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Ken Russell's Dracula

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Ken
Russell’s Dracula

 

Ken Russell
was a successful photographer before being hired as an
independent filmmaker by the BBC. Between 1959 and 1970 he made thirty-five
35mm films for the BBC which advanced the art of filmmaking in England. His
1971 feature film
The Devils
is widely regarded in Britain as being the
finest film made by an Englishman, but the film’s American owners, Warner
Brothers, do not allow Russell’s version to be shown outside London. Ken
Russell had worldwide box-office success with
Women in Love
(1969),
The
Music Lovers
(1970) and
Tommy
(1975). In the 1970s, he had more
number-one hit films in Britain than any filmmaker. He directed the last great
M.G.M musical,
The Boy Friend
(1971).

 

Paul Sutton
, an
historian and photographer in Cambridge, has worked as a screenwriter in
Wyoming, and as a script doctor in Hollywood. He was the founding editor of the
Cambridge University Film Journal. His books include: ‘Lindsay Anderson, The
Diaries’ (Methuen & Bloomsbury), and The Definitive Biography of Ken
Russell, volume one of which, ‘Becoming Ken Russell’ is published by Bear Claw
Books.

 

Ken
Russell’s

Dracula

 

With
an Introduction

by
Paul Sutton

 

Bear Claw Publishing

Cambridge UK

 

[email protected]

Ken Russell’s Dracula

© Ken Russell Productions, 2009

Ken Russell is identified as the author of this book. The
moral rights of the author have been asserted.

Second Edition (February 2013)

Published by Bear Claw Books

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be
reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any
means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, print on demand or
otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

This
book shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or
otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of
binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar
condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

ISBN: 978-0-9572462-0-1

Ken
Russell photographed by Paul Sutton

Introduction

 

“I’ve heard you
have written a screenplay for Dracula. There isn’t a film I’d like to see more
than
Ken Russell’s Dracula
. Can you tell me something about it?” were
the very first words I ever said to Ken Russell. It was shortly after 4pm on
Sunday 11th June 1989. He was on the stage at the City Lights cinema in
Nottingham. I was in the audience. The cinema, built at the top of a small
sixties highrise, was closing down. They’d decided to go out with

a bang and had
programmed a dozen days of Ken Russell films, from
Elgar
and
Song of
Summer
on Tuesday 30th May, through to
Savage Messiah
,
Salome’s
Last Dance
,
Altered States
,
The Lair of The White Worm
,
The
Devils
,
Dante’s Inferno
,
French Dressing
,
Crimes of
Passion
and
Women in Love
, to conclude on Sunday 11th June with Ken
Russell himself live on stage. Thereafter the cinema would be knocked down.

On stage with
Ken Russell, acting as the bouncing board for Russell’s conversation, was Christopher
Gable, the star of
Song of Summer
,
Dance of the Seven Veils
and
The
Boy Friend
. When I asked my question, Gable and Russell looked at each
other almost conspiratorially. Russell said to Gable. “Should I tell him?”

“Go on,” said
Gable.

“Okay. I’ve come
up with a version of Dracula that makes sense of the story. If you had lived
for centuries would you go weak at the knees at a picture of a dull clerk’s
fiancée and lock yourself away in a gloomy castle? I wouldn’t. I’ve come up
with a reason why Dracula would want to live forever.”Russell explained his
theory, then added: “The film won’t get made. It was killed off by Larry and
Langella [Laurence Olivier and Frank Langella, who played Van Helsing and
Dracula in the Fox film by John Badham]. When I was touting my script round the
studios there were three other Dracula scripts in development. Twentieth
Century Fox picked the dullest because they thought it was ‘safe’. It had been
a hit play on Broadway. They picked a bland American actor to be their Dracula.
Mick Fleetwood [the drummer from Fleetwood Mac] was going to be mine.”

Twentieth
Century Fox distributed Werner Herzog’s
Nosferatu
(1979). The Langella
Dracula
was produced by Universal. That same year UIP released
Love at First
Bite
(1979), a Dracula comedy starring George Hamilton, which proved to be
the most profitable of the three. The catalyst for the Ken Russell version was
four men: John Hawn who had invested money in a screenplay development company;
James V. Hart, who had persuaded Hawk to option a coffee table book called
The
Annotated Dracula
by Leonard Wolf; Bobby Littman, Russell’s American agent;
and Michael Nolin, an acquisition consultant at Columbia pictures.

Nolin
remembers: “I wanted to make a film with Ken Russell. Bobby Littman needed to
get a job for Ken Russell. We made a deal and Ken went to work on the
screenplay. I gave Ken a copy of
The Annotated Dracula
which he thought
was great. Mick Fleetwood was never ever seriously considered by Ken for the
role. Ken had to be coerced into even meeting him. After
Valentino
and
Lisztomania
,
the last thing Ken wanted was a film starring a non-actor. The cast we
envisioned went something like this: Peter O’Toole as Dracula (I don’t know if
O’Toole was ever formally approached, but at the time he was almost as
unemployable as Ken. Littman knew his agent well); Michael York or possibly
Alan Bates (a Littman client) as Harker; Mia Farrow and Sarah Miles (both
Littman clients) as Lucy and Mina. Oliver Reed (a Littman client and an actor
“prepared to eat bugs” for Ken) as Renfield. James Coburn (a Littman client) as
the American cowboy. Peter Ustinov (a friend of Littman’s) as Van Helsing. We
couldn’t make offers to any of these actors [at this stage] because we didn’t
have any money, but that is the type of cast Ken wanted and that Littman and I
spoke about to foreign sales companies. Against Littman’s advice, John Hawn
bought a two-page ad in
The Hollywood Reporter
and (I think)
Variety
announcing
Ken Russell’s Dracula
. Universal had started thinking about a movie
based on their play. I don’t know if the ad hastened the development of their
project, but it certainly didn’t help.”

The young Hawn
was a Fleetwood Mac fan. “John Hawn was obsessed with Fleetwood Mac,” says
Nolin. “When it dawned on Hawn that Ken had made
Tommy
, he saw
Dracula
as a chance to meet the band. He got word out to Mick Fleetwood that Ken
was considering him as an actor. When Ken found out he was appalled and
enormously pissed-off. Hawn had gone so far as to get Ken invited to a Fleetwood
Mac concert in Landover, Maryland, where Mick Fleetwood would meet him
backstage. Ken refused to go and only relented because Littman wouldn’t let
Hawn be embarrassed this way. We all flew to Landover but the concert was
cancelled two-and-a-half hours after it was supposed to begin (Lindsay
Buckingham had a drug overdose or an epileptic fit of some kind). Ken was in a
foul mood, having flown in from England for a concert he didn’t want to see.”

Russell met
Fleetwood either that night or the following morning. “We had a plane to
catch,” says Michael Nolin, “and Fleetwood, being a rocker, was late for the
meeting. When Ken asked Mick if he had done any acting, Fleetwood acknowledged
that he hadn’t even had a lesson, but he thought about drinking actual blood to
prepare for the part. Ken nearly bust a gut.”

In New York,
Ken Russell met the producer, Martin Poll, “who had a foreign sales company,
and who not coincidentally had his great- est success with
The Lion in
Winter
starring Peter O’Toole. That day,” says Nolin, “we got confirmation
that Universal were rushing their play-based
Dracula
into production
starring Frank Langella. Martin Poll’s interest in Ken’s film went away because
there would be no profit in being the second Dracula in the marketplace. Years
later, James V. Hart, who was passionate about making the first “real” Dracula
film actually based on the novel, sold his own spec. screenplay to Francis
Coppola.”Russell moved on to make
Altered States
(1980).

The first time
I went to Ken Russell’s house, a 16th century home, within a 17th century
rose-garden, on ancient hunting grounds deep within the forest at East Boldre,
we talked through his whole career in films, from the early days of making
amateur films to the expensive digital film he was preparing to make for the
South Bank Show:
Elgar Revisited
(2001). The conversation had reached
Song
of Summer
(1968), Russell’s perfect film about a young man who travels to a
foreign land to do some work for a strange and violent old man who feeds on his
lifeblood, creatively sucking the young man dry. Ken Russell frowned when we
talked about the actor who played the young man: Christopher Gable. Gable had
died in October 1998 at the shockingly young age of fifty-eight. It wasn’t
Gable’s death that had stirred Russell’s emotion. Their friendship had broken
down before Gable died. Gable had hurt Russell. They had not been reconciled.

“What did he do
to hurt you, Ken?”

“He stole my
ideas for Dracula. He used them in a ballet. He didn’t ask my permission and he
didn’t acknowledge my contribution.”

Was my innocent
question on that wonderful day in Nottingham the catalyst for the breakdown of
their friendship? I kept quiet and moved the discussion to an easier topic, the
wholly unique
Dance of the Seven Veils
(1970), Russell’s feature-length
dance film about Richard Strauss which had the horrible distinction of being
the second Ken Russell film to be banned worldwide after a single screening.
The BBC had disgraced itself by bowing down to self-interested pressure groups
and censors.

On returning to
Cambridge I set about researching Gable’s ballet version of
Dracula
. I found an original advertising
poster for the performance at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. On the
poster was clearly written ‘based on an idea by Ken Russell’. Press articles
released at the time also mentioned Ken Russell’s name. I telephoned Ken
Russell and said: “Ken, I’ve found a poster for Chris’s
Dracula
at Sadler’s Wells. Your name is on the poster. He
did
acknowledge
you. He didn’t try to pass off your ideas as his own. I can send you the poster
if you want me to?”

Ken didn’t want
the poster, but he did seem less angry with Christopher Gable.

I did not see
Gable’s Northern Ballet Theatre production of
Dracula
on its original release, and I have not seen any of the
continuing revivals, but extracts from the revivals are on youtube, and there
are descriptions of the production on the website of the ballet’s composer
Philip Feeney. I must admit I can’t see any resemblance to Ken Russell’s version.
There hasn’t been anything like Ken Russell’s version.

I wrote to
Philip Feeney, the ballet’s composer. He replied: “I was aware of the
estrangement between Christopher Gable and Ken Russell, and had an inkling that
it was about Dracula. And it’s certainly true that Christopher was something of
a magpie, taking inspiration from many eclectic and multicultural sources, and
I am sure he would have been very excited by Ken’s ideas. For my part, I had no
knowledge of the Russell script, and was surprised at the detail of its nature
which you give, especially as you point out, Northern Ballet Theatre latterly
made a point of saying that it was inspired by an idea by Ken Russell, when its
content seems so different. As far as I could see, the NBT production of the
mid- 1990s was strongly based on the Bram Stoker novel, and pretty much follows
it through until the chase at the end of the novel, which Gable and Pink
thought wouldn’t work as a ballet, and substituted a substantial Blood Mass
scene, giving the vampires a nice ‘dance opportunity’!, which van Helsing et al
gate crash, and get their man. I actually don’t remember Ken being referred to
very much, if at all, in those legendary concept meetings at Christopher’s
house. These tended to be dominated by Lez and Christopher, indeed, in my
experience, design and plot generally take centrestage in these meetings (I
guess because it harder to instantaneously envisage either choreography or
music before they actually exist).”

In 1992, I was
living in deep and darkest Gloucestershire and thinking it was about time I
learned how to drive. The nearest store was seven miles away. Francis Ford
Coppola’s
Dracula
came to the new
multiplex in town so I got on my bicycle and pedalled ten country miles to see
it. I had a great time. It’s a wholly enjoyable silk and shadows silent-movie
trick film, with acknowledged homages to Gance and Murnau, and amusingly flawed
by the audacity of casting silent movie actors as Harker and Lucy and allowing
them to talk. One of the film’s many strengths was Coppola’s Count played by
Gary Oldman as a Japanese version of Rachel Roberts from
Picnic at Hanging
Rock
(1975), the quietly interesting film about schoolgirls disappearing in
the wilds of Australia. Oldman would follow Dracula by starring as Beethoven in
Immortal Beloved
(1994), a film by Bernard Rose that had the distinction
of having been ‘stolen’ from an unmade script by Ken Russell.

‘Hi, Ken, sorry
I stole your script’, wrote Rose in an article published in The Guardian
newspaper on 15th September 2008.

Now I’m about
to give away a major surprise from Russell’s
Dracula
, so if you are reading this before reading the script, and
you don’t want to know what happens in the script, then skip the rest of this
introduction.

In Russell’s
Dracula
, Dracula thrives through
immortality by being a great artist who, over the centuries, keeps his secret
by changing his style. He
is
Casanova. He
is
Beethoven. He
is
Sibelius.
He
is
Picasso. Which should keep Gary Oldman gainfully occupied.

After having
had such a good time watching Coppola’s
Dracula
I treated myself to a VHS festival of Francis Ford Coppola films, respectfully
not including his masterpiece
Apocalypse Now
(1979) which, with its
6-track magnetic soundtrack and its Technovision visuals, is not a film to
watch on VHS (Coppola had told Rolling Stone Magazine that
Apocalypse Now
would
be “like a Ken Russell film”). I tried and failed again to see why some film
critics think
Godfather 2
(1974) is better than the peerless original. I
enjoyed the post High School rumble of
The Outsiders
(
1983
, the
grand orchestral version) and I saw Kathleen Turner miscast in
Peggy Sue Got
Married
(1986). She’s much better in her previous film, Ken Russell’s
Crimes
of Passion
(1984), ‘better’ being defined as ‘in every possible way’.
Curiously, Russell made
Crimes of Passion
at Coppola’s Zoetrope studio.
I didn’t like Turner’s Stepford performance in the Coppola film but it won an
Oscar nomination, as did the cinematography, which I noticed was by Jordan
Cronenweth. Cronenweth had been doing TV and no-budget films in Hollywood until
Ken Russell almost hired him for
Valentino
in 1976, when Hollywood was
gearing up for its first Ken Russell film. After interviewing and rejecting
Coppola’s discovery, Al Pacino, for the role of Valentino, Russell decided he
didn’t want to make the film in Hollywood, he wanted to make it in England.
English unions stopped Russell from hiring Cronenweth and forced him to use a
cinematographer who had a British union card. When Russell finally did agree to
make a film in Hollywood, the grand spectacle that is
Altered States
,
the cast and crew had already been hired by Arthur Penn. Penn, the original
director, had walked from
Altered States
because he couldn’t work with
the constant on-set interference from the film’s writer, Paddy Chayevsky.
Russell, who had first met Chayevsky in London in 1959 (as told in ‘Becoming
Ken Russell’, the first volume of my biography of Russell), solved the
Chayevsky problem by sending Chayevsky back to New York City. He allowed all of
Penn’s cast and crew to stay with three major exceptions. He replaced the
special effects chief, John Dykstra, because Dykstra wanted to do the special
effects in miniature when Russell knew and would show that they would be better
done ‘for real’; he brought his own editor, Stuart Baird (who has since made an
invaluable career applying his Russell-learned editing skills to rescue many a
Hollywood blockbuster), and Russell insisted on hiring Jordan Cronenweth. With
Altered
States
, Russell and Cronenweth initiated the ‘look’ that Cronenweth would
take on to his second major film,
Blade Runner
(1982), which as you know
is quite the most gloriously photographed science-fiction film.

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