Making the definitive Dracula horror movie is no mean feat, yet that’s what Francis Ford Coppola set out to do in the early ’90s. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, featuring an all-star cast and made entirely using practical effects, is one of the most iconic takes on the classic novel.
Gary Oldman stars as the count, with Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Richard E Grant, Cary Elwes, Sadie Frost, and more in supporting roles. Together, they bring the book to life in a way that hadn’t been done before, and hasn’t been matched since. It’s a monster movie that truly needs to be seen to believed.
This year, for the 3oth anniversary, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is being re-released in cinemas in 4K. To celebrate, Cary Elwes sat down with the Digital Fix to discuss what it was like working on such a remarkable production. He recalls memories of being on those gorgeous sets, explains Coppola’s lofty goals, and gives a distinct perspective on how Dracula remains as relevant as ever in 2022.
TDF: Bram Stoker’s Dracula is still such an incredible film. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like seeing the sets for the first time?
Cary Elwes: The first set was the manor, yeah, really beautiful. The design was extraordinary. Especially Dracula’s castle, the set design on this film was extraordinary. Garrett Lewis, Andrew Precht, and Thomas Sanders, I think it was some great stuff.
You and the rest of the cast do some great dialogue and accent work. It’s so theatrical and so in-keeping with the book. Can you tell me about it was like rehearsing and running lines together?
Francis likes to rehearse, so we had a lot of time doing that. Theatre games, he helped us all get into character and immersive research into that period. So we had a long, lengthy rehearsal process where we really dug deep into the material. That was a lot of fun.
Anthony Hopkins was an inspired choice to play Van Helsing. What were your scenes with him like?
Tony is magnificent. I think anyone who’s worked with him will tell you that. He’s just extraordinary.
Francis Ford Coppola famously made the entire film using practical effects. He chose to step away from the computer-generated imagery that was becoming popular at the time. How helpful did you find that as an actor?
I thought it was fascinating because that was the period of time when movie special effects, besides ILM, were really in their infancy and very expensive. The budget of the film was already at a point where the studio was comfortable, and they really weren’t too comfortable with spending more money on special effects. So Francis decided he wanted to save money anyway and wanted, as a challenge to himself, to see if he could make all the effects practical, which was fascinating.
I imagine it was quite the mountain for the crew.
Yeah, he set himself a task, you know, the trains were little model trains. That wonderful shadow sequence with Gary and Keanu, where Dracula is strangling Jonathan Harker in the shadows, all of that was done in-house. Extraordinary.
Gary Oldman’s performance as Dracula is historic. Did he have as much of a presence while you were filming as he does on screen?
Gary’s a terrific, terrific actor. He showed up, as he does with everything, with taking that role, and he just blew us all away.
One of my favourite scenes is Lucy’s death. It’s very gothic and seems quite Evil Dead-inspired. Can you tell me about that sequence?
Francis was excited. He had this idea of cutting from Lucy’s head to a plate of roast beef. He was very present, he was very playful, very creative as a filmmaker. He’s always looking. That’s why he wants to rehearse so much, he’s looking for the honesty and truthfulness. So we worked hard.
This adaptation of Dracula captures a certain gothic splendour that others lack. What is about this film that sets it about other versions?
We paid a lot of attention to the book, most of the other films didn’t. I mean, Francis made us watch them all, of course, because in Francis’s mind, he wanted to close the book on this story and be the quintessential telling of Dracula from Bram Stoker’s perspective.
So we went into detail and found things in the book that no one had ever filmed before. I just thought Jim Hart did a great job with the script. He really, really understood how to take that book, which is a fairly dense novel, and condense it into a story that, to me, is just thrilling to watch.
You have been a part of a number of films like this, Dracula, Princess Bride, Robin hood: Men in Tights, that have really stood the test of time. What is it about the way you pick movies that has allowed that?
Oh, if look at my body of work, you’ll see I’m very fond of history, it was the only subject at school I was any good at it. So I tend to be drawn to things of that nature, and I guess I lucked out. When I go after something, I really go after it.
I can be fairly relentless, like with Dracula. When I read a script, I get a sense the story has something of historical, sociological, and cultural value. That’s pretty much my criteria, and if the characters are interesting.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is coming out right in time for Halloween, making it really special that people can experience this film on the big screen. What do you hope people take away from seeing Bram Stoker’s Dracula in cinemas for the re-release?
Well, you know, at the time, Francis told us, ‘This is going to be my AIDS movie’. That whole sequence with Van Helsing talking about the blood, that was Francis’s take on the AIDS epidemic. We went through an epidemic with AIDS, now we’re in a pandemic, with another disease that can kill us. So this film, on that level, it’ll always resonate, sadly.
I now look at it through that lens, that Dracula essentially is the diseases trying to get into our blood system, into our veins. So, on that level, I always think it’s interesting to see it from that perspective. But apart from that, as a work of art, it’s flawless in my humble opinion.
I mean, the fact that Francis tackled horror, and it’s more of a thriller than it is a horror. There’s great horror to it, but it’s really a thriller, you know. I think Francis loves the challenge and just went at it. He knew he could do it, it was a book he’d read to kids when he was a camp counsellor, and he fell in love with it then, and it was fully his then when this fell in his lap.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it’s back in cinemas in 4K from October 7. You can find a full list of theatres here.