Robert Montague Renfield. Not quite as well-known as Count Dracula himself, is he? Renfield sees Nicholas Hoult in the title role as Dracula's familiar who's grown tired of serving Nic Cage's Lord of Death and wants to break free of his servitude. FILMHOUNDS spoke to Renfield's director Chris McKay about approaching a Dracula film from this different angle, turning Dracula into a comedy, and going all out on the gore and practical effects.
Dracula films have been around for over 100 years, why do you think people gravitate towards vampires on screen so much?
Dracula and vampires in general have stood in for a lot of very contemporary things over the years and I think that's one thing. They've been incredible metaphors. I think the other thing is that they are so romantic, this idea of living forever, that they are misunderstood monsters.
That's the great thing about the Universal monsters and the Hammer Horror monsters, they were always really misunderstood. They always had really great central performances with really great actors portraying these very complicated characters that you feel some sympathy for, even if they are monsters. And to be the villains of the piece too. They're the most charismatic people, the most charming people, the most seductive.
There's always a lot of seduction and eroticism for vampires. I think they're just compelling. They are probably a kind of fantasy. I think a lot of people find a lot of fantasy relationships with vampires. You see a lot of vampire societies and cosplay societies where people are acting out vampire lifestyles and decadent lifestyles. I think there's something about that that's very appealing to vampire characters over the years.
Renfield focusses on Dracula's familiar this time which isn't normally the approach we get in these sorts of things. What do you think makes Renfield and this idea of a vampire's familiar an interesting idea and an interesting way of entering this film?
That's the thing that attracted me to the movie. This idea of how can you tell a story about Dracula in a new way and Robert Kirkman and Ryan Ridley had focussed this script on this side character Renfield who maybe some people know the Dwight Frye performance, or they know the Tom Waits performance but basically he's a crazy guy who eats bugs is what people know about Renfield. Being able to tell a story through this guy's lens, to be able to tell, and show, him, a vulnerable character, a character who's dealing with a bad boss. Using Dracula to tell a story about codependency and narcissism and toxic workplace environments and that sort of thing all felt like a lot of fun, and a fun way to do something different with the Dracula world.
I was so moved by Renfield and his vulnerability, the fact that he's got this moral dilemma right away at the beginning of the movie just really made me feel for him and when I read the script. The only person I thought of for the role was Nick Hoult. This movie lives or dies by whether or not we can cast Nick Hoult. I was just very fortunate that he was able to do it because no one in my mind can get an audience to root for a character who is possibly unlikeable or strange. No one can get the audience behind a character faster than Nick Hoult and that's the thing, I knew we had to cast Hoult for the movie or it doesn't work. Fortunately he was available and wanted to do it but he is really great and there's a lot of life behind his eyes and he just really makes the audience want to root for him.
Traditionally Dracula leans into this darker horror tone but Renfield mixes horror, action and comedy. How did you approach blending all these different tones and genres and making sure it doesn't lean too much into one or the other?
Some of it starts with shooting and the way we shoot the movie. We're experimenting sometimes with tone on set so there's a little bit of that which means that the editorial process is going to be something where you're trying to find a balance. Some of it's also the fact that music can really help make a tone. It either gives the audience permission to laugh or helps make a tone consistent a little bit more or helps you flow from one tone to another. I think the other thing that I wanted to do from a shooting standpoint and a visual standpoint is that I wanted to shoot the movie with a pretty saturated and colourful colour palette and use colours that were very much in line with what colours you might find in a horror movie, some destabilising colours and colour combinations, but that it would be saturated and almost candy-coloured a little bit at times, especially with the blood and the violence so that you were always – even though it was still in a horror space and felt like a horror movie and under-lit and in tonally a horror movie, it wouldn't be so desaturated and dismal that you wouldn't feel like you could still laugh at the stuff.
Part of it was just committing to that colour and those colour ideas and principles, and saturation and the combinations of colour and things like that as a way of just ensuring the film always would be able to play both horror, comedy and would be great for the action too, so that was a decision we made early on. And then editorially trying to work with Marco Beltrami who did the score, the editing team, and Gabe Hilfer, the music supervisor, to try and find music that was appropriate for certain scenes in the movie. It really was a big team effort to help find the tone.
The film goes all out on the gore and violence. Firstly, how much of this was practical, and secondly, was there ever a point where someone turned to you and said “hang on a sec, do you think you should dial it down a notch, this is a bit too much?”
That person was the studio [laughs]. That person was definitely there, and it was the studio. I did as much practically as we possibly could. There's obviously a trade off because practical effects take a lot longer because there's set-up and clean up so you have to make a deal with the crew and with yourself to make your day. Because a big part of directing and producing is you've got to make your day and get everything shot as much as you possibly can as you're burning money every single day so I would oftentimes do the first couple of takes without doing it practically depending on what the moment was because we just wanted to get everything down. And the agreement was that if we didn't nail it practically, that we'd have a take that we could do if we had to do it digitally and if we had to do it later, we could still do it digitally.
Now, instances like where I made the decision to have Cage in full makeup especially in this early stage when he's completely Picasso-d out, I made to the choice to do that practically even though I think maybe other people might have done that with visual effects. Now there was a little bit of enhancement that [visual effects company] ILM did to some of that makeup just around the mouth and around one of the eyes to create a little bit more connection to the makeup that was there, but other than that, all that stuff was done practically and that was because I just think it made Cage's performance. The funny thing is when he first looked at himself and that first time we put the makeup on, he said “I don't look anything like myself” therefore I think it helped him be that version of Dracula where he's messed up and he's reforming and that just helped him shape his body and poses to get into and the way he used his hands and fingers and stuff like that.
Without all of that stuff, sure you've got Nic Cage and he was always going to do something really cool and inventive but without all this stuff on him, I don't think he would have found some of the performance and some of the comedy out of it and also some of the menace out of it too. All that came out of having the costume and the makeup on him, it was that extreme. I love shooting practically when I can and pulling the arms off, of course, I want to pull those arms off and have the blood going. Like when Nick punches the head off Apache Joe, putting a five gallon blood cannon inside the body that shoots up blood, of course I want to do that.
When I was doing Robot Chicken I learned a lot about trying to manage all of these different departments so that everything landed on set on time and so that was a good training ground for me to do that and I just used the same philosophy here when trying to figure out how we can get everything done and done on time.
Renfield comes to cinemas on April 14th. Read our review HERE.