To a much greater extent than Gods and Monsters, a film based on the last days of Frankenstein auteur James Whale, the new film Shadow of the Vampire delves into the making of a horror classic. German director F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu, produced in 1922, was the first cinematic version of Bram Stoker's Dracula, and retains its reputation as possibly the best. Murnau was a meticulous artist who obsessively pursued authenticity even in the most outlandish of contexts. Starring in his Nosferatu was little-known actor Max Schreck, whose appearance as Count Orlock (rights to the Dracula name were never obtained) was marked by long claw-like fingers, a bald pate, pointy ears, and a pair of up-front fangs.
It is the fanciful conceit of Shadow of the Vampire screenwriter Steven Katz and director E. Elias Merhige that Schreck was a true bloodsucker who had been contracted by Murnau in his quest for realism. Merhige stopped a little short of that in casting Schreck/Orlock - he got Willem Dafoe, who merely looks the part. The film, which Lions Gate released at the end of 2000, also stars John Malkovich as Murnau.
Shadow of the Vampire mixes actual footage from Nosferatu with recreations of those scenes as they were filmed. But there was no question of coming up with exact replicas of the original settings, which ranged across Germany and Eastern Europe. "I've no idea if the locations for the original film survive," says production designer Assheton Gorton. "I mean, an entire war has been fought there since. We got as close as we could to the original designs. But because of the budget and where we were working, it doesn't really bear a resemblance. It's just that it was shot and printed to make it seem like it does."
For economic reasons, Shadow of the Vampire was filmed entirely in Luxembourg, a country whose young movie industry offers tax incentives to attract production. "They do have a lot to offer," says Gorton. "Their production side is very efficient, and they are building stages. But one of the problems was getting props and dressing; anything really problematical would have to come from Munich, Paris, or London. And we were just unable to find anywhere that looked the same, for instance, for the exterior of Orlock's castle."
The production ended up using Vienden Castle, a medieval structure restored in the 19th century that didn't match the one in Murnau's film but filled the bill for selective quoting of scenes. "The budget on the sets was minimal," says Gorton, who worked with much greater resources on his other recent project, 102 Dalmatians. "Anything that took more than two or three days to build, you couldn't afford it. We had a couple of studio stages, just sheds basically, and some other sets, like Orlock's dining room, we recreated in the crypt of Vienden Castle."
Gorton gave little thought to the fact that his designs would sometimes be seen in black and white. "I like to keep my own colors on the set fairly monochromatic," he says. "This allows the actors and costumes a background against which to work." In addition, Caroline de Vivaise's costumes were "much better able to match the original film."
As was Dafoe's makeup, of course. Yet according to Amber Sibley, prosthetics makeup artist for the actor, "It was designed to be more part of Willem, to maintain Willem's face within it, rather than just to copy the Nosferatu makeup." Sibley was in charge of applying Dafoe's makeup, which was designed by Pauline Fowler and sculpted by Julian Murray of Animated Extras in England. But it was Sibley whose relationship with Dafoe was key in the process.
The foam latex makeup, which consisted of a bald piece that covered the actor's head from his eye sockets to the back of his neck, a nose, ear pieces, two front teeth slotted over his real teeth, plus bits of hair and 2" nails, took three hours to apply and about half that time to remove. "Because of the film stock, I had to make sure not to leave any of his natural warm skin tone coming through the makeup," says Sibley. "I used the Pax paint that I put over the foam pieces over his face as well. And then I used greasepaint on top of that." On the hands, "I highlighted the tendons, and shaded between the fingers to elongate them, so they look spidery. Willem's got perfect hands for it, and he held them beautifully." As for the teeth, "we had two different types - one for normal use, and then what we called frenzy teeth, longer teeth for when he gets excited.
"He's got a fantastic face, with wonderful bone structure," Sibley says of Dafoe, pointing out one difference between Shadow of the Vampire and Murnau's film: "The actual Nosferatu is quite cartoony, with his pointy ears. Willem's a much more realistic, much more natural type of vampire."
Photo credit: Jean-Paul Kieffer.