How a Scribe and a Damsel Saved 'Dracula' from Cable

Every couple of months or so, the agents of screenwriter Jim V. Hart ("Hook") would call him to ask what he wanted to write next. "I'd say 'Dracula,' " Hart says. "And the response I'd always get was, 'You're nuts . . . it's been done.' I must have heard that a hundred times."

And yet Hart, who began plotting his erotic, spiritual take on Bram Stoker's 1897 novel in 1977, would not give up. Fifteen years later, his dream project, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is scheduled to open Friday.

Despite the movie's $40-million budget and Columbia's support of the movie (one source says the studio is spending close to $10 million to market the film), "Dracula" is the big-budget holiday extravaganza that almost wasn't. If not for the intervention of actress Winona Ryder, almost unheard-of support and cooperation by a small production company that had nurtured the project but then chivalrously gave it up, and Hart's faith in his screenplay, it might have been Steven Bauer or Roddy McDowall who wrapped themselves in the Count's cape, not Gary Oldman.

"It was going to be a USA Network cable movie," Hart confirms. "But then Winona got hold of the script. . . ."

The saga of Hart's "Dracula" began in the late 1970s, when Anne Rice's "Interview With a Vampire" had just come out, and fledgling writer Hart picked up a copy of Stoker's novel to "see where all this lore had started." The version he happened upon was "Leonard Wolf's Annotated Dracula." "I was blown away by it," Hart remembers. "I thought, 'How come nobody's ever done this take as a movie?' "

Most of the Dracula films, Hart notes, combine several of Stoker's characters, ignore the single-romance aspect between Dracula and the fair Mina and are based not on Stoker but on John Balderston and Hamilton Dean's less graphic play. "But this novel, it was not only erotic, it had a great action-adventure story. Dracula was not just this campy blood-sucking monster. The story was about how this great character came to London to establish this new race and find real love again."

Hart's interest in the erotic aspect of the Dracula tale was further piqued when he attended the opening night of the play "Dracula" with Frank Langella in 1978, (which was made into a 1979 movie directed by John Badham). "There was a moment when Langella throws Lucy on satin sheets and just takes her. It was very arousing. A busload of women was sitting in front of me, and during this scene, one woman said out loud, 'I'd rather spend one night with Dracula dead than the rest of my life alive with my husband.' And I went, 'Whoa . . . this aspect has to come to the screen.' "

Throughout the 1980s, a time Hart says he spent "in development hell" with other projects, he worked periodically on his "Dracula" script. After writing "Hook" (which was made by Steven Spielberg), he decided to tackle "Dracula" head on, and with producer Michael Apted, searched for a studio to make his movie. "And every single one turned us down," he notes. "Nobody took the time to read the novel and understand what was there."

The only company in town that professed any interest was Wilshire Court, a production company best known for producing small, low-budget, made-for-television movies, most of which air on USA.

"The best we could do was set it up as a cable movie, in July of 1990," Hart says. But even Wilshire Court executives had their reservations. "To their credit, they said, 'We can't make this movie the way you want it because it's going to be too expensive' (the script is full of dozens of special effects, including six transformations for the count). They said, 'You've got six months. If you can't set it up anywhere else your way, we're going to make it as a TV movie and we're going to start cutting.' Wilshire Court's projected "Dracula" budget: $3.5 million.

And so the race was on. "But nothing really happened," Hart notes. Not, that is, until Ryder leafed through 10 scripts one weekend in the fall of 1990, one of which was Hart's "Dracula."

"Apparently, she had been a fan of the novel growing up," he says. "She read my screenplay when she was 19, and she was actively looking for a transition role, something where she would play a grown-up woman. And the role of Mina was what she was looking for. She gave it to Francis to see if he felt it was a role she should do, I think to heal some of the problems that had come out over her not doing 'Godfather III.' "

Coppola, taken with the script, called her up and said she was absolutely right for the role and asked who was attached to direct.

"And the rest, as they say, is history," Hart notes. "The Wilshire Court people were rooting for me. And I tell you, it's very unusual in this business when you find people rooting for you. They gave me a window of opportunity and I'm very grateful to them."

Not too long ago, Hart saw a cut of Coppola's "Dracula" and reports he's thrilled. "It's like watching 'Gone With the Wind' with sex and violence," Hart says.

As for his advice to other screenwriters who find themselves toiling over a piece of material no one else believes in, Hart has this to say: "Listen, I'm 45 years old. 'Hook' took me 10 years to get off the ground, 'Dracula' 15. I guess all my experience says is keep writing good screenplays. And stick to your guns."

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