Renfield Team Talks Potential of Exploring Universal Monsters’ World


In the new horror comedy monster flick Renfield, actor Nicholas Hoult is the titular character, a human familiar who has spent more than a century in servitude to the world’s worst boss, the vampire Count Dracula, played with relish by Nicolas Cage.

And as directed by Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie), and based on a story by producer Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), this Universal film adds a chapter to Tod Browning’s classic 1931 Dracula, imagining that Bram Stoker’s vampire lived on before ultimately taking refuge in modern-day New Orleans. As he recovers from his latest row with slayers, Renfield is tasked with providing adequate blood to aid in his boss’ healing. Instead the servant begins to question his lot in life and the co-dependent relationship he has with Dracula

Renfield is an over-the-top, explosively bloody romp, with Cage and Hoult joined by Awkwafina (The Farewell) as an honorable cop in a crooked department, Ben Schwartz (Sonic the Hedgehog) as the son of a mob boss, played by Shohreh Aghdashloo (The Expanse), and Brandon Scott Jones from CBS’ Ghosts as the scene-stealing leader of Renfield’s group therapy. Along with recreating scenes from the ’31 classic film—and digitally marrying some footage from it—Cage gets to channel Bela Lugosi, along with other famous cinema Draculas. Additionally, the movie also teases a potential connection to a larger Universal Monsterverse by giving the crime family the very wolfy name of “Lobo,” and including an operating theater/torture dungeon that looks like something out of Dr. Frankenstein’s castle.

Kirkman and McKay recently joined Den of Geek’s Talking Strange paranormal pop culture show (available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and YouTube) in separate interviews to discuss the juggernaut that is Nicolas Cage, as well as the links to Universal’s past, and the potential of more stories in the world of Renfield. What follows is a slightly edited sampling of their conversation with host Aaron Sagers.

Do you have any early Dracula memories?

Chris McKay: When I was a kid, the very first book I read was this book called Movie Monsters by Alan Ormsby, which was the history of the Universal Monsters on the front half of the book, and the back half was makeup. It was how to make yourself up to be Dracula for Halloween, and that sort of thing. It made a huge impact. Then I got to watch the original movies.

Robert Kirkman: Dracula is just a fixture that has always existed. It’s iconic. It’s part of the Universal Monsters and has a tremendous legacy, and huge importance to the history of film. But there’s a thousand different Draculas. It was always a big part of my life growing up, and Francis Ford Coppola’s is one of my favorite movies. I’m a huge fan of Dracula.

What was it about Renfield as a character that attracted you to anchoring the story on him?

Kirkman: There had been so many things done with Dracula, and so many different takes on Dracula, I was trying to find a new way in that would make things feel a little bit different. I think seeing Dracula through the lens of Renfield puts a fresh coat of paint on the character and makes you look at him through his eyes. You kind of look up at him, you see his strength, and his power, and his terror. It brings in this codependent relationship when you start to really kind of analyze what’s going on between them. It was really just trying to find that human angle to see Dracula through that led me to Renfield.

Was it always the plan to make this a spiritual sequel of sorts to Browning’s film?

Kirkman: Not really, actually. That was something I think Chris brought in when he came on as a director. He thought bringing in some of the Tod Browning iconography would be interesting, and that led us to having those black-and-white sequences that were in the [original] movie. It really connects us to the original Dracula and adds more gravitas to the movie, and brings us closer to the legacy of the Universal Monsters. When we were filming those sequences, and I was seeing it all come together when the digital effects team married everything… that was really the moment I was like, “Oh, I think we might have something special here.” When you see Cage as Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, it has a feeling to it that is really remarkable.

McKay: It was important to me to have a connection to the Tod Browning movie. But it was also important for Dracula and Renfield’s relationship that there was this past. It is a past the audience could easily connect to because you either know those movies or you have experience of it in pop culture. To be able to put Cage up on the staircase with the spider web behind him, and Hoult on the ground there in the traditional movie Renfield outfit, was incredible. It works on so many levels: For the story, for my own personal love of these movies, for the audience to be able to kind of experience that.

When you have someone like Nicolas Cage in this role, how does that change the direction of this film?

McKay: He loves horror movies. He loves Dracula. He loves Christopher Lee’s Dracula, specifically, and weirdly sort of looks a little bit like Christopher Lee. To be able to have him come in with all of that enthusiasm and all that joy, with all that history as a cinephile? He knows this stuff inside and out, and cares about it on a really deep level. He immediately came to the table with a voice, and body language, and ideas as far as wanting to change things in the dialogue to sound a little more like he’s from the past.

Kirkman: Finding the right Dracula for this movie was probably the most important thing to get right to make sure the movie worked. You wanted somebody that could have a new flavor to it, but also be as scary as Dracula gets at times, and as funny as our Dracula is at times. It was a difficult process to find somebody that could do all that and still have the gravitas of being Dracula himself. Cage was brought up fairly early on. We didn’t know if we’d be able to get him, but we always knew that’s a guy that could land it. When we actually got him, I was thrilled. The prospect of working with the guy and meeting with the guy, that’s cool as hell. But what I wasn’t prepared for was just how professional he is. When an actor of Cage’s level has the longevity he has, you’re kind of like, what’s the secret sauce there? He was so dedicated to this role, came in completely off book, had amazing suggestions, brilliant ideas, tweaked the script in ways that 100 percent, across the board, made things better.

He would go through his dialogue, move a word here, flipped sentences to add two words to a line of dialogue. You’d be like, “Oh my God, those two words he added at the end, they bring it all together and make it work so much better!” It was a real sight to behold somebody who has been working as long as he has, has done the amazing things that he has, and he’s not jaded at all. He is still excited to go to work. He’s still giving everything, 110 percent. It was remarkable.

Is there a love between Renfield and Dracula?

McKay: Absolutely. Renfield obviously worships Dracula at some level and loves Dracula. I actually think Dracula loves Renfield. Yes, he’s gaslighting and love-bombing Renfield in the very beginning of the movie, telling him he’s his only friend. But Dracula and Cage are truly emotional about these feelings. So I think that even though it’s a very twisted relationship and a very twisted love, he really truly does love Renfield because he literally has a tear in his eye when he’s saying to Renfield I’m your best friend. He just wants Renfield to do exactly what he says and just follow him. He’s a bad boyfriend; it’s a bad boyfriend/love relationship.

Kirkman: He is this monolithic force oppressing Renfield. That’s kind of the core of our movie. But if you really pay attention, there’s a lot of nuance to what Cage is doing in that role. I think there is some sympathy and there is some humanity that’s buried there, but it is very subtle. It’s something Cage was able to infuse in the character.

Between the Lobo family, and the strange operating theater/dungeon, are there any breadcrumbs to a larger Universal Monsterverse here?

Kirkman: It’s too early to say. I have to give Universal a tremendous amount of credit for allowing this movie to stand on its own, to allow us to do a complete movie that’s not spending a lot of time setting up something else, or paying tribute to something else, or pulling from something to try and build an MCU-esque tapestry. This is a standalone film that has a beginning, middle, and an end. And as a satisfying piece of entertainment that if you go to the theaters and see it, you’ll feel like you’ve been rewarded. You won’t feel like you’re missing anything else, and you definitely won’t feel like it’s a taste of the cool thing to come—which is a trap a lot of movies are falling into now.

That said, there’s a lot of room in this world to explore new things. If we’re fortunate for this movie to do well enough to warrant a sequel, I’ve got plenty of ideas on where we could go… You’re definitely keying in on some things that may, or may not, be there. The Lobos are definitely a reference to wolves in some way, shape, or form. I don’t know that we’re necessarily intending there to be werewolves, but the Universal Monsters are a cool world to be exploring and playing in, and there’s definitely a lot of potential for other stuff there.

McKay: The studio looks at this as a one-off movie, and if there’s more movies after that, then yeah, we have lots of things to explore. We tried to make a really good movie here, and not really worry about too many other things. But yeah, I think there’s lots of things to explore with these characters in this world and that sort of thing. And I would love to be able to continue to explore.

There’s a lot of blood in this one. Did Universal at any point question, maybe we shouldn’t have a scene where we’re using limbs as nunchucks?

McKay: Yeah, there were a lot of points where they had questions about whether we’re going to strike the right tone, where you would sort of laugh along with that and enjoy it… lean in instead of lean away. Part of that is the tone of the movie overall, part of that is the color palette we chose to use. You know, the minute he punches a guy’s head off, and there’s a geyser of blood coming out, I think people put it more in the Kill Bill side rather than the Hostel side of the ledger.

After working on The Walking Dead for so long, is a horror comedy a breath of fresh air?

Kirkman: It’s certainly less depressing, so that part is nice. Between this and Invincible, I guess I’m doing somewhat lighter fare, although you can argue that Invincible and Renfield are definitely more violent than Walking Dead. At least most of the time. I feel like I have my lane. I have my ultra violent stuff that I love to do. It’s fun to do something that definitely has a different flavor. I wrote The Walking Dead comic for 16 years. I worked on the show for a very good long time, intimately. And I still check in and oversee things, a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny fraction, here and there, on the new shows coming out. But it’s nice to be a little bit out of that world and not dealing with the muck and the grime, and the Grimes, of it all.  

For more from this conversation, and to check out other paranormal personalities, celebrities, and authors talking about the the unexplained and high strangeness, subscribe to Talking Strange on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and YouTube, hosted by Aaron Sagers of Netflix’s 28 Days Haunted and discovery+/Travel Channel’s Paranormal Caught on Camera.

The post Renfield Team Talks Potential of Exploring Universal Monsters’ World appeared first on Den of Geek.

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