Patrick Lussier Bites Back
by Rich Rosell
Patrick Lussier, the director of the speculatively inventive Dracula 2000 has, of late, found himself holding court over of a pair of bloodsucking sequels, both shot in Romania: Dracula II: Ascension and Dracula III: Legacy. The followups continue the story of one of the horror genre's favorite undead characters, who here is endlessly tracked by a weapons-wielding, Tibetan-born Italian priest/vampire hunter.
dOc recently caught up with the busy director to pick his brain on vampires, Romania and shooting two films simultaneously.
dOc: What kind of horror movies did live for when you were a kid? Were you a big horror movie fan?
PL: They actually terrified me when I was a kid. We used to watch them on black-and-white TV, and we'd watch them for ten minutes, and flick over to another station, and then slowly flick them back, when one could muster the courage back up.
dOc: Did you ever see yourself making not one, but three Dracula movies?
PL: It wasn't something I set out to do. It just kind of happened that way. I kind of fell into working with Wes Craven. From that, one thing led to another, and I ended up working on a string of them.
dOc: What was your initial working relationship with Wes Craven?
PL: It was on a television series called Nightmare Cafe. I co-edited the pilot for him, and he and I just kind of hit it off. He offered me [the opportunity] to cut his next feature, which ended up being about two years later, which was Wes Craven's New Nightmare.
dOc: You've worked on a number of Wes Craven films, correct?
PL: I've cut pretty much exclusively for Wes for about nine years.
dOc: Obviously Dracula 2000 did well enough for you to get the go ahead for a couple of sequels. Did that surprise you at all?
PL: Well it surprised me that they [Dimension] wanted to do it. Dimension came to us and asked to do a sequel, well actually one sequel, and then asked to the sequel to the original concept that Joel Soisson and I had for Dracula 2000, which was this kind of "science project" movie. We were very much treating Dracula like Hannibal Lecter; he's caught by somebody and contained until they can figure out what makes him tick.
dOc: During the making of Dracula 2000, did you know the other two films were going to get made?
PL: No, we had no idea.
dOc: On the commentary track of Dracula II: Ascension, you mentioned that there were a couple of other titles for the film, and that Dimension picked the title that went with it. How much control did you have over what the actual film was?
PL: Very little. We figured that "Dracula" would probably be in the title, but with regards to anything beyond that we had no idea. There wasn't any indication of what else that would be.
dOc: Does that bother you at all?
PL: No. The biggest thing was that we didn't want the date in the title. We weren't overly enamored with the title of Dracula 2000, only because it seemed like we were coming out just before our expiration date. Dimension was great with regard to that on the two sequels, with Ascension and Legacy, both of which were titles we had suggested, amongst other ones. Ascension was originally the title for the third one, but Legacy works fine for that, as well.
dOc: When is Dracula III: Legacy being released?
PL: I believe in January 2004.
dOc: Is Dracula III theoretically the third and last? Or, if this one does well will there be others? Jason Scott Lee's character of the vampire hunter, Uffizi, is great to watch.
PL: Jason Scott Lee's character can certainly continue on in a series of adventures, which we've talked about with Dimension. I think they're waiting to see how these films do. We've talked about this with Jason, it certainly is something we've all been intrigued about because it's a character we all have great affection for. His character was originally written for Dracula 2000, and was one that everybody really liked, but just didn't fit with the story as it was mutating. So it ended up being written out. When the sequels came along, Andrew Rona at Dimension made it his biggest note that we brought back Uffizi and made him the driving force in terms of vampire hunting.
dOc: Jason Scott Lee is an unusual choice as an Italian vampire-hunting priest. Still, a cool character nonetheless. Was he the person you envisioned?
PL: He wasn't who we envisioned, but he was somebody who, while we were casting, I thought of and suggested to Joel [Soisson] and Keith Border, one of the other producers. They really liked the idea, and had wanted to work with Jason before on another project that didn't work out. We suggested it to Andrew [Rona] and Nick Phillips at Dimension, who took it to Bob Weinstein. We all agreed hands down that Jason would be fantastic, if we could get him. It was not how any of us thought we were going to go, but it turned out to be the absolute best decision we could have made. He's a great actor, and brought so much to the role physically. We were just really fortunate to get him.
dOc: You and Joel Soisson share the writing credits. How closely do you work together during the creation—do you work independently and compare notes later?
PL: No, no, we would talk through the entire story, about exactly what we were going to do beforehand. Drac II we wrote differently than Drac III. Drac II we basically parcelled out sections, he would write the opening, then I would write the morgue scene, and then we would trade them back and forth and kind of leap frog our way into the movie. Drac III came about quite quickly; it was May and we knew we were going to be shooting the end of that summer. We had talked amongst ourselves and thought, "Hey, wouldn't it be fun if we did another adventure, and continued on the Dracula story?" Because they were going to make us shoot in Romania, what if we set it in Romania, and did a kind of Heart of Darkness kind of story? Drac's gone back upriver, and Uffizi and Luke have to go out and get him. Once we kind of made that decision, we had to write it pretty quickly. Joel did a quick rewrite on Drac II, while I wrote Drac III, and then I handed it back to him. He sort of came up behind me and wrote very much [wearing] his producer's hat, making sure we had a movie we could actually afford to shoot, as opposed to the one I was writing.
dOc: As the sequels go up, do the budgets go down? Are you under more constraints?
PL: Oh yes. The sequel was made for 1/10 of the budget of the original. Dracula 2000 we made for $28 million, and Dracula II we made for $3.2 million.
dOc: The finished product on Dracula II certainly doesn't look like it was made on a reduced budget.
PL: We were really fortunate. We had a great production designer in Romania who just did a fantastic job. Every day we showed up he just brought us amazing things, and built a great world for us to work in. And then having Douglas Milsome to be the director of photography and Lisa Romaniw as the editor, we were really fortunate with that, and the whole thing came together.
dOc: So you shot Dracula II in Romania, as opposed to Toronto, for Dracula 2000. What was shooting in Romania like?
PL: II and III we shot at the same time. Shooting in Romania is an adventure. You're really lucky to have a crew that is really enthusiastic and very excited about a project. They may not have a lot of experience, but they certainly make up for that. Some of the drawbacks of shooting in Romania are things like, for Drac II especially, which was doubling as New Orleans, was just trying to find props. There was quite an ordeal just to get Lowell's wheelchair [Craig Sheffer's character], and we had to have two of them in order to keep them running, because Craig kept smashing them up.
dOc: So is Romania the new Toronto?
PL: Well, there are a lot of films being shot there. Romania is a good place to go, but you have to have a certain mind set. If you go in deciding that it's going to work for you, and you're going to make it work, then absolutely it will work. If you fight it, and play against their strengths, then it will be hard.
dOc: You mention on the Dracula II commentary that during the morgue scene, where Diane Neal and Jason London perform an autopsy on Dracula's charred body, that the location is an actual Romanian morgue.
PL: It was a teaching morgue, a great location. We were in the medical hospital, right in Bucharest. When we first scouted it, there were no bodies in it, but when we went back, there were bodies in the morgue. All the slabs that are there are real teaching slabs, and when you would pick them up and move them you would feel all this gunk underneath. It was like "Oh god, what am I putting my hands in?" The morgue had a great look to it, it worked well doubling for New Orleans. Kind of an old-world decay. I don't think Bucharest can double for a lot of American cities, but for New Orleans it certainly can.
dOc: Roy Scheider is onscreen in Drac II for about a minute or so. Did he fly all the way to Romania for that, or does he figure more prominently in Drac III?
PL: We had Roy for a day, and we shot him for both films on that day. He has a very small, almost cameo-esque part in Drac II, and he only has one scene in Drac III, but it's bigger and more significant.
dOc: You filmed Drac II and Drac III at the same time. Was that a logistical nightmare?
PL: A scene is a scene is a scene. The fact that the characters were continuous—the journey of Uffizi and Luke—really let us have a lot of latitude. There were only a couple of days where we were shooting scenes from Dracula III in the morning, Dracula II in the middle of the day, and then Dracula III at the end of the day. Most of the time you would be shooting blocks of scenes, such as "OK, for the next ten days we're shooting in the swimming pool." For the first twenty days of photography, for the most part we shot Dracula III because we had to shoot exteriors early, before the weather turned. You just sort of got into the mode.
dOc: One of the things I really liked about Dracula 2000 was the whole twist on the character's origins, the biblical implications specifically. Who came up with that element of the storyline?
PL: That was something that I came up while I was music editing on Reindeer Games and cutting Scream 3. Joel and I had been talking about trying to find a source for the Dracula legend, and we had both just finished going through Stoker's book. In the book, Dracula's origins are in no way made clear; he's in Transylvania, but he's clearly older than that. You don't know where he comes from, or if he is in fact Vlad. You assume it, but you don't know it. We were thinking what if he goes on before that, who could he have been? Then you look at the effects of the cross, silver and holy water, basic Christian things, and why. Then we started thinking about his last sunset, and if the cross is really going to effect you, if your last sunset is really going to be at the crucifixion itself.
dOc: I thought that element really gave Dracula 2000 a nice edge, something that a lot of so-called "vampire" films have lacked. So many times it's just a rehash of the same old story.
PL: That was the total reason to make it, because it was unique. There have been 85,000 Dracula movies, and if we were going to step into that pond, for better or for worse, we were going to try and do something new.
dOc: Can you tell me a little bit about your next non-Dracula project? According to IMDb, it's called Totem, about an evil scarecrow.
PL: I don't think it's actually going to be that. I think it's going to be something else. It's not completely solidified yet.
dOc: We need an evil scarecrow movie.
PL: I think there's probably a good market for an evil scarecrow movie, and that one could be a lot of fun. It's going through some childhood angst right now, so we'll see what happens with it in the weeks to come.
dOc: Do you see yourself staying in the horror genre as a director?
PL: I like the genre, and [it's] been very good to me. I've had the chance to both edit and direct films in the genre, and I've enjoyed them. Right now, it's kind of the natural place to continue, but if a non-genre project presented itself that was going to be exciting and enticing then by all means I would pursue that.
dOc: Did you enjoy recording the commentary track on Dracula II?
PL: It was a lot of fun to revisit the film that much later, to kind of sit down and go through it. Joel and I had so much fun doing the first one, that when we came to do II and III, we invited Gary Tunnicliffe, who had been such a great driving force behind all three films, to talk about the makeup effects, and things like that. It was fun to do. [It's] fun to kind of walk back through what happened, and of course you're looking at it kind of fondly, because here you are having completed it. It's almost like you should be forced to do a commentary track the first time you see the first cut of it.
dOc: Did Dimension put any kind of run-length restrictions on you?
PL: They basically said to make it an 85-minute movie. I think with Drac III, we actually managed to squeak in a few extra minutes, it's like 88.
dOc: So you shot both of those films pretty lean then?
PL: Yes, we had to because we shot the two sequels in the same time it took us to shoot the first movie. We were on a very tight schedule. We wrote it lean. Drac II we originally actually wrote longer, and the biggest thing we had to do was edit it down, script-wise, before we shot it, in order to adhere to the schedule.
dOc: With Buffy The Vampire Slayer ending now, it seems that a Uffizi vampire slayer would be a natural progression. We need a new vampire slayer on TV.
PL: We've certainly thought about it. Jason would be perfect, because he is a great, kind of Gary Cooper heroic figure, this kind of man with no name. He would be great at that. Joel and I have certainly talked about that, and we've been discussing it with the studios.
dOc: After the third film, I can see it going this direction.
PL: Uffizi is the king cat. He's great, and his journey in the third film is far more prominent, and has a great evolution.