Chris McKay on the Biting Humor of Renfield

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The relationship between horror and comedy is on display in every frame of director Chris McKay’s Renfield, a new take on the Dracula legend which finds humor in upping the emotional stakes of the story by introducing using modern sensibilities and ideas about self care.

After centuries of being forced to procure his master’s prey and do his every bidding, Renfield is finally ready to confront the truth: He’s trapped in a toxic, codependent relationship. Photo courtesy of Universal Studios

Nicholas Hoult stars as R.M. Renfield, the loyal servant of Count Dracula, portrayed by Nicolas Cage. After centuries of being forced to procure his master’s prey and do his every bidding, Renfield is finally ready to confront the truth: He’s trapped in a toxic, codependent relationship. “It was a real joy to work with both of those guys,” McKay says of his stars. The 49-year-old director of The Lego Batman Movie and The Tomorrow War found the prospect of making a Dracula film for Universal Pictures, the studio behind some of the most iconic monster movies in history, to be irresistible, and when Nicolas Cage came aboard to play Dracula, the project really came to life.  “Cage comes to the set, and he’s super enthusiastic about making movies. He’s just got a childlike joy.” 

The opportunity to play The Prince of Darkness for laughs has brought inevitable comparison to one of the seminal films of the horror-comedy genre, Mel BrooksYoung Frankenstein. While MckKay finds any idea of lumping the two films together to be both exciting and daunting, there is both a kinship and a distinct difference between these zany depictions of two of fiction’s most famous monsters. “The genius of Young Frankenstein … is the fact that they used those old sets,” McKay says. “They really truly made it feel like it was one of those movies.” In contrast, while McKay brought in touches of the old horror classics into the production design, Renfield is a contemporary story that needed to feel realistic.  According to McKay, the character dynamic between the two leads wasn’t hard to create. “I think it was really easy for Nick Hoult to fall into this servant relationship,” McKay says. “You’re dealing with this larger-than-life movie star playing Dracula, so it just kind of naturally clicked.”

McKay admits to finding himself often reminded of Hoult’s breakthrough role at the age of 11 in the 2002 film About a Boy, as Hoult brought a perhaps unconscious yet unmistakable element of his old co-star, Hugh Grant, to his portrayal of Renfield. “It’s not necessarily something we discussed, but it’s uncanny when you’re watching him,” McKay says. The awkward charm that Hoult brings is so similar to Grant’s early work that it’s almost eerie to watch, and McKay believes that working closely with such a star at a young age very likely had a lasting influence on the young actor.

One of the trickier aspects McKay faced in tackling horror comedy was knowing how far to go in using violence for laughs, and he decided to go for broke. “You have to go over the top when you’re making something like this,” Mckay says, explaining that they used a lot of practical effects to create the blood, guts and severed limbs that are a near-constant presence in Renfield. “You can always take stuff away, but very rarely can you truly add anything to it, even in a world of CG,” McKay says. “For me, we had to go for it.”  McKay points to Sam Raimi‘s Evil Dead 2 and Peter Jackson‘s Dead Alive as major influences, as both are known for pulling few punches when it comes to mixing silliness with gore. When it came to literal punches, however, it was Jackie Chan who served as McKay’s guiding star. “There needed to be moments of comedy that could come out of the fight scenes, and little moments of grace,” McKay says, pointing to sequences wherein Renfield fights multiple assailants armed with a rag doused in chloroform, and the carefully choreographed chaos takes an air of almost balletic beauty. The ability to previsualize each sequence using animatics, carefully planning out every detail with stunt coordinator Chris Brewster,  proved invaluable to allowing McKay to approach each day’s shoot with a laserlike precision making every shot count.

Now that Renfield is playing at theaters, the filmmaker can immerse himself in one of the many other projects he has percolating. McKay still hopes that one of them will be Nightwing for DC Studios, which would give him further chances to spread his wings on the action front. Nightwing was in development before the studio’s leadership shakeup, and McKay believes that the story of Batman’s sidekick, Dick Grayson, taking on a new superhero identity could still find a place in the universe that studio heads James Gunn and Peter Safran are creating. He expects to meet with the new studio heads in the coming weeks.  

Whatever his next project may be, Chris McKay is leaving his distinctive bite marks on Hollywood, and the increasingly in-demand director is just getting started. Whether he’s working with the living or the dead, McKay’s energy and creativity make him an exciting voice in the world of blockbuster filmmaking. 

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