We sat down with Renfield director Chris McKay to chat about the hidden heroes behind the movie and paying homage to Dracula’s past…
Renfield director Chris McKay’s career has so far been incredibly varied. He’s worked across animation and live action, and developed projects of various genres. His feature directorial debut was 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie; following that he threw himself into sci-fi action flick The Tomorrow War starring Chris Pratt. Then he took the reins on Renfield.
Taking the traditional Dracula tale and switching the perspective to that of his faithful servant, Renfield follows the titular protagonist – played by the incredibly likeable Nicholas Hoult – as he tires of working for the boss from hell. Said boss is brought to life by the energetic, charismatic Nicolas Cage in a performance that’s hard to forget.
Largely an action-comedy, the film distinguishes itself by treating Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, as a sort of prequel – even beginning with a black and white introduction that pays homage to that film while establishing the leading duo’s 90-year-long toxic relationship.
We sat down with Chris McKay to discuss the inspiration behind that choice, the hidden heroes that made the movie what it is, and the talents of Nick and Nic…
Film Stories: With Renfield, what part of the project interested you the most?
Chris McKay: I love horror movies. I love Dracula, but I think the idea of taking a character we know really well – like there’s been a million interpretations of Dracula over the years, lots of different kinds but they’re kind of the same. And the idea of like, if the movie was going to be over the top, I wanted to be over the top in a really fun way, and wanted to bring a lot of humour to the splat stick violence. So kind of like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2, or Peter Jackson’s early movies like Dead Alive [released elsewhere as Braindead]. I wanted there to be that sense of fun, and crazy over the top violence and silly violence to the movie. And so that was something that I really wanted to do.
FS: When you came to this, were you juggling any other projects?
CM: No. I’d just finished The Tomorrow War. When I was making Tomorrow War I was working on Borderlands, which is a video game adaptation, and I was working on something called Amulet at 20th Century Fox, which was a series of graphic novels. And I was working on Dungeons & Dragons [Honour Among Thieves], and those were movies I was developing to direct.
Then when I took The Tomorrow War, which was already something that was kind of a moving train, all those projects – Eli Roth took over Borderlands, [Brett] Goldstein and [John Francis] Daley took over Dungeons & Dragons, and Amulet is still sort of lost somewhere in Fox Disney. I finished The Tomorrow War and the pandemic happened, and that pretty much just rolled right into Renfield. So it was literally just like I’d finished the post on The Tomorrow War, stepped out of the Tomorrow War office – ‘right, it’s a Renfield office’ – and started working on Renfield.
It was kind of all hands on deck to try to get the script together, get the cast together, put a team together, find a location and shoot this thing, put stage together. All of that stuff. So it was kind of like there was no time to work on anything else other than Renfield!
FS: A lot of the attention for this film is rightly on Nicolas Cage as Dracula, but can you tell me a bit about working with Nicholas Hoult, and what he brings to a project like this?
CM: When I read the script, the only person I saw playing Renfield was Nick Hoult. It was Nick Hoult or bust, like he’s the guy that we have to use to make this movie because I think if you go with somebody who’s too much of a comedic actor then it kind of skews the movie more towards parody, which I didn’t want the movie to be a parody. These had to be real characters, real people, real performances. And if you go with somebody who’s a little too dramatic they’re gonna be maybe allergic to comedy, and the comedy’s not going to work. So Nick Hoult is that one guy that can do both really well at a really super high level.
The other thing is that he brings incredible, root-worthy vulnerability – in spite of the characters that he plays; he plays a lot of flawed characters. He plays characters that flirt with being unlikeable, or are in unlikeable circumstances or make unlikeable choices. And yet at the same time we root for him, because he’s incredibly vulnerable. And he’s also an actor who throws himself into everything. He wants to do all the stunts. He’s the guy who’s going ‘Yeah, you’re gonna be shooting this other thing at first unit, can I go to second unit and do the stunts?’ Like, he’s literally asking ‘How can I do more?’
He’s not asking ‘How can I get out of work?’ You have plenty of actors who are like, ‘Okay, can I not work this day? Can I go do this thing? I want to go do something else.’ He’s the guy who’s trying to find a way to do more work and try to figure out a way with the schedule and his schedule. Yeah, he’s amazing, and I’m inspired by him and his work ethic is really great.
FS: And what makes Cage such a good Dracula?
CM: Because he brings the humanity. Cage’s Dracula is unique because he, like the best versions of Dracula performances of the past, Cage finds a way to bring humanity to it, a real sense that there’s a human side of Dracula. Narcissists don’t think that they’re sociopaths. Don’t think that they have no empathy. They feel like they have incredible empathy. I think Dracula feels like he’s in love with Renfield, and that he cares about Renfield. I think he truly believes that he cares about Renfield and that maybe he’s doing tough love to Renfield because he’s a boss – we’re sort of doing a bad boss relationship.
But I think that he truly does feel like he’s mentoring Renfield in a way, and giving Renfield an incredible gift that Renfield should appreciate. And so when Renfield betrays him, and from Dracula’s point of view and Renfield leaves him, he feels betrayed, and he feels anger and jealousy and hurts. He feels deep hurt. And I needed an actor who was going to be able to play that and play it in a way that you really truly felt it. And Cage is amazing at bringing nuance and depth to people, even people that aren’t very good people or likeable people.
FS: You’ve spoken of Renfield before as kind of like a successor to Tod Browning’s Dracula. Why did you choose to approach the film that way? And why that particular Dracula film?
CM: Whether we’ve seen those movies, the Tod Browning movies, or Universal horror movies, or not. Whether we’ve seen them, they are part of our pop culture. If you never saw those movies, maybe you’ve seen a poster or a parody of it, you’ve seen Young Frankenstein, or you’ve seen a Family Guy parody of it or something like that. There’s been something we’ve experienced in pop culture so we all know something about it. We’ve certainly seen Dracula down the staircase with a giant spiderweb behind him.
So it was important for me to connect to, particularly the Tod Browning movie, because it’s part of our collective unconscious pop culture, but it’s also the oldest, and it looks old. The way they shot it looks old and things like that. It’s not the way we shoot movies anymore. The lenses and everything else, just the angles and all that kind of thing.
And so I wanted to – not only for the love of those movies – connect to that, but I also wanted this shorthand for our characters. I wanted the audience to feel like these guys had a long relationship. They’ve been together for 90 years and what better way to do that than literally put them in a 90 year old movie where Cage is in the Bela Lugosi Dracula costume on the staircase with a giant spiderweb behind him? Hoult’s there, in the Renfield outfit, doing the Dwight Frye laugh, all that kind of thing. It just felt like a great way to get the audience to know these guys had been together for a while.
It wasn’t something that the studio was necessarily behind. They obviously let me do it in the movie, but it was important to me, it was important to the filmmakers. It was important to Nic and Nick to do it, that was something that they really wanted to do, too. So everyone wanted to try to figure out a way to make that work.
FS: And this is quite different to that original film in a few ways, like the time period, the actors, the tone, but did you try and find sort of ways to try and make it seem like the same characters despite those differences?
CM: Little bits here and there, like the costuming, the laugh I wanted to connect to that. But Cage is doing his father’s accent. He’s doing his father’s kind of mid-Atlantic accent. And that was really important to him and I think that really works for this character. So there are differences there. But the medallion that Cage wears is a homage to the Bela Lugosi medallion, but it’s a bizarre version of the medallion because, you can’t really see it, but if you look inside, inside the Medallion is a picture of Cage in the Gary Oldman Vlad Tepes outfit [from Bram Stoker’s Dracula]. So we have lots of homages to all of our favorite pieces of Dracula film history.
FS: So who are the hidden heroes of this film, the people who are below the line?
CM: I’ve got so many! Let’s start with Alec Hammond – Alec Hammond, the production designer, is amazing. He’s a great partner. Every single set, every single location, Alec had his hands on. He’s also a great artist, too. We used a lot of his designs – in the restaurant [that Renfield frequents] in particular, some of those giant heads and faces and things like that on the exterior of the building and inside the building are all stuff that’s come from Alec’s art. But yeah, he’s an amazing production designer. Super can do attitude, built an abandoned hospital. It’s such a beautiful set, it still feels like something that’s abandoned yet at the same time it feels like Renfield did try to do a good job of making you feel like you’re in Dracula’s castle with a throne and all the candles and that sort of thing. Like you can tell Renfield is trying to, even though they’re in sort of meager circumstances, Renfield’s still trying to make something work and make Dracula still feel important. So everything Alec touched was great.
Lisa Lovaas and her costumes. She did wonderful stuff with the fabric – great textures, really great ageing on the costumes, great style. She created all these different looks for everybody. I love what she did with Bella Lobo [a crime boss played by Shohreh Aghdashloo], loved all of her outfits and Teddy’s [Bella’s son, played by Ben Schwartz] outfits. Obviously I love Renfield. What she did with Renfield is exactly what Nick Hoult and I saw in our heads when we were talking about what Renfield should look like. All of Cage’s outfits and Cage’s rings are a combination of Lisa and Gary Tuers and the prop department. All of that stuff – the cane, the top hat, how tactile everything Cage wears is in that movie, the velvet, the rhinestones. Everything about it just was perfect.
Christien Tinsley, special makeup effects. Christien’s work – he and his team did all of the makeup in the movie, let alone the special makeup which is a huge task to be able to do both of those things and Christien did a great job. His design work is great, the teeth appliance, the contact lenses, all of the stages for Cage becoming Dracula.
James E. Price, visual effects. There’s a lot of visual effects components, a lot of behind the scenes visual effects components, even when you’re doing practical, trying to do as much practical, a lot of this stuff is done digitally or augmented digitally. Jamie Price did the second unit stuff, so when I needed the opening black and white stuff shot Jamie Price was instrumental in putting all that stuff together and directed those scenes because we were trying to match all those old movies and those old lenses and things like that. So Jamie Price was crucial in that.
Chris Brewster, stunt coordinator and the other second year director, built amazing stunt vis. All that stunt choreography starts with Brewster. He and I had some conversations about some things that I wanted to do, and he was super intuitive and got it. He understood ‘yes, it needs to be an action. It needs to be brutal, and move, but it also needs to be fun and funny.’
So we took elements of Jackie Chan, took elements from other more comic action set pieces and stuff like that. He always knew the action needed to have a purpose. That’s something really big for me. The action needs to have a character or plot purpose to what’s going on otherwise you get a lot of action fatigue. And so he was really great at building these really wonderful unique action set pieces. Yeah, I had a really great team.
FS: Thank you, Chris McKay!
Renfield is in cinemas now.
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