Vlad, Bad and Dangerous to Know

Here’s part two of my commentary on Francis Ford Coppola’s commentary on BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. Slip into your loud pink shirts and join me on this adventure! This time, we’ll also get Fiona’s commentary on my commentary. Maybe by the end of the two-hour running time we can include the whole world.

Take it away, Franny!

Tom Waits played Renfield, who was the former real estate guy who had gone off to Transylvania to attempt to do a real estate deal with this mysterious Count Dracula.

When you say it like that, it seems so natural. Waits’ casting might seem, on paper, the barmiest thing in this very eccentric film, but I contest it’s one of the things that incontestably WORKS. But then Renfield, like Goebbels, always seems to work. I defy you to name a bad Renfield. Although Jack Shepherd in the BBC teleplay is so amazing that he can make everyone else look like a flop. But Waits is great, and it must have been nice for Coppola to have a familiar face in the cast, an ally who evidently gets what he’s on about, as so many of the others did not. (But I’m not entirely blaming them.)

This is the only film I know of where Tom Waits plays an estate agent. That should change, man.

Waits’ first bit shows him standing from a crouch, filmed from above with a wide-angle lens, so he seems to sprout impossibly. A great trompe l’oiel moment, worth stealing. If you like stealing things — if you’re Paul Schrader or Lynn Ramsay — you should check this film out.

OK, Francis has started explaining the plot now. You have a choice whether to listen to actors speaking James V. Hart’s dialogue to explain the plot, or Uncle Francis, who might be doing a better job of it. Disappointingly, our favourite funny uncle generally adheres to the Sidney Pollack dictum of “Let the boring crap be boring crap,” so that apart from the pleasingly theatrical establishing shot above, this kind of scene plays out in dull, televisual close-ups. Since there’s always a world of wonder happening in the sets and costumes, this is a shame, and Coppola’s nervous tendency to jump in close — brilliantly apposite for Mafia politicking, fatal for tap-dancing — is in play throughout.

SUBTEXT — Coppola has already told us how Winona Ryder “didn’t feel well” and had to drop out of GODFATHER III. So in my reading, Renfield/Waits = Winona/GODFATHER III, the first attempt at doing whatever this is, who had a nervous breakdown and had to be replaced by one Coppola with another, and Keanu/Harker = Winona/BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, the current movie/mission. Harker’s trip to darkest Transylvania on behalf of his real estate firm is a metaphor for Coppola’s second attempt to work with Winona. Let’s see if this theory holds up, whatever the hell it is. Really, this is not a subtext I’m reading from the film, but from the film’s audio commentary.

This was a great big sound stage that had a pool, and this is the pool where Esther Williams made all of her films in the MGM era.

I’m thrilled to hear this and it seems totally appropriate. The same pool was renovated for HAIL, CAESAR! I believe.

I love the peacock feathers folding across the scene like a curtain, I hate the mix to a tunnel mouth. A lot of the overlaid images in this movie are very nice, and very silent-movie in style, but so many of the transitions are horrible — not in execution but in CONCEPTION. I will mercilessly flag them up as they appear.

Everything is live, it’s not done in post-production as it would be done in modern times.

Coppola then compares this approach to Pabst, curiously enough, before mentioning the more appropriate Murnau. Keanu on the train, deliberately stylised and unreal, still manages to be just as convincing as Arnie on the train in TOTAL RECALL. And Transylvania looks just as alien as Mars.

It’s interesting, I see the letter and he says, “Your friend, D.” For a while I was suggesting that we call the movie D. with a period just to try to designate it as being different from the more familiar Dracula movies, but I guess that wasn’t such a good idea, at any rates it wasn’t an idea that was used.

You’re right, it’s a terrible idea (commercially) but thanks for confessing to it. Coppola has already said that he put Bram Stoker’s name up front in the same way as he did with Mario Puzo’s, a much happier notion.

As Francie is describing how faithful James V Hart’s script is to the book, the film rushes ahead to Castle Drac, skipping out lots of atmospheric build-up. As a result of cramming back in all the usually deleted characters, the movie tends to be in an awful hurry, rather like Keanu’s coachman. Coppola tells us that he had the entire cast sit around for three days and read the novel aloud ~

something that really frustrated Antony Hopkins, who didn’t see for the life of him why I wanted to have them read the entire book, and of course I did because I wanted to be sure they read the whole book, and also I was hoping we’d discover something in the book that had been left out.

Strictly speaking, the latter task could have been accomplished just by FFC reading the book alone, but who’d pass up the opportunity to get the cast of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA to read you Bram Stoker’s Dracula? I like to think this happened at Coppola’s house while he lay in bed drinking his fine Californian wines.

We did work with wolves, they were real wolves, and they’re tricky to work with, you have to be very respectful of their territory.

Wait, they filmed on the wolves’ territory? Or certain areas of the studio were designated wolves’ territory for the purposes of filming? Did Tom Waits also have territory?

We’re told that lots of thought went into the moment when the coachmen reaches out with an overextending arm, plucks Keanu from the soil, and sets him within the carriage. I love that they did it live on set. I don’t love how it looks. I think wirework might be a better solution. Also, poor Keanu has the impossible task of reacting to this occurrence with mild surprise.

Ishioka did various designs for the coachman, all beautiful and eerie, but the fellow never really gets an effective “hero shot.” The stuff involving actors doing and saying things tends to be the least effective in this movie. Fortunately, a huge amount of the movie has nothing to do with acting and dialogue and blocking; unfortunately, it’s not a totally abstract/special effects film.

you know that you’re in a realm of supernatural because things don’t happen correctly.

Or maybe you know you’re in a late Coppola movie.

“He’s got bum hair! His hair is shaped like a bum!” says Fiona, of Gary Oldman’s Dracula.

Coppola is pontificating, interestingly, about the similarity between vampires and mafiosi (you have to invite them both in) and Keanu is enjoying his supper when Dracula suddenly crosses a room, swinging a dirty great sword. This is pretty funny in the movie, but hilarious in the Watch BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA with Francis Ford Coppola version because FCC takes no notice of it whatsoever.

I think it would work better if Keanu choked on his goulash in surprise. The film is really devoid of any actual human behaviour, isn’t it? I mean, so is the Universal version, but I think that’s a bit of a problem there too.

Of course this, um, performance of… Gary Oldman

The hesitations are funny and possibly revealing.

attempted to blaze a new trail, making use of the historical Vlad Tepes, the picture of which is on the portrait

I’m pretty sure that’s a picture of Gary Oldman.

as well as, a character, the eccentric count living in an old castle that had been made so famous by Bela Lugosi. And we felt very much that we were going to go in another direction, for better or worse, and try to find a new kind of imagery…

And I think we’re all happy Gary isn’t wearing an opera cape, which Christopher Lee always said was a silly costume for lounging around at home in the Carpathians. I don’t know what WOULD be most suitable. Maybe furs? Maybe NOT a giant red kimono with a ten foot train. But, it’s another bold choice.

“You know what he looks like?” asks Fiona. I mention Glenn Close.

“No, the bum-face guy in SOCIETY [Ed Begley Jr.]” she declares.

“Well, he has a similar sort of neck wattle…”

“And he has a bum on his head! I’m lowering the tone, aren’t I?”

Oh, I expect you’ll want to see Gary Oldman singing West Side Story in his Dracula voice now, won’t you?

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6 Responses to “Vlad, Bad and Dangerous to Know”

  1. ”you know that you’re in a realm of supernatural because things don’t happen correctly.”

    That part comes well in the film, very much like Dreyer’s Vampyr, where you see the inversion of the natural order and you get a sense that the Count and other beings exist on another plane of reality altogether.

    I guess the reference to Pabst was his greater realism compared to Murnau, at least I assume that.

  2. No, he really seems to think Pabst is a master of in-camera effects. Which I suppose could mean Secrets of a Soul…

  3. Dreyer claimed not to recall the shooting of “Vampyr” at all. He was going through a major crisis as he’d fallen madly in love with his DP, Rudolph Mate — who had shot “The Passion of Joan of Arc” and would go on to shoot “Gilda”

  4. And Laurel & Hardy’s Our Relations.

    I should have recalled this while making a vid essay on Michael, recently.

  5. For some reason I have a strong memory of a short-lived TV talk show hosted by Ian Dury in the early nineties. During an interview Anthony Hopkins mentioned that he was about to start work on a new film version of Dracula directed by Coppola. Dury casually mentioned that he had auditioned (or was about to audition) for the role of Renfield. It can’t have been cast yet as Hopkins replied, “hope you get the part.”

    That could have been interesting. At least Dury’s mannered style has a tad more appropriate authenticity than Waits.

  6. Dury would have been good. But I love Tom Waits in it (except that, although Renfield is always entertaining, nobody can top Jack Shepherd in the role). Authenticity isn’t really the priority here: but Waits is comfortable in his inauthentic characterisation in a way that Keanu doesn’t seem in his.

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