20 Surprising Facts About Bram Stoker's Dracula
Though director Francis Ford Coppola is perhaps best known for the string of classics he produced in the 1970s—including The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now—for a certain kind of film fan, there's another classic in the Coppola filmography very much worth constant revisiting. In the early 1990s, fresh off The Godfather Part III, Coppola took an interest in a new adaptation of Dracula, Bram Stoker's classic novel that's widely credited with ushering in on our modern fascination with vampires.
Coppola, eager to make a version of Dracula that would stand out from the countless adaptations that came before, envisioned a film that would make elegant and elaborate use of soundstages, practical effects, extravagant costumes, and more. The result is a film that looks like no other Dracula before or since, but it wasn't easy to arrive at that point. From casting to storyboarding to on-set controversy, here are some facts about the making of Bram Stoker's Dracula.
1. Work on Bram Stoker's Dracula began in the 1970s.
The journey to making Bram Stoker's Dracula actually began in the late 1970s, when another vampire classic—Anne Rice's debut novel Interview with the Vampire—was getting everyone interested in creatures of the night again. Among the interested readers was screenwriter James V. Hart, who decided amid the latest vampire pop culture wave to go back to the beginning, and picked up Stoker's novel for the first time. Hart was so "blown away" by what he read, particularly in comparison to the smoothed-over nature of many of the novel's screen adaptations, that he began imagining his own, more faithful, version of a Dracula screenplay. More than a decade later, after spending most of the 1980s working on the script here and there, Hart's vision came to life.
2. It was almost a basic cable movie.
With his Dracula script complete, Hart began looking for production companies who might be interested in his new vision of the vampire, but sadly, none of the major studios were biting. By 1990, he'd managed to find one production company who was interested in producing the film, but only as a made-for-TV cable production that would air on a network like USA.
Fortunately for Hart, the producers gave him a six-month window in which he could sell his original Dracula script to a studio before they started to make significant cuts for their TV version. At the eleventh hour, the script was rescued from the basic cable bin by none other than Winona Ryder, who happened to have Hart's Dracula in a pile of scripts she was reading while in search of more mature roles.
"She read my screenplay when she was 19, and she was actively looking for a transition role, something where she would play a grown-up woman," Hart recalled in 1992. "And the role of Mina was what she was looking for."
3. Francis Ford Coppola got involved because Winona Ryder was worried he hated her.
With Winona Ryder's star power now backing Dracula, the production began its search for a director in 1991, and found legendary Oscar-winner Francis Ford Coppola—not through a direct offer, but through a case of mending fences. The filmmaker had originally cast Ryder to play Mary Corleone, daughter of Michael Corleone, in his epic The Godfather Part III, but Ryder's health forced her to back out at the last minute. Coppola infamously replaced Ryder with his own daughter, Sofia Coppola, and Ryder's eleventh hour departure led her to worry that the legendary filmmaker didn't like her.
According to Entertainment Weekly [PDF], Ryder's concern over the impression she'd made with Coppola was so prevalent around Hollywood that the director finally agreed to meet with her just to reassure her that he didn't hold any grudges over her Godfather departure. By the end of that meeting, Coppola had the Dracula script in hand and, as a fan of the book from childhood, he was hooked.
4. Johnny Depp and Christian Slater were almost Jonathan Harker.
Though Ryder was on board as Mina Marker (née Murray) from the beginning of the Dracula production, Coppola went through a couple of other choices for her fiancé, Jonathan Harker, who falls into the clutches of Count Dracula near the beginning of the film. Christian Slater has since revealed that he was offered the role, but turned it down, and Coppola later recalled that Johnny Depp—Ryder's Edward Scissorhands co-star and boyfriend at the time—was the choice to play the role through a large chunk of preparation for the film. When executives at Columbia Pictures turned Depp down, deeming him not a big enough star at the time, Ryder turned to another friend of hers, Keanu Reeves, to play the part.
5. It was almost entirely shot on soundstages.
Bram Stoker's Dracula was a massive production with an eventual budget in the range of $40 million, and it was being handed to Coppola, a director who'd infamously gone over schedule and over budget on films like Apocalypse Now. With that in mind, as well as previous financial failures in the 1980s, Coppola did his best to manage studio fears while also playing into his own desire to make the film a very specific way. While some studio executives were expecting that they'd have to send the director and his crew to Romania to shoot Dracula's homeland on location, Coppola pitched them the idea that he'd actually make the film on soundstages in California, putting him under the constant watchful eye of producers.
"They just loved it," Coppola later recalled. "They ate that up."
Ultimately, nearly all of Dracula's many elaborate shots were done on soundstages on the MGM lot, with one key exception: Dracula's jaunt in daylight through the streets of London, which was filmed on an outdoor backlot.
6. The entire film was storyboarded.
Another key to keeping studio executives off Coppola's back was very careful planning, which the director began by crafting an elaborate, constantly expanding storyboard of every shot in the film. Artist Peter Ramsey (who later went on to direct animated hits like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) worked with Coppola's team to craft hundreds of detailed drawings which laid out the visuals of the entire film. To further illustrate his concept, Coppola eventually hired voice actors to narrate an animated version of Ramsey's drawings, so the studio knew exactly what they were getting. Well, mostly.
7. Coppola fired a big chunk of his production team.
As he began to craft the look of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Coppola grew increasingly attracted to the idea that the filmmaking process itself would be heavily influenced by the period in which the story takes place: The end of the 19th century, as cinema was just beginning to move into public spaces as a new art form. With that in mind, he began imagining a production in which the sets themselves were sparse, and in which nearly all of the visual effects were done practically, using old-school movie tricks like forced perspective, reverse photography, and more. Unfortunately, the more he pushed for this style of filmmaking, the more he was met with resistance by his original hires in both the production design department and the visual effects department. So Coppola fired them all, including legendary production designer Dante Ferretti (a frequent collaborator of Martin Scorsese), in favor of new collaborators.
8. Coppola hired Eiko Ishioka under the edict that "the costumes are the sets."
According to Coppola, the original amount budgeted for sets in Bram Stoker's Dracula was a massive chunk of the film's total cost—so much so that he worried he'd go over budget if he actually stuck to the elaborate set designs his original production designer planned. So, he hired different production designers, scaled down the sets, and brought in legendary art director Eiko Ishioka to transform his vision of Dracula into something different.
With Ishioka, who later admitted she'd never seen a Dracula film before working on Coppola's project, the director crafted a philosophy that "the costumes are the sets," putting all the focus on his actors and what they were wearing, with the sets themselves acting as mere backdrops for the performances. Inspired by everything from insects to symbolist painters to The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (which is homaged in Dracula's final costume of the film), Ishioka set about crafting everything from a dress centered on snakes for Lucy Westenra to an insect-like straightjacket for Renfield. For Dracula's first appearance as a vampire, she also ditched the classic cape in favor of a long, flowing crimson robe, which remains one of the film's most famous visuals.
Ishioka won the Academy Award for costume design in 1993 for her work on Bram Stoker's Dracula.
9. Coppola hired his son to make the visual effects work.
In keeping with his vision of making the film an homage to late 19th century and early 20th century filmmaking, Coppola wanted Bram Stoker's Dracula to be full of classical cinema trickery, and not lean so heavily on the modern digital visual effects of the 1990s. Unfortunately, the more he pitched his original visual effects team on that idea, the more they tried to steer him in the direction of more modern methods.
So, Coppola simply fired them, and hired his son Roman to work on the film as both second unit director and visual effects director. It was then up to the younger Coppola to marshal a team of visual effects wizards to pull off modern versions of effects that had, in many cases, been part of cinema history for decades.
10. Virtually every visual effect was done in-camera.
Thanks to Roman and his team, the elder Coppola was able to get his wish and make virtually every visual effect in Bram Stoker's Dracula a wonder of practical filmmaking, done in-camera and on the day. From forced perspective shots and miniatures (Lucy Westenra's stately home on the horizon) to reverse photography (Lucy climbing back into her coffin as Van Helsing threatens her with a crucifix) to double exposures (the green mist seeping in through Mina's window), to running horses in circles to make it look like they were going long distances (the final Borgo Pass chase sequence), Coppola and company made everything work.
11. The sets were sparse.
Though Coppola fired his original production designer in favor of Thomas E. Sanders and his team, he almost considered going even further with his desire to eliminate elaborate sets. Sanders and the rest of the production design crew eventually did get to build actual sets, including everything from Dr. Seward's asylum to Dracula's ruined Carfax Abbey, but at one point Coppola considered eliminating sets entirely in favor of shadows, projections, and backdrops that were basically photos of sets, instead of actual environments. "But, in the end, those people don't want to look like fools to their peer group," Coppola later said [PDF] of his design team. "They want to get Academy Award nominations."
Sanders and set decorator Garrett Lewis did, in fact, end up with an Academy Award nomination for art direction and set decoration for their work on Dracula.
12. Gary Oldman pushed to add more makeup effects (and later hated them).
For the role of Dracula himself, Coppola selected English actor Gary Oldman to embody the count, whose appearance and demeanor range from eccentric old man to dashing young prince over the course of the film. Oldman, who was deeply invested in getting into his character, was nevertheless left without much to do during the early weeks of shooting Dracula, as Coppola focused on the rest of the cast. Left to his own devices, Oldman spent much of his time with makeup effects wizard Greg Cannom, and together they expanded the Count's appearances into a menagerie of creatures.
As Cannom later recalled on a commentary track for the film, the original Bram Stoker's Dracula script called for little more than various stages of old-age makeup for Dracula himself. When Cannom and Oldman started talking, though, the actor and the artist dreamed up the wolfen face and full-body bat creature transformations for various phases of the film.
Oldman's creativity ultimately cost him, though [PDF]. Over the course of the production, he was rushed to the hospital after an allergic reaction to one of his latex makeup applications, and one day Cannom had to rip part of the bat creature costume off of the actor because of an attack of claustrophobia.
For his part, Cannom and his team won an Academy Award for makeup effects for Bram Stoker's Dracula.
13. Bram Stoker's Dracula was nicknamed Bonfire of the Vampires during production.
Because of a variety of production and financial difficulties throughout his career, most notably on Apocalypse Now, Coppola had something of a reputation (some of it perhaps unearned) as a director who helmed troubled productions going into Bram Stoker's Dracula. The news that he'd fired several original hires on the design team, coupled with rumors that the production was getting too weird and later (untrue) reports of audiences vomiting in the aisles at test screenings, led Bram Stoker's Dracula to earn the nickname "Bonfire of the Vampires" in the Hollywood press [PDF]. The moniker—a reference to the infamous 1990 adaptation of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, which bombed at the box office—would prove false.
14. Anthony Hopkins improvised much of Van Helsing's bizarre behavior.
To play the legendary vampire hunter Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, Coppola turned to the legendary Anthony Hopkins, and was eager to let the actor have his way with the character. On a commentary track for the film, Coppola recalled that he found the book's version of the character to be "a real jerk" who "just kind of talks and talks and talks, and he says nothing." To imbue Van Helsing with more life for the film, the director encouraged Hopkins to improvise, which is why you see the character doing things like dancing with Mina Murray in the courtyard outside Lucy's home, smelling her as he does it because, according to Hopkins, he was trying to detect Dracula's scent.
15. Coppola hired an acting coach because he was squeamish about sex scenes.
Though he envisioned his Dracula as a kind of "erotic nightmare," making the sexual subtext of Stoker's novel into flat-out text, Coppola himself was ultimately uncomfortable with much of the erotic nature of the script. To smooth that over, "because I don't feel comfortable talking about a lot of sexual stuff to young girls," Coppola hired acting coach Greta Seacat to work with both Winona Ryder and Sadie Frost, who played Lucy Westenra, on the film's sex scenes. That didn't mean, though, that Coppola was too squeamish to get his hands dirty on other aspects of the production.
16. Coppola shouted offensive insults at Winona Ryder during a key scene.
Throughout Dracula's production, Coppola was keen on forming connections among his cast, even inviting them to extended rehearsals at his home in Napa. But the director was also a big believer in disrupting actors mid-performance to get a better emotional response. This came to a head in a key scene when Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker, and the other vampire hunters discover Mina and Dracula in bed together at Seward's office.
In the scene, Mina is supposed to react with shame and horror when she's discovered by her husband while lying with a monster. To dial up that reaction, Coppola reportedly shouted insults at Ryder from behind the camera, including screaming the word whore at her. The incident was reported in contemporary features from the Dracula set in 1992, but gained traction again in 2020, when Ryder recounted the incident, and noted that Coppola had encouraged her co-stars to join in. Reeves and Hopkins both notably declined to participate.
In response to the controversy, both Coppola and Ryder issued statements. Ryder's read, in part, "Although that technique didn't work for her, she loves and respects him and considers it a great privilege to have worked with him."
17. Gary Oldman whispered things to his co-stars behind the scenes to terrify and shock them.
In keeping with his technique of disruption, Coppola also employed his Dracula to elicit emotional responses from his fellow actors. For the scene in which Lucy Westenra is writhing on her bed as she transforms into a vampire, Coppola asked Oldman to whisper something sexual to Frost. Frost would later call what Oldman said "very unrepeatable" [PDF].
Coppola took things a step further for the scene in which Jonathan Harker, Van Helsing, and their fellow vampire hunters walk in on Dracula and Mina to find the Count transformed into a giant bat creature. To achieve the effect of full horror, Coppola blindfolded the actors, then had Oldman walk around them, whispering in their ears to "terrify" them ahead of the scene.
Oldman's behavior achieved the desired effect, but also created tension. Ryder, in particular, would later say that she felt she "never met Gary Oldman" on the film's set, because he was so invested in his character.
18. The ending of Bram Stoker's Dracula was changed, thanks in part to George Lucas.
By the time Bram Stoker's Dracula was in the editing room, Coppola realized he had certain issues with the storytelling, and called screenwriter James V. Hart to consult on the problem. According to Hart, it wasn't until a later private screening that included Coppola's friend George Lucas that the real issue was realized.
In the original ending, Mina plunged a Bowie knife into Dracula's heart, then left his body and ran back to Jonathan Harker. After the screening, Lucas pointed out that Coppola had broken his own film's rules about how to kill a vampire, and didn't have Mina cut off Dracula's head. So, Coppola reassembled his cast, reshot and recut the ending, and the result is what you see in the final version of the film.
19. The film saved the Coppola family's home.
On the opening weekend of Bram Stoker's Dracula in November 1992, Coppola was so worried about what the box office returns might look like that he decided to get his family out of the country. So, while moviegoers flocked to theaters, the Coppolas enjoyed a vacation in Guatemala. Finally, desperate for news, Coppola asked his wife Eleanor to call in and check the grosses when she went into town. She came back with several small pieces of paper with seven figure numbers written on them. When her husband asked what the actual total gross was, she replied, "Add them up."
Dracula ultimately grossed more than $30 million on its opening weekend on its way to $82 million in North America and a worldwide total gross of nearly $216 million, a runaway hit by 1992 standards. The film did so well, in fact, that Coppola received a check that "saved" the family home in Napa, which they nearly lost due to financial issues. Because of that, Coppola claims that a painting of Prince Vlad still hangs in the Coppola family home, and Coppola himself visited a memorial to Vlad the Impaler in Hungary in order to pay his respect to the historical Dracula and "thank him for allowing me to make this story without getting me in the middle of the night."
20. Ghost Adventures host Zak Bagans is a major fan of the film, and owns several of the production's original miniatures.
Ghost Adventures host Zak Bagans has made no secret of his admiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula. In November 2020, he shared via Twitter that he had acquired some of the production's original miniatures, tweeting: "Here’s my new castle... the 7 foot original screen-used 'Castle Dracula' from my favorite film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I was able to purchase this, other building miniatures, and Lucy’s screen-used full-sized bed from recent auction!"
Additional Sources: DVD Audio Commentary by Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Coppola, and Greg Cannom (1993); The Blood is the Life: The Making of Bram Stoker's Dracula (2007); In Camera: The Naive Visual Effects of Bram Stoker's Dracula (2007); The Costumes are the Sets: The Design of Eiko Ishioka (2007); Reflections in Blood: Francis Ford Coppola and Bram Stoker's Dracula (2015).