Dracula lives off human blood, but the movie Renfield is soaked in it — while not the most violent movie ever made, the demented supernatural action comedy is packed with what director Chris McKay calls “splatt-stick humor.”
“We wanted to go for it,” McKay tells Consequence. “Budget and time dictated a lot of what we could do, and I mean, yeah, the studio was obviously somewhat nervous about letting us go crazy with things. And they were very responsible, which is the right thing to do. You need the studio as your parents, to help you not go too far out of control. But we felt on set that we needed to go for it as much as we could, because we wanted the movie to be a little over the top. The script was over the top, the ideas were over the top. And so the movie needed to match that.”
Continues McKay, “Obviously the studio had an opinion about how many times we get to explode a priest. If it would’ve been up to me, I would’ve had that priest explode 15 more times. But I think the studio ended up with three, and I think that’s probably right.”
Adds producer Robert Kirkman, with a laugh: “I would’ve had him explode 400 times.”
The Universal film brings a new, modern interpretation to the relationship between Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) and the infamous Dracula (Nicolas Cage), something Kirkman (who has a “Story By” credit on the film) says evolved out of Ryan Ridley’s script.
When we meet Dracula’s familiar at the beginning of the film, he’s ground down by decades of serving his master — only to have his perspective on their relationship altered by a support group for people in toxic relationships. “It started out as a nuts-and-bolt method for Renfield finding victims to feed Dracula,” Kirkman says. “[Ridley]’s the one who hit upon this deep core of the toxic relationship between Renfield and Dracula, and how that worked. It really gave us a big through line for codependency that was the skeleton we were able to hang the whole story on.”
As Renfield looks to change his life and break free of Dracula’s control, things get complicated — and graphic — thanks to a local crime family, not to mention a corrupt police force and Dracula himself. McKay credited his team, including makeup department head Christien Tinsley, stunt coordinator Chris Brewster, and the visual effects artists, with making the gloriously chaotic action scenes possible — including the amount of practical effects captured on camera.
“At least 60% of the stuff we were able to do practically,” McKay says. “There’s stuff where it’s stuff that was just better left to be done in visual effects. Or we augmented some things were done practically, just to add a little bit more in visual effects. But for the most part, I was very happy with the amount of things we were able to do practically. Practical stuff is time consuming. It takes time outta your day. And that’s the thing you have to kinda be careful of. But we got through a lot of stuff and had a really good team.”
The film’s casting of course features Cage’s pitch-perfect take on the Prince of Darkness, but the unconventional choice of Sonic the Hedgehog himself, Ben Schwartz, as the scion of the New Orleans crime family who’s making life difficult for Renfield. “A lot of people don’t know this, but Ben Schwartz is actually a gangster in real life,” Kirkman jokes. “The acting thing is just moonlighting for him.”
McKay says that when it came to casting Schwartz, “I’d seen him do some stuff that made me think there’s a deeper actor in there. And when I auditioned him, he brought a lot to the table. He brought some menace. When he is confronting Awkwafina, you could see this switch flip from being a guy who had maybe never killed anybody before, to a guy who is gonna pull the trigger. And that was important to me.”
It also worked for the role, as McKay notes: “You can’t necessarily cast that [character] as somebody who seems like he’s gonna be in a Martin Scorsese movie anytime soon, because he’s in a Renfield-Dracula relationship with his mom. He enjoys watching Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco and stuff like that. But he’s not a guy who necessarily lives that life. He’s very overprivileged. He’s the son of gangsters. So he’s not a guy who had to grow up on the streets and make a name for himself. He is the nepo baby of organized crime.”
One thing that didn’t make the final cut of Renfield is a sequence teased in some teasers as well as during the film’s final credits — an elaborate dance number that McKay says was set to Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.”