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Francis Ford Coppola remembers Dracula, firing his VFX crew, and Keanu Reeves' accent

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Francis Ford Coppola first experienced the hypnotic power of Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a teenager, reading the novel to a captive audience of youngsters. Years later — after three Godfather films and The Conversation and Apocalypse Now — the Oscar-winning director fought to make a faithful, if stylized, movie of the vampire legend. With a newly restored Supreme Cinema Series Blu-ray available today, Coppola spoke to EW about his 1992 flick and much more, including his optimistic attitude about the state of American film.

How far back do you remember reading the novel?

It was when I was 17. I was a drama camp counselor and my girlfriend was a drama counselor for an affiliated camp nearby. I had a lot of fun with these 9-year-old boys, but one of my motivations was to get them to go to sleep so I could go visit my girlfriend. So I read to them the entire Dracula, the original.

I’d think that would keep them awake.

Well, yeah. I could definitely see the power it had over an audience.

Creatively, was that like a seed being planted within you? 

Oh, there’s no question that I rose to take the opportunity to direct it because I had actually read the book in such detail to those kids in camp. I was a drama major in school, so I was already thinking of this as a career. And I loved as a kid to go with my older brother to see the Dracula movies, including Abbott and Costello Meets Dracula. Our favorite Dracula, believe it or not, was John Carradine. But those movies didn’t really adapt the book.

Exactly. When your Dracula came out, some critics praised the beehive hairdo of Dracula in the opening scenes as a fresh idea, but that’s straight from Stoker text.

Yeah. I had gone back to the source, but I had engaged some extraordinary artists and I knew all the prehistory of why the book was written. Also, we used some historical information that had been handed down about the supposed Count Dracula, who was in fact a Romanian despot and a real person. Although Bram Stoker never really traveled there, he based it on what he had read.

And you had obviously seen F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.

Absolutely. That’s one of the great cinema masterpieces that exist. Murnau was one of the real early authors of cinema. He was way ahead.

Who got you involved with Dracula?

Winona Rider. She told me she loved this Dracula script that was very much like the book. And then I thought, well, Dracula was written at the same time as cinema was invented. What if I made Dracula much in the way that the earliest cinema practitioners would have? You know, making a thing that is in fact what it is also about.

So that’s what got you thinking about shooting the special effects almost like live magic tricks?

Yeah, in the script there were a million effects, but I wanted to do them all live. Nothing in post-production; do them all in the camera. I couldn’t get anyone to take me seriously, so I fired the special effects department and hired my young son, Roman, who was an enthusiast about magic.

How did you and Roman go about it? There’s one scene where this fantastic green mist comes through the window.

That was double exposed. The mist was shot as an element by itself. You photograph a scene and then you make good notes and you put it in the refrigerator and a week later you take the film out and then put it in the camera, and re-photograph the next element. In some cases we passed the film through the camera three or four times before it was developed. It’s very difficult, but the photography you get is very beautiful.

Amazing. It is just like the tricks they used in the silent era.

Very much like Georges Méliès, the story that Marty Scorsese taught us about in Hugo. Roman was a real hero of Dracula. He was only 24 or something when we made it. I thought he was going to win an Oscar for what he did. He would’ve if special effects were not such a… you know, some of the areas in the Academy are all voted by the other special-effects guys.

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Let me ask about some of the other technical details. How much of the film was shot on soundstages? Was it like 75 percent?

The film was 99 and a half percent done through stagecraft, even the chase at the Borgo Pass at the end. Everything was done fake.

Wow. It looks extraordinary.

I knew at that time, especially after Apocalypse Now, that any studio would be terrified to send someone like me off to some faraway place where a movie could get out of control. And quite frankly, from my own standpoint, the idea of going to Romania was sort of terrifying. I said, “There I’ll be in goddamn Romania in some castle at two in the morning trying to sleep and some looming shadow will come in. And then, for sure, my boyhood fear of all those horror movie figures, it’ll all come back to me.” And with that thought, I decided to make it entirely on a soundstage.

One of Dracula’s three Oscars was won by the great graphic artist Eiko Ishioka, for the costumes. How would you describe her contribution to the film?

Eiko was the design genius of the film; she was wonderful. She had done some spectacular posters for Apocalypse Now, Japanese posters, so I knew her. And she had never done costumes before, but I asked and she was up for it. And you know, each department in a movie, of course, is like a fiefdom that doesn’t want to surrender any resources, but I made sure that the art directors gave me vast space to let Eiko’s costumes shine.

The makeup effects, which also deservedly won an Oscar, were the highest caliber most of us had ever seen.

All makeup stems from the great innovator of makeup, Dick Smith. Greg Cannom (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), who was one of the many Dick Smith disciples, did all of those extraordinary prosthetics and makeup, but done very much hand in hand with Eiko. And actually, Gary Oldman was on set for three weeks before he started shooting his scenes. He spent all this time hanging out with the makeup guys and they kept inventing new personages — the bat creature and all these prosthetic suits and things. Those things that later tormented Gary, he had invented and added in those weeks of creative waiting.

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He’s definitely an actor, you can tell, who throws himself into everything.

He loves cooking up ideas. He’s a very intelligent person. It’s a pity that he gets cast as villains too much of the time.  

Keanu Reeves was very criticized for his performance. Do you feel responsible for that?

We knew that it was tough for him to affect an English accent. He tried so hard. That was the problem, actually — he wanted to do it perfectly and in trying to do it perfectly it came off as stilted. I tried to get him to just relax with it and not do it so fastidiously. So maybe I wasn’t as critical of him, but that’s because I like him personally so much. To this day he’s a prince in my eyes.

I think he’s spoken about being burnt out from so much work when he arrived on the set.

Perhaps. And I know the critics gave him trouble about the accent. But of all the young people I’ve met in the film industry he’s so endearing and sincere, and a good person, and a generous person, and I’m glad I came to know that. He’s the nicest person you’ll ever want to meet.

You’ve worked with Brando and De Niro and Pacino. Who’s an American actor that you’re a big fan of today?

Michael Fassbender… Is he American?

He’s Irish-German.

Well, even better. Great cinema is a movable feast. He’s a fabulous actor.

How do you feel about American cinema these days.

People always lament the state of American movies because the studio pictures are so much all the same. But the independent American film tradition with Steven Soderberg and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson and Tamara Jenkins — there’s just one great director after another. David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, James Gray. And, with them, all these wonderful actors. We’re living in a bounty. People are always lamenting the old restaurant that closed after 50 years, but they don’t realize that at the same time it closes, five more restaurants have opened that are going to be around for 30 years.

Yeah, very good point.

That’s the culture. We don’t want to lose the wonderful old, but at the same time there is new always coming and fresh things always emerging. 

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