Director Chris McKay has only made a few films so far, but each one has shown he’s a filmmaker that likes to push his boundaries and try new things. Coming from TV animation like Moral Orel and Robot Chicken, it made sense that McKay’s big-budget debut would come in 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie, which took The Lego Movie version of Batman and gave him his own story alongside plenty of other IP. 2021’s The Tomorrow War saw McKay attempting a live-action sci-fi film starring Chris Pratt and Sam Richardson that was full of more history and lore than your usual action film. McKay’s latest, however, might be his most ambitious project yet, as Renfield is a horror-comedy which shows the relationship between Dracula (Nicolas Cage) and his servant Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) when Renfield decides he might want more in life than serving the most popular vampire of all time.
In our interview with McKay, the director talked about what made him interested in this version of the Dracula story, the films that influenced the look of Renfield, directing Nicolas Cage as Dracula, directing the only direct sequel to 1931’s Dracula, and what he contributed to the upcoming Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.
COLLIDER: So what was it that drew you to the story of Renfield?
CHRIS MCKAY: I’m a huge horror movie fan, and I grew up watching the old movies, and with the Universal movie monsters in the background of everything. Like, the very first book I think I ever read on my own was a book by Alan Ormsby, who ended up becoming a screenwriter, but he wrote a book. I think it’s basically called Movie Monsters, and in the first half of the book is the history of each of the Universal monsters: Creature, Wolf Man, Invisible Man, Frankenstein, Dracula, etc. And then the rest of it was how to do makeup like monsters. So as a kid, I was focused on it—it was probably like 70–100 pages, tops. I think I read it in an afternoon, it was the first thing where I sat in the library, and I sat there, and I just read it ’cause I was fascinated.
Then I was fortunate enough that they played a lot of the old horror movies where I grew up in Chicago, they played a lot of the old horror movies, whether they had an afternoon movie slot before the news. So when I came home from school, they’d do Godzilla week, they’d do King Kong week, they’d do Universal Monsters week. They probably didn’t call it Hammer Movies Week, but I got to see the Oliver Reed werewolf movies, things like that. Son of Svengoolie was another thing that was on Channel 32 in Chicago, so I got to watch that and see all such old movies and that kind of thing.
So it was very fortunate that I was given a very comprehensive overview of the history of these monsters. So when the script came to me, and I saw that it was a different way into this world, that it was through a lens of Renfield, through a modern lens, through the lens of codependency and the boss from hell, that seemed like such a fun way of doing this sort of movie, and the fact that Universal was going to make it, and we can play with the old Tod Browning movie a little bit in our film, and have this cockeyed point of view on this world just seemed like a lot of fun to me.
I fell in love with the character of Renfield and his relationship with Dracula. Renfield is basically a guy who wants to get out of this bad relationship, and doesn’t know how—he’s been in this relationship for 93 years, and he wants to get out of it. I looked at this as an opportunity, because it has a lot of black comedy in it, there’s a lot of action in it, and there’s a little bit of suspense and drama in it too. So that, to me, seemed like a real fun combination. It’s not something that comes around the table very often. Something that’s obviously still tied to one of the oldest IPs in the world and probably one of the most filmed IPs in the world when you look at it. Dracula’s probably up there with Sherlock Holmes and Hamlet as far as literary character that you see in movie after movie.
But the fact that it was this fun way into this story, the fact that I go R-rated and bring—for lack of a better way of putting it—an Evil Dead II type of splatstick humor to the movie, so that seemed like a lot of fun, and I responded to all of that.
Sorry, long way to answer your question, it was something that was wholly original, and felt like a lot of fun to work on, and it’s something I’ve got a deep love for.
You’ve already said that you grew up with these Universal horror films, and you mentioned Evil Dead II, were there any other horror films that you were looking at when you were deciding the look of the film?
MCKAY: A lot of the look of the film came from Basil Gogos’ paintings, the stuff that he did for Famous Monsters—which I think he was doing this work in the ‘50s and ‘60s—at the time, these characters were black and white, and they were only seen in black and white, and he was the first person to interpret them into color. To put Boris Karloff as Frankenstein and Bela Lugosi in color, and that sort of thing. And he painted them with very garish colors, really moody lighting, but really saturated greens and purples and oranges, and all that kind of thing.
And so for me, that was the place where some of this started, because I really liked that look and that tone, and it felt like that was the way to make it both kind of scary at times, or still in the supernatural world, and also make it kind of feel poppy and fun. And I guess for me, a lot of movies sometimes look the same, where it’s either super, super sharp and a normal layer of saturation, or it’s like one kind of color, and it’s mostly yellow, or it’s mostly brown-gray, you know? I like old lenses, so I wanted the movie to have this connection to the past, and so we used a lot of uncoated lenses that had a lot of flaws in them, which creates a lot of interesting shapes of the lightning—especially because there’s a lot of candlelight in the movie. And I want to have a lot of focus fall off, so that the edges are a little blurrier, and they get a little darker on the edges, and things like that.
So I wanted the movie to look different, and part of that’s looking at the old Hammer movies, looking at obviously the Universal movies and things like that. So there was a lot of the way those movies feel, the production design of the Hammer movies, which I think is really wonderful Technicolor and look of the old movies. American Werewolf is a big movie for me, the way The Howling uses both comedy and horror. And also, Joe Dante in The Howling and John Landis in American Werewolf, [there are] a lot of allusions to the past in their movies, a sort of cheeky sense of humor, to the way John Landis uses music in American Werewolf.
So to me, those were some things that I looked at. And I love Edgar Wright movies, so obviously Shaun of the Dead. I wanted the movie to be a little more grounded than maybe Shaun of the Dead, but it’s still got the same kind of cheeky sensibility. So to me, it was a lot of looking at those films. It’s just anything that could help make our movie just feel a little bit different. You know, even the way we talked about the fight scenes, watching a lot of Jackie Chan movies, just because of the way he uses humor in a fight scene, that was something that I wanted to find. Again, you’re sort of doing splatstick, so it is a bit of Evil Dead, but there’s also sort of a credible fight scene with an objective in the middle of it, so kind of referencing the way you sort of can build a sense of fun in the fight scenes. So you’re taking it somewhat seriously, because it’s still got to have some stakes, but it’s also like, you’ve got a smile on your face at all times.
You have a very extensive history in animation, how do you feel that helped in making Renfield?
MCKAY: Well, we always storyboard and animatic almost all the scenes in the movie, because I tried to do a lot of stuff practically. So, I want to start with the foundation of just understanding what the basic thrust of the scene is, and it also helps you kick the tires on the scene to see what’s working from a story perspective, or what’s going to be problematic for me, you know, from a performance perspective or a blocking perspective. So I always try to do that even if it’s a straight dialogue scene, just so that we have some sort of frame of reference, so we start to do a rough draft of the scene. So building an animation, the build reels to sort of kick the tires on the movie with storyboards and sound design and some rudimentary voice over. You know, we have everyone in the office pitching in to do voices and that sort of thing.
You get to kind of see the movie and feel the movie out, and solve those problems. And because I came from stop-motion for the most part in animation—even though the LEGO movies were digitally created in a computer—there’s something about it—stop-motion—where you have to build or find everything you want to put in front of the camera. It’s kind of being able to understand that, and understand the limitations of what you can get practically, and be able to go like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna set extend this,’ or there’s a certain amount of things that we can have fall off into the darkness, and create something, like a shot of light or something up there to kind of create some visual interest, even though we don’t have that amount of depth on the set. But if you let it fall off into the darkness and you sort of create shape up there, it kind of gives you a sense that there’s something in the far distance. Things like that are stuff… it’s because, working in animation—especially because I worked in a couple different kinds of animation—you kind of understand what you can do with the combination of practical and visual effects to help extend stuff. And I think part of it’s also because I work in low-budget animation, that helped me be able to sort of improvise on set and be able to go, ‘okay, cool, this thing didn’t show up, we don’t have this,’ or, ‘we only have this much time, here’s what we’re going to do in order to get the most bang for a buck.’
What is it like directing Nicolas Cage in such a grandiose role as this one?
MCKAY: A lot of fun. He’s great. I feel like I’ve gotten very lucky with the actors and really fortunate to work with people who, in general, are really nice and really care about what they’re doing and really come to the table to play, and Cage is one of the most playful people that I’ve met. He’s a real professional, like he was off book on the second Zoom I had with him. And he had a voice, and he knew what he wanted to do, and yet, at the same time, he was open to try things, and we would certainly improvise some stuff. And he had a handful of dialogue notes, and all of them were really funny and wonderful and in character.
He’s got a deep love of the Christopher Lee Dracula vampire movies, but particularly Christopher Lee, and he sort of based the character a little bit on his father, as far as his voice and kind of the attitude. And so he just came to the table with a fully formed character. Once he read the script, and we had an initial conversation, he was in and he just kind of came to play. The funny thing is, without Nic Hoult and without Nic Cage, I don’t know if you can make this movie, because you need actors who are unafraid to be weird, and you know, Hoult has to be able to want to eat bugs on camera and be sort of a weird kind of guy, but also be able to be funny and vulnerable and charming. So we’ve got to have him to be able to carry the movie, and someone who could also do stunts.
The same with Cage, he did a lot of his own stunts too. We had Cage up on wires, we’ve got him doing things. So there’s a lot of can-do attitude from these guys that, I’m just really fortunate that they threw themselves into the cage, and wanted to fucking throw stuntmen around, and things like that. As well as bringing the comedy and the weirdness, as well as bringing the drama when we need it, when he feels betrayed by Renfield, you know? Renfield wants to leave and that’s kind of what sets off their conflict, and you really feel it. So, to be able to work with actors of that caliber who bring that palette of emotions and range to the movie, I just feel really fortunate. I would work with either of those guys any day of the week.
So you mentioned that Renfield has been with Dracula for 93 years—does that mean that this is kind of a direct sequel to the Tod Browning Dracula movie?
MCKAY: I kept telling marketing that that’s what we should say, that this is the only direct sequel. I guess you could argue Dracula’s Daughter is a sequel because the opening scene is the aftermath of the Tod Browning movie, but Bela Lugosi’s not in it, it’s a whole different set of characters. And it’s a great movie, it’s wild if you haven’t seen it. I thought the movie was great.
But to me, this is the only real direct sequel with the Dracula and the Renfield of that movie. So yeah, I wish they’d use that in the marketing. I think that would’ve been a funny way of positioning this movie. The longest time between the original movie and the sequel, beating Psycho, or whatever. I guess Avatar maybe now, since it feels like a long time since the first one.
Yeah, I was doing the math, and was like “wait 93 years, that’s when Dracula came out…”
MCKAY: Well, in the beginning of the movie—this isn’t a spoiler because it’s literally in the first five minutes of the movie—we flash back to Cage and Hoult as Dracula and Renfield meeting, and we comp them into the Tod Browning movie. So it’s Cage on the staircase with the spiderweb behind him, saying, “I am Dracula, I don’t drink wine,” and all that kind of thing, and Hoult is sort of in the Dwight Frye Renfield role, and it’s literally the same costumes and everything. It was a lot of fun, and if we had the money and time, I would have comped those guys into subsequent Dracula movies, I would have come to the Hammer movies, not an analog necessarily because of the markers in the movie, but I would have put them in the Frank Langella movie, and Dracula Untold, and everything. If I could’ve done that, I would’ve. I don’t know if the studio would’ve been up for that, but I would have done that easily. The Coppola movie, that would’ve been great.
So what is your favorite vampire story besides this one?
MCKAY: That’s a good question. One of my favorite movie memories as a kid was watching the Roddy McDowall and Williams Ragsdale in Fright Night, with Chris Sarandon as a vampire, which is a movie that came out in the ’80s. It’s sort of like Rear Window as a vampire movie, and I always really liked that movie. I always thought that there’s something about how it had funny moments, but it was also just a straight-up vampire movie. A vampire moves in next door and a kid sees him through the window, and no one believes him. It’s great. Actually, in our movie, I cast William Ragsdale as a priest who, early in the movie, is hunting Dracula and Renfield, which was really fun for me to be able to do. It’s a bit part, but it’s a fun moment for me, and there’s a fun thing that happens to the priest early in the beginning, I think you can see in the red band trailer.
If you had your pick of any other Universal monster movie that you could do a Renfield-esque version of, which would be the most interesting to you?
MCKAY: I always really liked the Wolf Man. I always thought that Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man were big because they’re all sympathetic. You felt sorry for Frankenstein’s mother, you felt sorry for the Wolf Man on some level. I mean, I even felt sorry for Dracula, even though they think he’s more responsible for the things that he does. Frankenstein’s monster is just created by Frankenstein. And you know, Lon Chaney Jr. in the Wolf Man is bitten by a werewolf, and it’s not his fault, so to speak. But there’s something about Dracula that I guess I always felt kind of sad, and I always felt sorry for him, that he couldn’t help, maybe, who he was. For me, the Wolf Man would be fun. I don’t know whose lens you would put that through. I mean, that would be an interesting thing to figure out. I guess you could go through his father’s point of view, or something, to do it in a different way. But I think that’s such a great story and I think you could have some fun with that.
So you also have a story credit on Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. Can you tell us anything about that film as well?
MCKAY: Yeah, I was a huge D&D kid. I was approached to direct that movie, and I started developing it, and what we were developing—Mike Gilio and I, the writer I was working with—we were sort of developing a heist movie. Like, how can you make this sort of an Ocean’s Eleven-type film. Because a lot of what you’re doing in D&D is you’re going into a place, and you’re going to take something to rid it of some bad guy or something, and it’s usually a little of both. And those movies are usually like, ‘we’re gonna try to steal something,’ but there’s also a dishonorable purpose and an honorable purpose, and a potential choice to make at some point in the movie. And so that was kind of the way that we went about it, and we developed a treatment that the studio liked, and Mike went off and wrote a really great script. And while I was developing that, Tomorrow War came along, and it was a movie that had a window with Chris Pratt’s schedule, and they needed a director, and it was about four or five months before they were going to shoot it. So I kinda had to make a choice, and I kind of jumped on that, which then put the script and everything that we had done as kind of jump ball for some other directors to take it.
I think, from what I understand—I’ve still not seen the finished movie because I’ve been working on Renfield—but I hear [there are] a lot of the scenes that Mike and I worked on and then Mike wrote that are in the movie or at least some versions of them. So I’m excited that they sort of continue, at least somewhat in that direction. But I got to design dragons and things like that for the movie. So there [were] all sorts of dream come true stuff, and I really love fantasy. I grew up on a lot of the Excalibur, Sorcerer, and that sort of thing.
So to be able to do something in that world, but also try to tell it though a modern lens, and try to do it through a heist, like it’s this heist team going in, and then the specialist who can do this stuff, and supposed to do that, and that kind of thing, that, to me, was a lot of fun, to just imagine what that would have been and how you can shoot that in a fun, kinetic way. But I can’t wait to see that movie. I really have heard only good things about it, and yeah, it looks great. And the fact that [there are] like Beholders and things like that they put in the movie, and bugbears and owlbears, that was kind of what we did. We literally were like, “OK, let’s open up the monster manual, and how many of these monsters can we get into this movie somehow.” It looks like they kind of took that ball and ran with it. So I’m excited.
Renfield opens in theaters April 14.