Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a film that, much like its protagonist, crosses oceans of time. Director Francis Ford Coppola, one of the filmmakers at the leading edge of the “film school” generation of the seventies, tapped into the talents of the young up-and-coming stars, both in front of and behind the camera, to tell a familiar story using very old techniques. Opting to avoid the rising tide of digital effects, expensive location shooting, and elaborate artifices in favor of “naïve” in-camera effects, stage-bound shooting, and lavish costumes as “sets,” Coppola and his collaborators created a thoroughly unique retelling of Dracula. The look of the film is simultaneously timeless and on the cutting-edge of innovation. Though it celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year, it still feels as modern and transgressive as the day it was released.
Though Coppola is cited as one of cinema’s great auteurs, he is first to give credit to his collaborators and defined his directorial role as akin to a gardener. “A team of filmmakers is like a garden in which every variety of plant is overproducing…The director has to smush all this brilliant creativity together and make it work.” In the case of Dracula, the first of these overproducing plants was actress Winona Ryder. She had originally been cast in Coppola’s previous film, The Godfather Part III, but had to back out. Coppola still hoped to work with her and invited her to bring any projects she might be interested in collaborating with him on to his attention. In late 1990 or early 1991 (depending on varying accounts) she brought him James V. Hart’s script for a new film version of Dracula that adhered closer than any previous film to Bram Stoker’s original novel. This sent Coppola back through the oceans of time of his own life to his teenage years when he worked as a drama camp counselor and, during one summer, read the entire novel aloud to the eight and nine year old boys in his charge.
There had already been scores, if not hundreds, of film versions of Dracula of varying quality and importance and it was vital to Coppola that this film be something truly unique. He very much liked the script and the fact that Hart had remained generally faithful to the novel while infusing it with a love story drawn from some of the historical facts about the real Vlad “the Impaler” of the house of Dracul. He also realized that the year the novel was released and the screenplay was set coincided with the birth of cinema. This sparked an idea on how to go about making the film. “What if I made the movie,” he thought, “in the style that movies were being made at the turn of the century? Which is to say, an illusion.” This led Coppola to the idea of shooting the entire film on sound stages and with in-camera effects. Feeling this was impossible, the original special effects supervisor hired for the film quit and Coppola hired his magic-obsessed son Roman to create the visual effects.
By reaching back to the “naïve effects” techniques employed by Georges Méliès (“A Trip to the Moon”-1902), Carl Theodor Dreyer (Vampyre-1932), Orson Welles (Citizen Kane-1941), and others cut from similar magic-inspired cloth, Roman Coppola and his team give the film an undeniably timeless quality that would have been lost if the early digital techniques of the time had been used. Here, the younger Coppola used any number of “tricks” including multi-pass opticals, reverse photography, scrims, mirrors, shadow puppets, models, forced perspective, and altered gravity. The result is otherworldly, disorienting, and, in a word, magical.
Related to this is the cinematography by frequent Martin Scorsese collaborator Michael Ballhaus. For Dracula, he seems to be channeling another great director of photography who also lensed a Dracula film, Karl Freund. But rather than the generally static camera Freund was shackled to for Tod Browning’s 1931 film, Ballhaus taps into the work his masterful predecessor used on films like The Last Laugh (1924) in which the camera freely floats, spins, and dances seemingly of its own volition. For one brief sequence, Ballhaus even uses Francis Coppola’s personal Pathé silent film camera, very much like Freund would have used during the 20s, to evoke the look and feel of early cinema as Dracula (Gary Oldman) walks through the London streets and first sees Mina, the very image of his deceased bride Elizabeta whom he has “crossed oceans of time” to find. Between Roman Coppola’s visual effects and Ballhaus’s cinematography, the singular photographic style of the film was set, but also contributing to the distinctive look of the film were the unique sets and costumes created for Dracula.
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