"Tales from Transylvania: A Conversation with DRACULA UNTOLD Director Gary Shore" By Jason Anders

Gary Shore, an Irish filmmaker from Artane, Dublin, spent seven years of his life trying to break into the business as a director. Completely broke, on social welfare, and six months into having given up on his dream of making movies, Shore received a phone call that changed his life. Today, he has a feature film behind him with Universal Pictures and multiple movies in the making. He responded to an interview request by taking the time to meet up with me at a coffee shop in Hollywood. He bought me an iced cappuccino and spent the next ninety minutes telling his story, which will inspire anyone with big dreams to endure the hard times...  

Jason Anders: It's pretty cool that your origin point of directing feature films is in telling an origin story of an icon. How did Dracula Untold (2014) come to be your fist project? 

Gary Shore: It was a combination of hard work and luck, initially. I had a general meeting with Jeff Kirschenbaum, the executive on the project at Universal Pictures, around 2010. I was showing him my previous work, some short form commercials, and he really dug it. When we ended the meeting he said, "let's try and find something to work on together." Two weeks later there was a shakeup at Universal and Jeff ended up becoming Co-President of Production. One of the particular companies who had a project with Jeff was Michael De Luca Productions and they had the Dracula Untold project for several years - it came close to being made a couple of times, but they never could quite make it happen.
They said they were interested in the version I pitched. I was really surprised because I had this skepticism about Dracula, feeling that we'd seen enough films about him at this point. However, having said that, I was very interested in the backstory of Vlad the Impaler. A few years before that I had seen a documentary about him on the History Channel and I put it in the back of my mind as being a wonderful story to bring to the screen. The hook that got me interested and touched me about the script was the opportunity to tell a dark hero story. I'm really interested in the tragic hero. I love tracking the rise of characters like Darth Vader, Michael Corleone and Caesar in Planet of the Apes (1968). For any filmmaker who likes dark material it's great to try and tell that arc, but that on its own wasn't enough.

There was an idea of family in there that I felt was interesting - how do you rationalize this mass murder at home? To dig into those details is what interested me. I told them I'd love to take a stab at this, but in the story Vlad's son was only a baby and I wanted to make him eight years old so that he could have a relationship with his father that actually resonated. For me, that became the center of the story. It's a father and son story, even though they had always imagined it as Braveheart (1995). It was the darkest ending I had read since I arrived over here - all of Vlad's people die, the people of the town kill their own children and drink their blood, and Vlad's son is the only survivor who says at the end, "I love my father but I pray I never see him again." There's no fucking way that is ending up in a studio film, but that's the ending that I would love to have.

JA: Were there specific movies that inspired you to become a filmmaker?

GS: I loved going to the cinema, I went every Sunday as a kid, but I never thought of it as a profession. I wish I had that romantic story where I started making films as a kid on Super 8, but unfortunately that's not the case. I was always into painting, illustration and drawing and I wanted to be a comic book artist.
JA: Which comics were you into?

GS: I was into Jim Lee and the Adam and Andy Kubert illustrations. It wasn't the stories that interested me, it was what was being drawn.

JA: What made you decide to go to film school?

GS: I ended up in film school by accident. I went to art college to become a painter. The way the system works in Ireland is that all higher education is free, so it's equal opportunity. I studied pretty hard and ended up doing better than average and had the option of going to this film school that wasn't portfolio-based, it was points-based. With my love of both film and art I thought that maybe I could go into advertising. I was a total failure the first year. I eventually got my first short made, and looking back at it years later I really thought, "wow, that's pretentious."

I always imagine it like you get into a little dinghy and you're out at sea - you can see the shoreline as you row away and want to see what's farther out. It's the same when you make shorts or music videos, you find yourself accelerating to a point where you say, "it's too far to go back now."

Eventually, I woke up to a phone call from Warner Bros. saying "we've seen your work, how would you like to come work for us?"
JA: What was it that they saw to make them call you?

GS: A trailer that I made for a film called The Cup of Tears, adapting Japanese animation into live action. I was really inspired by the techniques they were using back then in anime. It ended up being something that was quite bonkers as a script, which I loved, and the teaser evolved out of it.

JA: Which filmmakers do you really respond to?

GS: David Fincher, Terrence Mallick, Akira Kurosawa, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese - they're great entertainers who delve into great drama and have all made masterpieces.

JA: Since the first director you listed was David Fincher, I'm curious as to if you've watched the Alien 3 (1992) documentary.

GS: Yes, it's fascinating.
JA: Have you had similar experiences to his?

GS: Absolutely. There's a reason you get hired as a first-timer on a studio film and it's a huge gamble that they put on the director. It's a lot more nuance than the bottom line equaling a job well done. Everybody goes in trying to make the best film that they can and at the end of the day it's the director who has to take responsibility. The editing room is a pretty lonely place because all of the people who were telling you what to do on set are now gone. Alien 3 I've always put up there in the crosshairs - it baffled me that someone of Fincher's quality could be so disrespected, they just didn't know who they had on their hands. There's a missed masterpiece in that film if they'd just go back to all those reels sitting in storage and put together a feature film the way he designed it. You can see Fincher in the griminess and desolation of that movie.

It's the same with Paul Thomas Anderson - when you look at Cigarettes & Coffee (1993) you can see that same DNA which translated into Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999). Fincher's DNA goes all the way back to his music videos.

JA: You and David Fincher have similar origin stories.

GS: I sent him a message a while ago about having a rough experience with the studio thing and we ended up getting coffee together to share horror stories, he guaranteed his stories were darker than mine. He's one of those guys who looks at other filmmakers and wants them to do the best they can and be given the opportunity to see how a lot of the nuance and the politics work in the system over here to help us avoid certain mistakes. He's championing the filmmaker and is incredibly generous with his time. It's rare, a lot of people are very protective out here, but he's all about passing it on.
(Dracula Untold merchandise)
I always had the Alien 3 thing in the back of my mind and I ended up getting into those realms during post-production, there was a lot of heavy involvement from the studio and it was incredibly frustrating. Our release date got moved forward, we were going to be opening up against Gone Girl (2014)... fucking irony. It's like you start out boxing and the first fight you get is against Muhammad Ali. This is the guy I've put up on a pedestal and looked up to on every aspect of what I do. I sent him that message before Gone Girl opened saying that I hope it does incredibly well because we need films like that to be made by auteurs like himself. He makes these very interesting and commercially difficult films - there are only so many guys on the front line who can yield that kind of power to make those films without compromise. For every one of those films that hits and is successful, it gives the studio and marketing an opportunity to see that an adult thriller can do incredibly well without having to dumb everything down to this PG world. 

JA: Do you have a commercial you're most proud of?

GS: I'm not necessarily proud of commercials for the very fact that they are a cynical ploy to help people buy shit. It's also hard to tell a story in thirty seconds. It started off as a way of just trying to get work and make a living. Had I been doing this fifteen years ago things may have been a bit different, it was all a little bit more in the filmmakers' hands. It was they heyday of music videos, commercials and auteur short films.
(Gary Shore's concept art for Dracula Untold)
JA: It seems like the way in is always changing...

GS: Everybody's journey is so different. If I could package that into a course I could make a living out of it. You can do something that you think will get a great response and nobody looks at it - when you just do it for yourself and it happens to get through it can be satisfying, but then you realize the easy part was getting in. Now you have to actually deliver something that has worth, meaning and longevity.

JA: Did Universal Pictures tell you what they saw in your work that made you stand out?

GS: My commercials were quite visual. My comic book and anime days came back to influence my style. Also, my use of green screen.

When I was making music videos I started doing a lot of green screen, only because I had a really bad experience shooting at nighttime where I didn't have lights and someone put grease in our actress' hair instead of conditioner... she looked awful... we were out in the middle of nowhere on some mountain in Slovenia near Lake Bled and it was freezing. It was a fucking disaster. I said I would never shoot somewhere where we were that limited again. I wanted to have green screens and do all my own backgrounds and all my own matte paintings.

Study to be a writer and study After Effects, that way you're not limited by everyone's problems. You're a master of your own destiny. If you can write well, and you can articulate it visually with modern animation software, you're gold. People will want to see it. Storytelling is the most important part. You're only limited by your imagination.
JA: What was your initial reaction to the first screening of Dracula Untold?

GS: It came in ebbs and flows. The studio was very keen to get it down to 90 minutes. There's a lot of wonderful elements that the writers envisioned and put into the story, this collage of great ideas that had taken them years to write. On their own those elements were wonderful, but as a story I was trying to figure out what it was. If I had more experience making films with a studio I could have spotted those mistakes early on. We did not have enough sub-plots to sustain a two-hour film, it wasn't The Lord of the Rings (2001) or The Hobbit (2012) where you have multiple strands of story all moving and meeting at one point, it was the story of one man. There's barely a scene in the film without Dracula.

JA: I don't think there could have been a better vampire for this film than Charles Dance.

GS: We were actually trying to get Gary Oldman for that role since he was Dracula in Coppola's film, he would have nailed it. We also talked about getting Christopher Lee while he was around, God rest his soul.

JA: I don't know if it was intentional, but when Dance licks the blood off of Vlad's neck it reminded me of that scene in Alien 3 where Ripley is cornered by the Xenomorph...

GS: That wasn't a mistake. I was doing that because of the Charles Dance connection and I wondered if I'd actually get away with it. You're actually the first person to pick up on that. That's funny. I was always asking Charles between takes about his experience on Alien 3 and he actually had to tell me to shut the fuck up at one point because I was asking too many questions. He didn't say that exactly, it was in a much politer way.
JA: It's interesting that you wanted Gary Oldman for the Dracula (1992) reference, but then accidentally ended up with Mauro Borrelli who worked on that same film as your illustrator for the "book of the dead."

GS: The funny thing about Los Angeles is that you have this concentration of great artists, filmmakers, writers, illustrators, seamstresses, directors of photography - Fincher's take on it is that you have twenty-five miles of this talent and you can fill your time with bullshit meetings but, ultimately, you don't have control of your creative future. The important thing about living here is putting in your time every week to meet these people, if you do that then it's the greatest town in the world... if you don't, it's just a waste. That's the only way I was able to get an illustrator with that connection, Borrelli just happened to be in town by a wonderful coincidence.

JA: Were there other intentional homages in Dracula Untold?

GS: I think the biggest reference in that film was probably to Predator (1987). There's particular moments such as the Turkish soldier shaving with the knife before the bats fly into the camp (referencing Mac), the heat signals (or bat vision, as we called it), and then Vlad just getting out of the water after he wakes up in the river with the big wide shots... you can almost hear Alan Silvestri's score coming in, very man versus nature. I think I remember counting 10 Predator references total. The biggest overt Predator reference wasn't in the film, we were shooting the battlefield sequence where Vlad and his men run out to fight the Turks - it was 4 a.m. and I blasted the end credit music from Predator on the loudspeakers. I told Luke before shooting one of his scenes to take his cue from the end of Predator when the device goes off and the ash is just raining down... walking back to the choppers, Dutch is beaten but not broken. He was just like, "Gary, what the fuck are you talking about?"
There's a couple of Spielberg references, actually - when the bats are circling the tower with Ingeras and Mirena at the window it's a clear rip of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), I was even playing John Williams' score on the set that day. There's a Goodfellas (1990) reference, the bit where DeNiro is smoking and the camera pushes right into his face and he takes the cigarette and stabs it out - I wanted to use that moment when the Turks first walk in during the Easter gathering in the Great Hall, I just push into Vlad's face the exact same way. If there were a cigarette in his hand he would have stabbed it out on the pig in front of him that he's having for dinner.

I made the film school mistake of wanting to get a long tracking shot like the one from Boogie Nights or Goodfellas to introduce the Great Hall. I had this idea of making a political drama with a Boardwalk Empire (2010) type story with everybody vying for a piece, which is what Transylvania history books were saying at the time. It was a political turf war. Vlad and his brother were put in there as puppet leaders and I wanted to get a sense of that with a long tracking shot. After about fifteen takes and half a day we finally got the shot, and then the studio heard about it and flew in the accountants and executives who all said, "fuck you, you're not going to waste our time and money on shots like that again." It was a good shot, but you've got to know what film you're making. It's just not going to happen on a big tent-pole movie. I wanted it there to give an impression of the environment, but there's just this appetite of the studio to move things along and get rid of all that stuff. You end up with this compromised vision.
JA: Were you a fan of the original Dracula (1931)?

GS: I think that's the world of Guillermo Del Torro, the fascination with old Gothic literature and classic storytelling, which wasn't my education or what captured my imagination. The films that captured my imagination were movies like Empire of the Sun (1987) or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) - these little movies about characters under pressure were my first impression of films with an engaging power over an audience that aren't just warm, fuzzy feelings. I absolutely adored E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), it gave me a gut-wrenching feeling at the end.

JA: You mentioned you saw The Treasure of the Sierra Madre at seven years old, how did you arrive at it?

GS: My dad. It was on during a Saturday morning close to Christmas and my dad just said we were sitting down to watch it. Every Christmas I watched it again and it became my holiday movie. It's those formative years. Unless you get exposed to the classics then, you can appreciate them in a different sense but it's not as engrained in your DNA. 
(Dracula Untold concept art)
JA: What else drew you to Dracula Untold?

GS: The original ending of the script - it was a total downer, but completely true to the tone of what it should be. Dracula should have ended up on his own. Alone. There's a love story there that a huge part of the audience responded well to, but for me that wasn't the ending. We shot a scene of all the kids being killed by their parents who drank their blood and at the eleventh hour the studio asked for that scene to be removed. I asked at what point were we going to make a Dracula film. My sad ending never ended up in the film, but the movie was a mild success for the studio and I don't think it would have been anywhere near that had all of those elements stayed because people would have reacted badly to such a depressing ending.

It's like I told you earlier, with the stories of Darth Vader or Michael Corleone - how is it ever going to be a happy ending? This guy has just sold his soul and is going to Hell. Purgatory. These tragic characters end up destroying themselves. It was dark, but we could've gone darker. Dracula isn't just shades of gray, and I wanted to go all the way into the darkness but I couldn't get away with it.
JA: Any chance that you'll be involved in the sequel?

GS: I think it would had to have done better financially to warrant a sequel. But who knows, there's certainly a core group of fans out there who would like to see it happen. I hope for their sake it does.

JA: What are you working on now?

GS: I wanted to focus mostly this year on a short film - my wife is having a baby in about four weeks time and I wanted to make sure I didn't have a film on the other side of that. I'm finishing it today, which will be a segment in the film Holidays (2015). I want to go back to the stuff that really captured my imagination. I've had a lot of mythological stuff sent to me and I don't want to work in a Medieval setting again.

I'm one of those people who can only do one thing well at a time. I like to pick one thing and then really go for it.
(Universal Orlando's 2014 Halloween Horror Nights featured a Dracula Untold maze)
JA: What advice would you give to someone who wants to be creative for a living?

GS: It's not absolutely necessary, but it really helps if you have someone at home who doesn't judge you for what you want to do. I was extremely lucky that my parents were supportive... and not in the financial sense, they just told me to do my best. A lot of people get stuck in a situation where their parents want them to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer - if it's a job that you don't want to do then don't do it.

There is no easy way to break through and make a living creatively, and in most cases it takes about ten years to even get in the front door. If you have parents who are supportive and allow you to stay home until you're 28, working in your room, that's what you need. I've worked in bars all night and creatively all hours of the day at home and had to just keep on reading, drawing, writing and watching stuff. You've got to put in your hours. A great chef is going to know the taste of good food because they've developed a palette, they know what is great from testing. You have to watch as much as you can and study as much as you can in order to be able to have taste. This isn't to say that I have great taste, but I know what I respond to and what I like.

You need to be prepared to put in a lot of time. I got to a point at twenty-seven when I was living in the suburbs of Dublin at my parents' house and all of my friends had started work two years earlier - they'd all bought houses at that point and were professionals and I was completely broke. I remember one night deciding between buying two beers and walking home or one beer and taking a bus - I remember walking home thinking, "I never want to be in this situation again." I was on social welfare and living at home with fuck-all options left. Literally on the breadline. I'd given up film at that point - about six months prior I said "I can't break into this" after spending the best part of seven years in Dublin working on it. Having someone else who really believes in you is what you need.
(Gary Shore's concept art for Dracula Untold.)
JA: That's an inspiring thing to hear from someone who just directed a big-budget Universal horror movie - there are a lot of people on the edge of giving up.

GS: In your country you're maybe going up against a thousand other people who decide to go into this business. People get distracted and that thousand people dwindles down to two hundred... maybe one hundred. Once you get to your late twenties there may only be five of you left. It's the very last people standing who make it through because eventually you're going to become competent and there will be so few people left to race against you that you'll start breaking away from the rest of the crowd and come into your own. You just need endurance and the support of other people.

JA: Since it's Halloween, let's close on your essential scary movies.

GS: The only film that ever scared me in a really psychological way was The Exorcist (1973). It still would. It goes to a whole other dark place that you just don't see in modern movies, with imagery that just disturbs. It's also beautifully structured with a very clever sound design. It gradually stretches between horror and normality, which makes the disturbing stuff work. Also Salem's Lot (1979) and It (1990). I enjoy John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) but it's not going to scare me, it's just really good storytelling.

JA: How would you sum up your life with just three words?

GS: Make your luck. I don't think anyone is lucky, I think you have to earn it.

Follow Gary Shore on Twitter at @GaryShore81