying the foundation for one of the most powerful empires in the world.
Dickson concedes: “If you are talking about the Ottoman Empire and the wealth and the riches, we wanted to push the boat out with that one. Mehmed is wearing a piece of armor that commemorates his own conquering; on the breast plate, Mehmed himself is depicted on horseback, surrounded by battles, and on the back is Constantinople. All of the design is commemorating this great achievement. It added another layer of kingly arrogance to that costume.”

Both sets of armor were created in New Zealand under Dickson’s ever watchful eye from the U.K. She laughs: “Skype is a costume designer’s best friend.”

The world in which Vlad and Mehmed existed, and the world that has been constructed for Dracula Untold is a masculine one. Asserting a feminine aspect into a narrative dominated by men was never going to be easy and, certainly for Dickson, Mirena presented the greatest complexity. Because she was the only character extolling feminine virtues, the designer spent a great deal of time considering the character. Dickson explains: “There are virtually no other women, so all the focus of beauty and womanhood we had to fit into Mirena, which made it an intense design situation. You have the masculinity of Vlad and the femininity of Mirena.”

From reading the script, Dickson imagined pale, soft and gentle colors for Mirena, but after discussing the character with Gadon, everything changed. Dickson sums: “It became a complete switch-up into strong, but biblical, colors.”

Gadon appreciates the attention to detail. She commends: “We had such a beautiful hair and makeup team, and Ngila’s team created such amazing costumes. All of those things play into how you create and mold your character. Although Mirena is a princess, we didn’t just want her to be stuck in a castle tower. We wanted her to have an active participation in the plot. In rehearsals, Gary and I worked at making her more active. I feel she walks a lovely line between being feminine but being proactive…playing the duality of those sides.”