The Last Voyage of the Demeter Designer on the Massive Horror Production


There are (too) many Dracula films, but only a comparatively small amount have stood out over the past century, for whatever reason. For The Last Voyage of the Demeter, its distinction comes with a unique approach to narrative (fleshing out the “Captain’s Log” section of Bram Stoker’s Dracula into a perilous ocean journey with a vampire) and an astounding attention to detail.

Credit Edward Thomas, an incredible production designer perhaps most famous for his work on Doctor Who. That series hops around through time, and so it makes sense that Thomas would be finely attuned to period-appropriate detail. He masters that fastidiousness in The Last Voyage of the Demeter, literally building an authentic 19th century schooner as the film’s primary set.

Thomas spoke with MovieWeb about the Dracula film, the efforts to construct a functioning ship, and the beauty of paying attention to detail.

This Ship Is Gonna Have to Be Huge

The Last Voyage of the Demeter
Universal Pictures

In Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula heads to London by ship; when the ship arrives, none of its crew are around to tell the tale, with only a haunting Captain’s Log left to document the terror of the Demeter. It’s an astounding, self-contained little section of Dracula, and makes for a particularly tense film. It’s also extremely evocative, and gives a production designer like Thomas a lot to work with.

“The book comes to life for me when Dracula heads to the UK and leaves in those crates,” explained Thomas. He continued:

“And those crates themselves tell a story, you know, there’s a certain amount of them, they’re a certain scale, and you’ve got to build a ship that can take those crates. That was always one thing that, when I was reading the script, I was thinking, ‘This ship is gonna have to be huge, because it’s going to have to take these crates.’ From that moment, you realize what you’re dealing with.”

Indeed. It was a gargantuan task, quite literally. For Thomas, he wasn’t going to take any half measures. “It talks about it in the book, the center of the ship is 180 feet long, it’s this wide, etc.,” said the production designer. “It’s sort of like Alien, you’re off on the spaceship, and that’s your playground.”

“But those sorts of schooners, they came with rules, you know,” explained Thomas, “they have to sit in the ocean, they have to be balanced, they have certain formalities about them. The captain’s quarters were always at the rear of the ship, the kitchen and the scullery and the crew’s quarters were at the front of the ship, and the cargo was in the middle, to keep the ship low in the water. And then you think, we’ll apply that to the ship. That’s the reality of how these things work.”

Edward Thomas Builds the Demeter

Last Voyage of the Demeter
Universal Pictures

And so, the choice was made, and like Noah with a bigger crew, Thomas built a ship and waited for the water. “One of the decisions early on was — do we actually shoot the whole thing in the studio? It would have probably freed up the nautical theory of it, because then it was never going to be at sea,” said Thomas. “But we made the decision to build the exterior ship in a tank, so all the interior sets were built on moving platforms in Berlin, in Babelsberg Studio, but then all the exterior stuff was shot in Malta in the tank at Malta Film Studios.”

So, to create something that is the scale it was, 214 feet long, 35 feet wide, weighing over 100 tons, you’ve got to really know what you’re doing in terms of safety and in terms of keeping that afloat.

“And of course, what you do is surround yourself with the best possible people. So, nautical engineers, maritime engineers, great construction people who sort of take all that burden for you,” continued Thomas. “But whilst they’re all doing their jobs, as a production designer, I’ve got to make sure that the finished product, the stuff that the camera sees, looks real.”

Related: Exclusive: The Last Voyage of the Demeter Producers on the 21-Year Journey to Make the Vampire Film

Thomas went on:

“And it has to look real, because we wouldn’t want the ship to let the movie down. Everything is so good about it, the acting, the costumes, the makeup, the special effects. You can’t have a ship that the audience doesn’t believe, and I wouldn’t ever want that to happen on my watch. So, you go out. And you buy the schooner and maritime history books, you work with the best possible ship designers to make sure that traditional methods are used.”

Getting the Gothic Horror Right

Last Voyage of the Demeter cargo crate
Universal Pictures

To make sure those “traditional methods” were used, Thomas sought out traditional ship builders who knew how to make an old-fashioned ship. “Whether you’re building a ship and it’s a set, or whether it’s a real ship, it’s the same, you still start with the ribs, the formation,” explained Thomas. “That was the great thing about filming in Malta.” He continued:

“Malta is an island in the Mediterranean Sea, and these guys know how to build ships. So that was a great help in terms of creating a ship, but it’s getting the period details right. The guys made the ropes from scratch. They made the pulleys, we found a fantastic sailmaker in Malta, who can stitch those sails, and we needed two or three sets of those things.”

Related: Exclusive: Dracula Designer Göran Lundström on His Latest Film, The Last Voyage of the Demeter

With an immaculate boat made and placed in a massive tank, Thomas could get an even better understanding of the ship’s importance in the film and how to use it. “A boat is great. The sound design department is great. Creaking timber, the water lapping against the outside of the ship all the time. They were dangerous places, the oceans,” explained Thomas.

I hope the audience will get a sense of that danger when they watch the movie, you know, how perilous and dangerous this was. And then you put a bloodsucking vampire in the midst of it? It was great stuff.

“Now, how do we now feed in the gothic horror elements to this,” mused Thomas, “how do we give [director] André Øvredal the corridors, the linking pieces, the low headroom, the ability to keep the lighting level low; when the light comes in, how does that sort of move with the furniture and how the ship physically moves in the water? That all creates tension, you know, moving lights, moving shadows, all of those things, texture on walls. All those things come into play when you’re creating a sort of gothic horror playground.”

“Of course, with building an 18th century schooner, you don’t have to go very far to create something that’s going to be really terrifying on the inside, you know,” concluded Thomas, “and leave your audience no doubt that these guys are in a coffin at sea with nowhere to go. Which I think we achieved.”

They certainly did. From Universal Pictures, The Last Voyage of the Demeter is now in theaters. You can watch the trailer below:

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