Chris McKay is a director you should keep an eye on. Having smashed it with his feature film debut, The LEGO Batman Movie, stepped into a kick-ass action of The Tomorrow War, he’s now about to unleash a new iconic version of the Universal Monster icon, Dracula.
In his new fagtastic horror-comedy, Renfield, we get to witness the legend that is Nick Cage has Bram Stoker’s famous character joining the list of actors who have brought fear to generations like Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee before him.
So it’s surprising to hear in my exclusive interview with McKay that Cage wasn’t originally on the studio’s shortlist of actors to play the role.
“You’re given a list of actors who the studio might in interested in when you’re casting a movie, and Cage was not on that list as far as I remember,” revealed the filmmaker.
Luckily Lionsgate’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent had just been released, and the director saw the potential, “I put myself in the audience’s shoes and said ‘who’s the guy I’m most interested in going to see what they do with Dracula, I’m signing up to watch a Dracula movie, it’s Nick Cage’.
“When I turned around and pitched to the studio, which is every fortunate, they wanted to see Cage do it and I think the marketing team in particular thought that it was a great piece of casting,” he added.
A self-confessed Cage fan, “‘Raising Arizona’, ‘Valley Girl’, ‘Birdy’, those movies meant something to me,” the Lego Batman director was able to pitch the idea. To his surprise, it was a role the actor had wanted to play, mentioning that Lee was his Dracula.
“The first conversation we had, he wasn’t hired and we were getting to know each other and the second time we talked, he was hired and was off the book, he already had a voice, he knew the lines and he was so game and so enthusiastic and he was a real joy to work with and be around.”
McKay, like his Cage, was a huge horror guy. His first introduction to these legendary monsters wasn’t through Universal but from the classic UK studio Hammer at home on TV.
“Strangely my first exposure to those characters was the Hammer movies, Oliver Reed’s Wolfman movie and Christopher Lee’s Frankenstein and Mummy.”
He continued, “There was a TV station when I was a kid that would play movies, so before the news they would have a 3:30pm movie and they would blocks of movies. They would play a week of Hammer movies and my first experience with Dracula was Christopher Lee in ‘Horror of Dracula’ with Peter Cushing.”
Hammer plays a significant role in the opening of Renfield as the filmmaker states, “I used the ending of ‘Horror of Dracula’ as the beginning of our movie. In ‘Horror of Dracula’, Cushing, the vampire hunter, runs, jumps, and pulls the curtains down. Sunlight hits Lee’s Dracula, and they take him out to put in a melting muppet.
“That’s why I did the puppet gag in our movie because we don’t have the table and the run but we have the drapes coming down and I wanted the set to vaguely look like a Hammer movie set and again feel like at the end of one of those movies and stuff like that,” he added.
It wasn’t just Hammer that McKay referenced, but referencing Lugosi’s Dracula was also important for the director stating it “felt the most intuitive and right thing to do in the world.”
“It was something I wanted to do, the studio wasn’t behind it, it wasn’t in the script, it was something I was like ‘look, we’ve got to have a history with these guys, I and the audience have got to know that these guys have a real history, history you can feel’,” he stated.
“What better way to connect our characters to their past, to connect our audience to our character’s past to make you feel it because I want you to feel it. Also, our movie shows homage to something we all love, to show a lot of love and appreciation for these old Universal horror movies that we grew up on.”
Adding, “You have experience with those images, people know that whether they saw it in a clip show or they saw it on a poster or a Family Guy parody or something, you know ‘I am Dracula’, you know the staircase with the giant spider web behind it and stuff like that.”
Luckily, this homage was something that both his leading men and the whole crew knew they needed to do this: “The thing is Cage and Hoult really wanted to do it, they both thought it was essential, the crew really wanted to make it work, everyone figured out a way to get up on screen and make it work.”
Speaking of this leading man, the filmmaker stated he only had Nicholas Hoult in mind for the role.
“When I read it [the script], I knew there was one actor who could play Renfield, and the only way the movie could work is if we hired Nick Hoult.
“Hoult is one of those guys who is unafraid to play potentially unlikeable characters, characters who are making bad decisions, or are strange or weird and not necessary track with right way. He’s unafraid to be that guy, but at the same time, he is so innocent and vulnerable, he doesn’t have any walls up.”
McKay continued and couldn’t be more glowing about his leading man. “That’s the thing that’s really amazing about Nic Hoult, he’s got no guard up, he’s got no walls, he lets you in with everything he’s thinking with his eyes.
“You watch his eyes, you know what’s going on. Because of that and despite the circumstances and situations he’s in or the things he’s doing when you meet him in a story, he is instantly root-worthy, and you really want to root for him. That’s why there was no other actor I could think of for this movie that would have made this work.”
Chris mentioned the two performances that made the British actor perfect for the role were 2013’s Warm Bodies and Max Mad: Fury Road. However, I could be wrong, but I believe it’s something slightly deeper. The filmmaker might’ve seen the emotion Hoult brought to Renfield in a similar light to the emotions he felt growing up watching the likes of Lee and Reed, who made these characters household names in those classic movies of the past.
“I am always struck, whether it’s the Hammer movies or Universal, by how emotional they are. How much you care about the backstory of the Mummy, how much you care about Lon Chaney Jr. in Wolfman or Oliver Reed in the Hammer one, how much you care about Frankenstein and how sad they make that character because he’s a child.
Adding, “I’m always moved by how modern and nuance Boris Karloff’s performance is as Frankenstein and how Bela Lugosi, how charming and suave and seductive both Lugosi and Lee are as Dracula.”
Elsewhere, I’m always interested in what directors learn when moving from project to project. For example, McKay filmed many of the shoots practically during the initial production of the Chris Pratt-led’ The Tomorrow War’ but not in post. That changed with Renfield filming much more with practical special effects on set and blood stuff.
“The stuff I want to change moving forward and learnt from Renfield is I had a really great time working with Alec Hammond the Production Designer and Lisa Lovaas the Costume Designer, they did some really incredible work,” revealed about forming his own Justice League.
He continued with his praise, adding, “Alec, in particular, was so instrumental in the locations, the design, the colour and the combinations of stuff in the movie. I probably won’t make another movie without her or Lisa Lovaas, if at all possible.
“Those are definitely things I’m going to do moving forward, they were great. As was Chris Brewster (second unit director) and his stunt team, the pre-vis that Brewster did was terrific and he was a great partner. Again I’ll never do another movie without Chris Brewster and his team. Every single one of his team was excellent and such a joy to be around, I loved their energy and they all had great ideas because they’re all stunt coordinators and stunt directors in their own right, they all acted like filmmakers.
“The same with Lovass, Hammond, James ‘Jamie’ Price (second unit director) and Christien Tinsley, who did special makeup effects, I loved working with those guys. Hopefully in my next movie you’re going to see a lot of the same names because they were wonderful to work with.”
As for his next project, Chris is currently reading scripts to find something original and unique and admitting he was a career similar to Howard Hawks, saying, “a guy that got to do gangster movies, comedies and westerns and film noir movies and stuff like that. If I can make a movie as good as ‘The Big Sleep,’ I’ll be delighted.”
Furthermore, there’s one special project he still wants to do.
“I still want to talk about DC about Nightwing, that’s still on my mind, I still want to make that movie. So I’m hoping with the regime change, I can go in there and have conversations with people, we’ll see.”
Having seen the early career McKay has been on, he’s someone I strongly believe any aspiring filmmaker should be, as he’s one of us. Chris is a film nerd that loves genre cinema and comic books. I strongly recommend checking out Renfield this weekend, you’ll have a great time.
You can read my four-star review here and if you’re interested in reading the full interview where McKay talks about Awkwafina, his love for Dracula and all things Hammer and Universal Monsters, please let me know.