Renfield – A wildly inventive take on vampire mythology

The inspired premise for Renfield was the brainchild of prolific writer-producer Robert Kirkman, best known as the creator of the long-running hit television series The Walking Dead and the hit animated series Invincible. Excited to place the familiar at the center of his own narrative, Kirkman wrote a treatment for Renfield that focuses on the toxic dynamic between Dracula and Renfield, beautifully blending black comedy with gleefully over-the-top horror movie mayhem, deviating from the conventional Dracula story.

In this modern monster tale of Dracula’s loyal servant, Renfield was an obvious candidate. The character had originated in the pages of Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula, published in 1897, as an inmate at an English asylum who consumes flies, spiders, birds and other creatures to gain their “life-force” and attain a kind of immortality. He also appeared in director Tod Browning’s 1931 film adaptation of that legendary novel, which starred Bela Lugosi as the aristocratic vampire and Dwight Frye as the disturbed Renfield. Decades later, musician and actor Tom Waits took on the role in Francis Ford Coppola’s sweeping Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which featured Gary Oldman as the mythic vampire.

Kirkman was excited to place the familiar at the center of his own narrative, “exploring what an ultimate codependent relationship is, which is the relationship between Renfield and the ultimate narcissist, Dracula,” says producer David Alpert says. “The second the story is put in those pop-psychology terms, people look at it and they laugh.”

Writer-producer Robert Kirkman
Nicholas Cage and Nicholas Hoult in Renfield. Copyright: Universal Studios.

Sometimes, your boss can be a real monster. In the case of R.M. Renfield, he’s literally working for one of the most famous monsters of all time.

A wildly inventive take on vampire mythology, Renfield stars Nicholas Hoult as the sad, perennially abused henchman of Dracula (Nicolas Cage) who, after dutifully serving his exploitative master for decades, is in the grips of a full-blown everlasting-life crisis. Renfield is unwilling to do Dracula’s bidding any longer but has no idea how to strike out on his own.     

That all changes when he meets New Orleans cop Rebecca (Awkwafina), a principled officer with some unresolved anger issues, who is determined to bring down the city’s most powerful crime family, led by Bellafrancesca Lobo (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and her son Tedward (Ben Schwartz). Inspired by Rebecca’s willingness to stand up for what’s right, Renfield begins to imagine a brighter future for himself, one where he might escape the drudgery of his nightly existence and enjoy walking among the living once more.

Given Kirkman’s demanding schedule, however, he, Alpert and the film’s other producers, Bryan Furst and Sean Furst, quickly realized they would need to find another screenwriter to fully flesh out the script.

In December of 2018, Kirkman reached out to writer Ryan Ridley, pitching his idea, and Ridley responded immediately. “I thought, ‘This is exactly the kind of movie I want to write,’” Ridley says. “I had been looking to write a blockbuster genre comedy action movie for a while. Suddenly, it was served up on a silver platter by Robert.”

Ridley spun movie gold from Kirkman’s keenly entertaining concept, rooted in Renfield’s very messy personal journey toward redemption.

Screenwriter Ryan Ridley

But the film required a director who could ingeniously navigate this material to maximize both the humor and the horror. Director Chris McKay was at the top of the list.  

Chris McKay is an American filmmaker and animator. He is best known for directing and editing three seasons of Robot Chicken and two seasons of Moral Orel. He made his feature directorial debut with The Lego Batman Movie (2017), and has also directed The Tomorrow War (2021)

McKay’s comedic sensibility was a pitch-perfect match for the material, which also nicely dovetailed with McKay’s own longtime interests as a lifelong horror fan. “Ryan Ridley’s script was a lot fun, and it didn’t take itself too seriously,” McKay says. “It was bonkers and over-the-top, yet I felt for Renfield. It seemed like a great way to get into a Dracula movie. Also, I’m a huge Basil Gogos fan. He painted many Universal monsters like Wolfman, The Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula for Famous Monsters magazine and others. They were garishly lit and incredibly saturated color-wise, and I always wanted to do a movie that felt the way those paintings looked… this seemed like an opportunity to make that vision a reality.”

“I am a huge horror fan,” says McKay. “And I love Dracula as a character. When I read the over the top, action-packed script, I fell in love with the character of Renfield. There is a lot going on here as far as comedy, action, and slapstick horror. I just thought the script was a fun, cockeyed way of getting into a Dracula movie. And it reminded me of films I loved growing up like An American Werewolf in London, Fright Night and Shaun of the Dead.”

Producer Samantha Nisenboim saw the potential in the project and the emotional truth at the heart of it. “Renfield thinks that he isn’t somebody unless he is with Dracula, that Dracula defines him and gives his world meaning and gives him some sort of power,” Nisenboim says. “Over the course of this film, he has a chance to find himself, and it’s just very easy to root for somebody to find themselves and to embrace themselves and to realize that they are enough. I think we’re all very hard on ourselves day-to-day. The idea that, ‘I am enough,’ is a great message.”

Director Chris McKay with Nicolas Cage during the filming of Renfield. Copyright: Universal Studios.
Director Chris McKay

Early in the process, McKay had an ingenious idea about how Renfield might open—by compositing the new movie’s Renfield and Dracula into classic Universal vampire films, beginning with Browning’s black-and-white Dracula.

“We needed some backstory on their relationship, and I wanted a shout out to the original Dracula and Bela Lugosi,” McKay says.

“What better way to connect the backstory of our hero’s relationship to Dracula than to place him directly in the original 1931 Dracula film? I wanted a shout-out to the original Dracula and Bela Lugosi; so, what better way to connect the backstory of our hero’s relationship to Dracula than to place him directly in the original 1931 film? We actually shot a lot more than what ended up in the final film, because Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult did almost all of the lines from the initial meeting between Lugosi and Dwight Frye. The actors as well as Jamie Price and the VFX team did an incredible job recreating those classic moments.