By RICK HIPSON
Andre Øvredal is a Norwegian screenwriter and director known for scaring the hell out of us with such creations as TROLLHUNTER, THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE and SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK. As of August of 2023, you’ll get to see the next great thing Øvredal wants to use to terrify you as The Universal Studios film, THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER sets sail wherever you watch your favorite movies.
When we first heard a movie was being adapted from a three-chapter segment of Bram Stoker’s iconic novel, Dracula, we were skeptical to say the very least. Until we saw the trailer. It appeared as if looks as though fear was staked into the heart of this newest adaptation’s creature of the night. Dracula is the most filmed horror creature in cinematic history; films have ranged from the humorous (RENFIELD), to the dramatic (BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA), to something else altogether (TWILIGHT). This time around, however, Dracula is coming for us in all his nightmarish glory to offer up enough nightmare fuel to power many restless sleeps to come.
To find out how it all came together and what we can really expect from this film as of August 11, I sat down with Andre Øvredal to find out what he has to say.
To kick things off, Andre, why don’t you walk us through how you first came aboard the Demeter project?
I’m sure you also have seen through the years this project has been around for a long time. It’s one thing to look at the list of directors who have been attached to it and even some amazing actors, and you can’t quite fathom how they never were able to get it off the ground back then. But you know, things just happen. It’s hard to get a movie off the ground. It’s just very hard.
And this is a difficult movie. I mean, my God, it’s set on a ship and it’s historic and it’s special effects makeup. You know, it’s a lot. I was working with Brad Fischer on another movie, and this just became available, and we started talking about this as well. He was like “It’s a good script,” and I was just lucky to be there at a time when they needed a new director on board, and we were really eager to go. I mean Amblin had just optioned the rights I think, and then they were very eager to get it going because they all loved this story.
Perfect. And what does it mean to you? Because as you mentioned, it’s a very iconic task for you to take on and a very iconic story. What does it mean to you to add to the legacy of Dracula in the way that you did through your film?
I mean it’s always amazing to be part of the legacy of something that is so much greater than yourself, that is already so established in culture and in cultural history, and for you to be able to be a miniature—a little, tiny part of that—is always amazing. So Dracula, obviously being to me what I would consider the most famous, the greatest villain in Western culture, I was just floored by the opportunity to be able to participate in making this movie and with Brad Fischer, Mike Medavoy, and Amblin and Universal and Bragi and eventually Zach Olkewicz. All these amazingly talented people, and then the actors, and then the crew I got to work with. Dracula is obviously always a presence, where every couple years you see a new movie based on Dracula. And this was the first one where it… Well, not the first one, but obviously there are variations on it through the history of the cinema, but one of the first ones focused on making Dracula scary, because usually it’s the whole book; it’s just a big novel. It’s a classic of literature. So when you try to attack that, that’s a huge endeavour where horror will kind of be a little thing here and there when you need a scary scene with Dracula. You know he’s not that present in the book even.
Right. Dracula is only in about thirty percent of the entire novel.
So, to be able to focus on this story that Bragi came up with—Bragi Schut, the original writer—about the ship’s journey, which is basically like Alien on the ocean, where you’re stuck with this crew out in nowhere, and this demon comes upon them and attacks them and they don’t understand anything. There is no Van Helsing here. There’s nobody who knows what the hell is going on. They don’t even know it’s a vampire, or what that means even. It’s the ultimate fear of regular human beings, a crew working on a ship, very boring cargo ship in a way, but it’s an amazing journey at the same time, going from one end of Europe to the other end of Europe, and you feel like you’re flowing through three different oceans through the story.
Very cool. I want to touch more on the basis for the film in a little bit, but one thing I always found—and I’m sure you did as well, Andre—is what always blows me away is the level of meticulous research and realism that Bram Stoker wove into his iconic 1897 novel, right down to the weather patterns during the wreck of the Dimitry, the Russian schooner Bram based the Demeter ship off of. How important was it for you to either depict or omit such historical realism into your film while directing?
I want everything to feel historically accurate on the ship. We were very meticulous about recreating a world in 1897 that we really believed in, down to the ship and styling and how we worked in every little detail around those. And we had an amazing Art Direction crew who were from Germany led by Edward Thomas from the UK, our production designer who did this, who were so meticulous; if a thing was from the wrong year, we couldn’t use it. That was crucial because I believe in creating a textured atmosphere for the movie and for the actors and for myself filming it with the DOP that we get a sense of the world. To do that I also always shoot mostly with white lenses because I want the world to show. I want us to be in the world we’re making and the way the ship works. You want to have everything feel as real as possible and historically accurate. Of course, we are telling a tale out on a ship. We were trying to stay historically accurate in relation to where we are and how it looked and the design of everything to the degree we can stay true to reality.
That’s great, and what a beautiful sentiment too, Andre. I have no doubt, from everything I’ve learned about Bram Stoker, he would really appreciate the approach you took to honour him and his work and his legacy.
I understand the film is based off the Captain’s Log which is such a small part of one single chapter—Chapter 7 of the novel. The Captain’s Log takes up maybe three pages—which might be putting it generously—from the novel. Considering the endless possibilities of how the crew might have spent their final days at sea, everything they had to go through, I would love to hear your process for narrowing down what you wanted to explore with your telling of this pivotal moment in Dracula, based off those three pages in the book.
Ideally, when we have these kinds of conversations, I should have the writer with me here, because he is the creator of this. He is the person who is creating all this. I’m just evolving it into cinema in a way, the next evolution of it. How do I start…
Maybe a better question to ask, if you don’t mind me interrupting for a moment, Andre, is — obviously you have a very successful screenwriting resume yourself.—when you saw the working script, was there a lot that you felt you had to change or alter for the sake of getting the final cut of the film into the can from what that script was and what it represented about the ship’s journey?
No, because, I mean Bragi and Brad Fischer and Mike Medavoy and the people who’ve been with this movie for so many years, they have been very meticulous about keeping to the Captain’s Log. I don’t know how many times we were standing there on set or in post or in any phase of the moviemaking, with the Captain’s Log with us discussing, “Okay, so here he does this, here he says that.” That doesn’t mean we translated directly because we need to tell our story and it needs to flow. We went to our own choices in certain things, but you will recognize plenty from the book because we’ve been trying to keep as truthful as we could within our own parameters that are affected by so many things in making a movie.
Gotcha, and I’m so excited to see how it all turned out.
We were always preoccupied with staying with the text to the degree we can. It’s been very important to all of us.
When I first watched the trailer, it reminded me of something many filmmakers have said, that you should never work with children and never work with animals when you make a movie, which I think is a bunch of crap and seems like a very short-sighted principle, if you ask me. Thankfully, you don’t play by those rules. What can you tell us about your experience with working with young Woody Norman, who plays Toby, as well as his onscreen dog Huckleberry? Plus, what would the film would be missing without them?
Oh, I think there is a humanity and there is a wonder and there is something innocent. You know, these are just workers. They could be on an oil rig. They could be on a ship today. These are mostly all male workers and, in the middle, there is this innocence of a boy who is grandson of the Captain. The way he shows us around the ship and the way he makes the story softer in a way, and eventually more tragic altogether because this is not going to go well. Also, Woody is a fantastic actor who has so much naturalism to him in the way he performs, in the way he does dialogue, in the way he comes prepared. Making the movie with him, and his mom, how it all worked as a team effort to give him the best possible working environment to be able to do his stuff, I’d be very happy to make a movie with him again. He’s a star in the making.
Very cool. As for the dog, I’m guessing you spent some time building the relationship between Huckleberry and Toby before you filmed everything?
Yeah. He actually had a dog—a Labrador, I believe—himself previous to this production, so he knew how to handle a Labrador specifically, and I chose that (breed of dog) because I used to have a dog, a Labrador, and you’ll see it’s a throughline in SCARY STORIES YOU TELL IN THE DARK and here there’s a black Labrador in the movie.
That’s great. I never picked up on that when I first saw SCARY STORIES.
Of course, how could you? But anyway, that’s my little Hitchcock, I guess. So that worked out well. And I actually think it’s fun to have a black dog in scary dark scenes. It makes it interesting, visually.
Absolutely. Especially this one because, of course, there is a pivotable moment where a big black dog leaps off the Demeter once it makes actual landfall, when it crashes.
Yeah, it’s true. The relationship between them was working great. I mean they were best buddies, so it was easy.
I also love that you also have Javier Botet playing the ultimate role in the film, Dracula. I find him to be as talented as his life story is inspirational. He has an incredible story behind him and quite obviously has got the chops for pulling off very memorable killers. What can you share about your experience in working with Javier, and what you feel he brings to our favourite creature of the night?
He brings so much. Yes, as you say, first and foremost, he’s a great actor. He brings so much. Sometimes you don’t even need to tell him stuff. He would just keep giving performances and variations and moments. Even if the camera keeps rolling, he gets at it again and does more stuff that you weren’t expecting, and he gives you alternatives for something weird that the character must do on screen. He gives all kinds of stuff on it. What he goes through making a movie like this is astounding because he’s covered in all this latex and stuff and makeup. He needs to get water in through some pipes, and he needs to get air and wind. We had fans around him all the time because it’s so hot in there. And then we have these rain towers, and we have special effects makeup people constantly, and he needs to get off the set and, on the set, just to be able not to destroy the suit. And then we need to change it because something did go bad with it. God knows. I mean, it’s just all the efforts he’s making but he’s so agile, he’s so professional, he’s so enormously giving to his task in a way. And he was so happy. Hopefully you will speak to him as well, but I remember he was so happy to be able to betray Dracula on screen because he’s one of his favourite characters, and he was ecstatic about it.
It’s as if all the dark stars lined up to get him in a spot where he needed to be for this film, so that’s amazing.
You mentioned SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, and I recall It was like a kid in a candy store for me regarding the special effects which were absolutely eye-poppingly incredible. I really enjoyed what you did with the film. And I have to wonder, does Javier’s involvement, —and you alluded to it a little bit—does it indicate a heavy leaning that you and the rest of the crew had towards practical, physical effects, especially whenever Dracula was on screen? What proportion can we expect of digital to practical effects?
It’s all Javier, in a way, but tweaks were made. There are these visible fixes because that’s just the way it goes today. But it’s all based on Javier’s onscreen performance, every shot. This is all about him. Brad Fischer, the producer, and my experience with Guillermo on SCARY STORIES is also very similar, and Brad was very preoccupied with doing things for real, and I was totally in tune with that. He and I being the practical day-to-day producer/director team were very preoccupied with how this is going to work out on screen in a live way the actors could play against.
Perfect. Would you mind taking us on a walkthrough of the Demeter ship and the challenges of lighting, keeping everything dry when it needed to be, and so forth?
Basically, we split the shoot in two. We shot the interior of the ship. We built the whole ship as one huge interior piece in Berlin at Babelsberg, and then we built the exterior, the deck and all the stuff on top in Malta, also with the hull itself. In that tank they have down there, where Ridley Scott shoots and many other movies have shot there, and that really makes it possible. On both stages we would have some controllers to be able to shake the boats and do stuff and when we were in Malta, we had this water tower splashing water onto the ship in the storm scenes, and huge rain towers. And, of course, our lights were just enormous there. To light up that ship evenly so it feels like we’re actually out there on the sea is quite a task and sometimes some nights, you would get wind or something that was unpredicted. We had an amazing team helping us out with that, but then you sit there and wait, okay, in fifteen we’re gonna get in trouble with the wind so we have to start taking things down. Then you start taking down all the lights, and you start taking down the sails because the ship is a rigid piece, you know. It’s not like a ship on the ocean, which goes with the wind. It’s stuck and it’s going to fall over. The safety measures around this production were enormous, so it was really precise. That didn’t happen too many times, but it did happen a couple times where we had to do that. Then we’re like, okay, how can we shoot? Then we gotta shoot over here. We have some lights we can put high enough up, to light up the scene for this this particular angle, so we just kept shooting. We had to be inventive in the face of nature. And then, of course, you have sunrise, sunset, or the other way actually. It’s where you start in the day. We were shooting at night mostly on the deck there because, you know, that’s when Dracula is out.
It’d be a pretty boring film if was all done during the daytime. Ok, and here’s a box.…
(laughs) Yeah. So, we would be prepping and already shooting some daytime pieces just before the sunsets or sunrise piece that we need. Then we move into night, and we have maybe a nine-hour long night, which is not a very long day, you know.
Not at all.
You don’t get that much done with those enormous shooting situations. There’s so much safety, so much stuff going on. It was a scramble to get through every day. But which movie isn’t?
Exactly. And speaking of which if I can begin putting a stake in our chat so to speak, which I’m very much enjoying. I’m curious, Andre, what might say to anybody with doubts about stepping onto the deck of your Demeter because they think they’ve seen everything there is to see about Dracula and don’t think they need another representation of Dracula?
I think it is the scariest depiction of Dracula ever on screen. That is my honest opinion. It’s a horror movie with Dracula at its center, something that hasn’t really been done much before. It’s (usually) an epic drama with pieces of horror, and this is scary. It’s set out in the ocean. It’s like ALIEN on a ship in 1897. You’ve got beautiful vistas and intriguing characters in a unique environment. It’s a blend of horror and history and emotional drama and existential horror I think has never been made before. I personally think it’s a very unique, original movie the audience will embrace.
Fantastic. I got goosebumps hearing your description of it. Is there anything else you care to share that I haven’t thought to bring up yet?
We have an amazing cast with all these wonderful, strong, superb actors that are embodying these characters with their hearts, and there is so much drama in their lives on this trip. You really get to feel these characters and their lives in a very great way. It’s such a vivid, varied group of actors. I’m very proud of our cast.
For 126 years we’ve been asking what the heck happened on that ship before it crashed ashore Collier’s Hope in Whitby, England, with the corpse of its captain tied to the wheel. Thanks to you and the rest of the cast and crew, we may finally have our answer.
Thank you. Great talking with you.
THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER is in theaters nationwide as of today, August 11.