by Gill Pringle

Following a career where the deadliest threat to mankind is a Lego piece, director Chris McKay was ready for a new challenge.

Taking a huge swing, he switched his attention from The LEGO Batman Movie to another caped crusader of sorts – Dracula.

In McKay’s modern monster tale about Dracula’s loyal servant, Nicholas Hoult stars as the eponymous Renfield, the tortured aide to history’s most narcissistic boss, Dracula, portrayed by the inimitable Nicolas Cage.

After centuries of servitude – forced to procure his master’s prey and do his every bidding – Renfield is ready to see if there’s a life outside the shadow of The Prince of Darkness.

But first, he must figure out how to end his co-dependency.

If every great life change needs a catalyst, then enter Awkwafina. Portraying tough-on-crime New Orleans police officer Rebecca, she has troubles of her own.

After tragically losing her father to the Lobo family crime syndicate – a death that has gone unpunished and unavenged – Rebecca’s reputation on the force has taken a hit. Thanks to her unchecked anger issues, she finds herself stuck on traffic duty with a well-meaning but dim-witted partner.

“When Rebecca meets Renfield, it’s at a time where she needs to resolve her own issues, I think, in the same way that he does,” says Awkwafina.

“They are on a mirroring journey of reconciling with the past. Ultimately, Rebecca doesn’t want to be the person with the bad instincts or the person reacting out of anger. But she also wants vengeance,” says the rapper and actress whose other roles include Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell and Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings.

In Awkwafina, McKay believes he found the perfect foil to the rather more whimsical, although nevertheless lethal, Renfield.

“I love Awkwafina. She’s a bit of a troublemaker, and that’s why I thought she’d make a great Rebecca. She’s always a little up to no good and has an edge to her, ready to get in someone’s face. She had great chemistry with Nick Hoult. They made a great odd pair. I would watch a hundred movies of ‘Renbecca’ traveling the world and solving crimes, like the old Thin Man movies,” he says.

According to Awkwafina, their rapport felt natural largely due to the fact they genuinely enjoyed working together. “Nick Hoult is the perfect leading man. His energy is magnetic, and what he’s bringing to this character is a level of humour that is really hard to embody. I found myself cracking up all the time when I was working with him,” she says.

If McKay’s background as an animation director might seem like an unlikely choice to direct this live action gorefest of a comic thriller, then he begs to differ.

“Animation really helps your live action. You can totally bend things because you can make things a little cartoony. And I think that’s because I came from an animation background,” argues McKay, who also directed Chris Pratt in Prime Video’s The Tomorrow War.

“I think that Renfield is meant to be over the top and outrageous and so that’s why, incredibly, there’s fountains of blood coming out of someone’s body… That’s why we were able to do that and, absolutely, in animation, you can get away with lots of things and really push the envelope,” he says.

“And I think more adults watch animation now than maybe prior generations, the idiom of animation is something that is part of our language now, whether it’s The Simpsons, Family Guy, anime or Pixar movies. So, audiences are already comfortable with that tone of going over the top and being insane.

“By the way, I think all filmmakers should make an animated movie. It’s storytelling in slow motion and it’s really helpful because it really hones your skills as a filmmaker,” he says.

McKay couldn’t believe his luck when he landed Nicolas Cage to portray a Dracula for the ages. “From the first moment that I talked to him, Cage was super enthusiastic. He’s a big cinephile so he knows movies and loves horror. He loves Dracula movies and Christopher Lee is his favourite, so that was something we shared when we were talking about this role.

“But the thing that was most important to me is that there’s always going to be a human side to Dracula and somebody like Cage, who has done every kind of film and worked with some of the best filmmakers in the world, I knew that he could find a way to make our Dracula both a love bombing, gaslighting narcissist who menaces Renfield but also somebody who has vulnerability.

“So, when Renfield betrays him, he can feel a deep hurt, and you can see him, in a very childish sort of way, in a way that I think is very true for narcissists with their feelings of grandeur and sociopathic tendencies. They don’t have any empathy for anybody else, only for themselves.

“And he found a way to make that human which was really important to me. I fully understand villains, and even if you don’t agree with them, you can sympathise with them and understand where they’re coming from. I think that Cage brought that kind of humanity to the table,” says McKay.

Cage and Hoult were a match made in heaven according to McKay. “They couldn’t have gotten along better and had more fun together. Cage was in the heavy makeup most of the time and he’s in costume and can’t get out of it, so he’s stuck with the teeth and everything else all day long.

“But they worked together really well, and both were really into the stunts and movement of it all. Cage does a lot of his own stunts and Nic does almost 90% of the stunts you see in the movie,” McKay says of Hoult whose recent roles include The Menu and Mad Max: Fury Road.

Naturally, any film set involving Cage is going to be a trip. “Cage got really into finding the sort of animalistic side of Dracula. He was studying cobras and when he’s doing some of the scenes where Dracula is taking people out and stuff like that, he’s kind of moving like a cobra and seducing his prey,” says the director, whose film is based on a screen story by The Walking Dead and Invincible creator Robert Kirkman and a screenplay by Ryan Ridley.

Perhaps one of McKay’s favourite moments in the film is a kitchen showdown between Cage and Hoult – in a scene where Dracula confronts Renfield having discovered his loyal servant has been living a double life, setting himself up in a apartment.

“That was a lot of fun to do – to just see them in this ridiculously bright coloured apartment and Renfield in that silly sweater just talking to Dracula dressed in all his Prince of darkness costume,” he says, explaining how Cage even channeled Anne Bancroft in The Graduate for that particular scene.

“Cage decides he’s gonna just be really jealous and he gives Renfield enough rope to hang himself, so Renfield’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m gonna get you bodies. Don’t worry about it’. And Dracula is going along with it, and you can tell he just can’t wait to deliver the news that he knows what’s going on. There’s some delicious jealousy there and it turns into an intimidating scene before Renfield makes it funny again. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Renfield is in cinemas May 25, 2023