PREVIEW – Evil can’t exist forever without a little help.
Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road, Katalin Nagy – The Great) plays Dracula’s loyal sidekick, Renfield, in this modern horror tale. The fate of the tormented servant is really not enviable, since the merciless fate has thrown him next to the most adored boss in history, Dracula (Nicolas Cage). Renfield is required to scout his master’s victim and generally obey all of his orders, no matter how humiliating. But now, after centuries of humble service, the moment has come for Renfield to find out if there is still room for him if he manages to step out of the shadow of the Prince of Darkness. If only he could figure out how to end his hideous codependency…
In the shadow of the Count of Transylvania
Countless employees can attest that their boss is a real monster. R. M. Renfield, on the other hand, literally works for one of the world’s most notorious monsters.
Renfield approaches the vampire mythology from a chillingly original point of view: in the person of the title character, we can respect the sad, constantly miserable servant of Count Dracula, who after centuries of dutiful suffering, his cup is full, because he finds himself in a seemingly intractable mental crisis. Renfield no longer wants to carry out Dracula’s orders, but he has no idea how to break out of this trap.
Everything changes when our hero meets Rebecca, a New Orleans cop (Awkwafina) who stands on rock-solid principles while struggling with anger management issues. The policewoman is determined to bring the city’s most powerful criminal group, led by Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her son Tedward (Ben Schwartz), to their knees. Enthusiastic about Rebecca’s determination to fight for what’s right, Renfiled dares to dream big and devises a plan to free herself from the drudgery of her nocturnal existence and return to the day-life of mortals.
The owner of the basic idea, which acts as a breath of fresh air, is the versatile screenwriter-producer Robert Kirkman, who made a name for himself as the creator of the explosively successful series The Walking Dead, and who also writes the animated series Invincible. “Robert’s idea was to deviate from the traditional Dracula story, which is either the origin story of the horror or what happens to it after certain events,” says producer David Alpert, who runs Kirkman’s Skybound Entertainment production company. “Robert asked the question: what if we told the story of Dracula from the perspective of someone close to him?”
Renfield surrendered. The character was already featured in Bram Stoker’s original Dracula published in 1897. He was a resident of an English mental institution, where he fed on flies, spiders, birds and other living creatures in order to obtain their “life force” and thus immortality. The character appeared in Tod Browning’s legendary film Dracula, with Béla Lugosi playing the title role and Dwight Frye playing the confused Renfield. Decades later, this honor went to Tom Waits in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation (Dracula), and the vampire was played by Gary Oldman.
Kirkman found it promising to put the servant at the center of the narrative, and wrote a novella about the toxic relationship between Dracula and Renfield, mixing black comedy with the self-effacing bloodshed of action horror. “We thoroughly thought about what a completely degenerate codependent relationship looks like,” explains Alpert. “We knew that if we put the story in the backdrop of popular psychology, the audience would be laughing.”
Due to the approaching deadlines, it was necessary to bring in another screenwriter. Kirkman’s choice fell on Ryan Ridley, who immediately liked the idea. “I was looking for an action comedy, and Robert offered me the opportunity at his silver dance,” says Ridley.
A director with a comedic vein was needed. Chris McKay, who is also a big horror fan, was perfect for the job. “Ryan’s script was great fun and didn’t take itself too seriously,” explains McKay. “He was pushy and full of amazing exaggerations, but all just to do Renfield justice.” So it seemed like a good starting point for a new Dracula movie. What a denial, I’m a big Basil Gogos fan. He was an illustrator with an unforgettable talent, he painted many movie monsters of the Universal studio for Famous Monsters Magazine and other publications, including Wolfman, The Mummy, Son of Frankeinstein and Dracula. His pictures are flamboyantly bright, the contrasts almost scream, and I have long wanted to make a film similar to them. Now the dream has come true.”
The emotional message of the film meant a lot to producer Samantha Nisenboim. “Renfield believes that he can only count on someone next to Dracula, that Dracula defines him, gives meaning to his existence, and even gives him a certain power through him. Then, in the course of the plot, the opportunity is revealed for the servant to find himself, which requires self-acceptance, realizing that he is okay the way he is. We tend to judge ourselves very harshly these days. I think the idea that ‘I’m fine just the way I am’ is a great message.”
Right at the very beginning, McKay had a brilliant idea about how the . Let’s place the new Dracula and Renfield in the world of classic Universal vampire movies, Browning’s black and white Dracula. “We had to outline the background of their relationship, and I wanted to evoke the original Dracula and Béla Lugosi,” explains McKay. – After all, what else could illuminate the relationship between our hero and Dracula more effectively than their relationship depicted in the 1931 film? We shot a lot more for this scene than ended up fitting into the movie. Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult performed almost the entire text of the dialogue spoken when Lugosi and Dwight Frye first met. The actors and the stunt team recreated the unforgettable moments of the classic Dracula with amazing thoroughness.”
After more than a century of loyal service, Renfield wants to leave the immeasurably powerful Dracula, but the vampire has no intention of letting him go. Renfield is hopeless and unhappy. The character is played by Emmy nominee Nicholas Hoult. “I’ve always liked Nick Hoult as an actor,” says director McKay. – I was terribly happy when he said yes, because without him this film could not have been made. He always puts himself out there very hard while being smart and funny. He doesn’t have an oversized ego, he just wants to have a good time. You can’t imagine a friendlier colleague than him on a shoot.”
Hoult immediately understood what Renfield‘s emotional connections were. “He gets nervous even at the thought of still having to do the dirty work after Dracula,” explains the actor. – He is already completely destroyed mentally and spiritually, he is looking for a way to escape so that he can return to his previous life and get back everything that he misses so much. Renfield and Dracula’s relationship is toxic, they’ve been together for a very long time, and they know what button to push to get the other one out, and they’re always at each other’s throats.”
Reinfield finds the motivation he needs to break free when he meets Rebecca, a feisty New Orleans police officer. Renfield is given wings by the girl of fearless and firm moral principles, and uncertainly begins to shed his crippling misery in order to put his past behind him and return to the living. It’s a tough job because you have to face a lot of uncomfortable truths… and eat a lot of nasty creepers.
Hoult’s versatile talent and irresistible appeal made him the perfect choice for the film’s creators. “There are a lot of obstacles to falling in love with Renfield right away, because he eats bugs and murders people,” explains producer Bryan Furst. “But Nick is such a lovable figure that the audience can’t resist him, even though what he does could be a disqualifying reason at first sight.”
Hoult is one of the most versatile actors of his generation, excelling in large-scale action films (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Mad Max: Fury Road), but also in low-budget independent productions, such as the zombie comedy Eleven Bodies or the horror satire The Menu. His versatility can perhaps best be seen in action in the series Katalin Nagy – The Beginnings (he received an Emmy nomination for his performance), where he played the spoiled, narcissistic, sociopathic (but strangely sympathetic) young Czar Péter. Hoult was perfectly able to be lovable and repulsive at the same time, the pairing of these two was both brave and rare, and exactly what was needed in Renfield.
In preparation, Hoult read Bram Stoker’s novel and watched 1931’s Dracula to gauge what he could borrow from Dwight Frye’s impressive performance. “I stole what I could,” Hoult admits. – I paid homage to the classic with small twists, although it is obvious that our film is an action comedy and we completely reinterpreted the character. At the same time, this gives me a lot of freedom in deciding what I want to do with the role.”
Hoult also received extensive combat training to make the film’s fight scenes go better. But he didn’t have to prepare for eating insects. Fortunately for him, most of the insects were sweets made by the props, although he did eat a couple of flavored dried crickets, as well as a real insect. “They made me a cockroach out of toffee, so I didn’t have to eat the real thing,” says Hoult. “However, I do not recommend the potato bug to anyone.” It tasted like bugs.”
Few actors embody the character entrusted to them as much as Oscar®-winner Nicolas Cage, and his dominant presence on the screen predestined him to be Dracula. If only because at the beginning of his career he lured the bloodsucker inside him to the surface in 1988’s The Vampire’s Kiss.
Cage was immediately impressed by the originality of Renfield’s script. “He dealt with a well-known subject in a surprising new way, and I saw that it could be performed in a style that I have admired since I saw An American Werewolf in London,” says the actor. “If you hit the right balance of comedy and horror, the end result will be special and delicious.”
Cage gave himself completely to the role, and from the very beginning he pushed the creation process forward with original ideas. “Immediately he started to meticulously develop the character and voice,” says Chris McKay. – Through Zoom, he showed how he imagines the dialogues, improvised a few things and practiced the voice. A brilliant actor, he was able to inspire us all.”
Cage has had a special relationship with Dracula since he was a small child, because his father, August Coppola, regularly showed 35mm black-and-white films in the living room at home. Among them was Nosferatu, directed by Murnau in 1929, a freely interpreted adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel, in which Max Shreck played Count Orlock, a vampire lurking in the shadows. The horror of scratching with bald claw-like nails was burned into Cage’s memory. “I have to say, when you’re five years old and you see a movie where a monster is killing you with its eyes and claws, you don’t get over it any time soon,” says Cage.
In order to portray Dracula as diversely as possible, the actor thoroughly familiarized himself with previous roles. One was Max Schreck, and the other was Christopher Lee, who portrayed the count in the 1958 horror of Dracula (Horror of Dracula), which is also considered a classic, and then became the main character in the other vampire productions of the English Hammer Films. For Cage, Gary Oldman’s depiction of the bloodsucker as a fallible creature in his uncle Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Dracula was also an important reference point. But the actor drew the most from the closest possible source. “My father was a classy gentleman through and through and incredibly intelligent,” says Cage. – He spoke with a classic American accent, he knew that whatever company he was in, he was the smartest of all. So I thought it would be a good solution to build the character based on my father.”
The actor also looked into how toxic relationships are portrayed in popular movies. One thought-provoking source was Mike Nichols’s Before the Diploma, in which such a relationship unfolds between Anne Bancroft’s predatory seductress and Dustin Hoffman’s hesitant, disaffected young man. Guided by reference points, Cage created an entirely new and original quality. “Anne’s voice wormed its way into my brain, which we’re very happy about,” Cage explains. “That’s not typical of me anyway.” Whatever I absorb thanks to various influences, I filter it through my own mechanism.”
Cage concentrated on portraying the dynamics of the characters of Dracula and Renfield in a chiselled manner, and conveying the subtle tremors of their relationship without losing sight of the horror and comedy elements. “The topic is not funny, but upsetting,” explains the actor. “However, a certain kind of love resides in the deepest part of things.” There are moments when I look at Nick Hoult and think, oh, that’s my son. Other times I treat him like hell. With this, we reveal the dark side of human relationships. This topic is not easy to develop, and even if we want to make a fool of it with comedy, we can talk about an absolutely trying task.”
Renfield is stuck in a toxic relationship at the beginning of the story, but Rebecca, the New Orleans police officer, is not in an easier situation. The heroine is played by Awkwafina, who is known to the audience from films such as Stone Rich Asians, Farewell, Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, as well as the series Awkwafina is Nora from Queens.
Rebecca’s father was killed by a crime syndicate, the Lobo family, and their actions went unpunished and unavenged. Moreover, the respect of the policewoman suffered a serious blow due to her frequent outbursts of anger in the department, and she was estranged from her sister, Kate (Camille Chen), a successful FBI agent. Although an FBI academy graduate herself, Rebecca spends her days as a traffic cop alongside her good-natured, if slightly dim-witted partner, Chris (Adrian Martinez).
“Rebecca meets Renfield when she has her own problems to deal with,” explains Awkwafina. – Their destinies are parallel: they have to come to terms with their past. Above all, Rebecca wants to fix her relationship with her sister – she doesn’t want him to be an instinctual creature with a distorted personality who can’t control his emotions. At the same time, he also wants revenge.”
The rapper-actress shapes the waist cop with explosive energy. “Awkwafina is a bit of a troublemaker, so we thought she would be the perfect Rebecca,” says McKay. “There’s something bad about him, and it shows that it wouldn’t be advisable to bond with him, because we’d regret it badly.” He has great chemistry with Nick Hoult, they make a real odd couple. I would also watch a hundred movies where ‘Rebecca’s’ travel the world and solve crimes, like in the old Cingár men movies, where a private investigator and his wife solved mysterious cases.”
The fearsome mob leader is played by Emmy Award winner and Oscar® nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo, who portrays the cold-blooded and unflappable clan boss with impressive strength. “Bellafrancesca built her empire on her own strength, the most powerful mafia family in the fantasy land where the story takes place,” says the Iranian-born actress.
Although Bellafrancesca loves her son Teddy, she is increasingly angry because of his series of failures, which reflects poorly on the family. “He keeps asking his son: do you know when your enemies will not be afraid of you? says Aghdashloo. “When you have no more power.” And how right he is!”
The locations and the view
Renfield was filmed in New Orleans from January to April 2022.
Visual designer Alec Hammond (RED, G.I. Joe, R.I.P.D.) studied Universal’s classic horror films and recent vampire movies to get the style right. McKay wanted an elevated setting that matched the film’s groundbreaking tone and exuded a timeless feel. “It was a costume jab at Universal’s classic monster movies, but that makes them perfectly enjoyable even today,” says Hammond. “We took this direction into account with our film.”
For the flashback opening scene, Hammond dreamed up an imposing library room where the carefully choreographed confrontation could unfold. “I wanted our film to be a direct descendant of Béla Lugosi’s cinema,” explains Hammond. – The viewer should feel that hundreds of years of wealth have accumulated between the ancient walls. We also had to keep in mind that this is a place where you can set someone on fire, smash antiques into small pieces and have extremely large fights.”
Nowadays, Dracula does not live in a castle. His hideout is in the basement of Charity Hospital, a crumbling hospital that has been closed since Hurricane Katrina.
McKay and Hammond figured out that the vampire was being fed intravenously by Renfield, so they built a “throne of blood” for him. The throne is based on a surgical chair that has seen better days, behind which hang dozens of blood bags, spread out like peacock feathers, some of them squeezed. “It’s like a soft-tuned operating room,” Hammond explains. “We can see what Renfield can do to keep Dracula alive.” At the same time, we can witness the dramatic development of the throne. In the past, Dracula could have even sat on the thrones of monarchs, but today he got a supersized piece of medical furniture surrounded by blood bags.”
Never seen vampire fight before
The creators of Renfield wanted to see an unprecedented, crazy action style in their film, and they asked stunt coordinator Chris Brewster (Black Adam, Tomorrow’s War) to develop it. “We worked with Chris on Tomorrow’s War and really liked his high-energy, brutal style,” says McKay. – I would have liked it to be squared away now, but in a funnier version. The fight should be extremely dynamic to show Dracula’s otherworldly strength, but at the same time I wanted it to be over the top. The great fight choreography of the Jackie Chan films has been mentioned many times. They prove how funny it can be when people are beating each other up. He always has a bit of improvisation in his wrestling, which makes him spontaneous and real even in his completely giddy state.”
Brewster studied the earlier Dracula movies. The picture is complete: the vampire’s movements must reflect his royal origin. “Prince Dracula,” Brewster explains. “Where he is the matador, where he is the bull.” His movement and whatever he does has a very visible transition from one mode to another.”
Since Renfield also has some Dracula blood in his veins, his fighting style is similar to that of a vampire. Nicholas Hoult started training half a year before the start of filming so that he could appear in front of the cameras in all the action scenes. “He’s a very quick learner,” says Brewster. – First, he practiced the movements endlessly by himself, then with me, then with the whole stunt team, and finally the fight choreography became his blood, because it was written into his muscle memory. So when it came time to shoot, he no longer thought about what the next move would be, he fought completely instinctively in front of the cameras.”
One of the film’s most attention-grabbing scenes was right at the beginning, where Cage and Hoult are intricately edited into the finale of early vampire films as the big showdown takes place. “Chris described it early in the process as being like suddenly being in the middle of the final showdown in someone else’s movie,” Brewster continues. “So we start right away with a large-scale action scene, which is when the audience sees Dracula for the first time.”
In the two-minute scene, the stuntmen fight with various weapons, fly them on a wire, and some of them are suddenly set on fire. “We managed to condense all the spectacular elements of the stunt world into a single scene,” concludes Brewster. “I really don’t want to talk home, but every single moment of those two minutes was perfect.”