Published: Friday, 17 January 2020 13:13 | Written by SciFi Vision
The BBC One mini-series, Dracula, recently premiered on Netflix. The three episode reimagining tells the origin story of Dracula (Claes Bang), including his battles with the descendant of Van Helsing, his trip to England on the Demeter, and more.
The creators and writers of the series, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, who also plays Frank Renfield, recently talked to SciFi Vision in an exclusive interview about how the series came to be, the changes they made to the story from the novel on which it was based, potential for the return of the other series they created, Sherlock, and more.
SCIFI VISION: I had read you, Mark, took a photo of Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), and he looked like Dracula, which brought up the idea of doing the show, but obviously there’s more that goes into making a show. When that idea first came, what was it that made you say, yes, we want to retell the story of Dracula? What about the story most appealed to you? Why do you think the timing was right?
MARK GATISS: I’m a lifelong horror fan; I’ve made four documentaries about horror movies, so the chance to play in Castle Dracula was irresistible. We’ve joked for a long time that we’d do Dracula after Sherlock, as it’s the next most filmed character on the list after Sherlock Holmes. Then the joke became a reality.
We started by re-reading [Bram] Stoker’s novel, as with Sherlock, focusing in on the parts we’d always loved or that felt essential. High-gothic horror has been rather out of fashion, but the old wheel turns, and it suddenly felt very exciting to [do]: a really spooky castle, bats and howling wolves and nuns!
What are some of the things specifically you knew from the beginning you wanted to change for your version?
STEVEN MOFFAT: In most adaptations, and indeed in the original book, Dracula himself doesn’t appear very much. Always a frustration to me as a child, I wanted the main man up front and center. So, this was our chance to make Dracula the non-heroic hero of his own story. That became a challenge in itself, because he had to talk to people, not just snarl and threaten. Giving him a sense of humor and a degree of self-awareness felt risky but worth it. I think his wisdom and wit make his savagery more jarring and terrifying.
How was the decision made to bring the story into the present? Did you think about making the full story in the present like you did with Sherlock?
MARK GATISS: We originally thought of doing part one as a very tight version of the novel, then a middle episode set in the 70s, because of my love for the Hammer movie Dracula A.D. 1972, then the final part in the present. But it seemed a shame to “get through Stoker” so quickly, so we thought about doing the novel in three parts - not necessarily in the right order and with major changes, but essentially the beats of the book. So, while massively elaborating the voyage of the Demeter with an all new story really, we preserved the Lucy Western plot line form the novel, albeit set in 2020.
I’m curious about the two of you working together creatively and how the work was broken up. Did you both work on writing the screenplay together, or did you each write different sections or episodes, or was it a combination?
STEVEN MOFFAT: We often divide up scenes or episodes at first draft level. The shambles draft, we call it. Then we get together and go over and over every line of it, usually to the point where I can’t remember who did what!
MARK GATISS: Frank was originally just Dracula’s lawyer in episode three, then he became Frank Renfield, and eventually, in an uncannily similar way to Sherlock, everyone ganged up and asked me if I’d play it!
As much as the three episodes are part of a whole, the three episodes each definitely felt distinct, separated by locations, time, and things like that. Were the episodes pitched as separate stories?
MARK GATISS: Yes, they were. We pitched three Dracula movies that would stand alone and also make a very satisfying whole. It is still essentially the novel in three parts.
Whose idea was it for Mark to play the character who is essentially Renfield? I had read you were interested, but I didn’t know if you came up with it or someone suggested it. Also, was the part written with you in mind from the beginning?
STEVEN MOFFAT: It wasn’t written with him in mind, no. Mark never thinks that way. But as the part developed, it became obvious to us all that Mark was the right choice. I canvassed opinions while he was away from the studio, everyone agreed, and I broached it with him the next day. Odd thing, offering a part to the man you wrote the script with!
Mark, can you [expand on getting the part], and is it harder to write and act in the same project?
MARK GATISS: It’s often easier as I can change lines on the day if I can’t remember them.
We had a whole, elaborate ruse planned for Dracula where I would be billed as Abraham Van Helsing in order to distract from the idea that Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells) was the vampire hunter. We shot a flashback of me as Van Helsing Senior, but in the end it felt unnecessary and overloaded the end of episode one.
Frank was originally just Dracula’s lawyer in episode three, then he became Frank Renfield, and eventually, in an uncannily similar way to Sherlock, everyone ganged up and asked me if I’d play it! Although there was minimal fly-eating, I’ve always wanted to play Renfield, so it was a lovely treat.
When you were working to create him, was there anywhere or anyone else you took inspiration from besides the original book?
MARK GATISS: We ran with the idea that in this soulless modern world, the fact that Frank’s client is an undead monster wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, legally. I just saw him as a rather ordinary man with a very disturbing brief, who then disintegrates as he comes under the control of his Master. That and all the loose shirt cuff-work comes from the great Thorley Walters in Dracula: Prince of Darkness.
Obviously, a lot of times Mark is part of the cast for what he writes. Steven, have you ever wanted to be in the show you are working on, even as a cameo?
STEVEN MOFFAT: I think I should have been Dracula and Sherlock Holmes and at least a couple of Doctor Whos. I think the audience is ready for a leading man with no previous experience or talent.
Seriously, no, definitely not, very much not my area. I once got to play myself in a spoof Doctor Who documentary. It was a part that proved to be beyond my range.
When writing something based on something so well known - and not just necessarily Dracula, but Sherlock too - do you worry about reader or fan expectations or their preconceived notions of the story and characters?
STEVEN MOFFAT: You can’t worry. I mean, you do worry, but you have to shut it out. You can’t try to please people; you just have to be honest with yourself, work hard, and do what you think is good and interesting. Sometimes, only sometimes, other people might think it’s good and interesting too, but you have no control over that, and it doesn’t happen nearly as often as you’d like.
Can you talk about the design of the sets and costumes?
MARK GATISS: Arwel Wyn-Jones is an absolute genius and deserves every award going for his amazing work on the show. To create a wholly convincing, labyrinthine masterpiece like Castle Dracula, then to tear it down to create a wholly convincing and full-size sailing ship on the same soundstage takes guts and incredible vision. He has both.
Sarah Arthur is another old friend from Sherlock, and we all worked very closely to create a coherent vision of both the Victorian world and its modern counterpart. The wonderfully rich result is a testament to Sarah and her brilliant team. You have no idea how many hours we spent on the cloak alone.
What was each of your favorite scenes?
STEVEN MOFFAT: I love the convent confrontation. The scene in episode two where Agatha talks her way out of the noose and into command of the ship, I completely love. And the final moments between Agatha and Dracula I find very moving. In the end, I loved writing Agatha so much. I could never get enough of her.
Claes was a constant revelation. All the power and gravitas the part needs, the smoldering looks, but with such a grasp of lightness and comedy, he can occupy that screen like few people ever can.
STEVEN MOFFAT: We’re having a rest from [Sherlock]; we never decided to stop.
What was your favorite scene, Mark?
MARK GATISS: There are too many to name, but the confrontation at the convent gate is very memorable; Claes and Dolly got a round of applause on location when they did it for the first time. I’ve seen it countless times, and it still thrills. And I’m very proud of the scene on the deck of the Demeter when Dracula lures Adisa (Nathan Stewart-Jarret) to his death.
Are there any plans to somehow bring Dracula back for a second series, or has the plan always been just to be a mini-series?
MARK GATISS: Dracula has a habit of coming back. We could conceivably come back from that ending, but it depends on a great many factors.
STEVEN MOFFAT: Sitting here, right now, I’m very happy with how the show began, developed, and ended. It doesn’t mean there aren’t more stories to tell, but we haven’t sat down and thought about it yet. With characters like Doctor Who or Sherlock Holmes, you know there are always more adventure for them to have, but there are no “further adventures of Dracula.” The character and the world just aren’t designed that way. Anything further with our version of Dracula we’d consider to be a sequel rather than a continuation; there is a subtle difference.
As a fan, I do have to ask, you’ve previously said in interviews that nothing could be done until after Dracula, but now that the series has been completed, is there any plan to work on Sherlock again?
STEVEN MOFFAT: We’re having a rest from it; we never decided to stop. Of course, that rest might go on forever, you never know. From my point of view, I spent about ten years writing nothing else but Doctor Who and Sherlock. It was a career highlight and an amazing bit of luck, but the day came when I was desperate to do other things.
Also, Steven, I also just wanted to quickly ask, out of both Doctor Who and Sherlock, what has been your favorite episode that you’ve written or worked on?
STEVEN MOFFAT: I think for Sherlock, “A Scandal in Belgravia” is the best thing I’ve ever written. I knew it at the time, and I haven’t changed my mind.
Of my Who scripts, I was very proud of “Blink,” “Day of the Doctor,” and “Heaven Sent.”