Over the last few weeks, Renfield has been taking festivals and special screenings by storm. Nicolas Cage's unhinged Dracula opposite Nicholas Hoult's journey as the titular Renfield, finding the gall to stand up to his co-dependent and toxic boss has resonated with early audiences. The movie hits theaters this week for its wide release, director Chris McKay joined us to talk about his love for Nic Cage, the appreciation for his cast, and a level of madcap gore that Raimi would surely approve of.
You've had a chance now to go and hang out with multiple audiences and watch this. What has the audience response been like so far?
Yeah, the audience response is really great. I mean, look, it's a movie that doesn't take itself very seriously. It's a movie you're meant to have fun watching. It's way over-the-top and crazy and insane. And obviously it's Nicolas Cage as Dracula. And people love him, they love Nick Hoult. They love the dynamic between the two of them. They love the sweetness of the message of empowerment in Renfield's story, and in spite of all of the gore and arms getting pulled off and craziness and cocaine and everything else that happens in the movie, the message of empowerment seems to resonate with people.
I just love the idea of doing a kind of cockeyed Dracula movie. What I really loved about hiring Cage and working with him as Dracula was that he always brought so much humanity to the character. I mean, obviously, he's very funny and he's way over-the-top, but he found ways into this character, into this relationship that were true. If you took all the supernatural stuff out of it, he could easily be a bad boss, a bad parent, a bad friend, bad boyfriend. He is this almost preening rock and roll Dracula who's just full of himself. And at the same time, I think like just any narcissist in a situation like this, he is a guy who really, truly thinks that he is in a mutual partnership with Renfield.
At what point did you know that you wanted Nicolas Cage?
I think the Cage conversation came up fairly early on. When I read the script, the first thing I thought was I have to hire Nick Hoult to play Renfield, because I don't think there's a movie without Nick Hoult as Renfield. He's the one person who can do everything I needed Renfield to do.
And then talking about Dracula, the studio gives a list of people, and I think for me, I was thinking about who I would want to see if I was just an audience member, who I thought would bring the most interesting interpretation of Dracula, and the only name for me was Nic Cage. I thought that guy's going to do something incredibly interesting and fun and nuanced and strange and he's going to go for it. He's going to really go for it. He's not going to hold back.
Who were some of the potential studio picks?
Regé-Jean Page came up a lot in the initial conversation from the studio. That's the one I remember they brought up the most.
It's a very different movie, I feel like, a great Dracula, but a very different movie.
Yeah, great. Could have been an amazing Dracula, but yeah, that's the one that literally came up in almost every conversation.
Watching Nic Cage's Dracula, there are two things I can't help but wonder as I'm watching the performance. How much of that was scripted? And how much exists that we don't see on screen? Because I just imagine he just goes off on these bits and it's great, but you can't use all of that in service to the story.
I had one conversation with him before he was hired just to try to convince him that I thought he'd be great in this movie, why I thought he'd be perfect for Dracula and tell him a little bit about my take on the material. And then the second time we talked, he had been hired at that point, was already off-book, and had a voice and things like that. His notes were a lot of times about very specific word choices. If there was a line of dialogue and it had the word "old" in it, he would want it to change the word "old" to "antique" or something like that. You know what I mean?
I think he loves words so much and loves wrapping his performance around the delivery of specificity around words, that I think a lot of his notes were that kind of thing. I'm the kind of guy who wants to wind people up and let them go, and I want them to improv more often than not, much to the detriment of the producers and screenwriters.
But I think a lot of times, too, I start with a script on the first take, second take, try to refine some things or whatever. Maybe in the third or fourth take, you go off, or we remove some words and put some new words in. Or I want somebody to try something that feels real and say it in their own words. And then we explode out. Then maybe in the last couple of takes, we go back to the script with the new things we've learned along the way.
I don't think the line, "I'll eat boys, I'll eat girls," was in the script. I think that's just Cage kind like, "Gender doesn't matter to me. I'll eat boys, I'll eat girls." Stuff like that. And again, it's words that he likes or phrases or ideas. Something about wrapping his performance around or his body language, stuff like that. He's a guy who immediately knows the exact right tone, gets the material, gets what we're all doing, and locks in. It's like a sixth sense that he has.
I was just watching It Could Happen to You the other day with him and Bridget Fonda and Rosie Perez, he's so small and interior in a lot of that performance, and he's so good and charming. There's just so much charm coming off of him. And just as a perfect romantic comedy lead, somebody who's got the tools he has to do all of that stuff at such a high level is incredible. National Treasure couldn't be further from Mandy, couldn't be further from Ghost Rider or Willy's Wonderland or-
Valley Girl, Vampire's Kiss. Even between Con Air, The Rock, and National Treasure. He uses everything. I've loved that guy since I first saw him in movies. There's this movie he did called Kiss of Death, which is a Richard Price script, Barbet Schroeder directed it. It's a remake of a movie from the '40s, and he plays the bad guy. This is pre-Rock and pre-a bunch of these things. The one sort of famous shot in that movie is him bench-pressing a stripper, and he's really jacked-up and really menacing. But what's amazing about Cage is that he's menacing, and yet at the same time, he's totally vulnerable because he's asthmatic. He's got this puffer. And so he plays this guy who just has to rely on this puffer all the time while simultaneously being this big, brooding, menacing guy. He can bring that contrast to this movie that no one's heard of or remembers anymore. It's kind of lost to history, but he's just so good.
That was the thing, if our Dracula can be the Nic Cage over-the-top fun and funny performance but have that level of menace and vulnerability at the same time, that's the thing that was most important to me. I mean, he's a movie star. He's got chemistry with all his actors. He's got chemistry with the camera. He's amazing. I loved working with him.
Nicolas Cage, national treasure. Yeah.
Yeah. Ooh, nice. Like that.
But the balance was there in his performance and across the board.
I think some of it works because everybody is a Renfield in their own little story. I guess the best way to describe it is like Ben Schwartz is a Dracula to Awkwafina's Rebecca, but he's also a Renfield to his mom, and he obviously becomes a Renfield to Dracula and his mom is a Dracula to Teddy and things like that. So there are moments where they get to play certain other sides of the character. Ben Schwartz is not just some big guy in every scene. He's sort of the criminal nepo-baby or something like that. And I think Awkwafina's got some really nice moments that she found in character. She also can make anger very funny. And that's something rare, to be able to find humor and anger, because sometimes that can be really off-putting.
I think Cage is the same way. Cage can make anger very funny and compelling. Some people play angry and it's just kind of a little more repellent. And I've got two actors with these tools in their toolkit, they can make anger fun and funny, and you want to go with them. You want to root for them.
That's going to be the headline for this, "Making anger fun and funny." Subhead, "Nicolas Cage is a national treasure."
I have to comment on just the violence of it. The gore was so fun and over-the-top, I mean, ripping someone's arms off and beating them with it and shit like that. I wasn't expecting that. I thought we were getting kind of a dark comedy with a bit of horror vibes, but then it just goes over the top, comic book-style gore.
Obviously it's a Dracula movie, and it's in this supernatural world with a heightened reality. There was a fair amount of action in the script, the arm rip was in the script, but not a lot of other things were. I was very inspired by Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson's early movies and stuff like that. I wanted to get that kind of feeling to our movie, not just because I love that stuff, but also to differentiate. Because it could be very easy to make it John Wick or something else, and you want kind of a modern energy to it, but I wanted it to be very heightened and over-the-top and deliciously insane and gloriously candy-colored and all that kind of thing. Those things were important to me just for the movie's palette and to differentiate our movie from somebody else's.
That's what Chris Brewster [stunt coordinator] and I worked really hard on, always wanting the fight scenes to be inventive or funny. The fight scenes had a point and purpose, whether they were a story purpose, a character purpose, or a very clear goal. I also wanted to make them kind of brief. Action fatigue is a real thing, and I want to make sure that you had just enough to enjoy it and then you move on, but then there's another one coming around the corner.
You definitely went more Brain Dead than John Wick..
Yeah. That's good.
Renfield is now playing in theaters and gracing the cover of FANGORIA Issue #19 on newsstands now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.