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Exclusive Interview: “THE WALKING DEAD” creator Robert Kirkman talks his new take on Dracula and “RENFIELD”

Thursday, April 13, 2023 | Interviews


He brought new life to zombies as creator of THE WALKING DEAD, and now writer Robert Kirkman has a new take on Bram Stoker’s “Un-Dead” hitting theaters. RUE MORGUE spoke with Kirkman about RENFIELD, which opens tomorrow from Universal.

Kirkman (who also discusses the movie in RM #211, now on sale) came up with the original story for RENFIELD, which was turned into a final screenplay by Ryan Ridley. Nicholas Hoult (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD) plays the title role, the longtime servant of Dracula who, in modern-day New Orleans, decides it’s time to break away from that ultimate toxic boss. Dracula is played, of course, by the great Nicolas Cage, with Awkwafina as a policewoman whom Renfield joins in taking on a dangerous drug gang as well as the Prince of Darkness. Directed by Chris McKay (who discusses the movie here), RENFIELD combines horror and humor, action and gore to present a new and different take on classic genre characters.

When you were first developing the story for RENFIELD, did you think of it as comedic horror or straight horror? What was the tone at the beginning, and how was that changed or modulated as the project went on?

I always wanted it to be something that didn’t necessarily take itself seriously, just because the angle of the familiar with the terrible boss seemed like it lent itself to comedy quite a bit. And once Ryan Ridley came on board to write the screenplay–he’s from RICK & MORTY, he’s done so much work on various comedies and that’s really his wheelhouse–it was great to get his voice in there and have him bring that element to the story, and make it as funny as it ended up being. It is still very horror-driven; there’s a lot of violence and gore in it, a lot of cool stuff like that, but at its core, it is a comedy.

How long and detailed was the story document you came up with?

It was a rough 15 pages; it took a lot of time and effort from me! It was a basic outline, with all the character beats and a lot of the different personalities of the characters and elements, and a general map of the three-act structure, but as you know, with movies, things evolve quite a bit. There were a couple of characters that got added in as Ryan and I started expanding the story, but the general gist was the thing that I worked on.

Was there ever a point when you were going to write the screenplay yourself?

No; that is a massive undertaking, and I can’t give Ryan enough credit, with all the various drafts he did along the way. Production of a movie, preproduction especially–these things take years. I believe it was a four- or five-year journey getting us to this point with RENFIELD, and with the various different things I’m doing, the comic books and the INVINCIBLE TV show and some other things that were unannounced, it was just not realistic for me. I don’t have the time to devote the effort to all the drafts that have to happen. With a film of this magnitude, you really need to be plugged in, and I’m bouncing around on so many different projects, it’s hard for me to focus on a single one as much as you need to.

How did this project get to Universal, and was it ever intended to tie in to Universal’s MonsterVerse series of movies?

It’s part of the new evolution of the MonsterVerse, where they’re trying to do more of a filmmaker approach and have everybody come in with their own voice, and try to do the best horror films possible, as opposed to doing a shared universe, which was what they first tried to do. We very much worked with that department at Universal, but everybody there is able to do their own projects. RENFIELD was never part of their initial plan.

Beyond Nicolas Cage (whom he discusses in the magazine interview), were you excited about the other actors who wound up in the film?

I love the whole cast of this movie. Bringing Awkwafina on board was a stroke of genius; I think she’s fantastic. And Nicholas Hoult was so surprisingly adept at literally everything we needed him to do. This movie has a tremendous amount of action, and I’ve seen him in actiony roles before; he was actually in the new MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movies before the pandemic moved the schedule around and knocked him out, so maybe we benefitted from some of the training he did for that role. But I didn’t expect him to come in and just be this amazing action hero. He did this crazy wirework, and worked with the stuntmen and did all kinds of great stuff. He brought so much heart to the role; there’s a real damaged personality here, and he was able to show us that journey that Renfield goes on, from being this meek, beaten-down person to finding himself and his own confidence. He makes RENFIELD; the heart he brings to the movie is what makes it so special.

How involved were you during RENFIELD’s actual production?

I was there for most of the filming, and a lot of the prep. I wasn’t there for the full shoot, because I had to go work on INVINCIBLE, but I was there for a good deal of it. I probably saw the majority of the movie get filmed, and it was a lot of fun being in New Orleans and seeing it all come together, working with our director, Chris McKay, who brought so much to the project, and seeing the actors work.

What is the key to doing a fresh take on Dracula after so many years of different cinematic adaptations?

I mean, hiring Nicolas Cage is probably the top move there. Just seeing him in the makeup, with the teeth and everything, it was like “Oh my God, this is going to work, this is the best Dracula.” But Dracula’s a character where I think there’s a lot of room to explore. It’s hard to find something that hasn’t been done with the character, but it’s gotten to the point where you can kind of pick and choose the things that are done less often, and that can give you some originality. He’s one of the most iconic characters to ever exist, and to try and put your stamp on it is a lot of fun, though it’s somewhat of a daunting task. So I’m hoping that we achieved something unique with the character.

Was there anything that surprised you about the finished film when you saw it?

The team that Chris helped us assemble is really top talent, and some of the stuntwork and the fighting, once it was all edited together, ended up being way more impressive than I thought we would be able to achieve. When we were writing it, I didn’t think we were making an action movie; there were those elements to it, but between Chris and the stunt team and some of the visual effects things, there’s some solid action in this film, and I’m very excited about that.

I’m excited for people to see this movie. Ryan is such a talented writer, and it was a cool experience. This is the first studio movie I’ve been involved with, so that process was pretty cool, and I really enjoyed working with everybody at Universal, so I’m hoping that this can continue for a while, and hopefully I don’t get driven off the lot anytime soon!

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).