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The clash between Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder that made filming ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ living hell


As two of the finest actors of their generation and with Francis Ford Coppola at the helm, Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder were set to deliver a horror masterpiece with their thrilling adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As it turned out, what was in store for them was more of a living hell than a mere depiction of the underworld. 

Thankfully, the film itself is spared from the apparent chaos that unfurled behind the scenes, but in typical Francis Ford Coppola style, the production was far from swimming. In fact, after the neck-biting extravaganza was all wrapped up, Ryder pretty much vowed not to work with Oldman again – despite his undoubted brilliance – because she claims he was somewhat of a “danger” to work with. 

Coppola’s first choice for the film was actually Daniel Day-Lewis but seeing as the star was stowed up with The Last of the Mohicans, Oldman came in as a stellar substitute. And as Oldman says, “It was an instant yes, because of Francis […] who is arguably one of the greatest America directors who is ever, well, living.”

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Things went swimmingly among the crew at first as Ryder recalls: “We hung out before the movie in rehearsals and stuff.” Little did they know, Coppola productions are prone to turning tricky, as he exclaimed after the horrors of the jungle when filming Apocalypse Now, “little by little, we went insane.” Thus, it is perhaps no surprise that Ryder would say, “But it wasn’t the same after we started shooting. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s his way of working, but I felt like there was a danger.”

This inexplicable tension made Ryder very weary. As she has mentioned extensively in interviews that the shoot left her “tired, tense, and not very happy”. Speculation has been rife about whether there was a deeper cause to all this, but Coppola himself certainly couldn’t put his finger on it as he struggled away with other clashes from the director’s chair. 

As the legendary Godfather filmmaker later commented: “They got along, and then one day they didn’t. Absolutely didn’t get along. None of us were privy to what happened.” This was far from ideal given the romantic and erotic nature of some of their scenes together throughout the gruelling shoot. Coppola’s workaround was far from wildly inspired either, as he comically explained: “I had to say to her, ‘OK, play this scene and make-believe it’s me instead of Gary. Make-believe it’s whoever.’”

This didn’t do a great deal to alleviate the situation. Before filming began, Ryder even thought that Coppola hated her because her late withdrawal from The Godfather Part III caused production delays. Thus, she brought him Hart’s script to merely clear the air one day, explaining: “I never really thought he would read it. He was so consumed with Godfather III. As I was leaving, I said, ‘If you have a chance, read this script.’ He glanced down at it politely, but when he saw the word Dracula, his eyes lit up.”

Most of the tension actually seems to simply have been down to differing acting techniques. Oldman tended to stay in character throughout, and as you can imagine, Dracula is a fairly intense character to be around, and the long days in costume and makeup only made matters worse. However, thankfully, Keanu Reeves offered some escape for her, as she recently told Vanity Fair, “I have these journals, and I just pulled one out recently. It was from around the time of Dracula. The text: ‘angst, angst, angst, angst, thank God for Keanu. Thank God I’m going to see Keanu.’”

Fortunately, for Ryder, she also had the pleasure of putting in a brilliant performance in a movie that has stood the test of time. Aesthetically the film is a thing of beauty and the unique subversion of the classic tale brings something fresh without sullying the integrity of the original work. The horrors on camera are gladly a world away from the awkward sort that plagued the set itself.

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