Renfield director Chris McKay on Nicolas Cage, reinventing Dracula, and milkshake blood

The revisionist Dracula tale premieres in KC at Panic Fest April 13.
Featured Renfield Look Inside Featurette 1024x512

Renfield star Nic Cage as Dracula. // Courtesy Universal Pictures

This story is part of our coverage of Panic Fest 2023. Read more from our film team here.

Since the first trailer dropped back in January, it’s safe to say that Renfield—the story of Dracula as told by his long-suffering servant—has been an anticipated spring release.

We’re all looking forward to long-time Dracula fan Nicolas Cage baring his fangs over star Nicolas Hoult’s apprehensive noggin. Another reason to get excited: behind the camera is director Chris McKay, who directed 2021’s The Tomorrow War and 2017’s delightful Lego Batman Movie.

McKay also has a story credit on this year’s equally delightful Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, and cut his teeth working on classic Adult Swim shows like Moral Orel and Robot Chicken

Early buzz out of Renfield’s premiere at the Overlook Film Festival in New Orleans has been strong. Kansas City viewers can sink their teeth in when the film screens at Screenland Armour’s Panic Fest on April 13.

We talked with McKay about the importance of genre-specific festivals, influences on the film, and the process of deciding just how much fake blood to pump out in Renfield’s many gloriously icky fight scenes. 

The Pitch: You’re on record as being a horror fan, and you’ve mentioned Basil Gogos as a major influence on this movie. What should we know about his work, and where is that influence in Renfield?

Chris McKay: Basil Gogos was the first guy to interpret the black-and-white Universal monsters in color. Before the Hammer Studios movies existed, he did magazine cover paintings for Famous Monsters of Filmland. He was the guy who popularized Frankenstein’s monster being green. He made these bold, garish, saturated images of these characters. 

To me, that seemed like a fun way of doing our movie. I knew our movie had to be both scary and allow the audience to laugh. Having it with that color palette—with bold, garish lighting on faces—I knew that was a way for the audience to get into it, and it doesn’t feel like Hostel or Saw, which are great, but they’re desaturated to evoke dread. We’re doing horror and comedy, so the look is brighter and bolder. If you look at how we use color in the film, that’s Gogos’ influence.

Other than him, I’d say our influences were stuff like Sam Raimi, Evil Dead 2, Dead Alive, anything that fits into the Splatstick style of humor, just over the top, gushing blood, like that Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or Kill Bill. They pointed us in the direction we wanted to go.

Ok, let’s talk about that blood. There’s a lot in this movie, like there are a couple of moments where it honestly looked like a red milkshake spraying out of a severed limb, which was hysterical.

McKay: (Laughing) Yeah!

You’d already decided you wanted to go over the top with this movie, so how did you decide how much blood to use in a fight scene? How much of that did you do on the set, and how much of it is in post-production?

McKay: I’d say It’s probably 50/50 post and in person. You want to get a live reaction and do as much stuff practically as possible, for the actors and the camera crew. That’s my favorite kind of filmmaking. You kind of have to push it, because you can always dial that stuff back later, but even with the best CGI, you can’t always add it. 

The process starts with the special effects team and editorial and animatics, and we talk about what we build to educate the crew on what we’re going to shoot. That includes stunt visualizations, storyboards, sound effects and music. Before we’re on set, we make these video and audio blueprints to show people how we’re gonna shoot these scenes, and we build things out of that. The makeup department goes off and builds something; the stunt team maps out choreography based on what they’ve done, maybe get a more Jackie Chan moment out of this, a big reaction to gore here. We develop that stuff together. 

The most fun version of filmmaking is collaborating. Most of this crew, everyone was firing on all cylinders. And of course, Nicholas Hoult and Nic Cage, who threw themselves into makeup and stunts. They were unafraid to go big and be expressive. They were great partners in everything.

Speaking of, what’s it like directing Nicolas Cage? He’s famous for getting deep in the process for creating a character, and he’s always had a demonstrated love for Dracula specifically. When you’re working with someone who maybe already has an impression of a character they love in their mind, how do you work with them to arrive at the performance you want?

Cage is so user-friendly. When he’s on set he’s overwhelmingly positive and joyful. Even after all these years, he’s still crazy about making movies. He’s got a great love for horror and Dracula, and of course he’s a huge cinephile, so he got my reference points. He’s there to serve the character and the story, and he cares about building the world and character and tone. I think every movie he’s been in he truly understands the tone the movie is going for. Even when a character is left of center, he finds a way of making it charming. He makes anger charming, and he brings humanity to his characters because he loves people. 

He really got the human, vulnerable, jealous side of Dracula and how a narcissist uses all these tools to manipulate other people. Love bombing, gaslighting—he used all that stuff. That’s what was amazing about him and one of the reasons I had to go for him when I read the script. He’s probably the only person I would’ve wanted. I was hungry to see what he was gonna do, and he used all the tools to play an incredible, human, intimidating, funny version of Dracula. He’s got it all.

On top of that, Nicholas Hoult was the only person I could see as Renfield, the only person I thought had the skill set and command the movie needed. He’s so charming and yet vulnerable. No matter what choices he makes, if it’s an unlikable or a weird character, you want him to succeed. Characters like the ones he plays in Warm Bodies, or Fury Road, on the surface you don’t like them or are weirded out by them. These aren’t’ your average protagonists, but he makes you care and root for him. That’s something I was excited about when I first met him for a different project I was working on that didn’t go through. Then, when I read the script for Renfield, I thought “The only way this works is if I cast him. It’s him or nothing.”

Renfield just played at the Overlook Festival, and the first time viewers in Kansas City will get to see it is at Panic Fest, which is also a genre festival. What was the Overlook experience like for you? What’s the value of showing this movie in a genre-friendly setting? 

McKay: Overlook has such great diverse programming. Also, we shot it in New Orleans, so bringing the movie back to where we filmed it was fun. We were in this beautiful old theater that’s been around since 1914, and it’s not difficult to imagine Dracula and Nosferatu and all those other great, classic horror movies playing there.

When I was a kid in Chicago, there would be horror festivals and conventions, and sometimes people who screened stuff themselves in small theaters. Those were important to me, because sometimes there’s stuff that you just can’t find any other way. Also, for young filmmakers who haven’t had an opportunity to get their movie in front of a studio, and can get their stuff in front of an audience, that’s huge. I think horror festivals and regional festivals are hugely important.

This story is part of our coverage of Panic Fest 2023. Read more from our film team here.

Categories: Movies