Interview – ‘Renfield’ director Chris McKay and writer Robert Kirkman on bringing a new Dracula tale to life

In this modern monster tale of Dracula’s loyal servant, Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road) stars as Renfield, the tortured aide to history’s most narcissistic boss, Dracula (Nicolas Cage). Renfield is forced to procure his master’s prey and do his every bidding, no matter how debased. But now, after centuries of servitude, Renfield is ready to see if there’s a life outside the shadow of The Prince of Darkness. If only he can figure out how to end his co-dependency.

In the lead up to the release of Renfield, I had the chance to chat with the film’s writer Robert Kirkman (creator of The Walking Dead) and director Chris McKay (director of The Lego Batman Movie and The Tomorrow War) about balancing brutal and comedic violence and constructing exciting and thrilling action-set pieces.

Nick: Chris and Robert, it’s a pleasure to meet you both! How are you today?

Robert Kirkman: Good!

Chris McKay: I’m good. How are you?

Nick: I’m very well, thank you for asking! I loved this goddamn movie; it was so much fun! I really appreciate you both taking the time to chat about it today! You both have done projects in the past where the brutality of the violence enhances the dramatic aspects of the story. However, in this film, you’ve flipped the script and used brutality comedically, without it losing it’s impact. How do you make brutal violence funny?

Chris McKay: By going way over the top! I think sometimes, really pushing it so it becomes almost like a cartoon and having a lot of fun with it. You know, you’ll have Renfield ripping off a guy’s arms, and then he’s beating the guy up, then he’s using them as spears. You’re always upping the ante.

I think the other thing is the amount of blood and the way we use the colour of it. Having the blood be, kind of, a very cartoonish share of red, no longer makers you feel like—you’re not watching a documentary, or a surgical film! It’s a very cartoonish level and colour of blood.

Robert Kirkman: There’s a certain level of violence where it’s horrific, disturbing, and it keeps getting worse and worse and worse! Then it crosses over into the ‘funny zone’. And I think that’s something we were able to accomplish very well on this movie.

Nick: I absolutely agree. Outside of the blood and gore, the action set pieces are so thrilling and exciting, but I love the little nuances in those scenes that make up the big moments. One of them that stuck out to me is when Renfield throws the chloroform cloth around himself, and Chris, you have the camera track the cloth around him. It was such a cool shot! I’m intrigued to know if that moment was in the script, or is that something you figure out when you’re creating the choreography of a scene?

Chris McKay: That’s something that Chris Brewster, one of the stunt co-ordinators and second unit directors — and I worked with him on one of the fight scenes in The Tomorrow War when Chris Pratt and J.K. Simmons were fighting an alien on the glacier — when we sat down to talk about these scenes in initial meetings, I knew he could do brutal and really complicated fight stuff.

So, for this movie, I said that I wanted it to be brutal. I want it to feel like a good, grounded, cool fight scene. But there has to be moments where there is humour. Where we show that Renfield is fast and clever in the way he does things. There is also a charm to it.

We studied a lot of Jackie Chan, because there’s always moments where he’s using a prop to do something light and comical in the fight scenes. That was a touchstone for us. And so that moment when Renfield is throwing the cloth around, that’s literally taken from Chris’ ‘stunt vis’, where he did a beat that was just like that. I loved it so much and I had to figure out a way for us to be able to do it for that one moment in the scene.

Nick: Robert, I’m always intrigued at the process of using your own, personal writing voice to create unique characters. What is that process like for you in bringing distinct, unique characters who are vastly different from each other, to the page through your own writing style?

Robert Kirkman: I think it is just trying to find the real thing that is at the core of the character. Whether it’s the inspiration of someone you know, or some aspects of yourself that you’re honing in on and trying to turn that into a different character.

I think for this project in particular, the inspiration of Bram Stoker’s original work and that things that have been done with these characters over the many, many decades. There’s so many people who have added to the mythos of Dracula along the way, and you can now just come up to the buffet and pick and choose what you like. It give you a rich tapestry to draw from and it makes building these characters – I don’t want to say easy – but, obviously, easy!

A big thank you to Chris McKay and Robert Kirkman for their time, and to Universal Pictures for organising our chat! Renfield is in Australian cinemas from May 25.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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