The Horror of 'DRACULA': The Unbelievable True Story of the 2013 TV Series
A cautionary tale for screenwriters about what can happen when all their dreams come true
On February 9th, 2011, I took a general meeting with two producers and their executives. At the end of this professional meet-and-greet, one of the producers — call him MR. SMILEY — asked me, “What do you think about Dracula as a TV series?” This question set in motion the most protracted, creatively unfulfilling, and emotionally devastating experience of my career as a professional screenwriter.
What follows is a blow-by-blow record of the conception and sale, outlining, writing, and straight-to-series green light of a television series called “DRACULA”, the first TV pilot I ever sold. It would go on to star Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the titular bloodsucker — as well as Thomas Kretschmann, Jessica De Gouw, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Victoria Smurfit, Katie McGrath, and Nonso Anozie — and premiere on October 25th, 2013. Its first and only season, a coproduction between NBC and Sky, ran for ten episodes; it was cancelled in 2014 despite strong ratings for a litany of reasons, many of which overlap with why I struggle to recall the “DRACULA” experience without immediately cursing…which is an improvement, since I used to be much more inclined to just weep at the thought of it.
I share this with you now because there is much for emerging screenwriters to learn from the development process I describe. It’s a cautionary tale for them about what can happen when all their dreams come true.
In fact, what happened to me during the development, production, and promotion of “DRACULA” was so uniquely terrible that I know of at least one major U.S. agency that, for a time, used my story to get their clients, clients who were complaining about what they perceived to be bad experiences, to fall into line. After all, whatever was happening to these writers couldn’t be as bad as what happened to this guy Cole Haddon, right? Buck up, champ, one friend of mine was more or less told; he recounted this story to me later when we first met, desperate to know if everything he had heard was true.
Spoiler: It was.
February 2nd 2011
I take a general meeting with Mr. Smiley, a producer he’s partnered with we’ll call MR. ENGLISH, and their two executives. One of these executives will quickly move out of the story, as executives often do; the remaining one we shall call MR. CANDY.
This is my first TV meeting, which I only realize after sitting down with the team. I’m a feature writer, and presumed that’s why I had been invited in; I don’t even have a TV agent yet. In a way, I’m not wholly wrong, as the producers have read my script HYDE — a reinvention of the DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE novel that recently landed me on the Black List.
At the end of the meeting, Mr. Smiley asks me, “What do you think about Dracula as a TV series?” He obviously wants to reinvent DRACULA, as I did with Mr. Hyde. I tell him that would be tricky, given how unsympathetic Dracula is. But, “Let me think about it.”
I go home, and get to work because HYDE was adapted from a graphic novel I wrote for Dark Horse Comics. Dracula is intended to appear in one of the sequels, and I have already worked out a new origin for the character, inspired by the true story of Vlad Tepes — whom DRACULA author Bram Stoker had similarly been inspired by. I intend to steal from myself for my TV take on the novel.
After rewatching NOSFERATU (1922), DRACULA (1931), VAMPYR (1932), THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943), THE HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), BLACK SUNDAY (1960), CAPTAIN KRONOS — VAMPIRE HUNTER (1974), and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992) to get in a vampiric mood — as well as to work out where I could substantively shift away from familiar vampire tropes — I send a take document to THE PRODUCERS (as I will henceforth refer to the collective).
In this email, I note:
What you’ll find are explanations of the new origin of Dracula and who his arch-enemies, the Order of the Dragon, is — along with a dozen or so character descriptions. Sprinkled into all of this are references to what could be explored in Season One. There are definitely a lot of great story and character dynamics to play with.
While half of what is in this initial take document didn’t show up in the pilot or series, much of the series’ ultimate DNA can be found in its descriptions.
Here are the two most important bits of the document, as far as I’m concerned. These are the two points that informed my reinvention throughout the development process:
THE CHALLENGE OF DRACULA:
The novel DRACULA takes place over a relatively short period, perhaps the length of one television season. It involves the introduction of a vampiric monster (albeit a seductive one) into London society, his love affair with a young, engaged woman, and then his ultimate demise when that woman’s friends and protectors hunt down and destroy him. Obviously, not the story arc of the titular character of a television series.
To begin, Dracula’s role as a monster should not be subverted. He might have much humanity and perhaps even goals we might admire, but he is, at his core, a monster who thrives on the taking of human lives. He is, in other words, the ultimate conflicted bad boy. Men hate him and women want to be with him.
Because of this, Dracula is both a protagonist and villain for us. If audiences are to root for him, he must consequently have a goal that, despite whom and what he is, trumps his evil. This goal will tie into his new origin story…
A NEW ORIGIN FOR DRACULA:
Dracula was not always a vampire, according to Bram Stoker. He was Vlad III (1431–1476), known variously as Vlad III, Vlad Prince of Wallachia, Vlad the Impaler, and Vlad Dracul. Dracul (meaning “dragon”) was the name given him by the Order of the Dragon, a powerful cult of knights sworn to protect the Christian cross. Generally, this meant opposing Ottoman/Moslem expansion and, of course, the machinations of “the devious Jew”. The Order of the Dragon, like Vlad III, actually existed. Beyond this fragment of an origin, however, Stoker gives us little else.
Where we deviate…
Vlad Dracul aligned himself with the Order of the Dragon out of political convenience, to better protect his borders and strike back at the invading Ottoman Empire. His ambitions, however, grew to threaten the Order’s ideas for Eurasia. He was betrayed, his beloved wife Ilona murdered before his eyes, and, as eternal punishment, he was cursed as an enemy of God.
The curse’s effects, not understood by the Order’s leaders, transformed Vlad into the living dead. Immortal if, like the Dark One, he feeds upon the life force of the living. Also, like the Dark One, a master of lies and thus the tools of deceit: hypnosis, altering his appearance/age, and changing physical shape (able to take the form of the creatures of the night). His only weaknesses: the sun that sets on evil, the tools of the cross (holy water, the cross, sanctified ground), and the loss of his head.
Consequently, Vlad Dracul — now Dracula — became the arch-nemesis of the Order of the Dragon. To them, he represents Satan Incarnate and, thus, must be destroyed. To Dracula, vengeance demands that the Order must be destroyed. Because of this dichotomy of evil, many characters will find Dracula the less of two evils.
As the Arab proverb goes: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
One day later, the producers call to say how happy they are. Well, that was easy!
They have two small notes, which I quickly answer. It’s important to note this is the last time I do any work on this potential project until I say otherwise.
I email my team of representatives, henceforth referred to as MY REPS.
Just got off the phone with Mr. Smiley, who spent ten minutes telling me why he and Mr. English thought my DRACULA document was brilliant. They want to try and get me in front of Gore Verbinski or, if that doesn’t work, directors of equal caliber ASAP.
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Gore Verbinski has passed, or so I’m told, because he’s too busy with other projects to focus on anything new. You hear things like this a lot when your work is sent to directors. I always assume it means they hated what you sent them.
I’m then sent a new director’s list — directors the Producers hope to induce to attach to direct this pilot solely based on a pitch document I spent six hours working on — but I find the giant names on it so silly that I immediately stop taking the project seriously and don’t think about it for a very long time.
Here’s the list:
Jim Cameron (Jim, you’ll note, not James)
My Reps find the list similarly unrealistic. They never liked this project anyway. All insisted from the start that no network or cable outlet — these were the days before streaming — would invest in a vampire project, not after the success of the TWILIGHT films.
“Everyone is vampired out,” I’m told.
All screenwriters need to know that you should always ignore your reps when they say things like this, as your reps will always be wrong. I mean, I had previously been told zombies were dead, too, then, blam, “THE WALKING DEAD” and 8,942 other zombie films and TV series happened. Your reps are not technically wrong, these sentiments are always true at the moment they utter them, but their relevance generally expires by the time your conversation with them ends.
Middle of August (exact date unknown)
I sit down with my fiancée, whom I’m due to marry on October 15th — roughly two months away — and tell her the dream is dead. After selling two feature screenplays out of the gate — one of them being the aforementioned HYDE — I’ve failed to secure new work in the past twenty months. Whatever heat I had has dissipated. There’s $115,000 on our credit cards we can’t pay back (let’s not talk about college debt), a wedding still to pay for with what savings we have left, and $3,000 to spare after that. Even if I go to my father for a loan, it wouldn’t be enough to sustain us for more than another month or two after we return from our honeymoon. We have no choice but to accept we’ll have to find a roommate to move into our two-bedroom apartment’s other room (our office) and look for gainful employment somewhere other than Hollywood as we hope for some kind of professional turnaround.
Out of nowhere, I receive an email from the Producers having not heard from them for half a year. I’m informed for the first time that every studio and network they had pitched “DRACULA” to had passed on it, but a VP at NBC apparently forgot he passed. Upon hearing the pitch from the Producers for a second time, this VP — call them THE FIXER (this will eventually make sense) — jumped on it. “DRACULA”, a project I had completely forgotten about, is being pitched to Bob Greenblatt, the head of NBC, the guy with nobody else to creatively answer to, at this very moment. I’m so broke, I almost consider praying to whatever non-existent god that will help me.
Okay, not so fast. It wasn’t being pitched to Greenblatt. It first had to be pitched up the ladder — including to NBC’s international team, which would be involved — before it reached him. But hey, it’s with Greenblatt now.
An email from the Producers informs me:
BUT the Fixer also says that the enthusiasm is high enough, including from international over there, that, even if Greenblatt passes, the studio on the Fixer’s side will still likely want to develop the script.
“Mazel tov, you sold a TV pilot!” Mr. Smiley announces into my ear. I look at the cell phone I’m holding, mouth hanging open, unsure if I heard that correctly. But I didn’t imagine it. NBC has agreed to pay me to write a pilot for “DRACULA”.
I ring my Reps. One of them exclaims, “Fuck me, are you serious?”
I had asked this same rep to follow up with the Producers a week ago, to see how things were going, but they never bothered because, as I previously mentioned, nobody took this project seriously because “everyone is vampired out.”
“Mazel tov, you sold a TV pilot!” “Fuck me, are you serious?” Yep, this is Hollywood.
It really can feel like the land of dreams, because with a single phone call your whole life can change.
Within three months, I will try to quit my own show for the first time. It will only get worse from there.
October 4th 2021
I’m getting married in eleven days, but instead of thinking about my wedding, I’m thinking about “DRACULA’. There’s no contract yet, but my lawyer has told me I can feel confident there will be one. I should start work. So, I hit send on an email to the Producers, submitting a first draft outline for my pilot.
The Producers have already responded to my outline, and seem generally very pleased with my work. The notes feel minimal, given what I’m told other writers can encounter when writing pilots. This is my first time writing an episode of television of any kind — in fact, I’m not even sure if I have any interest in working in TV yet, as features have always been my passion — so I second-guess everything.
This is a terrifying time for emerging writers because their reps and all their friends in the business tell them that if they get this right, all their dreams will come true and then some.
Just don’t fuck up.
One week until my wedding. I’m on Mackinac Island, a tiny, isolated island off the north coast of Michigan. There aren’t even cars here, having been banned more than a century ago; people get around my bicycle and horse-and-carriage, I shit you not. I receive an email from Mr. Candy, Mr. Smiley’s executive:
I think these new pages are excellent and we’ve started in the right place.
Holy shit, I’m married! Here’s a photograph from the big day thematically appropriate to this essay.
My new wife and I board a plane to Spain for our honeymoon…where the Producers have gently convinced me to continue doing work on both a series document and the pilot outline.
Remember, screenwriters, your joy will never trump other people’s need to profit from your hard work.
Jesus Chris, I’ve sold a feature pitch called I SLAY DRAGONS to director Timur Bekmambetov! This means I’ve sold two projects in the span of four weeks. What a fantastic, otherworldly way to end my already fantastic, otherworldly honeymoon. It’s finally starting to feel like I can really make a career out of this screenwriting thing.
I receive the following email from the Producers, including Mr. English, about my series document:
The pages are really working and they’re deep — this will make an extraordinary show.
But emails also begin to reveal a serious rift between me and the Producers about what the series is.
More emails are filled with polite disagreements about the nature of this series, specifically focused on who is driving the series. I maintain that Dracula should be a mystery at the heart of the action rather than the central protagonist.
To expand upon that, my concern is that if we front-loaded the series with Dracula and reveal all his secrets — take away the mystery, as I called it — the subsequent narrative would be reduced to a series of soap opera turns and elements uninteresting to most vampire audiences (like politics).
I want to instead focus on the surrounding characters, as the novel does, and tell their stories as they react to the sudden arrival of a powerful technological visionary in London who is, unbeknownst to them, also a vampire master. Season One would focus on Dracula and his true machinations slowly being revealed to all, including the audience.
Note: I am still on my honeymoon at this point. The distraction of this has led to several sleepless nights. I’m narcotizing to try to sleep, with little success. In hindsight, my reaction to these disagreements was over the top, as the real horror of the experience had yet to present itself.
I receive this email from the Producers:
…we feel strongly that if we are doing DRACULA, we should have Dracula/Grayson be our main character and POV character… This seems obvious in a way. Just like Superman or Batman frankly.
This confirms for me that no one involved in adapting Stoker’s DRACULA, except for me, has ever actually read the novel or seen any serious filmic adaptations of it. This isn’t always an issue, but, in this case, it’s beginning to feel like a pretty big one.
One of my Reps emails me:
I think at this stage you suck it up. NBC might want an entirely different version. We’ll discuss after the NBC meeting…
I’m one day back from my honeymoon, blissfully married and professionally frustrated. I meet with the team at NBC who will supervise this project — including the Fixer, the executive who brought “DRACULA” into the network. I will repeatedly state that NBC, without fail, were heroes in everything you will read here and in any future stories I write about the “DRACULA” experience. The same can be said about Sky.
This might be a good time to exculpate Mr. English, as well, who has not yet revealed himself to be one of the heroes of this story either, but will (sorry for the spoiler); he and I enjoyed an excellent working relationship despite a few bumps along the way, all of which I would chalk up to two people who respect each other but enjoy independent minds working together.
During this meeting at NBC, the Fixer suggests Dracula, the character that is, doesn’t even have to be the A-storyline in our series — unknowingly echoing the point I have been trying to make to the Producers for a month now. When the Producers call later to discuss the meeting, I am told the Fixer is wrong, just as I am. Dracula is our A-storyline, that’s just the way it is.
I deliver a new pilot outline to the Producers, which is, I would estimate, a 50% reinvention of the first draft.
I meet with the Producers to discuss my new outline. It becomes heated because they think everything I’m saying is wrong. I’m shouted at, and a stack of papers is thrown in my, erm, general direction. It’s a terrifying moment for me, because I have no experience dealing with this kind of behavior, at least not as an adult. My father had anger issues, but, as a child, I didn’t learn how to stand up to that. Unsure what to do, I laugh out loud and declare that this is why I moved to Hollywood. To be in it, to be yelled at by people as accomplished as these producers.
In other words, I thank the people shouting at me for shouting at me.
Talk about victim mentality.
It works, though, immediately defusing the situation.
The Producers email apologies. We all crack jokes about what happened, as if it was no big deal, and move on.
One of them emails me:
hopefully we are retaining the key essentials of your approach that are important to you while taking everything to another level.
Even though I disagree with everything I’m being asked to do, I try to sound like a team player with the hope that I can use NBC later to fix what is happening. I email back:
I never thought I’d be writing typical Hollywood fare as a career, even though that’s somehow what I’m now known best for and what I guess I assumed was being asked for from me for this project, so the fact that the show has evolved from something more conventional into a real drama with very sophisticated themes and character work is actually very thrilling for me.
Most of November
I stop working on “DRACULA”, as the Producers have yet to make their deal with NBC. It’s become so protracted that my Reps worry the deal won’t make at all.
Note: this sort of thing used to feel rare in Hollywood, but in recent years both my wife and I have lost out on several deals because producer or rights deals didn’t make. It’s a terrifying time, especially for unestablished screenwriters desperate for life-changing paydays and career transformations.
One Rep emails me:
Pen down for now.
The Producers make their deal — thank the alien programmers who built this simulation we call Earth!
I deliver a third draft of the pilot outline to the Producers. I’m quickly told most of it is pretty much shit, even though I’m fully committed to making it work for them. They seem to dislike the results of their own notes.
When it rains, it pours, or so the adage goes. After selling “DRACULA” in September and I SLAY DRAGONS in October, I sell a feature pitch to Sony called DODGE & TWIST with Matt Tolmach and Ahmet Zappa producing. This is my fifth professional job, coming two-and-a-half months after selling “DRACULA” and four months after telling my now-wife we are flat broke, worse than broke, and it’s time to abandon the dream of becoming professional screenwriters. We finally have a modicum of financial security, in no small part because we have paid off over $100K in credit card debt with all this unbelievably good fortune.
I meet with the Producers, who are now more or less dictating what they want from the “DRACULA” pilot rather than just pitching ideas. Specifically, Mr. Smiley. I don’t agree with much of what he says and spend much of my time in his presence trying to mask my confusion at his erratic creative spitballing.
I deliver a fourth draft of the pilot outline to the Producers. It’s also shit, I’m told, which no longer stings. We have to start all over again from scratch. Mr. Smiley has become the bane of my existence.
Mr. Smiley emails me a dense four-page document reimagining “DRACULA” and the pilot as he would write it. This will be a recurring theme in coming months, the producer insisting I lack competence as a screenwriter and that I should trust him to show me how it is really done even though he is not a screenwriter and never has been.
I meet with Mr. Smiley and Mr. Candy for two-and-a-half hours. The next day, my Reps ask me how it went. This is my reply. It’s lengthy, but illustrates the personal and creative despair I am feeling at the time.
The meeting was more of what I’ve come to expect from Mr. Smiley. He was charming and slimy at the same time, insisting that I was going to write exactly what he wanted and nothing else. “Don’t go off the reservation” were his exact words with this next outline. No matter how much I disagree with something or want to try and make it work for me, I’m to trust them that what they told me to write works. When I suggested there was too much going on, that it was a 2.5-hour pilot, Mr. Candy bluntly said, “Now you’re just being stupid. We do this all day. Writers say that to us all day. Then we show them how to do it.” I suggested my concerns was in how I write scenes, and they more or less said I’m not the one making those decisions.
The meeting never got confrontational. I just calmly reiterated for 2.5 hours how strongly I disagreed with what they were suggesting, over and over, and Mr. Smiley just kept replying with, “Let me tell you how you could do that in five or six scenes.” I mean, at one point he said the pilot will have 40 to 50 scenes in a 61-page script. I don’t know what insane world he lives in, but you can’t pack in a scene every 75 seconds on average and expect anything of consequence to happen inside those scenes. Especially when you’re introducing new characters and rules. I’m also not sure why you’d want that many scenes. What a budgetary nightmare.
Anyway, point is: I’m going to do a bullet-point doc of the notes Mr. Smiley gave me. Very loose. Then he’s going to approve — theoretically since I’m just transcribing his words — then I’m going to be allowed to expand into an outline to give to the Fixer.
At that point, I don’t know what we do. Warn the Fixer I don’t agree with the doc? At least warn him I think it’s too congested? Just pray he hates it and has me come in to work with him? Whatever the case, we should begin laying the groundwork for my escape after I write the pilot. I won’t work in this environment in perpetuity, and I’m more than confident the Fixer won’t take my side when all is said and done. I’d much rather be known as the guy who didn’t want to work on shit he didn’t agree with than the guy who wrote shit that everyone knew he didn’t agree with.
Everything I’m about to describe happens over the phone with my tirelessly supportive and wonderful Reps, so I can’t cite exact verbiage or such. But the gist of it is, we decide enough is enough.
My Reps call the Fixer. I’m not sure what they tell this person who hired me, who told me he believed in me, whose confidence I so desperately wanted to justify, but I know what I told them to say:
“Fuck this, I quit. They can have their money back.”
It wouldn’t be the only time I asked to quit my own TV series either.
My Reps tell me the Fixer won’t let me blow up my career like this without understanding the situation. He asks my Reps to send him every one of my pilot outline drafts to review, and then he’ll decide what to do next based on my work.
Still no response from the Fixer, nor should I expect one before the new year, I’m told. He’s too busy with other projects that probably aren’t the headache “DRACULA” is turning into. I have no choice but to spend the holidays sick to my stomach with worry that somehow this is all my fault and, soon, the Fixer will level a condemning finger at me that will end my screenwriting career before it’s even really begun.
Early January 2012
I don’t have an exact date in my records, as this conversation happens over the phone, but my Reps call and tell me the Fixer doesn’t understand what the problem with my outlines is. He would’ve said yes to moving forward on my first draft. He’s going to speak to the Producers. A happy new year indeed!
I receive an email from one of my Reps with the subject line: mr. smiley is calling you.
My stomach sinks.
The email reads:
[Mr. Smiley] Wants to bury the hatchet and get back on the same page with you.
I spoke to the Fixer who wants you in next week for a notes session then send you off to script.
Holy shit, it worked. It wasn’t me. After months of Mr. Smiley trying to convince me I was an incompetent hack, it wasn’t me. Angels sing somewhere and a choir howls, “Hallelujah!”
“DRACULA” is announced on Deadline. I had to frantically race to have a headshot taken in time, despite how much I hate being photographed and am horrified by the notion of having my face all over the internet in any way. (This photo will be relevant in a moment.)
Meanwhile, I have my call with Mr. Smiley. This is the email I send to my Reps afterwards:
He sounded shockingly humbled by the experience. He never said “sorry,” nor did I expect him to, but he expressed the wish that we could find a way to communicate better. That I was, indeed, respected and they needed to listen to my instincts a bit more. Actually, it sounded uncomfortably like a therapy session with all his talk of how he used to be and how he’s trying to grow, etc. We’ll see what he’s like in front of the Fixer tomorrow.
An email from the Producers also reveals which of my four outlines (and two variants) the Fixer most responded to. I email my Reps:
It’s as I hoped: the Fixer dug my initial instincts over the increasingly bonkers shit Mr. Smiley was asking me to do. To the Producers’ credit, though, the Fixer likes some story tweaks we made to later outlines. To their credit because I agree those ideas, which I mostly just expanded upon, were theirs. I’ll be sure to give them that credit in the meeting, to help Mr. Smiley understand I want to use them as a resource and never wanted it my way or the highway.
I meet with the Producers again, including Mr. Smiley’s partner Mr. English and his executive Mr. Candy, who all joke about how good my headshot is. They fixate on my hair.
Mr. Smiley, deeply insecure I’ve long since realized, seems genuinely mystified by how many positive comments are made on the article about me and my work rather, by implication, about him. As it’s his name in the headline, instead of mine, I think this frustrates him.
This is the first hint of something I will come to fully understand five months from now: he believes he is the visionary behind “DRACULA”, while I, the series creator, am just there to facilitate and finally reveal to the world the true breadth of his staggering genius. This realization finally arrives when I (flash forward in our narrative) read the eventual announcement of my series’ green light in DEADLINE:
Based on an idea by Mr. Smiley, it is set in the 1890s and has been described as “Dangerous Liaisons meets The Tudors”…
See, this is only true if saying aloud the name Dracula constitutes having an idea to base anything on, but the reality is Stoker had an idea and brilliantly executed it more than a century ago, Mr. Smiley repeated the title of Stoker’s book to me offering nothing but the title and the adjective “sexy” to work from, and I otherwise dreamed up every single element, good or bad, that ultimately appeared in the pilot script.
I have my meeting at NBC. I sent this email to my Reps afterward:
Could not have gone better. I think I won on almost every point, while giving credit to Mr. Smiley and Mr. English for most of them. I’ll be elected to Congress someday. Point is, the Fixer wants my version of the show and gave me some great notes on how to accomplish it. I’m to turn in a revised outline on Tuesday, with the hope that they can send me to script immediately afterward.
Note: so much of development can turn into diplomacy between a storyteller’s vision and the ambitions of producers. In fact, so much of the business is daily navigating egos and confusing motivations.
January 15th and 16th
I email privately with the Fixer about a note he had previously given me, but which the Producers seem determined to contradict. I want to know how married he is to the change. He is very married. Like some damn fool amateur, I reference this email exchange to the Producers. Both are irate. Mr. English is especially offended, that I would even dare go around them to NBC.
In hindsight, I will say they were both right. I will also say I would do it all over again, but, like a pro, just not tell them about the secret insight I had received from my employer.
I submit a fifth draft of the outline to the Producers, basically an amalgam of my first two drafts with elements of the completely different third draft and completely different again fourth draft peppered in.
The Producers inform me they’re happy, except for a few notes. I’m so stunned I decide not to work for the rest of the day, and go to the movies instead.
The new pilot outline draft is officially submitted to NBC.
The Fixer is happy with the outline. I hope this professional relationship continues for years to come. He has a few notes, but we’re off to draft!
Afterwards, I receive this email from the Producers, trying to discourage me from the darker, bloodier elements of the series I have conceived:
have discussed and it’s fine for you to respond to the Fixer as you think fit and copy the three of us. We worry that Lady Jayne having Kruger’s head may be going a bit far but leave it to you.
Note: this element — which involves my vampire hunter presenting the decapitated head of a fellow hunter to her superior — remains through every draft and appears in the aired pilot. So does the blood.
I submit the first draft of “DRACULA’s” pilot to the Producers, twelve days after being sent to script by NBC.
I meet with the Producers, who seem generally very pleased with my draft. It’s the first pilot I’ve ever written, so I feel especially good about this accomplishment. There are notes, of course.
I submit a new draft of the pilot to the Producers.
I receive this email from the Producers:
Cole — you did a fantastic job taking on board our notes and turning this around so quickly. Great work.
There are notes again, but this is normal.
I submit a new draft of the pilot to the Producers, having worked for nearly fifteen hours straight on it.
I then privately email the Fixer to say how positive the Producers have been since our meetings. I am relieved by the change in approach, especially Mr. Smiley whom I believe was 95% of the problem, corrupting the entire development process. I thank the Fixer profusely for his intervention.
I’m looking forward to celebrating my first married Valentine’s Day with my new wife, but first Mr. Smiley, with a kind of movie serial killer’s timing, reaches out to tell me my pilot script is not professionally written and will disappoint NBC. This is a general condemnation; no examples are given, it’s more of a [arm waves] problem with everything I do.
Note: what I’m about to write next is so extraordinary that at the time, most people didn’t believe me when I told them what was happening:
Mr. Smiley then tells me he’s rewritten my pilot script, to show me how it’s done.
He’s rewritten his screenwriter.
He’s rewritten me.
First, he’s not a screenwriter.
Second, he didn’t have a Final Draft copy of my pilot, so he’s copied-and-pasted what he could from a previous draft I provided in PDF format. I don’t understand why he didn’t use the most recent draft, suggesting to me he never even read that one. Whatever the case, everything is sloppy and confusing to the eye.
Third, his rewrite is so bad I only read three pages before I conclude it’s entirely possible, despite his CV, that he’s never read a script of any kind.
I send an email to my Reps:
All I had to do was read the first paragraph and how he changed it and my answer is, “Fuck no.” Not a fucking chance in hell.
Before I even receive a reply, I send a second email as I shake with rage:
My position is: I’m done. I’ve made the changes that were asked for and Mr. English and Mr. Candy signed off on them.
When my Reps call, I repeat for the second time in two months a sentiment no rational screenwriter without a credit to their name should ever say:
“Fuck this, I quit. They can have their money back.”
February 14th 2012
My Reps and I decide to go around the Producers, and submit my pilot script directly to NBC. This is an extraordinary step, but seems like one worth daring if the only alternative is walking away from my own TV series.
After a lot of work behind the scenes, my Reps tell me Mr. English was not a party to Mr. Smiley’s transgression. Mr. English has asked if I will meet privately with him to address his remaining notes on the pilot script, with the assurance that Mr. Smiley would no longer be involved in the process. “I’m so sorry this happened, Cole,” he tells me on a phone call.
I apprehensively meet with Mr. English in his office, where I have my first experience of working 1:1 with a professional and serious British producer. It’s not a sixty-minute notes session, where I’m sent off to interpret his notes. Instead, we spend six hours working together, over lunch, going line-by-line through the script (a very normal thing to do in the UK as I would later find out). We make changes in real-time.
Note: This is an incredibly common thing to do in the UK, where I would work extensively a few years later. I learned to appreciate how much the script process was expedited by this focused attention by smart producers.
Afterwards, I email Mr. English:
I say this with all sincerity…despite the headache of these past few days, it’s been a pleasure working with you on this.
I then email my Reps:
This week, Mr. English [and you two] are my heroes.
I then start drinking.
The Producers and I have a notes conference call with the Fixer, my executive at NBC. At no point on this call do Mr. Smiley and I acknowledge each other, nor does anyone address what has transpired between us.
An email from my Reps confirms I’m no longer to converse with Mr. Smiley about the pilot, which is a batshit crazy thing to be told because this producer’s name is all over this project. But I am to answer NBC’s notes with Mr. English and Mr. English alone, who will act as an intermediary between me and the man everyone involved in this project at this point seems to agree I need protecting from.
In a private email exchange with the Fixer, I crack the teaser — which becomes the first part of a two-part twist in the pilot so good I believe to this day nothing else about the series trumps it. The twist being that Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (eventually played by Thomas Kretschmann), Dracula’s literary arch-nemesis, resurrects Dracula from a death-like coma to help him take on a mutual enemy: the Order of the Dragon.
Pairing Dracula and Van Helsing in an uneasy alliance remains the only idea I’m truly disappointed the series’ demise prevented us from bringing to a conclusion.
I submit a new draft of the pilot to the Producers, then start drinking.
I receive eleven pages of notes from the Producers at 7:50am, and I’m asked to turn these changes around by 6:00pm per NBC’s request that the new draft be submitted by then.
I kill myself, working without a break for the next ten hours, but the Producers don’t respond in time to get the script into NBC. Such is life. At least none of them rewrote me.
The Producers submit the official second draft of the “DRACULA” pilot to NBC.
NBC comes back with some strong, smart notes. I find it increasingly bizarre that my studio is the least scary part of this process.
I submit a new draft to the Producers, then start drinking. It’s become a bit of a ritual: hit send, open a beer, crawl into bed in the dark and stare at the ceiling until my wife finds me and promises everything is going to be okay.
Another all-day working session with Mr. English, to finish NBC’s notes.
The “2nd Revised Studio Draft” goes into NBC. This draft will allegedly be going all the way up the food chain, or so I’m told.
Not so fast. More strong notes from NBC.
I address the notes in my own office, then resubmit via the Producers. The “Pilot Script (Studio Polish) will be delivered all the way up the NBC food chain this time.
A senior member of the NBC team (not the Fixer) privately emails glowing praise for the script, my “great attitude”, how I “rose to the occasion”, and a note that I was “a pleasure to work with.”
This confirms that the Fixer has largely kept the development chaos Mr. Smiley precipitated from the rest of his team.
I receive official word that NBC and its international group are very happy with the script. They’re passing it on up to Bob Greenblatt, the head of NBC. But everyone is excited about its prospects — I’ve done it!
I’m left with a feeling of dread because those words — I’ve done it! — are loaded with potential for more of the misery that has defined “DRACULA” so far for me. In later years, I will realize this process was so toxic that it tainted my first months of marriage, something I will always resent.
Then comes an email from the Fixer requesting an “international sales document”. For your edification about this process, here’s a snippet of it:
Will be very helpful/necessary in trying to secure int’l fees. It should start with a page of what the show is, then a season arc, then character info with some of the twists and turns. This will be … used to intrigue and excite. If you have any inspiring artwork you’ve come across, great. We also need to answer the questions of what makes this Dracula different, etc.
And like everything in television, or at least TV where networks are a concern, I’m told NBC need it “sooner than later”.
Would love to put together and give to int’l for their feedback late next week if possible.
I’m new to the game at this point, but what the Fixer is more or less saying is that NBC International needs my help finding an international partner to co-finance the production of the series.
Back to work.
One of the Producers suggests we should retitle the series. Here are some of the bizarre ideas I’m pitched:
DRACULA: TWILIGHT CITY (This might be too close to TWILIGHT, but I like the title and it works for what Grayson is doing with bringing light to the world.)
DRACULA: THE ORDER OF THE DRAGON
DRACULA: THE REVOLUTION
DRACULA: VICTORIAN AGE
DRACULA: THE RESURRECTION
DRACULA: THE ARISTOCRAT
“DRACULA: THE ARISTOCRAT”?!
Note: my response is less than diplomatic. I was beginning to crack because so often it felt like I was having conversations with partners who didn’t seem to like the idea of Dracula so much as the idea of an awards-worthy period drama that didn’t involve monsters or blood or any of the darkest, most enduring qualities of the novel. Don’t send emails like this one, kids.
For my part, I’m wholly against this sort of title until I’m told I have no choice in the matter and even then I would only be helping to mitigate what I’d see as damaging. I’ve only seen this ______: _______ done well once in TV and that’s with SPARTACUS, which are all like chapter titles and not at all what would work here. The name DRACULA gets it done and nothing you add after it will make it any better or sexier unless it was DRACULA: YOU’LL SEE T&A IF YOU TUNE IN. Now if you wanted to talk about something like CURSE OF DRACULA, HOUSE OF DRACULA, HORROR OF DRACULA or something like that, I wouldn’t hate the conversation. In fact, I rather like those sorts of titles. That’s just my two cents.
The Fixer calls to tell me that “DRACULA” has been very well received by everyone at the network including — most importantly — Bob Greenblatt. Now we wait, the future of the series dependent upon whether or not the producers and NBC can line up an international partner.
Mr. English has spoken with Sky’s Head of Drama in the UK, who is very happy with the pilot script. Sky is the kind of partner the producers and NBC both want for “DRACULA”, so this bodes well. No decisions until they see the international sales document.
Holy hell, I sell a spec script to Sony called SAVAGE PLANET — my first spec sale! This is another team-up with Matt Tolmach and Ahmet Zappa, but this time Avi and Ari Arad are on board to produce, too.
Note: this is an amazing stretch of good fortune for an emerging screenwriter. I’ve sold four projects in seven months. I have only repeated this run once, in 2018/19, after I had moved to London.
I work tirelessly on the foreign sales document, bouncing many drafts back and forth between all parties, but the good news is:
Sky is officially onboard!
We receive notes from Sky about the pilot script. Nothing concerning here. I’m currently working with two networks on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, one TV studio, one film studio, one A-list director, and a whole host of TV and film producers…and only one person in this diverse mob of voices has ever told me my work was laughably unprofessional.
The Producers deliver my new draft of “DRACULA”, all of Sky’s notes answered. Emails show Mr. Smiley is back to joking around with me as if we’re buddies. For the sake of the series and my future, I pretend I don’t loathe him. So much of the film business seems to be a kind of Kabuki theatre.
What a spectacular turn of events!
Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the star of “THE TUDORS” — a notoriously picky “get” in television — has agreed to star as Dracula. He’s hooked on the notion of playing a single character who is, himself, three different characters in one: Vlad Tepes, Alexander Grayson (Dracula’s public persona in “DRACULA”), and the monster Dracula.
JRM — as Jonathan Rhys Meyers is generally referred to in emails and texts—will explain why he wanted to play the character to PARADE sixteen months later:
The thing that makes [this] Dracula story interesting is he’s 99 percent monster and 1 percent human. It’s the 1 percent that causes all the problems. This little bit of humanity is what causes the conflict. If he was all monster, there would be bliss.
We await NBC’s decision. Will they green light the production of “DRACULA’s” pilot? This question provokes complicated feelings in me after six months of escalating daily anxiety and what feels like numerous attempts to undermine my self-esteem, career, and family’s future — even though I don’t believe for a second the perpetrator of all this possesses enough self-awareness to understand what he has done to me.
It’s my 36th birthday. My wife has orchestrated a busy day of surprise activities in Downtown LA to celebrate. We’re walking between destinations, sweating in the sun, when my cellphone rings in my pocket. I check to see who it is.
It’s Mr. Smiley.
I hesitate before answering, wary of this man’s skill at ruining my day. But it’s been more than a month since JRM attached himself to “DRACULA”, and we’ve been told NBC and Sky might be close to making their decision about the series’ future.
I pick up.
I listen to him, as my wife, waiting at a corner some distance from me, watches my reaction carefully. She doesn’t know whom I’m speaking to.
When the call is done, I hang up and join her. Convinced someone has died, she asks me, “What’s wrong?”
I tell her all my dreams have come true — “DRACULA” has been greenlit.
Not just a pilot, but to series — a highly unusual move. NBC and Sky have committed to producing and airing ten episodes.
I want to cry.
Neither of us knows how to make sense of this amazing, life-changing, god-awful news. This is why I came to Hollywood, to write stories for the screen, but “DRACULA” moving forward means I will have to spend at least another year, possibly several, working with a human being I have come to find utterly malevolent.
My wife and I walk to the Standard Downtown, and take the elevator to the rooftop for the final part of my birthday celebration. I’m surprised by a dozen of my friends, who shout, “Happy birthday!” at me. Everyone then congratulates me on the green light news, ignorant of what I’ve been through for the past half-year. I thank them as they ply me with cocktails, but there isn’t enough booze in the world to make me mean it.
Within four months, I will be working with a head writer whose hiring I only agreed to because I naively fell for the BS that there wasn’t another head writer showrunner in all of Hollywood willing to run a high-budget greenlit international TV series starring an A-list actor. Within six months, I will have to ambush a London casting session for my own TV series after I am not invited to attend (or even told it is happening). Within nine months, my Reps will break it to me that I will never visit the set of my own TV series for reasons they mostly explain with sighs. There’s no way to know for sure who was responsible for any or all of these decisions…though I obviously have my theories. But that’s all a story — or ten — for another day…
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