Michael D. Sellers, a former CIA agent, makes his directorial debut with Vlad, the latest vampire flick to focus on the true origins of Dracula (aka, Vlad Tepes Drakul). It’s about a group of American post graduate students who travel to the Carpathian mountains of Romania to research and study the local legend, they find much more than their grades at stake. They are joined in their quest by another student, a Romanian woman who just happens to own a cursed necklace stolen from the skeletal corpse of Vlad Tepes; and Adrian, a guide from the University who has his own motivations for taking the group out of the city. Once the group is in the deep, dark forest, the lure of the necklace draws two people from the past into the present: Vlad's favorite victim, Ilona, and the vampire prince himself.
Horror.com had a chance to sit down with the interesting, intelligent man whose brainchild is Vlad and ask him to delve a bit deeper into the story behind the story.
Staci Layne Wilson: Do you believe that vampires really exist? (And I'm not referring to
the chick dressed in black who sleeps in a coffin and does the talk show circuit.)
Michael D. Sellers: I didn't... but while I was doing research for Vlad in Romania I came across some scientists in Romania (this is serious) who have identified a blood condition that they think might have played a role in giving rise to the myth of vampirism, particularly in Eastern Europe. These were serious scientists, and their work gave me pause, at least a little. You never know. I know that when we were in the Carpathians, and especially when we were in Castle Hunedoara, where the historical Vlad was imprisoned for 8 years in the 15th century, the sense of possibility about these things was much greater than when you're sitting in your office in North Hollywood.
SLW: What was the impetus for you to write a screenplay about the real Vlad Drakul Tepes?
MDS: Well, although he is considered the basis for all the Dracula mythology, none of the books or movies that I had seen or read about actually made the connection in a sustained, coherent way. That intrigued me. I felt like there was a gap, and maybe we could fill it. When you read Bram Stoker the connection is actually very evocative, but vague. So I wanted to basically connect the dots in a way that really starts with the real, historical Vlad Drakul and ends up with the Dracula of literature and cinema.
SLW: I understand that your screenplay is based upon a story by Tony Shawkat; was his story published? If not, how did you hear about it?
MDS: Tony was a producing partner. We were working on something else -- a story about a CIA officer in Afghanistan -- when he came to me and said, ‘You know, my brother lives in Romania and I have this idea for a horror movie which we could shoot over there.’ He then basically pitched me a storyline about a warrior from the past, pursuing a beautiful woman, when both of them break through into the present and the warrior torments four kids camping in the forest near a castle. At that point there was no specific historical content -- nothing about Vlad, or Dracula -- but the story felt to me like a classic horror setup that could be fun. So I went on the internet and starting digging for things about Romania that could enrich it -- which of course led me to Vlad the Impaler, and it just took off from there.
SLW: Your movie combines a lot of great genres -- even time travel! -- but of
course horror fans are going to be your primary audience. What can we bloodthirsty types expect from this new twist on the old vampire tale?
MDS: Something that goes back to the roots of it all and tries to reimagine it, and do that reimagining using some pretty "real" elements. You know, I was told by everyone in Romania that Francis Coppola, when he did Bram Stoker's Dracula, wanted to shoot in Romania but was "forced" by the studios, to do it on a soundstage in Los Angeles. We, on the other hand, with a budget of about 1% of Coppola's film, not only went to Romania but we made use of just about everything that Romania has to offer to enrich the story of Dracula -- the history, the Carpathians, the actual 15th century castles, and most of all the people of Romania -- great actors who have a deep soulfulness that is really very special. Take our "Wedding of the Dead" scene -- this is a Romanian tradition where if a young girl old enough to marry dies without a husband, the corpse is married first, then buried. It sounds bizarre but it's real -- and when we did it, we did it in the small town where Monica Davidescu, our Romanian actress, was born, and the people in the scene are not only her relatives, but are people who have participated in a number of these ceremonies, most recently just a few months before we got there. When you look at their faces, and hear them singing, chanting, and you KNOW you're really in the Carpathians and this is the real thing ...I think this is special.
SLW: Although your cast may not be “household names” they’re all quite good in their roles. Most independent productions -- particularly independent horror productions -- can’t always attract such competent actors. How’d you get so lucky?
MDS: My experience has been that actors respond to screenplays. If they like it, they're there for you, even if you don't have too much money. In this case, I think they sensed that although it was clearly a genre movie, there was a little more going on than that. As one reviewer put it, Vlad "aims far higher than the routine vampire horror movie". (By the way, that reviewer went on to impale me....but never mind.) I think the actors sensed that we were trying to do something that wasn't routine -- and that we were doing it with a kind of go-get-em indie spirit, and they responded.
SLW: Of course, the most important one is your title character: Vlad. He’s played by Anthony Quinn’s son, Francesco, who has a real screen presence. How was he cast?
MDS: I had known Francesco previously but we were originally thinking in terms of some bigger "name" actors. And there were quite a few who really wanted the role -- guys who have, I guess, secretly harbored a desire to play Dracula. I don't want to embarrass anyone by mentioning who they were -- but it was quite an interesting "shortlist". But I was very worried about whether these guys (the names) could really pull it off. Can you imagine how bad this movie could be if the buy playing Vlad didn't really convince you--if little traces of American-ness kind of crept into the performance, etc. It would be comical, and disastrous. And in midst of all of this Francesco came over and auditioned -- and I was completely sold. He totally "got it" right from the start.
SLW: About two years ago, I wrote in my review of CQ that I thought Billy Zane should definitely play a vampire. You didn’t exactly fulfill my wish here, but at least he wound up in a vampire movie. How did you think of him for the role of Adrian?
MDS: Well, we initially queried his agent much earlier -- before Francesco was in the picture -- about the possibility of playing Vlad. But we were told that he, at that point, was up for the lead in Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman eventually got it, of course) and so wouldn't do an indie horror vampire role for fear of jeopardizing chances there. So we kind of moved on. Then some months later, I guess Billy actually took at look at the script -- because suddenly we got a call from his agent saying that Billy really liked the script and was letting us know that he was available to play Adrian. Naturally we were thrilled.
SLW: You’ve produced a few movies, but Vlad is your directorial debut. Did you find that your background in the CIA was at helpful for you in having to deal with having so many balls in the air?
MDS: The CIA experience taught me to dive into the culture of any country where I work or even travel, and that was certainly the case here. I just became very inspired by Romania and its people. I guess it also helped in the "working under pressure" dimension as well. Our budget was tight which means our schedule was short, and time was critical, and as a result every single day was a white knuckle thrill ride, with a need to get a lot more done than we could reasonably hope to do in a single day -- so as director I had to be a real Houdini sometimes, as in "how's he gonna get out of this fix" when, for example, we were 8 hours into a 12 hour day and had only gotten half of our work done, with no option to extend for another day at that location. Wow, just thinking about it now makes me sweat a little.
SLW: Describe the experience of seeing your screenplay brought to life on the big screen.
MDS: I think one of the hardest things in low-budget is to achieve a consistent “universe” on the screen, where everything fits into an overall look and feel. It's easy to accomplish that with plenty of money, but with small money and not enough time, it can be very uneven. Vlad, thanks to the incredible work of our production designer Radu Corciova, and our DP Viorel Sergovici (both Romanians), pretty much achieves the look and feel I was imagining when I wrote it. I don't think it has any cheesy-looking moments. Also the acting -- I think we managed to get a whole movie up there without any clunky acting moments, which is something else that feels like a more significant achievement in low budget when you never have time or money for lots of takes. And then of course there are all the things that you wish you had gotten but didn't/couldn't. There were mountain and forest locations in Romania which I found during the scout and was dying to use -- but we just couldn't get the cameras and crew there within the limited time we had for those scenes. On balance, though, the experience of wrangling my screenplay to life on the screen has been a very positive one, and I'm looking forward to directing again very soon.
SLW: Vlad is not one of those comedic horror movies; it’s pretty intense and serious. But did anything fun/funny happen during production to help lighten you guys up a bit?
MDS: Well, maybe a couple of things; there is a scene where they find some wild hemp, cannabis... and our art department couldn't find anything that looked like the real thing, so they got permission from the police and then sent someone in a little tiny car halfway across Romania to find the real thing, which she did. So she drove all night across Romania (with a police escort leading the way) with about a bushel of freshly cut marijuana in the back seat and the fumes were so bad she had to stop every hour and get out of the car for fifteen minutes. She was in very strange shape when she finally arrived!
Another one: Vlad's horse and I had a collision that left us both quite a bit shaken up. It happened when the horsemaster was rehearsing the shot where the horse bears down on Ilona just as she goes through the "time gate". I was not paying attention and looked up and saw I was right in the path of the horse. We tried to avoid a collision but we each had the same ideas about which way to go, so when it became clear I wasn't going to be able to get out of the way I just reverted to football player training and lowered my shoulder and basically threw a block into his chest, which somehow kept me from getting hurt. I got bounced back onto the seat of my pants, but didn't get hurt at all. For the next couple of days, though, the horse would get really nervous anytime he got around me.
SLW: Dracula is such a great book. But I’ll bet most people these days would rather pick up the DVD than the novel. Why do you think the horror genre is more popular in film than in it is in books?
MDS: Horror is really dependent on the creation of mood and atmosphere and the sense of a possibility that these sorts of things could, somehow, happen. Books can do this up to a point but require a very active participation by the reader. With film, they don’t have to work so hard and the experience is probably a bit more powerful; more visceral.
SLW: Did you put a lot of history and back story in your movie, in some effort to address that gap between readers and viewers?
MDS: Yeah, I was really trying to get away with a "novel-like" amount of history and backstory in a movie and as we were shooting and editing, it was always on our minds -- is this too much? There are a couple of long set-piece explanations about Vlad and history that I think add depth and texture, but run the risk of losing the audience if they're not all the way "with you" as a filmmaker. But I'm glad we did it this way. No regrets.
SLW: Of course, movies are a visual medium and every director has influences. So I’m wondering, What are some of your favorite vampire films?
MDS: Well, my favorite horror director of all time is definitely Mario Bava, and the movie that I had most in mind when I did Vlad was Black Sunday, which scared the h--- out of me as a 6 year old when I first saw it as a kid. There was a kind of baroque, atmospheric quality to Bava's movies like Black Sunday and The Whip and the Body that I really liked. More recently I really liked "The Others" and "Ringu", the Japanese 'original' of The Ring. Also some other Asian horror -- especially some recent stuff coming out of Thailand, which I liked a lot.
SLW: What scares you -- aside from marauding horses who should be zigging when you’re zagging?
MDS: At night sometimes I see, or more precisely, feel a certain kind of "presence" that feels supernatural and is very scary -- but in a thrilling kind of way. I can't describe it, except to say that I do wake up and feel like, ‘Okay, something's here, I can feel it, I can almost see it.’ Sometimes it feels hostile, other times not. I wonder if there is really something out there or I'm just imagining it. But it's there, a lot.
SLW: Whatever it is, it’s certainly worked to fuel your imagination. If you could choose which vampire -- any from literature, film, or even your own Vlad -- were to kill you, who would it be, and why?
MDS: I would like to be Keanu Reaves in Dracula's castle with the three vampiras (especially Monica Belluci) -- that would be my preferred vampire death. Sorry, Vlad. Lucy could have killed me, too. Wouldn't have minded that so much.
SLW: The movie is out in limited release right now. But most vampires and their fans prefer to stay inside, with the lights turned down low; so when can we expect to be able to watch the Vlad DVD in the comfort of our own coffins?
MDS: In plenty of time for Halloween! Look for it at the end of September.
SLW: Thank you, Michael. Best of luck with the DVD. It’s a terrific vampire movie.
(by Staci Layne Wilson)